In addition to the ability to play as Link, Super Mario Maker 2’s latest update has added a new speedrunning mode that’s remarkably similar to one rom hacker’s mod of an SNES emulator called Quantum Mario. This has raised questions about Nintendo’s relationship with the Mario homebrew community and the designers that power its Mario Maker games.
“In 2008 I hacked [the emulator] SNES9X to let me do speedruns over and over and show all the attempts at once, and made a popular-at-the-time Kaizo Mario video showing it off,” indie developer Andi McClure said on Twitter on Monday, when Nintendo revealed Super Mario Maker 2’s new Ninji mode.
In Ninji Speedruns, players compete against one another to get the best times on levels created specifically by Nintendo. Instead of racing in real time, players race against each other’s best runs as represented by little Ninji, the series’ tiny ninja enemies that really look more like speedy black starfish. In other words, it’s a lot like what McClure made over a decade ago.
While there’s no evidence that Nintendo was directly inspired by McClure’s creation, it’s possible the company was at least aware of its existence. In 2015, following the release of the first Mario Maker, a video showing her Super Mario World level being completed by dozens of Marios, each representing a different speedrun attempt, was removed from YouTube after Nintendo filed a copyright strike against it, according to a screenshot McClure shared on Twitter this week. A version of it is still viewable on the Internet Archive.
Nintendo did not respond to a request for comment.
“The moment the video went up, like three people I know immediately @ed me because it looked to them like my video,” McClure told Kotaku via Discord message. “So when I woke up I had all these twitter messages and my girlfriend was like, ‘’Did you see the Mario Maker video?” because she was thinking of Quantum Mario also and I was just like, god damn it.”
Kaizo levels are fan-made Super Mario levels that twist the game’s underlying design logic to mess with players and cause them to die in all sorts of funny ways. Inspired by an original set of three ROM hacks, they’ve become an entire sub-genre of modded Mario levels that heavily intersects with the speedrunning community.
But in the Kaizo speedrunning videos most popular on YouTube, viewers only get to see the perfect end result rather than the torturous learning curve a player went through to get there. This inspired McClure to create an SNES emulator mod that let you see a bunch of a player’s past attempts alongside their current run. Even for people who don’t understand the complexities of different Kaizo levels, it’s extremely funny and entertaining to see all of the little Marios running around and dying, something that’s shared by Super Mario Maker 2’s new Ninji mode.
“I don’t care at all that they used an idea similar to mine,” she said. “I don’t think it makes sense for anyone to ‘own’ ideas of this type and their feature isn’t even the same thing as the Quantum Mario video, exactly, but it’s upsetting that when they finally do move into this space, decades after other people were exploring it, they feel they have to memory-hole everyone who came before.”
McClure isn’t frustrated that her idea is being reflected in the latest game and where millions of other people can have fun with it, but rather that Nintendo forced the removal of her original video, and thereby erasing that bit of community history.
“I don’t really feel like I need credit or anything just for having tried something out first. Just if I did a thing I don’t want it, or the evidence it existed, to be literally erased,” she said. “And one of the bad things about overly eager copyright enforcement is it does wind up erasing histories, not just the allegedly infringing content, but sometimes the histories of whole communities that existed around it get thrown out too.”
Nintendo has a track record for aggressively enforcing its copyright ownership rights, including against the makers of fan games and people posting videos on YouTube. Sometimes, as in the case of McClure, those are videos of gameplay derived from one of Nintendo’s games. In other recent cases, they might simply be videos of game soundtracks. Sometimes the targets are Mario Maker levels themselves.
Within the Super Mario Maker community, Kaizo levels are some of the most popular levels in the games for people to stream or watch, and the people responsible for creating them are contributing a lot of value to the Mario Maker games by doing so. That doesn’t always stop Nintendo from deleting them without explanation. Mario Maker speedrunner and level creator David “GrandPOOBear” Hunt had one of his most popular courses removed from the game in this manner earlier in the year.
Another of Hunt’s levels, titled “Tech Talk New and Old Item Tricks,” was taken down just this week. “They won’t work with anyone who plays hacks or randomizers, punishing the people who love their games so much they just want to play more and more of them forever,” Hunt told Kotaku over Discord. “No doubt they pay attention to what the kaizo/rom hack/speedrunning communities do, but they treat us like pariahs when often we are the people that are helping create lifelong fans of their IPs.”
Hunt is excited about the game’s latest update, which he calls “the best in Mario Maker history,” but like McClure he wishes that Nintendo would openly acknowledge the hacking and speedrunning communities that have been drivers of creativity in the Mario Maker games, rather than ignoring it, or in the worst cases, trying to remove all traces of it.
“Nintendo doesn’t have the best history with the people that play their games the most,” Hunt said.
Quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.
Correction, 3:48 p.m. Eastern: Due to a misinterpretation on the part of the writer, the original version of this story incorrectly attributed to McClure the belief that Nintendo was aware of the existence of Quantum Mario. McClure did not express this belief. Kotaku apologizes for the error.