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Hacker (Commodore 64) artwork

Hacker (Commodore 64) review

"To understand why Hacker became a cult classic, first it's necessary to know that the actual game is only part of the package. Think back to 1985, when games were already sold in stores, in a way not all that different from today - flashy boxes with cover art, blurbs of advertizing and little screenshots on the back, and a new smelling game and paper manual inside. Hacker, in the meantime, has a non-descript box with very little information on it, and inside, only a Commodore 64 cassette tape. N..."

To understand why Hacker became a cult classic, first it's necessary to know that the actual game is only part of the package. Think back to 1985, when games were already sold in stores, in a way not all that different from today - flashy boxes with cover art, blurbs of advertizing and little screenshots on the back, and a new smelling game and paper manual inside. Hacker, in the meantime, has a non-descript box with very little information on it, and inside, only a Commodore 64 cassette tape. No manual. Only a game tempting you to load it up.

Once you do, a blue screen appears with only the words "Logon please". You shrug and type something at random, only to have your logon rejected. You try a few more times until the system helpfully offers you "H for help", at which point it'll tell you that the current password is the location of the test site. What test site? Your next logon is rejected too and the system is about to disconnect you when suddenly error messages appear, and you somehow make it inside anyway.

Next, schematics for some sort of robot called an SRU appear, and you are prompted to point out specific parts as they are named, as part of a diagnosis test. Still having no idea what you're doing or where the parts in question are, you highlight random parts of the robot until they are accepted as the right ones. The diagnostic ends, but the system is unsatisfied that you didn't get them all right at once, and prompts you to start over.

By the time you get through it flawlessly on memory, and you've been playing for some 20 or 30 minutes, you'll have started wondering what the point of the game is. It keeps you guessing a while longer. The bottom part of the screen now displays a map of the world, the top part a first person view of a tunnel, and the parting words "your Subterranean Reconnaissance Unit is stationed in the South Atlantic". An indicator lights up "MSG" and an alarm starts blaring, which eventually gives way to an inbound message once you figure out you're supposed to press M.

It is only at that point that you finally get some explanation, but not much. You are connected through your computer to a robotic vehicle in an underground - or in this case, underseas - tunnel. The robot belongs to Magma, Ltd, the company whose computers you logged into at the start. As you start moving the robot around the tunnels using the joystick, another message pops up which finally gives you your objective. A vital document belonging to Magma has been stolen and split up into ten pieces, now in the hands of spies all over the globe. Your mission is to seek them out and bribe them into returning the pieces, either by cash offer or by buying various kinds of merchandise off them that can then be offered to other spies. You are warned to do this before "the federals" can get their hands on the document, and to "stay clear of the test site" as there is a risk of "continental destruction". Welcome to Hacker.

I'm describing all this because 90% of the Hacker experience is the mystique. You start out not knowing what kind of game you just bought - marketing, I imagine, was mostly word of mouth - and even as you play and even lose your first sessions, you still barely know what you're doing. Getting used to moving around the tunnels is easy enough, and eventually you'll find your way to various cities marked on the map, where you can then meet with one of the spies and piece together the document. Each spy, when given the right item (or in the case of the first, a generous cash bribe), will offer up his piece and also offer two more items for sale, which you may or may not need to give to another spy. You can't afford them all, though, and it's even possible that a spy will accept several different items, including some that are the only item a different spy will accept. Furthermore, the tunnels are a bit of a maze, and it's impossible to tell except by experimentation how to get from one city to another. To make matters worse, parts of your robot begin failing as the game proceeds, first making it harder to navigate and then making your position invisible entirely, requiring you to work entirely on memory or (more likely) a map you're drawing as you go.

Many playthroughs will be needed to establish the right way to get through the game. Mapmaking, experimenting with offering items to spies, determining the shortest route between all the cities you need to visit (you're working on a time limit before you get disconnected, too), and also piecing together the story and your ultimate objective (let's just say the game's title has significance). The excitement of figuring this all out bit by bit is precisely what made Hacker work. It had to, because the gameplay is very simple, challenging only because nothing less than a perfect game will work. Trade one item away to the wrong spy, buy one item you don't need and that will leave you with too little money later on, or even take one wrong turn anywhere in the tunnels so you can no longer complete your mission within the time limit, and your game is once again doomed to failure. This kind of punishing difficulty is not uncommon for its era, but the game consists of nothing else than moving around and trading items. It would be hard to stay motivated long enough to pull it off, but for the air of mystery surrounding the story. Everything including the introductory scenes and the way the game itself was packaged and sold banks on this. In an age where looking up the right solution online after two failed attempts is all too tempting, something like this might never work again.

Is Hacker something you need to play now, after all that time? Doubtful. By today's standards, the game demands an unreasonable amount of patience for practically no return value. With a FAQ in hand it can be played through in 15 minutes (the complete solution can be summed up in about 200 words), but then nothing of what made this a cult classic in the first place works at all. But you've got to admire how successful Hacker was at the time just for doing things so differently, and that's what my grade is based on.

sashanan's avatar
Community review by sashanan (September 14, 2008)

Sashanan doesn't drink coffee; he takes tea, my dear. And sometimes writes reviews. His roots lie with the Commodore 64 he grew up with, and his gaming remains fragmented among the very old, the somewhat old, and rarely the new.

