ROMs away: Modding keeps 8-bit games and sports history alive today

Modder Baron Lector imagines baseball’s segregated past with the NES classic R.B.I. Baseball
Baron Lector

Baseball fans know about Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, two Hall of Famers who played in segregated leagues before Jackie Robinson's debut. Suffice to say, they never made a video game appearance. During their careers that is.

But there they are, matched up in the roster of “R.B.I. Baseball Negro League '43,” one of dozens of mods keeping 8-bit sports video games alive and their sports' histories relevant today.

There’s also “R.B.I. Baseball 1871: Year One” for those who want to play with the first-ever professional baseball players. There's another R.B.I. mod using present-day rosters. If baseball’s not your thing, there are Tecmo Super Bowl mods with rosters from past seasons like 1968, 1984, 1992 and 2011. There’s a 2014 version of Nintendo World Cup. There’s a “Carmelo Anthony vs. LeBron James One On One” mod based on Jordan vs. Bird: One on One from 1988.

For fans who long for both their sport's history and the 8-bit days of yore, this is heaven. It's the work of Baron Lector, the alias of a prolific modder sharing with others all the leagues and all the teams he wanted to play 20 years ago.

“I've wanted to create video games ever since I was in high school,” said Lector who graduated in 1996. “I took computer programming classes so that I could do this. My skill set was limited, however. Most of what I created was text-based adventure games in BASIC.

“Fast forward to nearly 20 years later, when I got my hands on editors for R.B.I. Baseball and Tecmo Bowl, it was my jumping-down-the-rabbit-hole moment.”

“It was my jumping-down-the-rabbit-hole moment.”

Other genres see mods of old games all the time, but for someone to mod outdated sports games, it would figure they were a big fan in real life. Lector is. “My fandom has led to a lot of my decision making as far as projects go,” said Lector. One of his first mods was “R.B.I. Baseball 1927,” the year in which Babe Ruth and the “Murderer's Row” New York Yankees won 110 games. “Being a huge Yankees fan, what a better way to display my fandom than to create a gamed centered on the greatest team in the history of baseball,” Lector said.

Lector also wanted to acknowledge beloved teams who have seen better days.

“Being a fan of Syracuse football, the team has been a dumpster fire for the best part of the last ten years,” he said. “As a result of this dumpster fire, when folks put out NCAA versions of Tecmo Bowl and Tecmo Super Bowl, Syracuse never makes the cut. So, my first Tecmo Bowl releases featured a Syracuse team starring Donovan McNabb and Marvin Harrison.”

Modding a video game is often a labor of love, and modders are always on the lookout for copyright owners who don't approve of the work. But Lector wasn’t concerned. “Absolutely not,” said Lector. “I base this on precedence. I started modding games in 2015. The Tecmo Super Bowl community is where I got my start. At the time, they had put out many ROM modifications ranging from the Nintendo, Super Nintendo, and Sega Genesis. This activity had been going on for more than five years before I came onto the scene. If they hadn't been shut down, yet, then I saw no reason to worry.”

ROMs away: Modding keeps 8-bit games and sports history alive today
Legends of the NBA, a mod of 1992’s Tecmo NBA Basketball
Baron Lector

But other modders have had to worry.

Inspired by a prototype of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild that Nintendo developers showed at Game Developers Conference 2017 (but never released to the public), a modder calling himself WinterDrake put together a trailer for something called “Breath of the NES,” which reimagined the newest Zelda game in the series’ 1987 form. Before WinterDrake could get a chance to finalize his creation, he received a DMCA takedown notice from Nintendo.

“This event specifically didn't change my opinion of Nintendo, as I already knew it was common practice for them to take down fan games,” said WinterDrake. “But the fact that they do it is obviously unfortunate to the modding and fan game community.”

Nintendo is strict; it sent notices to 500 different fan-made games in a single day last year, so they’re not new to takedown notices. Sega, however, has been more fan-friendly to the modding community.

Last year, Sega opened the Genesis & Mega Drive Classics Hub on Steam, which included workshop support from its library allowing modders to upload custom-made ROM. Sega’s actions from last year could be perceived as a welcoming embrace from the ROM-hacking community and the community responded in kind.

Why don’t these guys get shut down?

Why would one company want to shut down fan-made (and usually free) games, and another take a more laissez-faire approach? The people behind the Tecmo Super Bowl mods might have a clue.

David Brude’s technical and hacking skills on Tecmo Super Bowl mods help him update uniforms, teams, divisions and players. Brude, called “bruddog” by the community, said certain modders are left alone while others get the proverbial hammer.

“I think a lot of it has to do with how active the (intellectual property) is,” said Brude. “Hacks/Mods involving games that are 20-plus years old and that the parent company has no plans on doing anything with are probably much less likely to get a (cease & desist letter).”

“To a lesser degree I think it also depends on the nature of the mods and if the owner of the IP feels it is negatively affecting the IP,” continued Brude. “Perhaps the most crucial thing is how much public exposure a mod/hack gets. If only a small community of people is even aware of a hacked game’s existence, then it’s very unlikely to get taken down.”

