RSS

Rochester Ho!

No new article this week, I’m afraid. I’ve been planning for some time to take a bye week in January, but had thought it would be next week rather than this one. The next article will, however, be a bit of a technical one, and it seemed wise to give it a round or two of peer reviewing before I published. So, that one will be coming out next Friday instead of this one.

But I should tell you why I planned a by week in the first place because it’s quite exciting (for me, anyway). I’ll be spending next week at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. They’ve assembled an impressive archive of internal papers and other documents there from quite a number of prominent players in the games industry of the 1980s and 1990s: SSI, Sierra, Brøderbund, just to name a few that most interest me. If all goes as I expect, what I collect next week will inform my writings here for months or even years to come. A trip like this wouldn’t be practical without your support through Patreon and PayPal, so thanks so much for that!

Be seeing you!

 

A Pirate’s Life for Me, Part 2: The Scene

Fair warning: This article contains a couple of images that qualify as Not Safe For Work. Scroll further with caution!

Disks

The scene, the underground, whatever name you attach to it, there will never be anything like it again. There was a certain degree of innocence about it all, even though the activities were largely illegal. No one really understood that because most of us were still living at home trying to get through primary school! We had no larger world view to place the activities in context, no moral compass to tell us it was wrong. It was just fun, and that’s all we cared about!

— A scener named “Fantasy”

There is no historical instant to label as the beginning of the so-called “scene,” the loose international association of hackers, crackers, phreakers, and traders who dedicated themselves to making every computer game available for free within hours of its release, regardless of where in the world that initial release took place. The scene’s story rather begins with thousands of individual stories taking place in thousands of places, in the playgrounds and computer stores and bedrooms where young people first began to casually trade their latest software purchases among themselves. Someone who had a friend in the next town over, where the pool of games being passed around might be very different, could become a big fish in his own small pond by visiting said friend for a little inter-city trading. Gradually a larger distribution network was formed that offered immense rewards in status for the best-connected traders. It didn’t take long for some of these teenage kingpins to start editing their initials into the games, just so everyone at their school would be sure to know from whose largess they were benefiting. And so it began, driven, as it always would be, by the eternal adolescent need for acceptance and validation as much as it was by the very new technologies of home computers and the games they played.

If we insist on identifying a more concrete point of origin for the scene, we could do worse than the birth of Eagle Soft Incorporated, the oldest of the big cracking groups whose bewildering, ever-changing allegiances and wars would come to dominate life in the scene. In 1982, three Canadians named Dan, Jason, and Jim decided to band together under the Eagle Soft banner, chosen from a literal banner of an eagle that Dan happened to have hanging above his bed. With copy protection now becoming more common on games and other software, Jim, a citizen of Singapore studying in Canada, became one of the the world’s first recognized crackers through his work de-protecting early Commodore 64 games. Then another, even better cracker from the United States named Mitch joined the group. In a matter of months he took it over, as the original Canadian trio all lost interest and got on with their lives in one way or another. Unlike Mitch, who remained an almost unique exception by simply going by his first name, the new members he recruited all adopted online handles, the perfect complement to a social milieu that would come to represent for its participants an alternate, fantastic existence divorced from all the trials and tribulations of high school.

Eagle Soft

Eagle Soft dominated the Commodore 64 cracking scene in North America throughout the 64’s glory years there, thanks not only to their technical chops but also to a network of contacts inside magazines and stores that often resulted in an Eagle Soft crack of a game hitting the scene before an honest buyer could walk into a store and purchase it. The earliest Eagle Soft cracks went entirely unclaimed. Later the group started to edit in their initials (“ESI”) wherever they could find a place — for instance, as a replacement for the usual “loading…” message. Soon, however, the Eagle Soft eagle, one of the most iconic images of the cracking scene as a whole, made its first appearance. It became the centerpiece of the custom-programmed introductions that Eagle Soft took to including in the games they cracked. Such “cracktros” were soon a staple of the emerging scene, a place for the various groups to brag about their accomplishments, greet their friends and flame their enemies, and, teenage boys being teenage boys, quote their favorite rock lyrics (Eagle Soft always had a particular obsession with Rush).

Pirated games cracked by North American groups like Eagle Soft were first released almost exclusively via modem, through a fast-growing underground network of BBS systems. Telecommunications in those days was almost unbelievably primitive. Almost all of the boards were single-user systems, a single Commodore 64 or similar computer attached to a single phone line. Because only one person could be online uploading or downloading at any one time, the boards’ time was precious. A scener was expected to justify his use of a system’s time by uploading new “warez” as well as downloading; many boards had a credit system that might award two “download credits” for every block uploaded. Like everything else about the scene, the boards themselves were ranked according to a hierarchy running from “lame” to “eleet”; the better the board’s ranking, the more connected were its users and the more recent the games hosted there. Games trickled down through the hierarchy, from the “0-dayz” boards to the “3-dayz” to the “5-dayz” to all the others, to be eventually traded in gymnasiums and lunch rooms via the sneaker net by those kids so lame they didn’t even own modems. Primitive though it was, the system was surprisingly efficient. A hot new game could easily be available nationwide on the most eleet boards within 24 hours of its arrival on store shelves — if not before it was actually released, thanks to the scene’s contacts inside publishers and magazines. Within a week or two after that one could expect to find it on even the lamest boards.

In those days, there were few affordable legal ways to call between telephone area codes without incurring minute-by-minute long-distance charges, an expense very few parents of teenagers were willing to tolerate. Thus the grease that lubricated the distribution of pirated games was “phreaking,” the illegal practice of making long-distance calls for free. The PC industry had always had connections to this shady art; Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs famously first bonded over a “blue box” used to generate the whistling tones that could be used to fool the analog phone systems of the early 1970s, and one of the first pieces of third-party hardware made available for the original Apple II was a similar device. In the 1980s, the scene made phreaking more popular than ever. By now the old analog switches that were vulnerable to blue boxes were on their way out, but the new phenomenon of long-distance calling cards was on the way in. These allowed customers to take their long-distance services with them when they traveled; they needed only dial a local access number, then input the code on their card followed by the long-distance number they were actually wanting to call. In the beginning, many of the calling-card codes consisted of only five digits, meaning that for a company with just 5000 calling-card customers fully one possibility in twenty would be a valid number. Sceners developed programs to brute-force the numbers; these could be set up overnight to try combination after combination until a valid one turned up. Once they were found, the phreaker could either reserve the codes for his own use or trade them on the boards for download credits or other considerations. Most would last a few weeks, until the victim got her first bill for hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Because they were so essential to the workings of the scene, long-distance codes (“codez”) and other means of phreaking were if anything even more sought-after than the games themselves, the fastest way for a new arrival to earn cred and rise through the class hierarchy. Unfortunately, phreaking was also by far the most common if not the only way for a scener to get himself into real legal trouble. The last legal questions surrounding the copyright eligibility of software had been settled by the time the scene came into its own, but enforcement still remained at best problematic. Very few district attorneys saw much profit in hauling teenagers into criminal court for trading computer games, and the game publishers themselves, players in a niche industry as they were, had neither the clout to influence the district attorneys nor the financial wherewithal to pursue civil cases. The case of the big phone companies, however, was another matter entirely. The few police investigations and prosecutions that resulted from the American scene’s activities virtually all revolved not around the software piracy that was the perpetrators’ real raison d’être, but rather around the offense of phone phreaking, or even more dangerous practices like credit-card fraud; desperate for more and better hardware to improve their boards and thus improve their standing, some sceners took to using stolen credit-card numbers to order equipment to convenient nearby vacant houses.

That said, even police involvement of this stripe was uncommon, and often exaggerated within the scene itself. Sceners, being almost universally at that rebel-without-a-cause phase of life, relished the idea of being daring outlaws out of all proportion to the reality of the risk. While the so-called “leet speek” that already characterized the scene by the mid-1980s — replacing “software” with “warez,” “hacker” with “haxxor,” “elite” with “eleet” — was allegedly developed to circumvent electronic law-enforcement filters that might be tracking their activities, one senses that such constructions were more important as typical adolescent markers of inclusion and exclusion.

In 1985 or so a new species of game began to trickle into the American Commodore 64 scene. These new arrivals went unmentioned in the magazines’ review sections and were never spotted on store shelves. And they had a different feel about them as well. Typical American commercial software at the time tended to be fairly high-concept stuff, with lots of earnest simulations, strategy games, and adventure games. The new games, though, unabashedly emphasized fast action and fast graphics over depth. Many already came equipped with cracktros of their own, but these also were different in character from the norm, with audiovisual production values that often smoked even those of the impressive action games to which they were attached. And, while the boasting, greeting, and warring being done by the groups behind these new cracktros wasn’t all that different from what American sceners were used to, it was all being carried on by groups no one had ever heard of before, and often in distinctly broken English that was apt to suddenly lapse into spasms of incomprehensible German or Dutch. The American scene had finally met the European.

A typical Commodore 64 cracktro. Something tells me most sceners greeted this game with particular interest...

A typical Commodore 64 cracktro. Something tells me most sceners greeted this game with particular interest…

The fast-action sensibilities of these new games were right in line with the American scene’s own, ironically much more so than the games commonly made in their own country. They quickly became great favorites, among the most sought-after warez of all. Certain groups became import/export specialists, establishing trading alliances with the groups across the pond. Particularly in the beginning, their trading was often done via the mail. Later, sceners began to practice the risky art of international phreaking. Europeans learned that they could make good use of the calling cards issued by American phone companies to their customers traveling abroad; there followed a booming codez-for-warez trade between the United States and Europe.

