A Beginner’s Guide to Randomizers
Here’s the scene. I’m blasting my way through Super Metroid, having just taken down Crocomire. I proceed past him to pick up my power-up and…
“Aw man… 10 rupees!”
I turn to my friend on the couch next to me. We’ve been playing the recently released Super Metroid + Link to the Past Randomizer. He’s a bit of a Zelda expert and I’m a bit of a Metroid expert to put together we are one competent player.
“Can you take over? I already have Gravity Suit and Space Jump, you should be able to find something.”
“I don’t have the lamp!”
“Isn’t there anything you can do without the lamp?”
“You have the blue mail, Master Sword, red boomerang, quake spell, fire rod, and all these other things and we are gate blocked by a lamp?”
“It’s probably in Norfair or something…”
Yes, this conversation was absurd, but it’s pretty common when playing randomizers, which have absolutely blown up in the speedrunning and ROM hacking communities in the last few years.
What Is a Randomizer?
Randomizers do what they say on the tin. They take aspects of certain games and randomize them. For action-adventure games like The Legend of Zelda, they randomize item locations. For RPGs like Final Fantasy IV, they randomize party members and items. There are even randomizers for games like Mega Man X which randomize your jump height and bullet damage.
Some randomizers are serious challenges while others are just absurd. They require thorough knowledge of the game they are based on, sometimes to the extent of requiring professional speedrunning stats to progress. It would be foolish to even attempt a Super Metroid randomizer without utilizing techniques such infinite wall jumping and bomb jumping. Even then you’ll find yourself soft-locking the game, ending up in rooms you can’t escape and situations you can’t beat.
And yet a good portion of the gaming community is going nuts over these hacks, myself included. Why?
The Random Appeal
Well on the most obvious level, these randomizers breathe new life into old games. At this point, anyone who is still playing Super Metroid or A Link to the Past will have memorized their preferred route through the game anyway, right down to specific item locations. Randomizing elements of these games allows us to experience them again, as if they were new, constantly being surprised by what we find and where we go.
However, randomizers have another strangely psychological appeal. They combine the power trip of using a cheat device with the prestige of playing a game on hard mode.
Let me explain. No matter what randomizer you play you are statistically likely to find something from the end game within your first few minutes. That’s just how randomness works. You enter the game grabbing up a ton of interesting items and weapons, blasting through early game dungeons as if they were nothing. It feels good. It feels like you’ve broken the game.
However, this power rush quickly ends as you progress and start realizing that you are missing some very important items. Maybe you’ll have to play the majority of A Link to the Past without a shield. Maybe you’ll have to play through Super Metroid without normal bombs, relying on super bombs to do mundane things like bomb jump. Maybe you’ll beat Final Fantasy IV with no one in your party but Edward, play through Fire Emblem Fates with nothing but mounted units, or face the Elite Four in Pokemon with a party full of Rattatas.
This is why randomizers feel like a sort of sadistic hard mode. You have to tax your gaming knowledge to figure out how to beat bosses in unconventional ways. You have to figure out how to sequence break in ways that even accomplished speedrunners haven’t tried. You have to think on your feet and adapt, which is something games rarely make us do.
In a sense, it turns any game you are playing into The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Instead of following a set path, you go where you want, do what you can, and scrape together a strategy from what you find, and it’s an absolutely amazing feeling.
The Future Is Random
There is a randomizer for just about everyone, regardless of your game tastes. Luckily, there is a constantly updated list that tracks what randomizers are available. The aptly named “BIG List of Randomizers” can be found here and features all sorts of things from pathing hacks to major remakes that turn Final Fantasy games into rogue-likes.
The biggest failing of randomizers is that many of them must be played with an emulator. Some more recent games (like the fan game AM2R or Ori and the Blind Forest) can generate new random seeds every time then run, but most retro randomizers require generating a new game ROM every time you play. This means that you’ll never be able to play your favorite randomizer on a reproduction cart on your old SNES. Heck, you won’t even be able to import your favorite randomized ROM into your SNES classic.
However, I think this shows that there is a whole untapped area of game design waiting to be explored. Thus far, randomizers have only been the work of fan hackers. But why couldn’t Nintendo release bonus DLC that randomized item locations in Metroid Prime 4? Why couldn’t From Software turn Dark Souls randomizers into official content for the upcoming HD remaster? Why couldn’t new and popular RPGs unlock random modes as a New Game + option?
Maybe if game designers explored the amazing possibilities that randomizers create, all of our gaming experiences will have just a little bit more replay value, which is something many of our biggest AAA blockbusters sorely need.
Until then, I have to go find the Magic Mirror. It’s probably behind Kraid or something.
Let us know about your randomizer experiences in the comments.