Play Stuff Blog

Altering Classic Video Games  

I recently watched independent animation film director and designer Léo Verrier’s short film, Dripped. The 8-minute film presented a fictional story of a burglar who stole famous paintings from museums and proceeded to eat the artwork. Shortly after the thief consumed an artwork, his body morphed into a figure or design from the specific painting. I like to imagine that Verrier came up with this idea for his film after viewing a Picasso. Many artists find inspiration in existing art. This caused me to think about how individuals alter video game content to create a new interpretation and experience.

Multi-media artist Cory Arcangel’s work interprets video games through a variety of formats.  In the late 90s, Arcangel became interested in how individuals use technology to express themselves. He joined BEIGE, an experimental programming collective, where he began to hack and alter game consoles. In 2002, Arcangel uploaded his project Super Mario Clouds v2k3, along with source code and detailed tutorial, to the Internet. To create the piece, Arcangel stripped a 1985 Super Mario Brothers cartridge of all content with the exception of the blue sky and white, puffy clouds. In his video, the clouds slowly float across the sparse sky.  Arcangel did not play many video games as a kid, but he watched his friends play and he thinks that’s why his pieces are “about watching, not interacting.” When I played Super Mario as a kid, I thought of the sky as filler. Now, I find it a peaceful backdrop for stimulating game play.

Veteran video game designer Mike Mika’s Donkey Kong game hack recently earned significant media attention. Video game fans first went ape over Nintendo’s Donkey Kong in 1981. During gameplay, a player maneuvered Jumpman (Mario) across various platforms in an attempt to rescue Lady (Pauline) from the giant ape, Donkey Kong. This scenario is not unlike many early tales of damsels in distress. Mika, however, thought to change the situation after his three-year-old daughter asked, “How can I play as the girl? I want to save Mario.” That night Mika set to work. The original game design included a tile set (a collection of pixel tiles that create a single, large image) composed of four eight by eight tiles. Pauline stood a tile taller than Mario. In order to turn Mario into Pauline, Mika had to reduce Pauline’s height and make her fit in the existing tile set. Mika slightly altered her design. The next morning, his daughter played as Pauline. Mika noticed that she proved more motivated and excited by the experience.

Donkey Kong

Another game that provides a clever twist to classic titles is Pippin Barr’s Commodore 64-inspired title Art Game. Barr advertises, ““Experience the agony of rejection….Consider selling out….Be a star of the art world! Be a horrible failure! Be an artist!" A player must use classic forms from Snake, Tetris, or Space Wars to create artwork. When a player creates a sizeable portfolio, a curator judges the pieces and determines if any are worthy of being installed in an exhibit. When the player finally succeeds, he walks through the installation. When I played, I quickly learned that my lack of Tetris-skills only led to more intriguing sculptures—the negative space and juxtaposition of random pieces made for an interesting composition. My ego quickly deflated when I saw my paintings. To create a painting, I had to use forms from Snake, a late 1970s game that requires a player to navigate a long, snake-like creature around a plane. As I worked, I imagined a Pollock piece with splatters across the canvas. I ended-up with a minimalist, stark piece that did not convey my anguish.

pippin barr

The appeal of the new experiences presented in Super Mario Clouds v2k3, Mika’s Donkey Kong, and Art Game resides in a familiarity with classic video games. If you’re a game designer, looking for inspiration, might I recommend Dripped?