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drella posted September 17, 2008:

I don't have much else to say other than I thought this was a really good review, because Hacker requires discussing the presentation and back-story to get its appeal across. And this does a fine job conveying it. Sounds like a really neat game to be "in" on at the time.
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bloomer posted September 17, 2008:

I had this on the Apple II, and apart from the initial splat of logon screen mystery, I never got anywhere or enjoyed myself in any way as soon as I had control of the robot :)
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aschultz posted July 12, 2009:

This review persuaded me to give the game a shot. My, this is a spooky game to play in the early hours of the morning, even with a solution next to you. I had a lot of fun with it, especially the in-the-dark parts where you couldn't see where you moved. Amusing ending too. You get to print something out, and it asks you to type "E" for an Epson printer or "I" for an ImageWriter.

The simpler days weren't always simpler.

Oh yeah. One of the Apple security codes is different from the Commodore security codes. I skipped over the initial bit with the walkthrough I saw before finding that out.
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sashanan posted July 12, 2009:

Serial number of the craft, I'm betting? After all those years I still know it by heart (the Commodore one anyway).

It felt strange to finally finish it last year. In my mind this was one of those games that I'd never be able to see through, along with the Detective Game and Impossible Mission. For the latter, it's still true, assuming no cheats and no much easier DS remake.
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aschultz posted July 12, 2009:

Yup. It's got no D.

The trial and error used to solve the game is slightly vexing. I'm also frustrated it didn't tell you how much money you started with, but maybe I missed that.

Apparently Hacker 2 is much tougher. I'm rather intrigued, since it seems to have no walkthrough, but I don't know if I'd have the time for it.
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randxian posted July 12, 2009:

Wow. You sure do a good job of painting this as an intriguing, unique experience.

Although I don't like the sheer trial and error aspect. It's fine if the game won't allow mistakes, but there should be some hints as to what items you need to buy/trade/whatever, instead of sheer guesswork.

I find it particularly interesting when you say the game can be finished in about 15 minutes and the real solution is fairly short. Reminds me of how Myst can be finished in about 5 if you know what you are doing.
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aschultz posted July 12, 2009:

Well, the not knowing what to buy *is* unfair, but on the other hand the game is trying to establish some sort of mystery, and a lot of hacking really is trial and error and avoiding the dumb pitfalls. So in that respect, the game copies that, and I think a little unfairness helps define a game's style and lets you feel good about solving it.

However, after sleeping on the game, it seems to have a few bigger. weaknesses. On the Apple there is no save file, or none I could find. Also, you're not told how much money you have, really. You just find you're out of it after buying/selling stuff. That's unfair not to reveal. Again, I may be missing something. Oh, and the Apple offers different solutions based on what your name is (?) or maybe randomized on reboot--at any rate, I had to buy stocks instead of a diamond at New York. This makes for a potentially very maddening game. If I'm wrong, that'd be cool to know.

As for not allowing mistakes, I think the object is to get you to map everything out and then cope with moving in the dark later. For instance, if you buy item X and shop it around the world, you can see who takes what, and once you have a piece of the script, that information is yours for keeps. The trial and error may take too long, but it seems reasonable to assume you can/should visit each city only once.

This is a fancy way of saying I'm still not quite sure. But I have a feeling it's this sort of puzzle that will suck me into playing Hacker 2 eventually.
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sashanan posted July 12, 2009:

Although I don't like the sheer trial and error aspect. It's fine if the game won't allow mistakes, but there should be some hints as to what items you need to buy/trade/whatever, instead of sheer guesswork.

Agreed, and this would never fly today. Critics and players alike would rightfully call it out as cheap and needlessly annoying - heck, we tend to cry foul at an RPG sidequest being obscure to the point of "requiring a guide", when the fact that the solution made it into a guide in the first place seems to make clear that it can be figured with sufficient patience. Hacker, too, can be solved "simply" by drawing a map, taking notes, trying every item swap at every location and eventually figuring out which are the dead ends and which are the solutions.

Running out of money halfway the game is likewise an annoyance, and I agree that never stating how much money you have left, indeed never letting on that you have a limit (you missed nothing, ASchultz) is borderline sadistic. Still, this too can be figured out given the time.

That so little gameplay remains once you do have the deceptively short solution next to you clearly indicates that the game expected you to spend your time figuring it out. It's my opinion that as games grew longer, they naturally needed to rely less on this to get people to consider it good value for their money. But that's another pet peeve of mine for another time, that a game would have to produce a certain number of hours of gameplay to be considered good, rather than, I don't know, entertain you. I've played too many console RPGs that outstayed their welcome well before the final dungeon, leaving you to plod on only because you've already played so many hours and you hate to abandon yet another one.

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zippdementia posted March 11, 2010:

Great review Sashanan. I love how you push a certain angle but make no excuses for the game as it would hold up today. Your last paragraph is crucial to the piece. Without it, the whole thing would come tumbling down, making this some sort of wonderful art piece.

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