The European versions of machines like the Commodore 64 and Amiga were slightly different than the American, with their video signal and internal timings made to conform to the European PAL television standard rather than the American NTSC. This was enough to break certain games that really pushed the hardware, or to make them flicker or run slightly too quickly or too slowly. Some sceners therefore became specialists in PAL or NTSC “fixing,” the art of adapting games to run correctly under the alternate standard. This was far from trivial work — a marker of the fact that, much as the scene may look at times like little more than boys acting out, the best of those boys had real technical chops.

If it’s surprising that the two scenes should have developed so similarly in what was initially all but complete isolation from one another, well, one can only presume that nerdy yet rebellious teenagers really don’t vary all that fundamentally from country to country. More surprising is that the scene took root so strongly in Europe in the face of barriers that must have seemed almost unbelievably confounding to their American counterparts. One was the simple barrier of language. Very few European sceners had English as their native language; computer-mad Britain was, somewhat oddly, never all that huge in the scene, which was biggest in West Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. Yet they adopted English, the language they all learned to at least some extent in school and also that of most of the pop culture they consumed, as their lingua franca. The European scene’s diction is indescribable but immediately identifiable to anyone who’s spent any time around it, a mixture of stiff, grammatically suspect schoolboy constructions, leet speek, and phrases copied and pasted out of movies and music, with a heaping dose of profanity layered on top to make it all go down easy.

Another barrier facing European sceners was the cost of telecommunications. European telephone systems, unlike their American counterparts, generally still charged even local calls by the minute in the scene’s formative years, and prior to the influx of all those American codez there were few ways to safely phreak one’s way around this situation. Thus trading by post rather than BBS dominated in Europe for some years. Just as American sceners happily cheated the phone companies, European sceners did the same to the postal systems. Stamps were covered with a thin layer of glue or hairspray, which could be peeled away when packages arrived at their destination, taking with it the postal service’s mark showing the stamps had been used. Another possibility was to attend one of the “copyparties” that started sprouting up in Europe by about 1986. At most of them, you needed only turn up, equipped with a computer, dozens of blank disks, and dozens of games of your own for trading, to get in one the action.

An issue of Illegal, one of the scene's newsletters.

An issue of Illegal, one of the scene’s newsletters.

The specter of law enforcement, usually more a theoretical than an actual threat in North America, was a more serious concern in Europe. Plenty of mail swappers had uncomfortable run-ins with the local postal authorities that resulted in hefty fines and very unhappy parents, and in more extreme cases jail terms for international smuggling and/or mail fraud. One French scener by the name of Maximillian, a major trader in the codez used for international phreaking, was tracked down by Interpol and sentenced to several years in prison. The European police also generally took the crime of software piracy more seriously than their American counterparts. The West German and Norwegian police went so far as to institute special task forces to concentrate on the software-piracy problem, although games were seldom if ever their main focus. Still, for sceners in those countries and others the proverbial policeman’s knock on the front door, while not exactly commonplace, was hardly entirely unknown either. The police would arrive armed with search warrants and the full force of the law to ransack the scener’s bedroom while shocked parents looked on in horror.

As if the legitimate authorities weren’t scary enough, then as now the copyright wars attracted a fair number of shady dealers on the side of ostensible law and order. One German lawyer, Günther Freiherr von Gravenreuth, made the war against software piracy a dodgy sort of personal crusade, going so far as to send entrapping letters to suspected sceners in the persona of “Tanja,” a 16-year-old girl looking for new games; whatever else you can say about him, Gravenreuth certainly did know how to capture a teenage boy’s interest. If they replied, the targets could expect to be threatened with a lawsuit, along with a helpful settlement offer for many thousands of marks. (Gravenreuth was himself found in 2004 to be one of the masterminds of an international for-profit software piracy ring that dwarfed in scale and sophistication anything the scene could have imagined.)

Despite all these pressures, the scene not only survived in Europe but thrived, and for far longer than its American equivalent. Much of the reason for the European scene’s comparative longevity had to do with the rise and fall of the computing platforms that both American and European sceners favored. While virtually all viable platforms had their share of cracking groups, the core of the scene always identified most closely with Commodore’s machines, first the 64 and later the Amiga. When the former began to slowly fade and the latter to rise in the late 1980s, European sceners made a natural, gradual migration. Because the Amiga never quite took off in North America as it did in Europe, however, the American scene largely faded away with the 64. Between 1988 and 1990, most of the prominent American groups and crackers disbanded or retired, leaving the scene as a whole a largely European phenomenon, where it would continue to grow for another half-decade. Indeed, it still survives, in a shrunken and more subdued form with little continuing interest in software piracy, right to the present day. So dominant did its identity as a European phenomenon become that today the very fact that a scene ever existed at all in North America is all but forgotten by many.

But how did one get involved in the scene in the first place? In the hope that one individual’s story might take the place of a lot of dull generalities, let me tell you how it happened for “Weasel,” a German scener.

Our hero’s first computer, bought for him by his parents in 1985, was a Commodore 128 that he used in 64 mode all the time because the 128 didn’t have much in the way of games. He started out trading only with his schoolyard chums. But as his mania for collecting grew, his network of contacts grew to match: “People were coming to me now to get the latest games. I had them all!”

He found fascinating the cracktros that came attached to many of the games he was now trading, created by groups with names like the Dynamic Duo, 1001 Crew, Triad, German Cracking Service, and Federation Against Copyright. As the cracktros grew more elaborate almost by the month, he found himself spending more time admiring them and reading their “scrolltexts” than he did playing the games. “One day I want to be one of those guys as well,” he thought, “being part of a group and doing lots of cracks for all the people inside and outside of that so-called ‘scene.'” With that goal in mind, he started learning to program, first in BASIC, then in machine language, following a course in one of the magazines. He used his new knowledge to tinker with the cracktros and the games themselves, changing this and that to see what would happen. And, because every aspiring scener needed a handle, he started to call himself “Wiesel,” from a car advertisement he had stuck to his bedroom door: “Schneller als ein Wiesel!”

One day he took his skateboard to a popular local hill, at the top of which he noticed a rather incongruous stack of floppy disks amid the jumble of backpacks and bags left lying around by the boarders. When he saw the owner of the disks pick them up, he screwed up his courage to walk over and start a conversation. The owner was a fellow who called himself Havok, a music specialist with a cracking group called Frontline. Havok invited him to the next Frontline meeting, to take place in a Burger King in just a few days. Wiesel accepted in a daze, feeling “I must be dreaming.”

At the meeting, he was given an original of a game called Ikari Warriors, whose copy protection was known to be fairly strenuous. His assignment was to crack the game and bring it to the next weekly meeting, thereby to prove himself worthy — or unworthy — of membership.

So I went home and inserted the disk into my computer to have a look at the game. What I first saw looked like a never-be-able-to-crack-that game. So I almost gave up at the beginning, when I noticed the game loading with a track-sector fastloader. I had never seen anything like that before. But I never stopped thinking about a way to get into that damn program. I recalled everything I had already learned about machine language, and tried to find out as much as I could about the loading routine, the protection, the game itself, and how it worked. Finally I found a way to access the game, and after a while I had a working memory backup saved on my disk.

When Wiesel proudly returned to Frontline with crack in hand, they pronounced his work good enough and offered him official membership. There was only one condition: he needed to change his handle from the German “Wiesel” to the English “Weasel,” to “give it an international touch.” Thanks to his boldness, initiative, and technical chops, he was a real participant in the scene at last. He spent the remainder of his teenage years bouncing from group to group — Frontline, Matrix, Crazy, Crest, Enigma, Red Sector, Legend, Avantgarde, Fantastic Four Cracking Group — in the extended soap opera of shifting allegiances and relationships that was the life of a prominent scener. As with so much in life, the hardest part had proved to be just getting through the door.

Cracktros and demos often repurposed — read, stole — graphics and sound from games. The love scene from Defender of the Crown was a great favorite, for obvious reasons.

And once through the door, what was life like then as a real scener? Well, the scene was first and foremost a rough place, dominated as it was by teenage boys with angsty streaks a mile wide. Prominent sceners could be as young as age 13, and most tended to scale back their involvement or drop out entirely before entering their twenties, as jobs and university and girlfriends proved harder and harder to forgo for the all-consuming obligations of being a big wheel in the scene. Sceners mention in interviews already feeling “old” and out of step with the Lord of the Flies politics of the scene as young as age 17.

There were some exceptions to the demographic rule. Eagle Soft, for example, numbered two actual girls within their ranks (Ladyhawk and Scorpio), who served as their artists, drawing their famous eagle among other pictures. Perhaps the most amusing exception of all is that of Derbyshire Ram, an English country gentleman who retired in his fifties, took up the Commodore 64 as a hobby, and became a major trader and member of several big groups. While Derbyshire Ram was by all reports a gentle soul and an all-around good egg, others among the sprinkling of adults who chose to spend so much time hanging out with all these teenage boys may have had more disturbing motivations; one, known as Music Man, was reportedly jailed for child molestation.

But, exceptions aside, we can guess that at least 90 percent of active sceners during the 1980s were boys between the ages of 13 and 19. The reality that the members of this international criminal conspiracy almost all had parents hectoring them to do their homework and spend more time away from their computer could lead to some hilarious juxtapositions. Mitch of Eagle Soft, for instance, who was for years the most respected cracker in North America, worshiped by legions of disciples within the scene, tells of hiding in bed under the covers with his brother and a portable Commodore 64 playing Maniac Mansion into the night. Really, how many international criminal masterminds have a bed time?

