Meet the Hackers That Made a 'Guardians of the Galaxy' Game for the NES

Meet the Hackers That Made a 'Guardians of the Galaxy' Game for the NES

Dave Clark

How a team of dedicated game fans turned the 8-Bit 'Bucky O'Hare' into a bootleg vehicle for Marvel's latest heroes

How a team of dedicated game fans turned the 8-Bit 'Bucky O'Hare' into a bootleg vehicle for Marvel's latest heroes

When Marvel Studios surprised the world by adapting an obscure comic book team into one of the biggest movies of 2014, there was no shortage of Guardians of the Galaxy gaming tie-ins. Within the film's launch window, Star-Lord and friends would appear in numerous Marvel-related titles, from their own mobile game (now gone forever) to Marvel Puzzle Quest, Marvel Heroes skins, a Marvel Pinball table, and a Disney Infinity 2.0 playset taking place at the Kyln space prison. Yet, as is the case with most blockbuster films in recent years, no traditional "play the movie"-style game for Guardians of the Galaxy existed.

But then along came a Louisianan survey technician named Dave Clark.

Since 2013, Clark has been immersed in "ROM hacking," one of gaming's most fascinating subcultures. To put it simply, he and others with moderate to advanced programming skills are able to alter old video games, from simple text changes to full-on adjustments to setting and gameplay. "Whether it's changing the difficulty, replacing the main character with a different character, or all-out changing every aspect of a game, it all still falls under the category of ROM hacking," says the 34-year-old better known to fans as "Pacnsacdave," a nickname from his days working a minimart.

As a kid who left Earth in 1988, Peter Quill himself – AKA Star-Lord – would likely relate to Clark's ROM-hacking system of choice. "I prefer hacking NES games because that's the system that made me truly fall in love with video games," he says. "Also, I already understand the structure of NES games, so it's easy for me to know exactly how I'm going to tackle a full hack."

With dozens of hacks under his belt by early 2016, Clark sought his next challenge. Even though he hadn't seen Guardians of the Galaxy yet, he felt a palpable demand for it, and the premise seemed rife with potential. The only question: What NES game could serve as the backbone? For Clark, this is one of the most important decisions a hacker makes during the process.

"Some people think you can just take one game and make it into something else, which I feel is far from the truth," he says. "I feel a skilled hacker can identify which game would be perfect to use, narrowing it down after lots of research. This gives the game a more authentic style as well. This research process is half the battle when making a great hack."

Entering the fray around this time was Kamaal Brown, a 35-year-old from Brooklyn whose day job helps save lives at the National Kidney Foundation. Inspired to enter the world of ROM hacking by Clark's own Captain America: The Winter Soldier reinterpretation of the 1992 NES title Power Blade 2, Brown had the perfect solution to Clark's conundrum: "I instantly thought about Bucky O'Hare," he recalls. "It made so much sense. All five characters' style and special abilities seemed to perfectly mirror the Guardians. So I let Dave know, and we were off to the races."

As Clark learned more about Konami's well received but seldom played 1992 platform-shooter based on an green, space-faring rabbit, he agreed it was the perfect fit – even more so because of its relative obscurity. "I try to refrain from changing the main design unless there is an editor available," he says. "In most cases, I use games that aren't very popular, and a quick palette change to the backgrounds can be enough to give the illusion of a whole new level."

With the beginnings of their plan in place, it was time to make things happen. Clark followed his normal mode of operation. "I hack characters first, followed by enemies, and I usually tackle the title screen and cutscenes as I go along," he says. "I normally hack from start to finish, meaning I hack one stage at a time. So by the time I reach the credits, the game is pretty much complete. Lots and lots of playtesting goes into every level along the way, as well."

Speaking with Clark, it's clear he takes his new sprites the most seriously of all components to a hack. "Every character sprite was replaced for this game," he says. "All five characters received full makeovers. All of the bosses were changed, and a good portion of the ground enemies were changed completely as well. We kept the smaller enemies like the bees, worms, and spiders intact, because they already meshed well with the atmosphere."

In a game full of colorful, (arguably) heroic characters, Clark interestingly most enjoyed bringing the bad guys to life. "The Sakaaran Soldiers were my favorite sprites to work on. I loved the way they ended up coming on. Also, I really liked the Ronan sprites. Although I wish I could've made him or his hammer just a little bigger."

The Galaxy Won't Save Itself
Bucky O'Hare's cutscenes tell the tale of Bucky and his friends being separated on different planets across the galaxy, and Brown was tasked with adapting what was there to represent the plot of Guardians of the Galaxy. He focused on having everything make sense with the preexisting structure while Clark's go-to story guy, Chris Shepard, gathered essential quotes for the game's dialogue.

"It was a really smooth process," says Brown. "The hardest part was having to look at literally how many characters and spaces are on the screen and having to find a way to write in each character's unique voice, but still be able to fit it in the space allotted. The fact that Groot only says 'I am Groot!' was a godsend for some of those parts!"

