The Capcom logo fades, and Mega Man X2 sounds positively demonic. A rumbling, all-bass remix of the game's intro - accompanied by random notes from various instruments - replaces a typically upbeat theme. It's haunting, right up until the game crashes. I load the corruptor, tweak a few variables, and start again. Now all the explosions are replaced with what looks like a mix of health bars and leg sprites from different enemies. I tweak the variables and start again. Now there are invisible platforms lining the right side of every wall. I tweak the variables and start again.
This is corruption: the art of manipulating games so they self-destruct in the most unexpected - and entertaining - ways possible. Imagine your favorite video game as a Lego model. Corruption is like switching out every other brick with another, completely random, brick. Within that colorful mess enemies can be replaced, music can become distorted, and entire levels can load out of sequence. The only constant is that your game will crash, a lot. It's wildly entertaining, but even more impressive is how these corruptions let our most-played, most beloved games surprise us all over again.
I stumbled upon game corruption through internet personality Vinesauce (opens in new tab), who does tons of different videos and streams, but is perhaps best known for his corruption videos (like the one above). From Castlevania to Wind Waker, each video shows off different corruptions for a specific game while Vinesauce express his surprise at the results. Several of these videos are powered by the Vinesauce Corruptor, a program that basically runs a game's code through a virtual blender and lets you play the results. Most of the time the result is a dud, but when it works it can really surprise you with how bizarre and different a game can look and play. And that's no small feat.
How much else is there to learn about, say, Super Mario World in 2015? The Cutting Room Floor (opens in new tab) can tell you about every unused sprite hidden on the cartridge. Speed runners will show the most efficient way to play through the game. Various interviews and stories over the years document the game's development history and culture impact. So what's left to discover when every single piece of minutiae has been dissected and scrutinized? One solution: absolute madness. Corruption programs - such as the one Vinesauce uses - breathe new life into old games by ruining them.
Their effects can create devilish new challenges within a game, or just give you a laugh as enemy bats haphazardly transform into Simon Belmont (opens in new tab). They can also instill a greater appreciation for games themselves. While playing Mega Man X2, I don't normally think about specific enemy designs or refrains in the music. I'm just enjoying the overall experience of blowing stuff up. But when those individual pieces become corrupted, I recognize how the experience is lessened by their absence. It's a reminder that games don't just appear magically from the aether. They're meticulously crafted; every detail scrutinized and placed with intent.
Using the Vinesauce corruptor is like tuning a guitar, only instead of making something sound good you want it to sound as horrific as possible without completely falling apart. You tell the corruptor where in the game's code to start corruption, how often it should occur, what sort of corruption to use, and so on. It takes a bit of finesse to get running properly. For example, if you start a corruption too early in the game's code the game won't load at all and you'll be stuck with a black screen. But when you get it just right - and Mario appears as a nightmare-fueled mismatch of pixels - you can't help but smile at the absurdity of it all.
Unfortunately, the sad truth about game corruption is that, while wildly entertaining, it's almost impossible to do now without emulation. But this wasn't always the case. In the 8- and 16-bit days, you could achieve a similar effect through cartridge tilting (opens in new tab) (at serious risk to your hardware). Then the Game Genie arrived, offering a safer means of messing with a game's code. Jump ahead to today where games are edging ever closer to an all-digital future, and those old tricks are no longer viable. We have more options than ever for playing classic games on modern hardware, but we've lost the ability to play with the games themselves.
Watch Vinesauce's videos. Play around with the corruptor. See how other people are using this technology. You'll discover there's a lot of goofy fun to be had both playing games and playing with the pieces that make up your games. Grand Theft Auto 5, The Witcher 3, Batman: Arkham Knight, and so many other bend over backwards to give us hundreds of hours of things to enjoy. But with a little bit of help, we can dream up lots of entertainment all on our own. Because it's just as much fun building with Lego as it is smashing it to bits.