"I don't want to go to bed at night thinking I've ruined thousands of people's fun," one of the two men who's cracked open the code for the Wii U's biggest game told me this week. I was confused.
Illustration: Sam Woolley
This was Chadderz, a programmer who, with his brother Bean, has hacked Mario Kart 8 to do amazing things. Yet, he sounded anxious.
Chadderz and Bean have produced some of the wackiest, most inventive Mario Kart 8 videos I've seen since the game came out. They have figured out how to launch Luigi into outer space, make him float in mid air, even drop him into a mysterious, ethereal void. What were they so worried about?
The two brothers aren't concerned about their videos, exactly. Indeed, Bean's equally pseudonymous YouTube channel MrBean35000vr has been his primary source of revenue since he graduated from university in the UK. Rather, he's concerned about how they made the stuff that went into the videos in the first place.
Bean and Chadderz are the first two people to hack Mario Kart 8. This has made them both cautious -- to the point that they asked to only be identified by their online handles. As far as they can tell, they're still the only ones who've managed to do so -- though they're both aware of several other teams out there who are trying. They were only able to pull their hack off because of an exploit they discovered in a previous version of the Wii U's firmware, however. And since Nintendo has now patched over that particular hole, there's no telling when, if ever, another one will be discovered.
Their mods have become increasingly complex as they have rolled out new videos through the MrBean35000vr channel this summer. At first, they messed with small audio and visual cues to make the soundtrack drop in and out, or change the text in the game's menus. But soon they were altering the entire texture map of a racetrack, turning it into a icy, wintry-themed version of the original. In one of my favourite videos, they inserted a ghost racer -- Luigi, in this case -- from a completely different track into the new version of Rainbow Road. So instead of driving along the proper Rainbow Road track, Luigi instead veered off-course and flew through outer space, Gravity-style. The hack gave fans a stunning, novel angle on one of the most beautiful and iconic courses in the series' history -- one they would have never been able to see otherwise.
Nintendo doesn't explicitly condone this kind of work. But Bean and Chadderz told me that they have never gotten into legal trouble for their hacks. They haven't released any of the game's proprietary code, nor have they pirated any of its material. Technically, they're not doing anything wrong. Nintendo, like all the major console manufacturers, still designs its hardware to prevent these kinds of manipulations, however. Because hackers can't all be so noble-minded.
The two brothers, both recent computer science graduates, wouldn't tell me anything specific about how they hacked into the Wii U. But as Bean explained in an email this week, the console "is such a complicated system that there are bound to be hundreds of mistakes -- for example, things like spelling errors, coding errors, bad assumptions, etc." To exploit a system, one just has to "look for a mistake."
"Hacking basically involves finding as many mistakes as possible, and then trying to turn a mistake into a vulnerability," he wrote. Once you've exposed that, you can start to make the console work the way you want it to. And that's where the fun begins for modders like Bean and Chadderz. Getting there isn't easy, however.
"The Wii U was a bit of a fortress," Chadderz explained over Skype, comparing it to the original Wii. "Nintendo's really done a better job this time around." It took him and Bean a solid 12 days working together in the apartment they share just to get their foot in the door. And even then, they didn't make it as far as another group of hackers known as "fail0verflow" have.
"They broke all the way into the console," Chadderz said. "We stopped early. We could've gone on, but what's the point?" All they wanted to do was lift up the hood in certain games and fiddle around with what's inside to make it more fun. Anything else was unnecessary.
The brothers freely admit that what they're doing with the Wii U is "hacking." But as Bean explained to me, the two don't like to think of themselves as hackers. The term "has a lot of negativity associated with it, so we tend to go by 'modders' instead," he said. Hacking is something that they do in games, but it's not who they are. This is an important distinction for anyone with a reputation to maintain in the DIY gaming scene. And it's one that Bean and Chadderz have had to take ever more seriously as they have gone from aspiring teenage modders cracking into Mario Kart Wii to their current position as a highly visible duo who have accomplished something unprecedented in its successor.
They only hacked Mario Kart Wii six years ago, after all. They were teenagers at the time -- 15 and 18 years old, and still living at home with their parents. Bean told me that they weren't aware of any legitimate modding community when they began to mess with the Wii. But once they started to share the results online, they quickly realised they weren't alone. And, perhaps more importantly, they weren't the first.
