Saturday Crapshoot: Hacker

Richard Cobbett at

Every week, Richard Cobbett rolls the dice to bring you an obscure slice of gaming history, from lost gems to weapons grade atrocities. This week... look at you, Hacker, a pa-pa-pathetic creature of meat and bone. No, wait, sorry. Different hacker. Didn't mean to be rude there.

Hacker begins with nothing but a login screen, and no password. It's a strong start for a game that wants you to, on at least some level, think that just maybe you're actually hacking into an evil worldwide conspiracy that threatens the future of the world, and never mind that you almost certainly had neither modem nor the belief that 'skills' is spelled better with a z back in 1985. Ah, 1985, when DOS ruled the world, computer speeds could be measured in single digit megahertz, and PC users were used to having to type the word 'park' to prevent the hard drive spinning out like a disc from Tron after an accidental or careless power-down. Or at least, that's how it felt back then, when computers were magical.

And Hacker gets that, and the appeal. Until it wheels out a magic robot. Then things get weird...

And just so you know, I will never let you down, never let you go...

There were two Hacker games, this one and a more ramped up sequel called Hacker II - you probably guessed that part - The Doomsday Papers. Both were designed by the creator of Les Manley In Search For The King, but let's not hold that against it, and thinking about it in retrospect, it's surprising how few hacking games followed in their wake. There have been a few of course, including Uplink, the upcoming Quadrilateral Cowboy, and a few that sort-of-kind-of qualify like Infocom's Suspended, but really not many. I suppose it's largely a case of making it convincing, which a game would have to do, as opposed to what Hollywood can pull off with some screens of random text and some guy in glasses saying "I just phreaked the black ice in the cyberdrive partition", as if scripted with the help of a dartboard covered with nonsense. Not for nothing are the biggest Hollywood hacking films remembered less for their tense electronic showdowns and thrilling technological one-up manship than bullet time, bad haircuts, and Halle Berry's breasts. Games just can't compete, even if Watch Dogs' Aiden Pearce is a bit of a tit.

But Hacker? Fire it up, and this is all you got to work with.

Powered by the Unreal engine.

This isn't a case of 'look it up in the manual' either. The idea is that you've stumbled across this system as part of your hacking hobby and now it's up to you to break into it. But how? By trying a couple of times until... it offers the hint "Type H for Help". So, in short, you're a super-hacker who needs a manual. Brilliant. It even flat-out tells you what you're looking for, by saying "Current password is location of test site", which doesn't exactly help since you don't know where it is, but certainly makes the security of this mysterious place look a bit shocking. You can't log into most forums these days without multiple-case passwords and adding a symbol, but for this one the password - I may as well give it away, though you only find out later - is simply "australia". These people are just asking to have all their mailboxes filled with goatse pictures, even if at this point in time that would probably be a normal looking guy who would be stunned to discover what everyone would be staring up in only a few short years.

Enough failed attempts later and this security is revealed to be even worse, the whole system just malfunctioning and saying in about as many words "Oh, fine, come on in and look around." But first, you have to solve... drum roll please... THE MOST FIENDISH PUZZLE EVER!

This is a challenging puzzle if you're an amnesiac currently in a neck-brace after spinal surgery.

If you get this wrong, you get kicked back to DOS, purely because the game isn't capable of actually extending a hand and smacking you in your stupid face. Get it right though, and you have unrestricted access to the systems of (snigger) "Magma, Ltd", a company that exists purely because someone had already registered Evil Inc. And if you think I'm being a little mean, wooooo, boy. Just check out the first message that you unlock after breaking their systems.

To: All Staff. A quick reminder - Ixnay on the urld omination-way

Yep, Magma, Ltd - I suppose technically there is a limited amount of magma in the Earth, though we're unlikely to run low on it any time soon - is openly planning to use geothermal energy to both take over the energy market and then take over the world. Unless something goes wrong in Australia, in which case the whole thing may blow up. But hey, you can't make an omelette without breaking a few tectonic plates. And so, the quest is on - to save the world. But how? By hacking into their systems and extracting data? Haha, no. You see, at some point Magma Ltd. made the silly mistake of writing "The Magma Project" down on a piece of paper, which it then shredded. Spies from around the world have stolen shredded pieces of this document... I'm not sure exactly how... which the company needs back before they can be taken to Federal Agents - since obviously, only the US is going to give a crap, and they have total jurisdiction over the test site. In Australia. Which, in case this needs clarifying, is not in America. Due to being Australia.

Did I mention that the Les Manley guy designed this? The one who decided the perfect last puzzle in the game would be having the main character killed during a talent show, and only surviving if they'd previously collected a 'resurrection card' by kissing a fairground gypsy fortune teller to make her vanish and then petting her stuffed lizard? Because that is a thing that happens in that game, and right now, I'm not sure which of the two is sillier. But anyway. That's a scab that doesn't need re-picking.

Here's where it gets really crazy though. Again, you'd think that being a hacker, you'd use your abilities to get in touch with these spies, gathering data to earn their trust and slowly piecing together the perfect case against Magma Ltd ("If I Wasn't Still Frozen, I'd Buy Shares!" - Dr. Evil). But no. That would make far too much sense. So what do you do? You send... a robot. Yes, I was not kidding about the robot.

Aw, it's adorable. With its little wheel and everything...

But gosh, you cry, how is that supposed to work? How will a robot ever be able to handle the footwork of something like this? Well, it's simple. Because it's not just your ordinary, everyday telepresence robot. Oh no. It's a futuristic, high-technology robot... with access to an intercontinental series of tunnels under the Earth's crust. I am so not joking about this. Magma Ltd. has turned the entire Earth into a glorified underground network, and it hasn't even gotten to the Evil Plan bit of its evil plan. This is what they did in preparation for the plan, just to save time and money on flights apparently.