It seems safe to say that many of these kids were the sort who don’t have the easiest time of it in high school. Sadly, instead of creating a gentler teenage society, most embraced the “shit roles downhill” theory of social policy with relish, choosing victims below them in the scene’s pecking order to harass mercilessly. Most of their flames and diatribes will sound very familiar to anyone who’s ever been unwise enough to read YouTube comments. We’ve already encountered one or two of the scene’s cruder productions in passing in earlier articles, like the text adventure Mad Party Fucker, with its tagline “The object of this game is to fuck as many women as you can without getting bufu’ed by fags (contracting AIDS).” Tolerance wasn’t any higher than grammar on the scene’s list of virtues.

Things could get particularly vicious when one of the periodic “warz” broke out between rival groups. If the groups were of sufficient stature, the conflict could quickly become a global one, with every other group force to align themselves with one side or the other. The largest, most sustained, and most brutal of all the wars was probably the one sparked off in 1987 between Eagle Soft and their only real rival for dominance of the North American scene, a group called Untouchable Cracking Force. Again, some of the techniques used by the combatants will ring sadly familiar to anyone aware of some of the Internet harassment that goes on today. Sceners set up war dialers to call their enemies’ homes, endlessly, with a screeching modem on the other end for anyone who picked up; taped their enemies’ conversations, then sent out edited snippets to place them in a bad light (anything that could somehow be construed to imply that they were gay was particular gold); ordered massive quantities of pizza to their houses; sent them mail-order packages full of useless computer equipment, ordered cash-on-delivery.

Scene from a "war" between Eagle Soft and a rival group. Make no mistake: the scene could be an ugly, ugly place.

A scene from a war between Eagle Soft and Untouchable Cracking Force. Believe it or not, this is actually one of the less offensive images of its type.

A journalist who infiltrated the scene and published a newspaper article about the goings-on — one of its few appearances in the overground media — allegedly suffered even worse indignities at their hands. According to By-Tor, a former member of Eagle Soft:

I remember it caused GREAT disruption in the scene and many major groups got together and we harassed him for 2 weeks straight, (I wish I would remember the groups names involved) his credit cards were given out, were charged up for computer equipment that went to a lot of people in the scene. His MCI cards were phreaked and loaded up with charges. He had to change his phone number 3 times during this time and cancel credit cards as there were people in groups that were great hackers and had inside info to finding out his new phone numbers and credit card numbers. Taught him a lesson he never forgot, that he was forced to write a 2nd story apologizing to all of us for lying to us and writing his story explaining the workings of the ELITE SCENE. We put him through HELL. :)

This doesn’t truly convey in written words what truly went on but that is the main story. It was GREAT!

The worst transgression, considered beyond the pale by even most warring sceners but occasionally practiced nevertheless, was to make an anonymous call to the police (the “pigs”) to out a fellow scener as a phreaker and/or pirate. There were also scattered reports of physical confrontations, particularly at the copyparties in Europe, involving fists, baseball bats, pepper spray, or in one alarming case an allegedly live hand grenade.

Lest we judge all of this too harshly, we should remember that, driven by hormones, frustrations, and most of all peer pressure, almost all of us did and said things as adolescents that we aren’t particularly proud of. Betwixt and between the orgasms of ugliness real friendships were formed. The old sceners have for the most part long since gone on to productive lives and careers, often using the skills they learned cracking games and writing cracktros in those formative years. With the exception of only a few like our friend By-Tor who still remembers the scene’s worst antics as so “great,” most remember the scene fondly when thinking back, but naturally prefer to focus on its more positive aspects if they haven’t managed to forget the worst ugliness entirely. The collision between nostalgia and reality can be a little off-putting when they are, say, confronted with an actual newsletter to which they contributed, as happened with the fellow who once went by the handle of “Punk Executioner.”

The thing that struck me when re-reading this 20 year old text was the level of aggression and gorilla chest thumping. Clearly I owe a lot of apologies. This was more apparent after I penetrated deep into my garage and dug out the old C64. Re-reading some of the scroll texts and Reason 4 Treason articles made me cringe. It appears I took aim at any dork, nerd, drop-out, non-music listener, anti-graffiti, pro-establishment, unfashionable person out there. I’m not sure why, perhaps it was because I occasionally copped a bit of flak myself for being a ‘computer head’ at school. Being a Dungeons & Dragons geek and using a brief-case as a school bag didn’t do me any favours either.

The scene’s saving grace, assuming we’re willing to grant it one, must be that its was an ethos not just of nihilism but also, almost paradoxically, of creation and even artistic excellence. Cracking games wasn’t easy, particularly as time went on and the publishers’ protection schemes grew more and more sophisticated. The best crackers brought a real flair to the job, not just finding a way to copy the disk but also adding cheat modes, conveniences, and new features. See for instance the crack by a group called Nostalgia of Access Software’s Leader Board golf simulation, which combined the core game with the course add-on pack and a simple menu to switch between them, simplifying a rather laborious process of rebooting and switching disks that annoyed many a legitimate purchaser.

And, increasingly over time, cracking was just one of the things that sceners did, and eventually not even the most important. In addition to horrid pornographic text adventures like Mad Party Fucker, sceners produced newsletters on paper and disks, in the case of the latter often with astonishingly good production values if not prose; home-grown utilities to produce graphics and, especially, music (the best of the scene’s so-called “sound trackers” on the Amiga were as good as any commercial music package); reams of art and countless hours of music, some of which wouldn’t sound particularly out of place on a modern dance floor, created with the aid of said utilities; and of course cracktros, which by the end of the 1980s had begun to morph into standalone demos, little showcases of multimedia art of sometimes stunning sophistication and ambition. In an odd but satisfying turnaround, software piracy became the afterthought of a vibrant and creative, if still very much underground, association of digital artists. Latter-day Amiga crackers even took to adding messages to their scrolltexts saying, hey, if you like this game you really ought to buy it — perhaps because by this point many current and former sceners were working in the games industry, snapped up for their audiovisual-programming chops by the very publishers who had once tried so hard to stamp them out. As copyparties turned into “demoparties” and the cracking scene turned into the “demoscene” in Europe in the early 1990s, it also became, relatively speaking, a gentler place, with an idealistic artistic ethos all its own. We’ll drop in on the scene again in a future article, to give you a chance to appreciate with me that unique community and some of its creations and to marvel with me how far it came in such a short time.

To be sure, the crackers and pirates who came before the demo coders were a less idealistic lot, motivated as they were by their teenage lusts for acceptance and for free games, but all their feverish cracking and trading all those years ago has had one supreme benefit. In cracking the games, they made it possible to archive and preserve them, something the companies that published them never spared a moment’s thought for. The sceners didn’t either, of course; they were hardly working for posterity when spreading their “0-day warez” around the world. Nevertheless, I’m hugely in their debt, as is everyone who cares about the history of gaming. The vast majority of the games you’ll find on the various disk-image archives today are the cracked versions, complete with their cracktros chronicling all the most recent wars and alliances, an ephemeral tempest in a teapot preserved forever. That, too, is another marker of our new digital way of living, toward which the scene, the first international digital subculture, pointed the way.

Next time we’ll wrap up this little series with a practical look at the mechanisms of copy protection itself: how it worked and how the scene’s crackers learned to defeat it.

(Sceners have done a very good job of archiving most of the artifacts of the 1980s and 1990s, although most of their own attempts at writing about their history quickly devolve into breathless but bewildering accounts of scene politics — “And then this group was formed, and went to war with this group, but this other group switched sides…,” etc. There’s a lot of that in Freax by Tamás Polgár, the only book I know of about the scene, but it’s nevertheless an essential resource for anyone hoping to really understand it. Otherwise this article is largely drawn from online scene sites. See Scenery, Heikki Orsila’s archive of scener interviews, Hall of Fame, the Illegal newsletter archives, and Recollection. Also see the chapter “The Scene” in my own The Future Was Here.)

 
 

Tags: ,

A Pirate’s Life for Me, Part 1: Don’t Copy That Floppy!

Piracy

February 3, 1976

An Open Letter to Hobbyists

To me, the most critical thing in the hobby market right now is the lack of good software courses, books, and software itself. Without good software and an owner who understands programming, a hobby computer is wasted. Will quality software be written for the hobby market?

Almost a year ago, Paul Allen and myself, expecting the hobby market to expand, hired Monte Davidoff and developed Altair BASIC. Though the initial work took only two months, the three of us have spent most of the last year documenting, improving, and adding features to BASIC. Now we have 4 K, 8 K, Extended, ROM, and Disk BASIC. The value of the computer time we have used exceeds $40,000.

The feedback we have gotten from the hundreds of people who say they are using BASIC has all been positive. Two surprising things are apparent, however: 1) most of these “users” never bought BASIC (less than 10 percent of all Altair owners have bought BASIC), and 2) the amount of royalties we have received from sales to hobbyists makes the time spent on Altair BASIC worth less than $2 per hour.

Why is this? As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on it get paid?

Is this fair? One thing you don’t do by stealing software is get back at MITS for some problem you may have had. MITS doesn’t make money selling software. The royalty paid to us, the manual, the tape, and the overhead make it a break-even operation. One thing you do do is prevent good software from being written. Who can afford to do professional work for nothing? What hobbyist can put three man-years into programming, finding all the bugs, documenting his product, and distribute for free? The fact is, no one besides us has invested a lot of money in hobbyist software. We have written 6800 BASIC, and are writing 8080 APL and 6800 APL, but there is very little incentive to make this software available to hobbyists. Most directly, the thing you do is theft.