Now that Bean and Chadderz have blazed their own trail, the two feel like they have a unique power to make or break the game for countless other players. This has lead them to reconsider the way that hacks played out on the original Wii. People got carried away with the sheer excitement of bending and even breaking Mario Kart Wii, and never stopped to think about what it meant for the overall state of the game. Once the floodgates were open, pirates and cheaters poured in en masse. This ruined any genuine spirit of competition, the brothers reasoned. It made playing online an unpredictable mess.
"We were the newbies at the time of the Wii," Chadderz recalled. "But when you look back on it, the game got pretty wrecked. Hacking became so thoroughly easy that it seemed like everybody started doing it. [Nintendo] didn't include proper protections, they didn't do x, y, or z to stop cheating."
"We don't want that to happen again," he concluded. But how would Nintendo prevent it? Neither of them really know. So for now, they have built up a fortress of their own for their custom version of Mario Kart 8. They have kept their hacking method a closely guarded secret, even from close friends and family.
As modders, Bean and Chadderz feel a certain obligation not to simply aid and abet hacking for hacking's sake. But there's a far more intimate concern at play for the two of them when it comes to their latest project as well. Mario Kart Wii wasn't just the first game they hacked, it was also one of the first things they bonded over together as siblings. Seeing how they now live together and work long into the night on their Wii U hacks, they clearly never looked back.
"It's drawn us very close together," Chadderz said.
Not only that, Bean, the older brother and the only actual gamer of the two, just really, really loves Mario Kart. He bought Mario Kart Wii on launch day, and he only decided to try to hack the game after he'd played it so much that he started to grow bored of only sticking to the boundaries that Nintendo set for him. He bought Mario Kart 8 on launch day, too. He admits he's not quite as crazy about the new game as he was for the Wii one. But that's also why he decided to hack it: because "it just didn't play as nicely as I would have liked it to." Even his identity as "MrBean35000vr" has its origins in Mario Kart. He came up with the online handle by combining the name of the popular British TV character played by Rowan Atkinson with one of the very first cheat codes he discovered in Mario Kart Wii. Cheating, he told me, is just another form of hacking.
He loves Mario Kart so much, in other words, that he wants to help make it better. Paradoxically, he also fears that if he lets other people gain access to his and his brother's adjustments and improvements, it will end up making Mario Kart 8 worse for everyone.
You can see this tension play out in the videos they have rolled out on a semi-regular basis. Bean broadcast the very first one live on his Twitch channel at the beginning of July. They'd barely discovered the exploit at that point, and only knew how to pull of a few small aesthetic flourishes. But it still made them incredibly giddy -- at least at first.
"I am now in complete control of this Wii U," Chadderz said at the beginning of the video. "All its secrets are mine." Then, a moment later, he shrieked: "I'M A GOD!!"
The two proceeded to tamper with Mario Kart 8 and the console's menu in small, prank-like ways. They made the music drop in and out of one of the game's early tracks. Giggling uncontrollably, they swapped out the names listed on some of the menu icons for particular tracks to say "Hello!" or "Shitty luck course!" instead of "Moo Moo Meadows."
By the end of the video, something had changed. They'd received a lot negative comments from viewers who were upset to see that someone was fucking with Mario Kart, in real time, and there was nothing they could do about it. At one point, Bean recalled, another Twitch streamer directed his viewers to the MrBean3500vr channel, "having told them: 'stop these people! They're hacking Mario Kart 8!" The brothers knew they needed to address the two elephants in the room: piracy and cheating.
"To reiterate once again, for all of the people who are upset by what we have shown here today," Chadderz said at the end of the video, sighing loudly. "We do not support piracy. We do not support cheating online. We -- "
Bean cut him off to joke about a text bubble that popped up over a Mii's head on the Wii U's menu. They'd just shown off their last trick for the day: turning the menu font into large, cursive letters.
"We are about game mods and game mods only," Chadderz continued, speaking slowly for added emphasis. "This exploit is in no state to be released, and we will not release it. And if and when we do release, we will not release it in a manner that will allow people to do cheating online, piracy, et cetera et cetera."
