Maybe it was figuring out how teachers’ passwords were encoded on my high school’s typing tutor program. Or how to copy the code from a game cartridge on my computer to disk. Or recovering “eternally lost” files for eternally grateful people.
But the dark portion of my soul is largely occupied by a cyberpunk.
The truly sinister contemplations are restrained by that large reservoir of sanity that keep most of us from indulging in disturbing fantasies such as arson, cannibalism and crushing Fred Phelps with a rainbow-colored Toyota Yaris. I never changed anyone’s grades or tried to sabotage the Pentagon, although I did hack various machines and files of parents, schools and peers (and took great joy in breaking some of the more evil copy-protection schemes, such as those that destroyed all your files if it thought the disk was pirated).
Mostly it was just harmless perusing and bragging rights, but as time went on it actually became a useful skill for people in seemingly hopeless predicaments. It’s a great way to ensure you’ll have friends in the freakishly remote places I tend to inhabit like Antarctica and the desolate polar north, much like being a designated driver was my ticket in college. One of the most fun recent accomplishments was deconstructing the code for Google’s Pac-Man doodle so users can adjust all sorts of game parameters to their liking (an article that should be floating somewhere around this site).
Using my geek superpowers for good instead of evil means a lot of hacking possibilities are out of reach, much like being unable to use the dark side of the Force. Plenty of times I’ve wondered if I could be as smart as some of the hacktivists I read about – thinking, for instance, I think could have “invented” the internet virus a year before it and Al Gore burst onto the national scene in 1988 if someone had explained the concept to me.
You’d think it’d be a natural genre for computer games, but I’m generally disappointed at the lack of number and quality of authentic simulations where it’s just you and your terminal. The concept made a decent debut in 1984 with System 15000, a text quest for the likes of the Commodore 64 and Sinclair ZX Spectrum where the player tries to hack into a corporate computer system to retrieve $1.5 million stolen from a friend. It was slow (pretending it was one of those ancient 300-baud modems was better than the reality it was written in BASIC) and the gameplay pretty much about hacking into one machine for a clue that would enable you to progress to a different terminal.
A number of hacker games followed that had me hooked on spec, but seeing/playing them was largely disappointing as few were true simulations of sitting in front of a screen and keyboard, admittedly a hard concept to sell to the general Doom/Mario/MK crowd. Gameplay wound up being more like everything from Risk to a first-person shooter (the Windows/Mac title Uplink comes the closest to my ideal, FWIW.)
Hack RUN, displaying only the long-ago familiar sight of plain green ASCII text on a black screen, was captivating when it recently appeared in the App Store. The promo copy promises nothing flashy – just typing UNIX- or DOS-like text commands, along with the need to access actual websites to complete your unspecified mission. There’s no way it wouldn’t be worth a mere 99 cents.
It is, but it doesn’t take long for a deep sense of unfulfilled potential to sink in.
(Note: One of the “customers also bought” links on Hack RUN’s App Store page is for the 2009 game iHack, which also looks enormously promising with its need to do things like binary/hex conversions and use SQL interjections. Look for a review of it soon if indeed it lives up to its promise, or not-so-soon if someone forces me into the Geeks Anonymous counseling I so obviously need.)
The lack of a clear initial purpose in Hack RUN is great, much like wondering where and what is going on at the beginning of Myst. But unlike games were you need to do some befuddled exploring to figure out a starting point, the hand-holding from the beginning of Hack RUN is a bit absurd – and virtually a banner ad that more disappointments are ahead.
The promo copy says the game is “more than 50 levels deep,” but you start suspecting that might not be much when you level up simply for starting the game and then again for typing the “help” command when prompted to at the opening screen. You’ll advance two more levels to Level 5 just by typing three more equally obvious commands in succession. Instead of achievement, it feels more like the Special Olympics where everybody wins just for showing up. (Those athletes massively deserve it. Code shredders are among those who most definitely do not).
Still, I held out hope the game’s challenge would deeper than a “one commanding, one level” progression. An early note about a user named Alice being “not very bright” about her password naturally led me to try “wonderland” in various uppercase/lowercase forms, which was incorrect. That gave me a chance to test an included hint/solution guide, where you can request a nudge or the actual command necessary to progress. A couple of other early puzzles involving passwords weren’t as simple as I initially thought. In one case I had the right command, but because there was more than network to hack within the group it turned out I was using the wrong one.
An internet connection is necessary to access various websites (duh), which are occasionally interesting but too often just a stopping place for another obvious tip (suggestion: for a bit of real hacking fun, look at the code for various pages and see what’s possible to explore). Despite the modern wonders of online and touch-screen technology, it’s advisable to have paper and pen for keeping track of various commands, passwords and notes about various persons/entities.
Overall, the game is a lot like System 15000, a good thing, but I found the older game offered more intrigue and plot despite its pokiness and simpler features. It’ll take a few hours to complete Hack RUN – which certainly qualifies as a least a dollar’s worth of entertainment – but there won’t be much feeling of reward from either the effort or victory screen when you do so. Old-school hackers will probably find it worth a try, but the general gaming population is probably better off continuing to dissect “real” games for easter eggs and torrent sites for serial number cracks.
Hack RUN by i273 LLC
Requires: iOS 3.1.3 or later
Rating: Users must be 17 or older (Infrequent/Mild Cartoon or Fantasy Violence; Infrequent/Mild Profanity or Crude Humor; Frequent/Intense Mature/Suggestive Themes; Infrequent/Mild Horror/Fear Themes; Infrequent/Mild Alcohol, Tobacco, or Drug Use or References)
Size: 1.5 MB