Hacked ROM, Custom cartridge, Nintendo Entertainment System, CRT Television
On of the most famous ROM hacks is Cory Arcangel’s Super Mario Clouds (2003, 2009). Exhibited at the Whitney in 2004, Arcangel claims “Super Mario Clouds is an old Mario Brothers cartridge which I modified to erase everything but the clouds.” Although Arcangel embraces the hacker ethos and has open sourced much of his artwork, advertising exactly how to "erase" Super Mario Bros. I discovered that if you attempt to follow his steps, an entirely different game is produced.
In Coin Heaven an invisible Mario walks on invisible ground, looping endlessly in a cloudscape where a cinematic sequence once took place between World 1-1 and World 1-2 of the original Super Mario Bros. Beyond the speed, shape, color, and pattern of the slowly passing clouds something is very different. A lone coin remains blinking in the menu. To the chagrin of many ROM hackers, this tiny, blinking coin is also what is known as “Sprite 0,” the first sprite in the Picture Processing Unit or PPU’s memory and the only sprite that includes a hard-coded “hit flag” responsible for triggering scrolling in Super Mario Bros.
Time does not move without money and making Sprite 0 invisible freezes the game. Apparently all that is solid does not melt into air as Sprite 0 symbolizes not the formal autonomy of games, art, and capital—but the desire for a type of utopia in which these practices operate without material base. The blinking coin, then, only appears to offer the player a “coin heaven”—the name of three specific bonus zones in Super Mario Bros. devoid of enemies and filled with money. While Arcangel’s piece is famous for its erasure of the gameplay from Super Mario Bros., it also effects an erasure of the game’s medium specificity, depicting Super Mario Clouds as a utopian autonomous zone that renders invisible the game’s history of money and materiality. By contrast, Coin Heaven refuses this portrayal, demonstrating the deep history that is hard coded into the game’s electrical circuits.