Sega & Chill: Meet the modder who makes arcade classics easier—using his feet

Golden Axe was already an old game when I found it at the back of an arcade in the 1990s. The dusty cabinet only cost 20 cents per credit while shiny new games demanded a whole dollar. It was good value: only 20 cents to become a dwarf who could ride dragons or weird chicken-leg creatures, bash up tiny gnomes for their magic potions, and sometimes summon lightning from the sky.

Even at that price I could never finish it, and playing it years later on Steam as part of the Sega Mega Drive & Classics Collection it's obvious why. The boss fights are cheap, enemies burst out of doorways to hammer you on the head, the difficulty spikes are entirely random, and ledges are precarious. It has all the hallmarks of arcade games designed first and foremost to vacuum coins straight out of childrens' pockets with maximum efficiency. But thanks to a Steam Workshop modder, it no longer has to be that way.

Tucked away among the mods in the Steam Workshop, behind the ones that inserted Knuckles into the original Sonic the Hedgehog or played the weird noise Tim Allen makes whenever someone dies, I found the Chill Editions. These personalised tweaksets alter arcade classics, some of them adding infinite lives or unlimited time, level selection, or protection from death when you fall off the edge of the screen.

Games from Altered Beast to Vectorman 2 had been given the Chill Edition treatment. They took the rage out of Streets of Rage 2, and made even frantic games like Gunstar Heroes into relaxing experiences you can zone out to while listening to a podcast. At first I thought that was all there was to it, and then I looked into the identity of the blessed saint of a Steam user called xONLYUSEmeFEET responsible for these mods.

Turns out he's AJ Ryan, who has a condition called Arthrogryposis that restricts the use of his hands. Ryan steers his wheelchair, types, and plays games using his feet—hence the username. You can check him out on YouTube playing arcade games and playing them well, and he’s able to type at 50 words-per-minute and use a mouse with his feet as well. Though he can play with controllers the triggers can be hard to depress with his toes and he’s switched to PC gaming for his favorite first-person shooters. “I'm glad I did because I can hold my own against my friends now!” he says. But Ryan's keenly aware that not everybody is capable of doing what he can. 

Meet AJ Ryan

Ryan doesn't just mod games. He also designs and programs games and is an AbleGamers charity Fellow.

Ryan's website lists his game jam projects, where he focuses on inclusive design. His games are often designed to be colorblind-friendly and controlled with single-button inputs.

"Many Sega games are difficult to beat even for the most seasoned gamer and more people should be able to see these games through," Ryan says, explaining the impetus behind his project. "I began work on a few games before Workshop support released so I could have my mods on the store as soon as possible. I started making one of my favorite games, Streets of Rage 2, more accessible by adding in Infinite Lives and enabling additional features in the options menu. Upon completion of the mod, I decided I needed a name for my work. I didn’t want to call direct attention to the fact my audience was those with disabilities so I decided on the Chill Edition moniker as I believed these Chill Editions could be enjoyed by anyone."

He was right. There were 34,143 players subscribed to various Chill Editions, and most of them had no idea who is responsible for them or that their creator has an even nobler motivation than saving modern players from ragequitting. His most popular mod is for Comix Zone—an innovative but bastard-hard beat-em-up about an artist trapped in a comic who can traverse levels by ripping a path through the panel dividers—which had 2,677 subscribers. The Chill Edition of Comix Zone made enemies weaker, adds infinite energy, and when you use the ability to rip a chunk of paper off the page and make a plane out of it, you now get health back instead of losing some. Each Chill Edition's modifications were chosen to suit the difficulties of that particular game.

"The experience I wanted for each Chill Edition game was to allow the player to go through the game at their own pace without worrying about a game over," Ryan explains. "So infinite lives/health were always my top priority for each Chill Edition game as if I could do that, any player could eventually beat the game. I also tried to enable stage/level select for every game to allow players to start the game from any level of their choosing. From there, I added features specific to each game that had a minor impact on difficulty such as infinite shurikens in Shinobi III or infinite time in Sonic."

Ryan started modding seven years ago, creating Doom maps when he was in high school, but his first Chill Edition for Streets of Rage 2 presented a new kind of challenge. "I was not familiar with Hex Editing or the workflow I needed to create in order to make my mods," he says. "The biggest obstacle for me was figuring out I needed to modify Sega’s code protection in order to get any of the games to boot."

Though the process got easier once Ryan cleared that obstacle, his later work on the Sonic trilogy turned out to be "a nightmare" as he puts it. "All three games are structurally very different from each other so I was unable to get the same exact features across all of them which was always my goal for series of games." Sonic 3 & Knuckles was the Chill Edition fans requested most frequently and is currently the most popular one, but getting it to work took a lot of trial and error. "Additionally, getting complete hazard and drowning immunity in Sonic 3 & Knuckles to work without having the game lock out took forever to figure out."

A new obstacle stands in front of the Chill Editions right now, however. This week, dozens if not hundreds of mods have been pulled from the Mega Drive & Genesis Classics Collection, removing those that sneakily uploaded entire games as well as perfectly legit mods like Ryan’s. “Because of how many mods I uploaded I'm currently banned from the Workshop for 28 days!” he says. Since the mods were first taken down, four Chill Edition mods have been reinstated, but that still leaves many more unaccounted for.

Even mods created by Simon Thomley, aka Stealth, the modder hired by Sega to create Sonic Mania, have been caught in the mass ban. Ryan’s hoping to get his mods reinstated or hosted elsewhere, but at the moment they are frustratingly unavailable on Steam, and modders are struggling to get more than stock answers from Steam support.

Ryan plans to continue working on the Chill Editions in the future, bugfixing existing ones while deciding which game to Chill next. He's hesitant to double up on work being done by other modders—a lot of players request the JRPG Phantasy Star II, but there's already an Easy Mode out there for it. He's also considering modding other mods, like the original Japanese edition of Streets of Rage 3 which fans can now find under the name Bare Knuckle 3 Translated, although he wants to make sure the previous modders receive appropriate credit for their work. "I’m always looking for suggestions on Chill Edition mods so always feel free to let me know! I’ll make Chill Editions for as long as players ask me to."

The Chill Editions have proved worthwhile for both to disabled players who can now experience games that previously relied too much on fussy precision and tight reaction times, and anyone who never saw the end of Alien Soldier because it was just too hard. There are even commenters on Steam popping up to say how happy they are to be able to play games games they remember from their youth like Golden Axe alongside their own children, no matter what age they are.

Sometimes players are critical of the Chill Editions for being too easy, but that's the point of them. Arcade classics in particular weren't designed with accessibility in mind, and that's a shame. Video games—all of them, including these historical artifacts of the coin-operated days—should be for everyone.

Jody Macgregor
Weekend/AU Editor

Jody's first computer was a Commodore 64, so he remembers having to use a code wheel to play Pool of Radiance. A former music journalist who interviewed everyone from Giorgio Moroder to Trent Reznor, Jody also co-hosted Australia's first radio show about videogames, Zed Games. He's written for Rock Paper Shotgun, The Big Issue, GamesRadar, Zam, Glixel, Five Out of Ten Magazine, and, whose cheques with the bunny logo made for fun conversations at the bank. Jody's first article for PC Gamer was about the audio of Alien Isolation, published in 2015, and since then he's written about why Silent Hill belongs on PC, why Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale is the best fantasy shopkeeper tycoon game, and how weird Lost Ark can get. Jody edited PC Gamer Indie from 2017 to 2018, and he eventually lived up to his promise to play every Warhammer videogame.