But one cannot be so sure that lack of visibility plays a factor. Games like R.B.I. Baseball, Tecmo Super Bowl, Ken Griffey Jr. Baseball and College Slam are well known to certain demographics with or without the mods.

ROMs away: Modding keeps 8-bit games and sports history alive today
Carmelo vs. LeBron: One-on-One, a mod of 1988’s Jordan vs. Bird: One-on-One for PC
Baron Lector

David Murray, who owns TecmoBowl.org, which hosts an annual mod updating the game with current rosters, was quick to point out that the edits from Lector, who started in the Tecmo Super Bowl community, only scratch the game's surface. The rosters and player attributes are updated using tools the community has made and there are no changes to game play, which allows him to produce a lot of content. On the other hand, Brude reverse-engineers the original source, which allows him to extend the game play and add more features.

“He finds and corrects game play errors and digs up unused content stored within games,” said Murray. “He most recently 100 percent reverse-engineered and commented the original Tecmo Super Bowl source. This is thousands and thousands of lines of 6502 assembly code.

“Modders who work on current or popular IPs are the ones who get shut down,” Murray said Murray. “Working on a Metroid game to recreate a game and add a new adventure to the IP will get shut down. Modding Zelda to rework the game engine to create a new game will get shut down. A new entry to the Final Fantasy series will get shut down. This has all happened in the last few years.

“If there is any threat to deter sales or to potentially confuse the marketplace about an active IP, it will surely get shut down,” concluded Murray.

Lector said the more a game is worth in present time, the more a company may try to shut it down. A modder being honorable to the source material might not mean a thing.

“It all depends on the company that owns the work modders derive from.”

“I don't think it has anything to do with respect,” said Lector. “I think it has everything to do with money. I've seen some incredible projects in the last couple of years get shut down by Nintendo, and they were insanely respectful to the source material. He mentioned the 16-bit Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time project that was in the works before Nintendo caught wind of it and shut it down. There was another big-time Nintendo franchise that got the mod treatment and got subsequently shut down.

“Right before the release of the most recent Pokemon 3DS game, there was a fan-made Pokemon game that had hundreds of original Pokemon in it,” said Lector. “Nintendo saw it. Delete! I think that if the company fears that the mod might take away from the bottom dollar, they strike.”

Nevertheless, modding is very much a part of modern gaming culture. Fans want to show off their skills and modify their creation for the masses. One could argue that it’s brought disparate gaming communities together. And in an era of super-realistic sports games, arcade-style 8-bit game play can be a reprieve that fans of all skills can enjoy.

“I think early on Tecmo modders were always a tiny bit nervous that Tecmo might tell us to stop,” said Brude. “Way back we were just doing roster edits using tools other people had developed. By the time I had the skills to do these complex hacks, I wasn't too worried.”

Murray wasn’t worried either. He said the lack of new versions of the game for the marketplace makes their work that much more popular and protected.

“For us, modding Tecmo Bowl and Tecmo Super Bowl at TecmoBowl.org, it is a dead title,” said Murray. “There hasn't been a new release in the series in a long, long time. There hasn't been a player or league-licensed title in an even longer while. Without us, Tecmo Bowl as an IP is non-existent.”

While the IP for Tecmo Bowl might not be what it is without modders, people like Lector, Murray, Brude and others are still at an IP owner’s whim. WinterDrake knows this all too well.

“I think that it all depends on the company that owns the work modders derive from,” said Winter Drake. “Sega sees fan games as free publicity. Nintendo sees them as a threat to their brand. Ultimately, it's the IP holder's decision.”

Every now and then, a person’s work doesn’t become the source of anger and takedown notices or apathy, but becomes the object of fascination.

ROMs away: Modding keeps 8-bit games and sports history alive today
The “box art” for Baron Lector’s “Legends of R.B.I. Baseball” features an iconic image MLB would probably not approve.
Baron Lector

Murray said he recently spoke with Koei Tecmo to become a sponsoring partner of Tecmo Madison, the annual Tecmo Super Bowl tournament held in Madison, Wisconsin. They accepted, even though they haven't done anything with football since 2010's Tecmo Bowl Throwback for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Murray was introduced to Koei Tecmo executives who told him they were fascinated by the work at TecmoBowl.org

“We keep the otherwise dead title current in pop culture with a release every year that has significant download numbers and is featured on major sports publications,” said Murray. “We spoke about the history of the game, the huge online community and all the work we've done. We have many more talks to come and about some exciting topics. When the time is right, it will be awesome to share.”

Lector said he’s just getting started. With a website promoting his creations and a Patreon page set up to help him work on his edits more, Lector looking to push himself to see what he can come up with next.

“My competitive nature also plays a part in what I create,” said Lector in an email. “A lot of what I've done is a result of me thinking "What can I do that hasn't been done before?”

This thinking has given birth to the likes of “Ken Griffey Presents: Legends of Baseball,” “Tecmo Super Bowl Convergence,” “College Slam 2017,” “Ken Griffey Winning Run 2016” (a game that had never seen an mod before), “FIFA Brasil 2014” (a total conversion mod of the Japanese game J.League Winning Goal), “R.B.I. Legends of Baseball,” “Carmelo vs. LeBron” and many others.

“Essentially, I want to separate myself from the pack,” said Lector.

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