Zelda has a minus world

Listen, everyone. It’s not every day that a new fact comes to light regarding a game that came out more than 30 years ago. And I happen to love it when retro games get broken in fabulous and entertaining ways. So the news that The Legend of Zelda for NES has a minus world like Super Mario Bros. and others hit me like a freight train.

The phenomenon was discovered by YouTuber SKELUX, who starts off his video with a quick explanation of how minus worlds work. If you think about an NES game as a big file, there are places where graphics are stored, sounds and music are described and, of course, level layouts and enemy logic are kept.

As a player, you are expected to navigate the structured parts of this file, namely the game world — level 1, 2, 3, this or that dungeon or town, etc. But there are ways to escape that structure by exploiting flaws in the game’s code, letting you run free in portions of the game’s data that aren’t meant to be “real” levels — yet the game’s engine will interpret the data as best it can, producing in some cases pretty wacky but still navigable levels. This type of thing gets its name from Super Mario Bros., where you could easily warp to a buggy level “-1” and progress from there.

Zelda and other games often use data trickery to get around the natural limitations of 8-bit computing and severely restricted storage space. For instance, did you know that in order to store them more efficiently, Zelda’s dungeons all fit together like giant tiles?

I just about lost my mind when I found out about that. Note that the above is two 16×8 grids set one on top of the other.

As SKELUX explains, the overhead map is similarly divided, except the bottom “half” isn’t actually filled with map data. And although there are cheats that let you walk through walls, the game’s code detects when you reach an invalid map coordinate and returns you to the starting location. But a little hackery takes that safety measure out of play and the result:

A new world!

And a horribly buggy one, as it turns out right from the start. Octoroks are shooting boomerangs out of their snouts; the old man on one screen tells you it’s dangerous to go alone, then next door says “leave your life of money”; a Molblin caterpillar shoots fireballs at you; glitchy inverted witch women swarm the statues of Death mountain; and so on.

It’s a strange, hilarious world, and one that obviously was not crafted but is simply created on the fly by the game’s engine attempting to make sense of the data it’s reading. It isn’t canon.

This type of video game archaeology is endlessly fascinating to me, because it demonstrates both the fragility and the robustness of these venerable pieces of software — and, of course, the enduring love and interest they engender in fans. Another one that recently absorbed my attention was the explanation of parallel dimensions inside Super Mario 64 and how sliding between them lets you beat a level with only half a press of the jump button.

That’s all. Please return to your ordinary lives, which likely seem just a bit more ordinary now that you know one more magical secret of the Legend of Zelda.

Tech Will Save Us offers STEM toys you’ll actually use

I hate STEM toys. I have three kids and ultimately every “educational” toy they’ve used – from LittleBits to Nintendo Labo – has ended up in a corner somewhere, ignored for more exciting fare. This happens for a few reasons but the primary one is that the toys require too much attention and have no lasting play value.

Given this fact, I thought our species (or at least my kids) would be doomed to Idiocracy-style techno illiteracy. Luckily, a set of toys from the optimistically-named organization Tech Will Save Us, has changed my mind.

TWSU toys are nice in that they are at once rugged toys that withstand constant play and electronic devices that can be programmed by a clever eight year old. For example, the $60 Creative Coder is basically a LilyPad device with a USB interface and a block-based programming language that lets you program it. The TWSU website features a number of little programs you can upload to the board including a Pokemon sensor that starts out red and white until you shake the board, activating the sensor and causing the lights to blink. My son loved it and he slept in it, strapping the wearable to his wrist like an Apple Watch.

Programming the Creative Coder is very simple. It uses a Scratch -like interface to set colors and activate timers and in a few minutes I was able to make a Ghost Detector that “hunted” for ghosts and then blinked when it found one. I based the idea on an old toy I had in the 1980s called IAN that beeped when it got close to “invisible aliens.” I still remember the excitement I felt walking around in my Grandma’s basement looking for monsters. I think he felt the same excitement.

The other toys – including a simple game machine that uses an Arduino and a 9×9 LED display – were similarly interesting. The game machine, for example, included a primitive version of Flappy Bird that my son played for hours and he was excited to get the LED to spell his name on command. It did, however, require knowledge of Arduino programming which limited the usability. However, because it comes preloaded with a simple game the device felt complete right out of the box.

How are these toys different from all the other STEM junk I’ve tried? Again, they worked out of the box. The Creative Coder could double as a bike light as soon as you assembled it and it came inside of a plastic case that made it a wearable instead of a science project. The other toys were just that – toys – and the programming was an afterthought. Ultimately I’m sure this stuff will end up under the couch, dead and forgotten, but until that happens they’ve supplied a great deal of fun.

STEM toys often focus on the STEM. I suspect this is because engineers are building them and not toymakers. Further, toymakers create things like the Zoomer Playful Pup (another clever toy) and hide all of the technology deep behind layers of plastic. Finding the right balance in so-called STEM toys is incredibly difficult but its doable and, as Tech Will Save Us have proved, these toys don’t have to be too boring or too complex for the kids (and parents) who might buy them.