What about the guys who resell Altair BASIC, aren’t they making money on hobbyist software? Yes, but those who have been reported to us may lose in the end. They are the ones who give hobbyists a bad name, and should be kicked out of any club meeting they show up at.

I would appreciate letters from anyone who wants to pay up, or has a suggestion or comment. Just write me. Nothing would please me more than being able to hire ten programmers and deluge the hobby market with good software.

Bill Gates
General Partner, Micro-Soft

The “open letter” above, written by a 20-year-old Bill Gates, was printed in early 1976 in a number of the publications that served the nascent PC industry, centered at the time on the MITS Altair kit computer. Some of the soldering-iron-wielding visionaries who read it were enraged, a few supportive. Most, however, were merely confused. Sharing, of software the same as all other sorts of information, was simply what they did, the rock upon which their little hacker community was founded. For many the letter marked the first time they had ever confronted the notion of a program being owned by a single entity.

The PC industry was barely a year old, but already its age of innocence was passing. Bill Gates, the man who brought knowledge of the good and evil of copyright to this hacking Eden, was, plenty would soon be arguing, perfectly suited to play the role of the serpent. The change in thinking he set in motion with this open letter of his would soon prove more significant than even his own company’s outsized influence on the industry. From 1976 right up to the present day — and doubtless for many years to come — the PC industry and all of its many offshoots have been tying themselves into knots over the question of copyright, of where the ethical and legal rights of digital-content creators and users begin and end.

Both sides of the debate as it rages today could stand to glance back at copyright as it was once understood. Those who claim that modern copyright law merely applies an eternal principle to a new medium should note that, on the contrary, our notions of copyright have changed in some very fundamental ways in recent decades. And those who see laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act as well-nigh fascistic overreaching might do well to remember that even in the pre-DMCA days one could be prosecuted for merely photocopying the pages of a book. At the first conference on “software protection” in Britain in 1981, the first speaker opened with an old joke about an Englishman who asks an Irishman how to get to County Derry. “If I wanted to get to County Derry,” replies the Irishman, “I wouldn’t start from here.” The decades after Bill Gates fired the opening salvo of the digital-copyright wars would be marked by the law’s struggle to get to there from here — from the analog, materialist culture of creation that was to the digital, virtual culture that must now be.

When thinking about any big, overarching concept like that of copyright, it’s often helpful to return to first principles, to think about what the words or phrases themselves literally mean. In those literal meanings we can usually find the meaning of the concept as its originators understood it. Just as, say, “science fiction” once literally meant fiction about science, “copyright” once meant simply the right to copy. As enshrined in the American Copyright Right Act of 1909, the latest iteration at the time that Bill Gates wrote his open letter of the original Act of 1790, only the author had the right “to print, reprint, publish, copy, and vend the copyrighted work.” The original sin that must come before any printing, reprinting, publishing, or vending by someone who wasn’t the author must be the simple act of copying itself, which was in and of itself illegal. If you purchased a book at your local bookstore and copied its contents — whether on a photocopier, on a typewriter, or freehand on paper — you had already committed an actionable legal offense, even if your purpose in doing so was simply to have a “backup” copy for your own personal use. In the materialist world of arts and letters that held sway prior to the digital revolution, this approach to copyright as a literal right to copy made perfect sense.

Many of the conflicts and controversies that have plagued the idea of copyright in the years since have stemmed from the fact that a right to copy is a prerequisite to making any use at all of digital content. Thus rights-holders have needed to make the act of unauthorized distribution, not that of unauthorized copying, the original sin of the infringer. Much of the story of recent copyright legislation has been the story of how that shift was made.

On this blog, we’ve heretofore largely avoided that long, fraught societal debate and negotiation, but the specter of copyright and its violation in the form of software piracy loomed too large over the games industry of the 1980s to neglect it any more. This, then, is the story of what Gates’s letter wrought for the people who were making the games, the people who were playing them, and, in due time, an underground culture which dedicated itself to defying the legal system and keeping games — all games — available for free.

Pirates

The first programmer ever to attach a notice of copyright to her program, and thus quite likely the first programmer ever to conceive of her program as a potentially marketable creative work, was Betty Holberton, one of the original programmers of the ENIAC, by some definitions the world’s first true computer. In 1951, she was proud enough of a sorting program she had written to attach her name to a copyright notice included therein. It wasn’t until 1964, however, that a programmer made the next step of attempting to actually secure registration through the Copyright Office. That year a Columbia University law student and MIT electrical-engineering graduate named John F. Banzhaff III applied for the registration of two programs he’d written to aid his studies: one to help with the indexing of old court cases and one to compute automobile braking distances. His request was at first rejected, but he put his legal training in progress to good use to lobby for reconsideration. At last a Copyright Office functionary decided that “we could, under the law, make the registration.” The whole transaction was novel enough that the New York Times printed a rather bemused sidebar about it.

Despite Banzhaff’s success, few followed his lead in using copyright as a means of protecting their investment in software. IBM and the other companies who made the big-iron systems that kept the books for corporate America saw their programs not so much as independent entities as components of an entire ecosystem which included both hardware and software. They offered the whole enchilada to their customers as a leased package, complete with lengthy, heavily restrictive licensing agreements that can be seen as the forefathers to all the legalese we click through so impatiently today every time we install a new piece of software. If those contracts, many of which had never been tested in court, should fail, there were always patents, of which IBM in particular had quite a massive portfolio covering most of their systems’ operations.

Meanwhile the smaller systems with their scruffier, more independent-minded hacker culture were so immersed in the ethos of sharing ideas and code alike that copyright was a veritable foreign concept to them. Anyway, what would be the point of copyright really? Nothing like commercial software as we know it today existed prior to the mid-1970s. You either got your software along with your hardware from a big vendor like IBM, you wrote it yourself, or you pulled it off the hacker grapevine. You certainly didn’t walk into a store and buy it.

It was probably a good thing that the copyrighting of software felt a little pointless because, Banzhaff’s success with the Copyright Office aside, it wasn’t at all clear that the current copyright law could even be applied to much or all software due to two serious concerns.

The first was the stipulation, stated in the text of the 1909 Act, that copyright applied only to the “writings of an author.” The body of amendments and case law that followed had determined that “writings” encompassed not just traditional literary works but also such creative miscellany as musical compositions and recordings, statues, films, photographs, scientific models, and maps. Multifarious as they were, these forms all had one trait in common: they could all be easily “read” by a human being with the right knowledge or training. Program source code should also qualify under this standard.

But the proprietary software that was most likely to need the protection afforded by copyright wasn’t always distributed as source code. The sequences of ones and zeroes that made up binary code could be read only slowly and laboriously — anything but “easily” — by even the most talented hackers. One might be tempted to make a comparison to film, which like computer programs did require a technological intermediary to be “read” by people but which clearly was covered by copyright thanks to a 1912 amendment to the Act of 1909. Yet the comparison broke down in the question of just what it was that the author was really seeking to copyright. In the case of a film, that was the presentation layer, if you will, the actual imagery being projected onto the screen. In the case of something like Bill Gate’s BASIC, it was the code that generated what appeared on the screen. A comparison with recorded music broke down similarly. Yes, with computer displays so primitive as to make it difficult to distinguish one program from another, it was the code that mattered to companies like the young “Micro-Soft” — and, indeed, that would remain the main if not the exclusive nexus of their attention for many years to come.

The best hope for dodging the requirement of human readability lay in the fact that the copyright to an original work also reserved to its author the exclusive right “to translate the copyrighted work into other languages or dialects, or to make any other version thereof.” Without too much tortured thinking, one could imagine a compiler as “translating” source code into another version, a derivative work — albeit one not human-readable — also covered by the copyright to the original source. Unfortunately, case law seemed to point against such an interpretation. In 1908, the Supreme Court had decided in the case of White-Smith Music Publishing v. Apollo that a player-piano roll, which one might see as analogous to binary code, was not eligible for the same copyright protection as the sheet-music “source code” that had produced it.

And that was if anything the easier legal question. The other concerned the fundamental idea of copyright itself as it was still understood by the law in 1976 — that of it constituting a literal “right to copy.” The thing was, a program was copied every single time it was run — copied from disk or tape or, in the case of Altair BASIC, a spool of punched paper into the memory of the computer. This act would seem to be according to the established law clearly illegal, just as much so as buying a book and photocopying its pages. Thus every legitimate purchaser of Altair BASIC who chose to actually use it immediately became a pirate.

Now, this loophole was at some level fairly ridiculous, sounding more like a gotcha! for a raging pedant than a serious argument for those of good faith. Yet, ridiculous as it was, it was also extremely dangerous. How could a company like Microsoft claim the right to ask people to ignore this part of the law, but not these other parts? A slippery-slope scenario could be all too easily imagined. Even worse, as long as it existed, as long as a law hadn’t been written to explicitly close it, the loophole remained as a legal land mine for any company contemplating the ultimate remedy against piracy, that of hauling the pirates into court; a clever defendant could point to it and collapse the whole concept of copyright as applicable to software at a stroke.

Piracy

Even as Bill Gates was drafting his letter, Congress was in the process of overhauling American copyright law for the first time in well over half a century. Yet the end result directly answered few of the burgeoning software industry’s concerns. In addition to dramatically extending the term of copyright protection from a maximum of 56 years to “the lifetime of the author plus 50 years,” the Copyright Act of 1976, which actually went into effect on January 1, 1978, further broadened the applicability of copyright to “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.” While the Act still failed to cite software among its many examples of same, it seemed more clear than ever that source code at least ought to fit this definition of a copyright-eligible work, while the door for binary code now also seemed, at worst, to have been opened considerably wider. But an unresolved question still remained in the form of the negative legal precedent of White Smith v. Apollo. And the copying that was a necessary part of actually running a computer program remained unaddressed as well.

