The Bizarre World of Kaizo Games

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I recently played the kaizo hack known as Invictus. In just 30 minutes, I racked up 100 deaths — I didn’t even make it to the first checkpoint. Over the last two months, I’ve played more than 50 platformers while working on my next book, and this is the first time I’ve completely stopped dead in my tracks. As my sore hand recovers, I’m left asking this question: is “kaizo” good game design?

What is kaizo?

Kaizo games have become an increasingly popular sub-genre of sorts (they are typically derived from platformers). Originating first with a title called I Wanna Be The Guy, the kaizo concept has since evolved into its own distinct design language. While Super Mario Maker represented the first time that mainstream audience would be exposed to the idea, the original Mario games have been spun off as kaizo experiences for years now. Creators have been using Super Mario World as the canvas for a wide variety of unique and super-difficult games. Specifically, creators take the original game’s ROM file and modify it to create a kaizo experience.

The fundamentals of kaizo are simple: the idea is that you’re playing incredibly difficult levels built in the general style of the “host” game (using its assets). The player character should behave exactly as it would in the original game, but both enemy and level designs can take any form. On top of this intriguing foundation, creators tend to incorporate a particularly devilish component known as a “kaizo trap”. This is where an obstacle will be set up to purposely hit the player if they attempt to take the easiest route through th level, forcing them to avoid it entirely. Kaizo traps can’t be spotted on your first play through; in principle, the only way to spot them is to actually trigger them.

Levels — or segments of levels — are always long, littered with traps, and require pixel-perfect-platforming if the player wants any chance of success. Some kaizo games are built around puzzle rooms that contain a single screen full of obstacles for you to navigate past, while others will have sections that require you to exploit specific glitches to perform manoeuvres that were never part of the original game’s design. As you might expect, the creativity of these modifications can vary. Some designers will entirely stick to the original game’s assets, while others will introduce totally new designs and obstacles.

There’s more to kaizo than difficulty alone, however. The actual games and their creators are fascinating.

Rat rod game design

Kaizo games have grown as more elements have become standardized over the years. Again — for legal reasons — I can’t tell you where or what you need to access them, but there are web sites that collect and archive them. Editors have been released that allow people to mod the game files without needing a programming background. There is also a tool that is used to “patch” the files into a copy of the game, which in turn allow you to run it via emulation or the original console.

Making a kaizo game is both a way of making a name within the community and giving people the chance to do game design. There’s a fundamental difference between a typical kaizo hack and something like Super Mario Maker. In the latter case, you’re inherently restricted to the tools and assets that Nintendo have explicitly provided. Kaizo hacks provide an opportunity for creators to go well beyond the scope of the original assets and constraints, in order to produce something entirely original.

Hacks like Invictus and Grand Poo World 2 — among many others — have become popular titles for kaizo streamers to play, with many of them making their own hacks as well.

Fans of 2D platformers (at least, those who can stomach the demands of kaizo experiences) will find that they never run out of new games to play. But with that said, a valid question remains: while there’s a great deal of passion and creativity within the kaizo community, what does the commercial side look like? Can you sell kaizo?

Is kaizo marketable?

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: any kaizo hacks built on existing intellectual property won’t be commercially saleable (at least, not unless you have a contract with the IP holder). The next logical question is whether or not kaizo gameplay itself is able to work in a commercial product in general — that question is tougher to answer.

Kaizo design is highly mechanical (you can find my thoughts on mechanical versus reactionary game design right here). You’re not naturally reacting to what’s happening in the level as you’re playing a kaizo game — rather, you’re playing through repeatedly, enough times in order to find the perfect line through a level. Naturally, kaizo games tend to be difficult for this reason. Even hacks that profess to be “easy” would likely put the toughest commercially-available games to shame in terms of challenge.

For this reason, kaizo games don’t tend to be well-suited to newcomers. Historically, kaizo games haven’t catered well to newcomers especially from a quality of life perspective. Some more recent titles have included features like auto-retry and endless lives options, but such features are still as rare as hen’s teeth in the kaizo world. The issue is compounded by the fact that kaizo designers are usually also kaizo players — they’ll tend to build their games around that specific audience. So, if you’re a fan of Mario and you expect to easily jump into something like Invictus, you’re going to be in for a rude awakening.

Unlike many traditional games, kaizo hacks aren’t built with any semblance of a learning curve: you are expected to enter the experience with the required background and technical skill. Many of the toughest kaizo games will even feature glitches and techniques that are never explained in-game, but that are still required to win. This is where I find a clear distinction between a game designer and a kaizo creator; making kaizo hacks is not the same as designing a video game with the intention to sell it. Where a game designer is thinking about how it should appeal to a variety of end users — customers in the market — the kaizo-specific market is still very small compared to the broader video game market.

The mechanical nature — and skill level required — of kaizo games prevents the vast majority of players from ever beating them, let alone even getting through a single stage. So, the idea of an “accessible kaizo game” almost seems like a contradiction in terms.

I wanna be a kaizo game

We have seen attempts at making “original” kaizo titles like the I Wanna Be The series that still uses ripped assets, but features original gameplay. While they’re not as technical-focused as the Mario-style kaizo hacks, they are still on the hard side and have a limited reach.

With the rise of streaming and YouTube culture as a whole, more consumers are being exposed to kaizo design. I feel, though, that most of the audience is simply marvelling at watching these crazy creations being played by experts; it’s not that they want to dive in and play themselves.

As I often do, I’d like to leave you with a question. Do you enjoy kaizo games? And do you think there’s a commercial market for them?

Original article courtesy of Game-Wisdom. Edited and re-published with permission.