Game Name: Hacker
Platforms: DOS
Publisher(s): Activision
Developer(s): Activision
Genre(s): Adventure
Release Date: 1985

Can’t say there are too many games that start this way. There is no manual or paper documentation of any kind. All that’s in the box is a disk. Putting said disk in the computer and booting it up drops you instantly to a blank logon screen. No intro, no credits, no company icons, just the login request and a cursor blinking patiently.

It fits the concept of the game. You are supposed to have gained access to a mysterious computer, and left to discover its secrets on your own. You could even say that the disk allegedly grants you access to a secure network rather than pretending you’re sitting down at a strange terminal, but really, the details of how you gain access to the disk and its contents are left to your imagination. The point is that you’re supposed to be uncovering a vast conspiracy in a form meant to seem plausible, but still clearly contained within the game – unrealistically real, if you will. It’s a blurring of lines that would be repeated in games like SLAM 5 (a Prodigy online game where you allegedly network into a secret research computer and read fake news articles about the project) or more recently “In Memoriam” (where you “receive” a CD-ROM from a serial killer). Here may be the first attempt at this technique. It certainly grabs the attention.

The real disappointment is that the game has nothing really to do with hacking at all. Now I’m not expecting an elaborate offline replication of online hijinks (like 2001’s Uplink: Hacker Elite), but I figured you would be doing a lot of file reading and text-based DOS navigating through a simulation of a computer carrying secrets. This is far from the case. The hacking promised by the title comes only in the plot, and only in what imaginative way you accessed the disk’s fake network. Once you get past the login screen – which actually happens regardless of your input – you’ll find a fairly standard maze game with some international espionage irrelevantly added in.

The main map/control screen. Pretty much all you’ll see.

I don’t think it’s a tremendous giveaway to tell that, after getting past the undocumented entry screens and a mildly pointless identification game that would have made good copy protection if there were a manual, you find you’ve stumbled upon the controls for a robot built by the Magma corporation. It’s a subterranean drone (big surprise, considering the company’s name) and there apparently is some sort of plan to take over the world by harnessing the power of underground heat. Now I didn’t make that up. The phrase “world domination” is explicitly used in one of the many corporate/project messages you will get on your drone control screen. Another mail warns that spies across the world have all stolen pieces of a document detailing Magma’s plans, and that if that document reaches Washington DC, the project is doomed. This sets off the major action of the game, and it’s your job to retrieve the document in full and learn what Magma is really up to for yourself.

Now I know what you’re thinking. This could still be considered hacking, right? Well, here’s where the game breaks away from what the title promised. You have to travel the world and make offers to the various spies in return for their piece of the document, or trinkets to trade to other spies. You do this through use of the hijacked Magma drone and the tunnels they carved out. You’ll literally travel under a city, burrow up, call the spy over and make simple “yes/no/inventory” offers. Seeing a screen where you set up a trade with a spy, then see your little claw arm reach out and snag the suitcase, is just a little fucking silly. Facilitating trades, like paying cash to the French spy for a chateau deed you can trade to the British spy for his scrap of document, is the main game. Meeting spies from behind the camera of your drone is just an excuse to explain why you’re doing this all from the computer. But “Robot Courier Controller” wouldn’t have sounded quite as cool as “Hacker.”

That’s really it. You travel back and forth through the maze until you collect all pieces of the document by trading among the greedy spies. Then you take the document to Washington yourself and blow the whole thing wide open, which as I understand it, the spies were going to do anyway. That’s not to say the game itself won’t change as you continue. You’ll eventually have to dodge security satellites that meander around the map screen in a most un-geosynchronous way, and tagging one requires you to enter a password based on information you probably didn’t pay attention to in the opening screens. The lights in the tunnels will also die eventually, making your navigation a little more harried. But I can’t make it clear enough that the actual gameplay itself truly has dick-all to do with hacking. If you get this game expecting to crack fake databases and transfer information around, like the hacking in Neuromancer, you’re going to be astoundingly disappointed.

All the agents speak their home language. Nice touch.

Graphics are simplistic CGA, and mostly are used to provide a graphical interface for your drone. You have a small camera feed which doesn’t show anything all that interesting (it’s just a robot burrowing through the earth after all), and is mostly useful to see if the direction ahead is open. A map screen at the bottom of the display shows your basic position, but not the layout of the tunnels. You’ll have to get out your graph paper for that. Otherwise, you could probably just wander around, and the map does show how many grid spaces you could move ahead before hitting a tunnel wall. You set up your intended path this way and hit enter to send the drone along.

Sound is limited to the pulse that plays when text types out on the screen, Hollywood computer style, or a constant growl from your PC speaker that I suppose is meant to represent the drone’s motor idling. Controlling the drone is easy enough despite the lack of a manual. This is mostly because all commands are listed on the side of the interface, and they are selected by… surprise, surprise… hitting the key corresponding to the first letter of the command. Once you figure out what you’re supposed to be doing in the game, figuring out how to make the drone work for you is fairly easy.

I’ve complained a lot about how the game has little to do with hacking, mostly because I want to steer you away from the same incorrect expectations that I had. All this would, of course, be forgivable if the game you ended up with was reasonably fun. It isn’t, and not just from a modern slant. The main game is Pac-Man with a maze layout you can’t see, and security satellites chasing you instead of ghosts. The trading part is mostly an excuse to get you moving between the various cities on the map, and all you need to do to beat it is build up your inventory and provide yourself enough time to backtrack among the spies. The conspiracy you uncover isn’t much better than one of Dr. Evil’s plans. Too many black marks against it to recommend.


The Good

Pretty neat setup. The first minute or so of figuring out what you’ve “stumbled upon” can be intriguing.

The Bad

Mostly just a maze run with some inter-spy trading to give the game purpose. Did I mention it has almost nothing to do with hacking?

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