The software industry therefore started working on solving the problem through technical rather than legal means. Here Bill Gates’s Microsoft was once again at the fore. When Microsoft shipped their version of Will Crowther and Don Wood’s perennial Adventure for the TRS-80 in 1979, they included on the disk one of the first instances of physical copy protection, on the theory that if buyers couldn’t copy the disk in the first place they wouldn’t be tempted to share the game with their friends. Ironically, Microsoft’s own ethical if not legal right to sell Crowther and Wood’s game was far from clear, a classic example of the moral murkiness that always seems to surround issues of piracy and intellectual property in the digital age as soon as you drill beneath the surface.

Only in 1980, with the PC industry beginning to enter the public consciousness as a much-needed American economic-success story and Apple, whose origins in a suburban garage were already becoming the stuff of legend, gearing up for the first big silicon IPO, did Congress at last directly address the question of copyright as it applied to software. The Computer Software Copyright Act of 1980 created an exception in the case of software to the idea of copyright as fundamentally constituting an author’s exclusive right to copy. Henceforward, said the Act, “it is not an infringement for the owner of a copy of a computer program to make or authorize the making of another copy” if such a copy is “an essential step in the utilization of the computer program” — thus securing the owner’s right to actually run the software she purchased — or is “for archival purposes only” — thus securing the owner’s right to make backup copies of her purchase. Making the act of distribution rather than the act of copying itself the original sin of software piracy represented a huge development in the evolution of copyright law that went as unremarked by the Act’s own drafters as it remains today. The law’s oft-tardy, clunky, and controversial negotiation with the brave new world of digital content begins here, in a modest little change that even most Congresspeople barely even noticed.

That same year, the question of whether the presentation layer of a program can be afforded copyright protection in its own right was settled in the affirmative in a landmark court case involving Midway, a producer of standup-arcade games, and Dirkschneider, a cloner of same. Atari in particular immediately started applying that precedent with gusto to squash the practice of cloning their standup-arcade and home-console games on computers.

All told, it had been a pretty good year for those on the side of strong software-copyright protection. But still hanging out there at its end, unresolved and dangerous and with case-law precedent still seemingly against it, was the question of copyright protection for binary code.

Piracy

For a long time the question continued to go unresolved, even as IBM entered the PC fray and the software industry went from being a curiosity to one of the biggest stories in the world of business, with names like WordStar and VisiCorp — and, yes, Microsoft — now on every stockbroker and venture capitalist’s lips. But then in 1982 along came a company called Franklin Computer which wished to produce a clone of the Apple II. By far the most difficult part of such a task must be the the production of a ROM-based operating system that performed exactly like Apple’s own; the slightest deviation would mean that a subset of the Apple II’s huge software library must fail to work on Franklin’s model. Franklin responded to the challenge through the simple expedient of copying Apple’s ROM verbatim, whereupon Apple responded to Franklin’s solution by suing them in federal court. Franklin didn’t even try to deny that they’d copied Apple’s own ROM — but, they claimed, they were within their rights to have done so. At the root of their complicated defense was the old claim that copyright could not be applied to binary code. The industry held its collective breath; the moment they had half wished for and half dreaded for so long was here. At last the long-standing question was about to be settled in court.

Things didn’t go so well at first. The district court refused an injunction by Apple to force Franklin to take their machines off the market, and then ruled for Franklin in open court, accepting their argument that binary code could not by its nature be subject to copyright — exactly the result the industry had feared. But Apple appealed, and finally, on August 30, 1983, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Franklin had indeed violated Apple’s copyright, at the same time definitively settling in the affirmative the question of whether binary code could be copyrighted. Citing the 1976 Act’s stipulation that copyright could also be applied to works readable only “with the aid of a machine or device,” the Court stated that “it is clear from the language of the 1976 Act and its legislative history that it was intended to obliterate distinctions engendered by White-Smith.” Franklin was forced to withdraw their machine from the market until they had written for it a unique ROM of its own. The question of the copyright eligibility of binary code would never be seriously challenged again.

Relatively little remembered today, Apple v. Franklin was, in terms of its impact on the industry at large, easily one of the most significant court cases with which Apple has ever been involved. It had taken more than seven years to get from Bill Gates’s open letter to this point, but the American software industry could at last feel entirely free to zealously guard their intellectual property and sue offenders, with both law and precedent on their side. The rest of the Western world gradually followed the American legal system’s lead. In 1985, for instance, the British Parliament passed the Copyright (Computer Software) Amendment Act, securing once and for all the same strong copyright protection for companies selling their software on British soil.

Piracy

Yet, even with the legalities finally settled, it made little sense to attempt to prosecute most software pirates. Civil or criminal court cases involving software piracy, both in the United States and outside it, remained a relative rarity, reserved for large-scale bootlegging rings and blatant corporate violators like Franklin. Game publishers in particular, a small fraction of the software industry as a whole, lacked the time, money, and energy to legally pursue on any serious scale the mostly teenage pirates who passed games among themselves in school lunch rooms and via the BBS networks. While the threat of legal action always made a good rhetorical tool — “It could happen to you!” — game publishers, following the lead of Microsoft Adventure, came to rely on technical rather than legal remedies to minimize the damage. Their methods encompassed various sorts of manual-look-up schemes — photocopying was still fairly expensive in the 1980s — as well as code wheels, hardware dongles, and bizarre Rube Goldberg contraptions like the British Lenslok. But the bedrock for most publishers remained the protection they applied to the disk or tape itself to make it physically impossible to copy. Virtually all publishers understood that their protection schemes, whatever form they took, were bound to be broken. One hope was that the protection would hold up for at least a little while under the onslaught of the hardcore crackers; another was that it would be enough in and of itself to deter the more casual pirates. The former hope was usually forlorn, while the latter stood on moderately firmer ground.

Meanwhile the larger debate about the rights of software buyers and sellers that had been touched off by Bill Gates’s letter was far from over. Indeed, it continued to rage more violently than ever at users group meetings, in computer stores, and in the magazines, pitting the software industry against a substantial percentage of their theoretical customer base. In 1983 a new Apple II magazine called Hardcore Computist chose to begin publishing information on copy-protection schemes and how to crack many of the most popular games. The response from the software industry was a shitstorm that forced the magazine off of computer-store racks and drove it underground. As a largely subscription-only publication, the editors chose to double down on their stance that a right of users to make backup copies of their expensive software ought to be as fundamental as the right of publishers not to have their programs given away for free. Hardcore Computist quickly became a go-to source for Apple II crackers, both those wanting simply to make the personal backups the law so plainly allowed and those with more nefarious agendas.

That magazine was, however, very much the exception. The others, knowing who buttered their bread, duly toed the industry hard line against any and all forms of copying, with very few exceptions. To do otherwise risked becoming a pariah like Hardcore Computist, cut off from the advertisements, early review copies, and insider scoops on which they depended. Few editors dared to push back in more than the most tepid ways against the industry’s stance. The articles they published on the subject usually weren’t all that different in tone or content from Bill Gates’s original entry in the genre, complete with questionable data (“Industry estimates claim that between four and ten illegally copied programs are circulating for every one sold.”); dire predictions for the future (“Software piracy, which was the casual crime of the 1980s, could actually threaten the survival of the software industry in the 1990s.”); conflations of piracy with shoplifting (“It seems that the same person who would never dream of walking out of a K-mart with a stolen watch hidden in his jacket doesn’t think twice about stealing software.”); fear-mongering (“Those who dip into the questionable waters of pirated software risk virus infection each time their disk drive whirs.”); and a little good old-fashioned name-calling (“Those computerists who copy software are the lowest form of animal life on the planet.”). A more candid debate was allowed to rage only in the letters sections, where the pirates, usually in response to a hand-wringing anti-piracy editorial or feature article, got a chance to state their side of the case.

The core of their argument, one which carried with it a certain practical if not always a legal or moral force, was that games were ridiculously overpriced, and that most of them were terrible to boot. Both assertions were largely correct. The price you pay today per man-hour of game-developer effort is almost invariably well over one if not two orders of magnitude less than it was in the 1980s even without adjusting for inflation. This reality applies almost equally to the good games of yore, the games I’ve praised here, as the bad. Even the typical Infocom game gave you about a novella’s worth of text, various “you can’t do that!” messages included, in return for $30 to $50 in 1980s money. The nostalgic stories of the old days that abound in places like the Get Lamp documentary claim that players routinely got 50 or 100 hours out of such thin gruel, but it’s honestly hard for me to imagine how. And, again, those are the good games. Many others were all but unplayable, insoluble, or missing vital clues due to the fact that most publishers’ testing methodology consisted of “let the developers play it for a few days if there’s time, otherwise just put it in a box and ship it.” Games routinely shipped with flaws serious enough almost to smack of outright fraud, flaws that not even the most mercenary publisher of today would dare allow to go unaddressed. And the magazines, in thrall as they were to the publishers for advertising dollars, were hardly a reliable means of sorting the wheat from all that chaff. The economics of gaming being so hopelessly out of whack, many pirates claimed that they copied games only to test them out and see if they were really worth the money, that they then bought those few that they did indeed judge worthy. Assuming they were telling the complete truth — admittedly a doubtful proposition — this seems to me quite a reasonable response to the situation.

