Emulators for art and performance (2016 - 2022)

A history of experiments made with classic game emulators, starting in 2016.

One of these experiments - where every time Sonic gets a ring it switches game - went a little bit viral on Twitter and is now publicly available. To play with this, follow this link.

Download the emulators from here

2016 - first experiments

The original emulator was developed in 2016 as a mod of GenesisPlus, running in OpenEmu for MacOS. It allowed game memory to be altered when in-game actions were detected. For example, if Sonic collected a ring it might increase his speed or write random data into memory.

The emulator could also respond to inputs sent over a network, microphone input and barcode scanners.

At this point in the process I wasn't sure what to do with it. It was used as one of the games in an early version of The Incredible Playable Show, but was taken out so that

An attempt to complete the entirety of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 - where every time Sonic collects a ring it scrambles the level layout - was filmed in early 2017.

Complete playlist of playthrough attempt with friends

I wrote up the process of creating it and what I found on my blog.

Extended Write-up

2018 - The Scrambled Eggman Show

Having sat on the emulator for a couple of years, and not being sure what it was for, I was invited to put together a live show for the PLAY18 Festival in Hamburg, Germany. I decided that the emulator could be a great starting point for a new interactive stage show.

The show included four hacks: (1) getting a ring speeds Sonic up, (2) Sonic only jumps when the audience shouts, (3) getting a ring writes random data into your opponent's level, and (4) a team of 4 shared a controller with randomly-assigned buttons.

On a technical level, the emulator could now run as two separate instances running side-by-side on the same desktop. The two instances can identify their own controllers, and send messages between each other. An external UI wraps around the screen and shows live data about the players' progress. The host can control the UI and switch between the different game hacks from a separate tablet UI.

A full write-up of the show is on my blog.

Extended Write-up

I also dipped my toe into using these challenges as video content, by attempting to complete Sonic the Hedgehog where every time he collects a ring he gets faster

2019 - Journey to Lavender Town

I'd been playing around with similar features in a GameBoy emulator, Gambatte, also running in OpenEmu on MacOS.

I really liked how the original Pokémon games seemed very resilient to data corruption. I also liked how the different creatures' data acted as a kind of digital DNA.

I created a piece of video art, playing through the game until I reached Lavender Town, the in-game site of the Pokémon graveyard. As I played, the corruption caused even simple actions in the game to become increasingly slow and tedious, which made me think of entropy and the heat death of the universe. Because of this, I filmed the playthrough in the style of a Vanitas still-life.

A full write-up of the video is on my blog.

Extended Write-up

2020 - Alistair's Magic Box

One of the features that came up in the earlier experimentation was a hack for Sonic games where every ring collected switched him to another game. A clip of this became popular on Twitter and prompted me to turn this into a publicly-available build.

The Magic Box can be downloaded from here

2021 - Further development of the Magic Box

Networking features were added into the Magic Box. It was also modified so that viewers on Twitch could change what hacks were active, trigger events (e.g. switching game) and arbitrarily edit memory by typing into Twitch Chat.

I also developed a version of the BizHawk emulator which switched between games on multiple platforms. This can be triggered when Sonic collects a ring, Mario gets a coin, 4 Puyo are matched, or by events in many other games.


I did a lot of livestreams playing around with these tools. I was particularly interested in how they changed the experience on a mental and sensory level, and what they revealed about the differences between each game.

Playing Mega Drive games while Twitch Chat hacks them

Playing Master System games while Twitch Chat hacks them

Pokémon Red controlled by rings in Sonic 2

Pokémon Red controlled by rings in Sonic & Knuckles

Every time Sonic collects a ring a colour is removed from the universe (livestream, various games)

Four Puyo Puyo games in which every time four Puyo are matched it switches game

Completing the Sonic Advance games where every ring switches the game Part 1 - Part 2

Sonic the Hedgehog, where his speed is dictated by wet paint

Every time Sonic collects a ring it switches game, playing 16 games to completion Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6

Completing Sonic the Hedgehog 2, where every time Sonic collects a ring, random data is written into the level

BFI Southbank

I was also invited to perform at the This Kind of Thing event at the BFI Southbank where I showed off the magic box as an installation, and performed a 45-minute interactive show. The show mixed an explanation of how RAM works with playable challenges for the audience. These included getting the audience to hack the RAM while another audience tried to beat a level live.