Back in 1983, three years before Ferris Bueller demonstrated to the world the most entertaining way to exploit a sick day, Matthew Broderick starred in a particularly enjoyable if not completely ridiculous Cold War film known as WarGames.
Around this time, relations between the Soviet Union and the US weren’t too crash-hot, and much of the rhetoric thrown between the two countries involved genuinely terrible threats around the possibility of Armageddon. As a result, both countries began developing significantly complex and sophisticated computers to both set targets and track incoming ICBMs, with the US centralizing them in NORAD, and the Soviets scattering them around various early warning and retaliatory bunkers.
WarGames imagined a situation where a clever high school student unknowingly hacked into one of the US’s most intelligent machines, programmed with limited AI that would take much of the human element out of firing on Russian cities if the need arose.
It was during the buzz around early networked computing in 1985 when a title known as Hacker quietly released (by Activision, no less) across the large spectrum of PC platforms including MS-DOS, Amiga, Spectrum and Macintosh. What made this game particularly original, especially back in 1985, was the very limited amount of almost any information provided to the player. There was a box with an obscure blurb, no manual, nor any ability to save or jump back to certain completed areas, and a host of very unforgiving game mechanics.
The stage is deftly set after the executable is launched; there is no splash screen, music or options – just a plain terminal login prompt. While enough failed access attempts will eventually provide a “glitched” entry into the system, this is about as much forgiveness as Hacker possesses. After, the player will be tasked with checking the alignment of a very 1960′-esque robot (or as the game describes it, “Subterranean Remote Unit”) by moving a cursor over the various components with very cryptic names like “Phlamson Joint” and “Asynchronous Data Compactor”. It requires a 100% straight-through pass rate (get your pen and paper out folks) before you can move on.
From here, your robot becomes your eyes and ears as you traverse a system of underground caves, as you piece together information on the “Magma Project” via either finding or trading items and documents. Cleverly, the interface is a combination of your robot’s sight alongside the computer’s mainframe, but this doesn’t make navigation easy nor does it give you any hints or tips on where you need to head. Much of the narrative and direction comes from reading things carefully, solving cryptic but relevant puzzles, and making sure you take notice of where you have been and where you are going.
The lack of a save system is absolutely killer – I had to keep DOS Box open in a window for each time I wanted to stop, not including the various times I failed and had to start from the very beginning.
You’ll spend a lot of time attempting to navigate through the series of caves from your starting location. Every now and again, there will be a “Project Update” or something similar that either provides some information about your mission or about the corporation behind the veil. Even twenty-seven years on Hacker is, still, easily one of the most challenging, frustrating and downright nasty I have ever played.
It tries to put you off playing at almost every turn by outright refusing to divulge commands for the robot, playing high pitched noises and seemingly random “blips” and “beeps” that actually mean something, or allowing you to actively fail by running out a limited amount of cash you need to negotiate for items or going to the wrong locations and removing your bot’s video feed completely.
Every single element of forward momentum gained in Hacker will make you work for it, as if you actually were a hacker who had stumbled into this completely alien system without documentation or any sort of objective or purpose. While the game begins to gradually drip feed information over the course of its duration, you always feel like you are sitting under a dark cloud of obscurity. But the challenge isn’t in vain – successful completion of tasks is especially rewarding, either during the discovery of a new area or during bargaining sessions with other clandestine agents. Things become even more difficult later on when the system realizes that there has been an unauthorized breach and begins a concerted effort to weed you out, querying the player with questions “only a true user would know”.
The brilliant part of this system is that the questions are answerable — but only if you have been paying attention to the information provided during the session.
What I loved (and still love) about Hacker is that it harks back to an era when programmers weren’t afraid to assume some deeper intelligence on the part of the player. There is almost zero explanation outside basic commands about where and how the game works, or where its going. Although this game doesn’t attempt to replicate the real world form of actual hacking, it does successfully emulate the sheer bloody minded, trial and error reality of hacking: crawling around in the dark.
Introversion’s 2001 title Uplink provided a Hollywood imagining of this same pursuit, but it’s fun in a way that playing Air Combat is like flying a F-18. Hacker has just so many of those moments where you sort of fall back in your chair, dumbfounded, racking your brain for a solution, or will find yourself scribbling notes and rough sketches so you don’t forget a particular route or situation for later use.
The kicker? There was a sequel, Hacker 2: The Doomsday Papers, — and it was even harder. Oh, if you ever figure out the original correct login account, you’ll probably have a little laugh. It’s more obvious than you’d think.