Which is not to say that game publishers were deliberately shafting their customers. Staying in business carries plenty of fixed costs, and requires much larger profit margins when selling 50,000 copies of a successful game rather than 5 million or more. Everyone was doing the best they could, but everyone was feeling their way through, without any precedents to guide them. It was hard for a gamer, eager to play all the latest games highlighted in the magazines, to take too seriously the moral hectoring of the editors of same who were themselves drowning in free review copies.

Underlying the whole debate, conducted though it often was in such strident fashion on both sides, was an uneasy settlement. Publishers recognized that their software was going to be copied and traded, but, through physical copy protection and other means, hoped to keep it to a manageable level. Meanwhile users settled into whatever approach best seemed to balance ethics and practicalities: set up a collective with a few friends to buy a pool of games and trade them with each other; buy every third Infocom game and pirate the others from the BBS network; buy a game if and only if you wound up spending more than a few hours with the pirated version; etc.

But of course there were also the hardcore pirates, the people who wanted to have every game released, who tied their self-worth to the number of “hot warez” in their collection. For them the act of collecting games, not that of playing them, was the real draw. Many would say that the greatest game of all was the one played between the crackers, the elite members of the piracy “scene” who knew how to break copy protection, and the publishers, who were constantly dreaming up nastier and trickier schemes to protect their disks. The scene’s shadowy existence was barely hinted at by the bright, wholesome magazines chronicling the overground of computing. But, existing in a zone between the casual pirates who traded games with their friends and the big for-profit bootlegging rings, the scene was responsible for virtually all of the cracks that gradually trickled down to even many of the least-connected gamers, making it the root of all the evils of piracy in the view of the publishers. And yet, decentralized and anonymous as it was, it was impossible for them to stamp out. Described by historian Anders Carlsson as nothing less than “the first digital global subculture,” the scene was, among other things, a cesspool of adolescent nihilism, teenage posturing, and crude social Darwinism, teeming with racism, sexism, and homophobia. It was, in other words, much like many other gatherings of unsupervised teenage boys. Nevertheless, it’s thanks only to the efforts of the scene’s crackers that many of the games I write about still exist at all for an historian like me to study — one more ironic aspect of an intellectual-property debate that’s never quite as ethically clear as either side would have it. We’ll look more closely at this mysterious scene, at where it came from and what it meant to 1980s gaming, next time.

(Sources: ACM Computing Surveys of March 1975; New York Times of May 8 1964; Byte of September 1976, January 1977, May 1981, September 1981, October 1981, December 1981, January 1982, and May 1982; PC Magazine of October 1982 and November 1982; Computer World of December 5 1983; 80 Microcomputing of November 1982, February 1983 and April 1983; Ahoy! of August 1985, November 1985, and March 1986; Color Computer Magazine of August 1983, November 1983, January 1984, and July 1984; Commodore Magazine of April 1989; Commodore Power Play of August/September 1985; Games Machine of September 1988; Transactor 5.3 and 5.5; Computer Gaming World of September/October 1982; Acorn User of September 1984; Amazing Computing of September 1987; A.N.A.L.O.G. of January 1984; Computer and Video Games of April 1984, May 1984, and June 1984; Creative Computing of November 1984; Electronic Games of January 1985; Enter of April 1984; Hardcore Computist #2; New Zealand Bits and Bytes of September 1982; Popular Computing Weekly of June 7 1984; Sinclair User of September 1984 and November 1984; The Rainbow of March 1984; Your Spectrum of December 1983/January 1984; Zzap! of June 1987. Also the book From Pac-Man to Pop Music, including “Chip Music: Low-Tech Data Music Sharing” by Anders Carlsson. The pictures are all drawn from the magazines’ various anti-piracy articles, which always seem to bring out the fanciful best in their artists. Really, aren’t they great?)

 
21 Comments

Posted by on December 25, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

A Little Christmas Gift

This being the time of year for such things, I have a little surprise that I hope some of you might really enjoy.

I get asked on a fairly regular basis whether this blog will ever become a book — or, more likely, a series of books. While I do have aspirations in that direction, producing even one proper book is a big task that’s hard to turn to now when I’m so focused on this chronological journey we’re on. In the meantime, I can now at least offer you a series of ebooks that simply compile my older articles. Their existence is entirely down to the efforts of reader Richard Lindner, who developed all of the tools to automatically convert the blog’s articles.

Despite his talents, the ebooks are inevitably a little rough around the edges. In particular, multimedia elements — pictures, screenshots, movies, audio — may display imperfectly or not at all on many e-readers. Nevertheless, I hope some of you will find them handy for reading in bed or taking to the beach without bullies kicking sand in your laptop. Richard and I couldn’t quite decide whether to include readers comments or not — they’re a huge and hugely appreciated part of the online experience, but arguably ruin the flow of the ebook versions — so we decided to let you decide, by offering versions both with and without them. You can also choose between Kindle and epub versions, whichever suits your device or software. More ebooks will be appearing as I finish writing about each historical year. I just have a few articles to go to finish up 1987, so you can expect that volume to be joining the others quite soon.

Thanks for being such amazing readers! Your support means the world to me. If you are a regular reader who’s made this blog a part of your weekly routine and you haven’t yet pitched in, please do think about starting the new year with a Patreon pledge or a one-time PayPal donation — assuming, of course, that your personal circumstances permit. For the price of a good cup of coffee each month you can support this ongoing serious, nuanced examination of the history of gaming, and contribute to my own slow crawl toward earning a living wage from what’s long since become as time-consuming as any other full-time job.

To the 160 of you (as of this writing) who have signed up through Patreon and the many others who have donated through PayPal:an extra special thank you! It warms my writerly heart to know that so many of you like what I do enough to voluntarily pay for it. I’ll continue to strive to be worthy of your support.

I wish you all a great Christmas or winter holiday of your choice, and a happy New Year to boot. And I’ll see you all again in a couple of days, with a proper article this time.

 

Dungeon Master, Part 2: The Playing of

Dungeon Master

Like any cagey revolutionary, Dungeon Master doesn’t lay all its cards on the table when we first meet it. When the curtain goes up — or, rather, when the iron gate opens — on its first level, we might think we’re just in for a Wizardry with better graphics and the luxury of a mouse-driven interface. Because this first level is entirely deserted, it’s not immediately obvious that the game is even running in real time, much less what a huge difference that quality is ultimately going to make to the experience. And because we can’t do anything at this point other than move around, it’s also not immediately obvious just what an interactive sort of dungeon we’ve just entered.

Dungeon Master

Still, there are already oddities, not least of which is the fact that we’ve been dropped into the game proper so very abruptly, without going through any of the usual rigmarole of rolling up characters or answering an old gypsy’s questions. Dungeon Master‘s fictional conceit has it that we are a sort of wandering spirit, whose first task must be to take charge of — possess? — up to 4 of the 24 characters found frozen in amber here in the first level’s so-called “Hall of Champions.” The characters in the Hall, supposedly adventurers who earlier tried to penetrate the dungeon and were rewarded with death for their efforts, provide a rare opportunity for FTL to let their hair down and toss a little pop culture into an otherwise almost aggressively austere game. In naming and drawing the characters we can choose from, FTL drew them from fictions like Dune, The Lord of the Rings, and their own previous game Sundog. They also included real-world figures like the Viking explorer Leif Eriksson and, because they were mostly young men with young men’s interests, 1975 Playboy Playmate Azizi Johari. Andy Jaros went fairly crazy with these portraits, making a whole “construction kit” for different combinations of bodies, facial features, and clothing. “Every female character,” remembers tools programmer Mike Newton wryly, “had a number of brassieres she could wear.”

Dungeon Master

The team was tempted to include Jaros’s construction kit along with a much more traditional character-creation process in the game itself. Wayne Holder remembers a “big schism” in his team between people “who just wanted to pick a character and get going” and those who wanted to laboriously roll their own, customizing every detail to their liking as in the CRPGs of yore. But, more than just being an inconvenience to new or impatient players, a character-creation process that took place outside of the dungeon would have worked against the sense of “you are there” immersion that was always the guiding philosophy of the game as a whole. Thus this casting of us as a wandering spirit in a Hall of Champions, an embodied part of the game’s world from the very first instant.

Dungeon Master

As a sop to those players that demanded more control, FTL made it possible to either “resurrect” or “reincarnate” each character. The former preserves the champion’s name and vital attributes, including a few levels in one or more of the disciplines (more on them momentarily); the latter preserves only her portrait, letting us rename her and develop her as we like from scratch. We’ll resurrect today, both because it’s easier and because it seems more in keeping with the spirit of the game, but the choice is up to each player. (Sorry, classic Playboy connoisseurs, but Azizi won’t make the cut today.)

Dungeon Master

With our party formed, the bits and pieces of the user interface get filled in. Running along the top we now see each of the members of our party along with what he’s carrying in his right and left hands, which doesn’t amount to much of anything at the moment. Three bar graphs show each character’s current hit points, stamina, and mana.

While the first of these is a very traditional metric, the second provides a good example of how Dungeon Master so often yet so subtly transcends the tabletop roots of previous CRPGs. When a character exerts himself — by fighting or by running about quickly, and especially by doing either whilst carrying a heavy load — his stamina drops, diminishing his effectiveness in combat and slowing him down. He can regain stamina only by resting or through magical means. Weaker characters naturally fatigue more quickly than stronger ones. This mechanic would be impossible to replicate on the tabletop; the amount of bookkeeping required would have defied even the most pedantic of human Dungeon Masters. On the computer, however, it works a treat.