"That's not what we're about," he concluded. "We're about game modding. That's what we like doing; that's what we enjoy doing. And that's all we're going to do. So please don't worry; there's going to be no mega-hacks, no nonsense. Not from us, anyway."
The videos Bean and Chadderz have released since still convey their shared sense of childlike wonder. But the two have also become more guarded in certain ways. Rather than playing up their silly behaviour at all times, the two sometimes focus on providing information as a public service of sorts. The bizarre video showing Luigi launching into space, for instance, was actually meant in part as a warning to serious Time Trial racers because it showed how the new Mario Kart's ghost system put players at risk of importing corrupt data onto their personal console. The video released the next day, meanwhile, showed an unused track they'd discovered, sparking theories among fans about whether or not Nintendo had new tracks in the works that the company hadn't mentioned publicly yet.
Then again, that video didn't really show a full "level" as much as a formless void that Luigi smeared himself around with an especially unsettling death stare:
The next video they released after those two showed an anti-gravity hack they used to bounce Luigi up and down in a bright pink car. "Because why the hell not," Bean wrote in the description. Why not, indeed:
They still like to have fun too, it seems. They just want to make sure the fun comes across as harmlessly as possible.
Their videos are such a treat because they feel so novel, so experimental, in comparison to the tightly-framed way that Nintendo officially allows players to broadcast their work through the game's Mario Kart TV feature. But since the videos represent something unattainable to the average Mario Kart 8 player, they can also end up feeling like a huge tease.
Black-boxing their hacks has left Bean and Chadderz in something of a creative stalemate. Since they have never modded in pursuit of any direct financial gain (save YouTube revenue), their greatest reward is when they see that other gamers are having fun with their work. At one point when I was speaking to both of them on Skype this week, for instance, Bean glanced over at his computer and said that he could see there were twelve people playing their old Mario Kart Wii mod at that very moment.
"That's a really cool feeling," Bean said. The truest measure of any mod's success, in his view, is in moments like these. Or when he comes across a random live-stream or let's play video and recognises his work.
Unfortunately, they may never have a similar feeling with their newest mods. The brothers are still hacking Mario Kart 8, they assured me. And they're still making new mods to suit them. They're currently building their very own custom track for the game, modelled off one they made for Mario Kart Wii. The hacks don't even have to stop with Mario Kart, necessarily -- they told me their exploit gives them access to pretty much any Wii U game as long as it doesn't require a firmware update. But what they really want, more than anything, is to let people play with the mods on their own. And they don't know how to do that. So the best they can hope for is to show off footage of their own gameplay, and promise viewers that it's as fun as it looks.
The original Mario Kart Wii custom track that Bean and Chadderz are recreating in Mario Kart 8
"We're sitting on our exploit," Chadderz said. "It's a shame, really. We'd love to put it out there for people to use responsibly -- "
" -- but how?" Bean said, cutting his brother off. "If you share something at all, you share it with everybody!"
"The exploit will never leave this house," Chadderz added a moment later.
But that doesn't mean that they will never release their mods. Rather, Chadderz said they're waiting for someone else to make the first leap and put an exploit for the Wii U out in the open for all to see. Only then will they feel comfortable putting their work out into the wild again.
I understand the creative and ethical dilemma they're facing here. But, I asked, isn't sitting back and biding their time until someone else pulls the trigger just a way of passing the burden of potentially ruining -- or saving -- Mario Kart to some other team of hackers? If they do think another Mario Kart 8 hack is a real and potentially imminent possibility, why not get ahead of the competition and try to foster a more positive, altruistic community of gamers-turned-modders than the one they feel existed during the Wii generation?
"We could set about right now making that modding community," Chadderz acknowledged. But he also has his job as a university instructor to think about. Plus, "it's a huge responsibility," one that two guys in their early twenties don't want to carry on their own -- especially since far more experienced modders than themselves weren't able to figure out a solution the last time around.
"Hackers trying to stop other hackers...it doesn't work!" Bean said.
And if Nintendo has managed to protect its new console against any further exploits, maybe it won't have to. But there's no telling how many other gamers are out there, keeping their Wii U's offline and out-of-date the way that Bean and Chadderz realised they should.
For now, however, the secret is safe with them. For now.