Though parallels existed with the default Bucky story, Brown strove to differentiate as much as possible while aiming to stay true to the film. "[We changed things from Bucky] as much as we possibly could to get the feeling of the characters and situations into the game within the set parameters," he says, noting that components like character interactions and locations were not something that could be adjusted.

"On a very, very loose basis, it follows the plot," laughs Brown. "The Guardians obtain the Power Infinity Stone, Ronan wants and obtains it, and they have to defeat him and take it from him."

When you're creating a movie game for the NES, maybe "very, very loose" is good enough. "You would sometimes have movies that followed the plots to the letter, and some that barely followed it at all but were still great games – I'm looking at you, Batman for NES," says Brown. "I feel like my goal was to be more like a mix between the former and latter, and I was pleased with the end result. No cool Seventies/Eighties soundtrack, and no dance-off at the end, though."

Playing the game, the lack of chiptune versions of songs like "Hooked on a Feeling" and "O-o-h Child" actually does stand out. Instead, Konami's Bucky O'Hare soundtrack remains as is – but it's not for lack of trying.

"Music hacking itself is top-level hacking, and there are only a few in the community with that kind of wisdom," says Clark. "I'm a musician myself, so you would think that it wouldn't be hard for me to program music into the game. I researched and found that every single game has a completely different code when it comes to the music. Although I could possibly learn how to change it, I don't see the payoff when the music hacking itself would basically be like having to hack the game twice."

Once again, Clark sees starting out with obscure source material as an advantage. "I generally stick with titles that aren't very well known, so the music won't be too much of a factor in a new gaming experience," he tells us. "On the other hand, if I was hacking a well-known game into something else, it would probably be a good idea for me to change the music as well, or it could ruin the whole vibe of the new game."

You're Welcome
After two to three months of work, Guardians of the Galaxy was ready for release last summer. Unlike most games available for play on NES emulators through Clark's website, Guardians is only available for play (get ready for it) as a physical NES cartridge.

A quick trip to Clark's Etsy shop and you'll see Guardians there, available for purchase for $45. "Some think it's just a fake cart to look like a new game just for show," he says. "They usually freak out when I tell them not only is it playable, but can be played in an actual NES console!"

How did this come to pass? In addition to creating quite a few ROM hacks himself, Seattle native John Riggs, 40, has made quite a name for himself in the retro-gaming community as an expert on the process of cartridge creation. "If you have the tools, it's easy," he says. "It took a while to learn, as many didn't wanna share that secret, but I put those videos on how to do it yourself on my YouTube channel to inspire or help those who couldn't find help themselves."

Riggs further supports the ROM-hacking community by testing out games like Clark's and promoting them to his 18,000-plus YouTube subscribers. Guardians was no exception. Riggs considers himself a "cheerleader" for the game and says, "My YouTube audience is who appreciates hacks and edits, so I couldn't wait to show it off to help start buzz."

With money being exchanged for an unlicensed product, there's the ever-present risk of legal action from intellectual-property holders. The thought has crossed Clark's mind, but he doesn't let it weigh him down. "I honestly thought I was going to receive one from Konami over the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle games – I was surprised I didn't," he says of four individual games he created, each starring an individual hero in a half-shell. "I honestly don't worry about it too much."

Neither does Brown. "Hopefully I'm not jinxing anything here but, it hasn't happened yet. And I feel like if it was an issue, it would have already happened."

Riggs, who admits to fearing a cease and desist "all the time," also points out that no real money is actually made for ROM hackers like he and Clark. "The money I do make goes right back into buying more parts for more games, so it's the hobby that pays for itself," he says.

"I make about 10-15 dollars per game I sell," adds Clark. "Like John says, it's enough to basically pump back into making more cartridges – buying boards, shells, etc. This is definitely a hobby, and more of a passion than a business."

Clark, Brown and Riggs all agree that the ROM-hacking community is only growing and shows no signs of slowing down. "I think it's gaining recognition as something that can be done, but it's still very niche," says Riggs.

Brown attributes the growth to the "retro resurgence" that seems to be happening lately," he says. "So people who are just getting into NES game collecting and the like would love to have 'new' games based on stuff they love now or even old cartoons and movies that never had them."

As for the future, Clark would like to see quality prevail over quantity: "In my opinion, there are way more awful hacks than good ones – hacks that didn't take the time to polish up the game, or even make that much of an effort to deviate from the source material," he says. "On the other hand, there are some hacks – and there are many – that are simply fantastic. Some games that change so much of the source material that you actually feel like you are playing a completely new game."

Perhaps more importantly, he suggests, everyone should do it not to make money, but for the love of the game. "There seem to be people out there that treat this like a business," says Clark. "One thing I've always stood by is that this is my passion, and treating people fairly with pricing will come back to me in full circle. Lots of repeat customers, but most importantly, a respect and trust that cannot be measured by money."

Clark and his team are currently hard at work on a Ninja Gaiden prequel inspired by Ryu Hayabusa's more recent adventures on modern consoles. But with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 poised to dominate the box office this weekend, does he see himself creating a sequel of his own? Since hacking Bucky O'Hare again isn't an option, and he knows of no other NES games with five playable characters, he immediately answers with amused laughter:

"Not making one."