As for the last graph, showing mana… let’s hold off on that for right now, as we will the panel of spell runes found to the right, just below the draggable icons representing the party’s current walking arrangement. Below the spell-casting panel are the buttons we press to make each character take a swing or a throw or a shot, as the case may be, at a monster, and below them the buttons we press to move about.

Now let’s right-click on one of the characters along the top of the screen to see some more of Dungeon Master‘s new ideas…

Dungeon Master

Here we see the debut of the soon-to-be ubiquitous “paper-doll” approach to character inventory in CRPGs. We can just drag what we like onto the body, into the hands, into the various packs and pockets. (Apparently old Wuuf, like Donald Duck, is a let-it-all-hang-out, pants-free kind of guy.) Once again, all of this would be a nightmare for players of a tabletop RPG to keep track of, but it’s easy, intuitive, and natural for the player of a computer game. The most literally embodying aspect of Dungeon Master the first embodied CRPG, paper-doll inventories would go on to become one of the most obvious and omnipresent of all its legacies.

Dungeon Master

Clicking on the eye — note how it shifts its gaze when we do so, one of Dungeon Master‘s many subtle graphical touches — shows us the vital statistics of this character. The designers have tinkered a bit with the traditional core ability scores, removing useless stuff like Charisma to arrive at a set that hones in with relentless precision on Dungeon Master‘s priorities of killing monsters and mapping dungeons. This is not so surprising; games like the original Wizardry, which insisted on implementing a Dungeons and Dragons-style alignment system it had no idea what to do with, were already becoming the rarity of the field by 1987.

The big surprise that is revealed here is Dungeon Master‘s approach to character class — or, rather, its rejection of the very concept. Instead of each character having a single class which he shall hold forevermore, complete with associated arbitrary restrictions of Dungeons and Dragons like a cleric’s inability to use edged weapons and a magic user’s inability to wear armor, Dungeon Master offers four skill disciplines in which any character can advance at any time: fighter, ninja, wizard, and priest. Like in the real world, he just has to practice to get better at any of them. The old Dungeons and Dragons system, absurd as it was in so many ways, had long been a comfort blanket for CRPG players. In sweeping it all away, Dungeon Master must have felt shocking, perhaps uncomfortably so. But, soon enough, it felt bracing. Why should this computer game adhere to a system set up for an old tabletop game? Dungeon Master‘s system isn’t a universal framework of rules, as Dungeons and Dragons strives to be. It’s simply the best system of rules that FTL could devise for this particular game of dungeon delving and monster slaying. Discarding so much accumulated tradition and doing what was right for their game took boldness, even bravery. It took, in short, a willingness to look at Dungeons and Dragons and ask why.

Dungeon Master

We move on to the exit from the Hall of Champions, where we see the first of many pressure plates, usually visible but occasionally hidden, that litter the levels below. Stepping forward produces a click!, and the gate goes up in front of us. This serves as our introduction to the dungeon as a real, tactile place, a far cry from the wire-frame abstractions of Wizardry or even the full-color but static mazes of The Bard’s Tale. In addition to fighting monsters, much of our time will soon be spent tripping pressure plates, flipping switches, and pushing buttons to solve puzzles, avoid traps, and make progress. While dungeon crawls had had puzzles before, they had usually come in the form of set-piece riddles or abstract mapping challenges like spinners and teleports (all of which, never fear, Dungeon Master does have as well). This level of interaction, however, was unprecedented. It was largely inspired by, of all things, the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Indiana Jones dashes through a subterranean complex not all that far removed from this one, complete with many of the same sorts of very physical, very mechanical traps. (We can breathe a sigh of relief that giant rolling boulders were beyond even FTL’s abilities to implement.)

Dungeon Master

A couple of steps further we learn a yet greater appreciation for this dungeon as an embodied, interactive place. There’s an apple sitting on the ground before us. We can reach right into the scene to pick it up and drag it to one of our characters’ inventory — or, if we like, right to his mouth. CRPGs like Ultima — although, interestingly, not Wizardry or The Bard’s Tale — had been requiring characters to eat for many years by 1987, but their version of food had always been an abstract quantity to be gained and lost, little different from hit points. In Dungeon Master, food is — stop me if you’ve heard this word before — an embodied resource. We carry around apples, wedges of cheese, drumsticks to feed to our characters when they get hungry. We’ll also find that some monsters are edible, leaving behind neat “screamer slices,” “worm rounds,” or “dragon steaks” after we kill them. The different foodstuffs naturally fill us differently; a drumstick fills more than an apple. The idea that our characters can kill a monster and immediately start to chow down on it doesn’t make any sense, of course (at least if the character isn’t a dog like old Wuuf). Neither does finding a perfectly preserved apple sitting incongruously in the middle of a dungeon, or for that matter the dozens of monsters populating each level below this one with no identifiable food source of their own. Realistic this game is not. But Dungeon Master is a more immersive sort of artificial experience, and that makes all the difference — the difference between a scary campfire story and a visit to a haunted house.

Dungeon Master

A few steps further we find a torch we can pull off the wall and take. We’d best do so because light, whether generated by torches or magic, is a precious resource in every level after the first. Thanks to the comparatively generous color palettes of the Atari ST and the Commodore Amiga, Dungeon Master is able to dim the environment gradually and realistically as a torch begins to sputter or a spell begins to run out, rather than making vision an all-or-nothing affair as in earlier games.

There’s also a water skin lying on the floor waiting to be filled as soon as we can find a fountain; water is yet another precious resource that we need to manage carefully. And there’s something else lying on the floor in front of us: our first spell scroll.

Dungeon Master

This, then, brings us to Dungeon Master‘s hugely original and hugely influential magic system, what has come to be called “rune-based” magic. Rather than being chosen from lists or entered via code names that also serve as thinly veiled copy protection, spells in Dungeon Master are built from combinations of runes, from two to four of them depending on the spell’s complexity. The first always dictates the spell’s power; those that follow can include an “elemental influence” (like water, air, or fire); a “form” (like a spider, a wing, or a spear); and a “class” or “alignment” (like a fighter or a wizard, or good or evil). We cause our characters to cast spells by entering their runes using the panel at the right of the screen. We need the manual to figure out that the rune “FUL” described in the scroll corresponds to the one representing fire — a natural choice for a light spell. (Did someone say something about thinly veiled copy protection?)

At the beginning of the game we don’t know a single spell, but as we work our way through the dungeon our repertoire will steadily increase as we find scrolls like this one. We can play through the entire game quite successfully just using the spells that we find on scrolls. Yet the real genius of the system is that it also lets us experiment on our own to find new spells before we find their scrolls — possibly even to find spells that are never described via scrolls. It’s a great example of one of Dungeon Master‘s more underrated qualities: its combination of mercy and possibility. It will give us all the spells we really need, but at the same time it doesn’t keep us from experimenting on our own.

Casting each rune demands mana, which increases as our characters gain levels. Each new spell also demands practice. When we first learn a new spell, we should expect each character to be able to cast it only at the lowest power levels, and even then we’re often told that a character “needs more practice.” Work with it a while, let our character get comfortable with it, and he can start to cast it in more potent forms.

Now we start down the stairs to Level 2 — the first “real” level with real monsters, where things really start to get interesting…

Dungeon Master

Down here, where we are no longer alone, Dungeon Master‘s innovative use of sound becomes clear for the first time. We can hear through walls and doors the other creatures that populate the level moving about. If we’re playing on an Amiga, the sounds they make are positioned in a realistic stereo soundscape. It’s as creepily unnerving as it is, we’ll soon learn, tactically useful. But it’s also a sign of hidden depths to Dungeon Master that set it apart from the dungeon crawls that came before in ways that may not be so immediately obvious. As Wayne Holder puts it, “Everything, everywhere, was being simulated all the time.” (“Because we weren’t smart enough to figure out how to do it any other way!” deadpans Doug Bell in response.) That level-encompassing simulation is the source of the sounds. Contrast this with the approach of Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale. Their dungeons are static places consisting of perhaps a few set encounters that are activated when the party steps on the right square, and lots and lots of random encounters that occur according to the old “wandering monster” rules of tabletop Dungeon and Dragons: each step brings a percentage chance of encountering a randomized group of monsters, leading to such twistings of the fabric of space as a fight with 396 berserkers in The Bard’s Tale in a room the size of a closet. Dungeon Master, a computer game that respects its computerness, doesn’t need to fall back on old tabletop techniques.

Reinforcing the strange disconnect in games like Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale between the mazes you map and the monsters you fight is the fact that these are heavily modal programs: there’s a travel mode where you explore and map the mazes, a combat mode where you fight monsters, other modes for resting and training and shopping. One could describe these games as not holistic programs at all, but rather a collection of specialized applications glued together, passing data back and forth to one another as needed. Modal software was explicitly rejected by the new paradigm of computing that was ushered in at Xerox PARC and later embraced so wholeheartedly by the Apple Macintosh and its 68000-based rivals the ST and Amiga. Separate modes, so the thinking went, were distancing and confusing, making it too easy to get “lost” inside a program. Better to have one consistent window on an application, with everything available all the time and all commands always working the same: one program, one user, one unified experience.