Oh, hey, the Goatse man WAS around this early in the game.

Oh, but don't think this is as easy as it looks. At the start, it is. But later, you lose the ability to see where you are, so if you haven't mapped it - well, you're screwed. You also have to take extensive notes on the game's plot, because every now and again you get caught by a satellite and asked a trivia question about it like the name of the company, and really finicky details like the serial number of the Laziness Droid. You're also on a really, really tight timer, and get very few clues about how to go about persuading the world's spy community to start handing over their shredded bits of the note. Magma Ltd. conveniently sends a stack of cash, mistaking you for one of their operatives, but warns that everyone will want something different in exchange and that you can very easily screw yourself over.

And so, Operation: Where In The World Domination Plot Is Carmen Sandiego begins.

C'mon, nobody who looks that much like a spy would REALLY be a spy, right?

I love the spies in this game. What happens is that you go to a city on the map screen using the magma tunnels, then just sort of float out into the middle of a city and call up one of the Blues Brothers for a chat. Nobody seems to be remotely surprised or taken aback at finding a robot waiting for them, just being all "Okay, sure, whatever, let's do this thing." Only of course, nothing is quite that simple, because all of them do it in their own language... and there's no translator. Though the happy little bounce everyone gives when you trade is quite literally a thing that transcends boundary and culture.

Okay, one second, reaching for Google Trans- AAARGH IT HASN'T BEEN INVENTED YET!

Though this being Hacker, you just know even that is going to go wrong at some point.

Oui, je totally and utterly would.

What's that? You want to see the British one? Well, strike a light, guv'nor...

Please, we don't all talk like that. Some of our butlers are posh.

The spies of the world turn out to be the craziest bunch of hoarders imaginable, swapping their little scraps of paper for not only the deeds to Swiss chalets, but the likes of pearls, diamonds and jade carvings... okay, I guess... as part of a chain of deals that ends up with you racing from London to San Francisco to get the final piece of the puzzle in exchange for...

...a Beatles LP. Really. The entire world hinges on it! And while normally I might point out that you could probably save a bit of time if you just, y'know, went in and bought one from a store rather than hoping Boris and Natasha were big fans of Do You Want To Know A Secret, in this case I guess it's fair. After all, HMV staff are much more likely to blink if Johnny 5 suddenly rumbles in still smelling of sulphur.

But still... wow. Just, wow.

There's not much more in the way of story than that, though Hacker does offer a cute little twist in its ending - the final screen being a print-out of your success in The Washington Post, this game coming from the era when 'borrowing' things like that was considered cute rather than the company lawyer's new college fund, and you get the option to print it out and keep it for ever and ever and ever and ever and ever, if you want to, which you probably don't. Partly because it can't help but take a second to promote two other games from the company, Borrowed Time - a noir adventure that never came out on PC - and Alter Ego, the life simulation about misery and suffering and the perpetual humiliations of existence.

Here's the Atari ST version, which inevitably looked nicer than the PC one.

Hacker II: The Doomsday Papers was a bit of a stealth continuation, with you recruited for your services by the CIA while hacking into a hilariously mastabatory fake BBS boasting reviews of computer games, and an interview with "Famous Designer" Steve Cartwright. Now, to be fair, he has actually done quite a bit over the years beyond Les Manley and its sequel, as listed on the Wikipedia page that even the Wikipedia editors note looks rather like a resume. It also claims that Les Manley 2 was the first game to use live actors captured in front of a blue screen. You might argue with that, but in practice it just refers to the fact that everyone was literally locked in a cage in front of thee camera until they finished shooting that turkey, after three different LaFondas escaped out of an unlocked window in response to the script.

True story! See, here's an actual bit from the long-lost Making Of documentary.

"And then the script says... hey, wait there! I just thought of a way we could use this in the game!"

Despite a similar premise though, Hacker 2 played completely differently. It was more stealth driven, with you steering multiple droids around the facility and trying to avoid guards, despite having a bank of monitors so badly configured that the first task is to... no kidding... fix the vertical hold so that you can start playing. Insert sound of a head banging into a desk here. James Bond never had to put up with this crap.

Screw this, let's just show up with a pizza and hope the guard's hungry.

The twist is that somewhat inevitably it turns out you've been had, and are actually working for a vengeful Magma, Ltd - or at least, one of the executives you hacked out of his golden handshake last game. But story isn't exactly the game's strong point, and nor are graphics, sound, the game itself, or anything connected to it. Really, it's pretty damn bad, ahead of its time in a few ways, but not great even at the time and now pretty much entirely unplayable. Though with the slight amusement factor that instead of being told "Congrats, you saved the world", this time you get on the cover of Rolling Stone, along with a picture of... your top secret spy droid. Hang on. Joey from Beneath A Steel Sky, is that you?

Special Skills: Forgetting that it can't fly. Occasionally, a welder.

Really, my favourite thing about Hacker II is the defense method used to stop your drones - the most specialised tool imaginable. It's called a SAM, and is essentially a big metal plate on legs that drives over your robot and smashes it flat. Good job they weren't up against a person, or a just slightly wider invading droid. That could have been seriously embarrassing for all concerned.

Still, it's not quite what you'd expect from a game called "Hacker". Bonus points for trying to shake up the formula and making something slightly more sane than the original. Pretty much all of them have to docked for what came instead though, and again, this is not exactly an experience that puts the 'play' into 'remotely playable' today. Definitely, if you want to feel like a hacker, your best bet is Uplink.

Or trying to break into the Pentagon, of course. I gather the current password is 'sausages'. They've not gotten much better about that stuff since Gary McKinnon, apparently, though they have at least moved some of the good stuff out of the Desktop folder and into one called 'dontreadthis'.

But of course, you didn't hear that here.


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