Matthew Broderick’s character in 1983’s WarGames nearly starts WW3 after accidentally tapping into the military’s super-computer at NORAD, the WOPR, thanks to a chance discovery made after war dialing to find the unlisted number for an up-and-coming games maker. It was also a decidedly harder take on hacking and the rising power of PCs in the early eighties than Disney’s fantastical TRON in 1982 which leaned a lot more towards fantasy while using a few clever bits of technical jargon within its imaginative milieu.
Films like these touched on a generation of savvy technical savants back in the day when 1200 baud was considered as fast as lightning and BBSes sprung up everywhere a phone could reach to deliver everything from games and .gifs to zero day cracks and hacking manuals. It was literally the dawn of PCs for many and the excitement surrounding these little bundles of silicon and circuitry created ran rampant.
Even games got into the act and one of them was a little-known classic simply called Hacker by Steve Cartwright, released in 1985 by none other than Activision. It’s also one of the most original approaches on the subject that anyone had taken up to that point and a fantastic example of imaginative risk-taking though not so much on hacking despite the title.
The game only came with the folding album that the disk and installation/run instructions were packaged in. The album was emblazoned with text essentially saying that if you stumbled on an actual system, there wouldn’t be any instructions to tell you what to do next. And there really weren’t any that came with the game. You could mail in for a set of hints if you truly get stuck which the packaging tries to steer you from.
Loading it up, the game started you off in the same way that Broderick’s character did with the WOPR, not knowing what was on the other side — a simple prompt like this one:
It was up to you to guess what the password would be, though after some stumbling, it would finally give up its secrets. After all, it was still a game and it wouldn’t be very fun if players couldn’t even get past the first puzzle. Once you guessed the right password, or plugged away until the security “malfunctioned”, players found themselves inside Magma, LTD. and were eventually prompted to indicate what platform they were on as well as quiz them on parts of a subterranean robot — mostly trial-and-error until you found the right parts — before showing you a map of the world. Before long, a report comes up onscreen revealing the nefarious aims that Magma has for tapping into unlimited power as a part of their plans for world domination.
It was also where the actual “hacking” ended and the actual puzzle game began. As the fly in the cyber-ointment, it’s up to you to figure out just how to stop them using their underground network of tunnels criss-crossing the world in seconds and trade items with spies that have stolen pieces of a shredded document that will expose Magma’s plans. Why the spies would trust a machine, or how said machine can traverse underground tunnels in seconds, is never really explained — it just is.
The problem is that you have no idea what each agent will trade for their piece of the proof in a bit of social hacking. Each agent will also be talking in their native tongue to make things more interesting and you only have so much cash to trade with at the start to get the ball rolling. But each agent will also sell you certain things that others might want. Notes were a must.
Then there are the security satellites that eventually come in overhead. It’s possible to avoid them by planning your routes underground to slip by them, but eventually, when they find your robot, you’ll be quizzed on info that you have already gone through to see just how attentive you were. Failing too many times will eventually kick you from the system to try the whole thing over again from the start. There was also no save or checkpoint system.
If you made it to the end (which I should try for again one of these days), it topped things off by creating a front page story from the Washington Post on how you saved the world.
The game was eventually ported to a large number of platforms from the Amiga and the Amstrad to the ZX Spectrum and Japan’s MSX. with varying degrees of digital touch ups for their graphics. Unfortunately, it’s also treated as something along the lines of abandonware as it hasn’t shown up in any new collection or digital download service since.
While it paid only lip service to the idea of hacking into a system and stumbling onto something its audience shouldn’t have, it would spawn a sequel in 1986 that took things to a more technical level when it allowed players to manipulate a security system to find their way through a secured installation. It also wouldn’t be the only game that would tickle the underbelly of computers as the next few decades would see the occasional title that explored it from a futuristic standpoint such as Interplay’s Neuromancer based on William Gibson’s book of the same name or Introversion’s Uplink.
Today, Activision has largely focused on maintaining its mainstream appeal through its most popular products, but its history tells us that it wasn’t always the case in those early years. Like the underground it took after, Hacker bucked the system in a way that a number of today’s publishers would be nervous about doing again.