Dungeon Master shows what that kind of thinking can mean when applied to a game. There is no separation between walking around in the dungeon and fighting monsters; it all takes place there in the same view, through the same interface. Not only does this closing of the software’s seams add more immediacy, it also adds oceans more tactical depth to the whole experience. Groups of monsters can sneak up behind us, can trap us, can be cut off using doors or pits while we rest our characters and let their precious mana recharge. And thanks to the fact that “everything, everywhere, is being simulated,” we can actually clear a level of all monsters (if it doesn’t contain a magical portal that spawns them infinitely, that is) and know that it’s a safe haven to return to forevermore. In their ways these innovations represent as big a leap over what had come before as does Dungeon Master‘s more celebrated real-time nature. Because of them, and despite the artificiality of so many of the game’s mechanics, every level feels like a real space.

Dungeon Master

So, we turn right after coming down the stairs and open the gate there to meet and fight our first monster at last — a mummy. It always comes as a moment of revelation to the new Dungeon Master player when she realizes, whether here or later on, that she can use the dungeon itself to aid her cause by slamming a gate down on a monster’s head even as her characters bash away at it. If you’ve been playing lots of older CRPGs — or, for that matter, plenty of newer ones — it requires a real adjustment in thinking to understand that this dungeon is a thoroughly interactive, manipulable place, and that that reality places countless new tools at your disposal.

Dungeon Master

Combat in Dungeon Master is nerve-wracking in a way that it had never really been before, right from the moment that that first mummy unexpectedly screams at you. In addition to fighting whatever is in front of you, you’re constantly worried about what might be sneaking up behind, trying to avoid getting crushed between two groups of monsters, looking always to spot tactical deathtraps and safe havens alike. The first time you take refuge in a closed room only to be surprised by a monster that can open doors for itself is a terrifying experience in its own right. Just the scurrying noises coming through the walls are enough to fill you with dread when your party is weak and cut off from safety.

Monsters have a variety of strengths and weaknesses, move at different speeds, pursue different tactics. While you can go toe to toe with some, others can only be bested by striking quickly and backing away, again and again — just don’t back into a dead-end corridor! Or you can dispatch them by luring them over trap doors and pulling the rug out from under them by means of a nearby switch, or by using other tricks; the possibilities offered by this mechanistic dungeon can seem almost endless.

There’s much more to be said about combat in Dungeon Master and its many tactical possibilities, but there are plenty of other places on the Internet to learn those things. Even better, you could play for yourself with no more preconceptions, and in the process develop your own techniques.

I do, however, want to say something more about the flip side to Dungeon Master‘s countless formal and technical innovations: its superb level design. I’m tempted to label this as the most remarkable single aspect of the game, simply because it never needed to be anything like this good for Dungeon Master to become a massive hit. Yet it’s key to the continued fascination the game still holds for so many today, long after all of the shiny innovations have become commonplace or been superseded entirely. If you were thinking that that mummy that’s positioned just inside a door that’s just waiting to come down on its head looks like more than coincidence, looks almost like the designers are consciously trying to teach you, organically and wordlessly… well, you’d be right. A couple more examples from the second level, the game’s training ground…

Dungeon Master

We come to lock a with the key lying just below, our introduction to the idea of finding keys and the locks in which fit they in order to open up ever more areas of the dungeon.

Dungeon Master

And above is our introduction to the idea of pressure-plate puzzles. Right now we’re standing on one that just opened the gate ahead; stepping on the one just in front of us will close it again. We obviously need to make a little detour to the right to avoid closing the door. These sorts of puzzles will get much, much more complicated as we work our way downward, but Dungeon Master makes sure we understand the general idea before it hits us with the rough stuff.

And so it goes as we explore the second level. Dungeon Master patiently and enjoyably teaches us the mechanics that will serve as the raw materials for all of the puzzles and challenges to come: buttons, levers, secret doors, teleports, pits. There’s even a door with no key that we need to physically bash through to remind us again that this dungeon is a tactile, embodied, interactive place. In a game of today, this would be smart, progressive design. In a game of 1987… well, this is amazing. Nobody was designing games like this at that time. Visionary as Dungeon Master is in so many ways, it was the enlightened, player-focused level design that stunned me most when I recently played it again, more than 25 years removed from my first encounter.

But if you think that means that Dungeon Master is an easy or trivial game, think again. The difficulty ramps up steadily, level by level. I’ve often heard Dungeon Master characterized as a two-part experience, the first half gradually teaching you the survival skills you’ll need by the time you get to the hardcore later levels.

Still, all of the levels remain masterfully designed in their own ways. Most of them have a theme or a personality all their own. Few Dungeon Master veterans ever forget the theme-park level with its six mockingly titled subsections; the level full of re-spawning giant worms; the level you have to backtrack through half the dungeon to actually enter; the level that’s largely a single huge cavern full of wandering ghosts. The contrast with The Bard’s Tale, whose dungeons felt not so much designed as thrown together by some automated algorithm, could hardly be more stark. The early games of the Wizardry series generally did better in this department, but Dungeon Master nevertheless offers the best level design yet seen in a CRPG. As hardcore as it can get, it continues at the same time to stay away from the really petty stuff that sinks so many old-school games. There are usually more of those precious keys than you actually need, meaning it’s possible to miss a few and still finish the game. And, while there are plenty of secret areas, those that you’re least likely to find are also those least likely to be essential. A commenter to my earlier article about The Faery Tale Adventure, responding to my criticism that it’s too hard to find your way around and know what to do in that game, noted — and rightly so — how rewarding the secret areas feel when you do find them, simply because they are so secret. Dungeon Master understands this, and fills its levels with Easter eggs for the lucky and the methodical. But, unlike The Faery Tale Adventure, it also understands the danger of making its pathways to victory too obscure. Let people win, then let them play again if they like and see what new things they can discover.

Indeed, Dungeon Master must be one of the most replayable CRPGs ever that’s not a roguelike, with a thriving cult of players who even today play again and again, setting new challenges for themselves: play with only one character; play with the weakest characters in the Hall of Champions; advance each character in only one discipline; use only spells in combat; use no spells in combat. There’s no story to be impatiently clicked through, no cut scenes to wait for, just the game. Long after they know all of the levels by heart, many continue to find them almost infinitely rewarding to revisit. Dungeon Master remains one of the most-played games of its vintage, thanks not least to lots of loving ports and remakes that make it widely and easily accessible to anyone with access to a computer.

That said, by far its most off-putting aspect for the modern player must be the need to map. This area is one where Dungeon Master is notably not so merciful. Most of its levels are huge, rambling places, especially by contrast with the compact layouts of blessedly regular size that characterized Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale. They present a huge challenge for the would-be pencil-and-graph-paper mapper; you never know where you begin a level or how far it’s likely to run in any given direction, meaning you find your map constantly running off one side or another of the paper and yourself starting all over again. Drawing and redrawing maps doubtless consumed a big chunk of the tens or even hundreds of hours so many people spent on Dungeon Master back in the day. A complete collection, a fully mapped 14-level dungeon, represented a major achievement in itself, a prize to be treasured — and sometimes to be sold as part of the rich cottage industry that sprang up around the game. Nowadays, of course, you can find maps of all the levels all over the Internet. I recommend that those of you not ready to devote hours to mapping by hand download a set — preferably without any other hints — and use them rather than foregoing Dungeon Master entirely. It’s an anachronistic way to play, one that unavoidably diminishes some of the mystery and thus some of the experience, but the game is rich enough that it still has plenty to offer.

Others, both now and even back then, will likely be put off by the aesthetic minimalism that is such a defining trait of Dungeon Master. It’s a game that focuses all its energy relentlessly toward its one goal of being the best, most immersive tactical dungeon crawl possible, and excises absolutely everything else. That can, even for a fan like me, make it feel a little sterile. Tellingly, most of Dungeon Master‘s successors chose to build on it not by improving on any of its own priorities, but by adding layers of lore and story. Something like Eye of the Beholder, which clutters up the template with the same awkward Dungeons and Dragons mechanics that Dungeon Master so proudly rejects, could never be called a better pure game design than its predecessor. But, depending on your own priorities, such a lovably shaggy shamble, bursting at the seams with the lore of the Forgotten Realms, might very well offer a better game experience. For my own part, I must confess that the tactical dungeon crawl itself isn’t really my favorite cuppa, which may do much to explain why Dungeon Master is pretty much the only game of its type I’ve ever felt the need of.

While everyone must decide for herself whether she loves it, Dungeon Master can only be respected as one of the most innovative and influential CRPGs of all time. Real-time play; mode-less play; the paper-doll inventory system; rune-based magic; granular lighting; the replacement of character class by disciplines… the list just goes on. Every CRPG of today has a little Dungeon Master in it. And, outside its own genre’s ghetto, Dungeon Master‘s influence on gaming at large has also been enormous. We’ll be continuing to chart that influence, and thus to pay this progenitor of so much its due homage, as we continue to work our way through history.


 

(If you’re interested in experiencing this blend of shocking innovation and shockingly good design today, you need only visit the home page of the game’s still-thriving fan community. There you can download something called CSBwin, a cycle-perfect port of Dungeon Master and its less welcoming sequel Chaos Strikes Back to Windows, OS X, and Linux. The only problem with this version is that bugaboo of so much retro-gaming, the aspect ratio. CSBwin maps the oblong pixels of the ST and Amiga directly onto the square pixels of modern machines, meaning the display appears horizontally stretched in comparison with the original. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but something to be aware of.

You can also experience the game via emulator. I recommend the Amiga version 3.6 of the game, a later re-release that stripped away the legendarily gnarly copy protection that continues to be a problem to this day; there are still lots of incomplete cracks floating around out there. You can download a whole swathe of Amiga versions and versions for other platforms as well from the same site.

And, regardless of how you play, you’ll need the manual.)

 
30 Comments

Posted by on December 18, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

Tags: , , ,