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The Lost Floppy Disk that Beat Hackers for 30 Years [dSNtL_eWqlU].txt

tagged node pneuma: tag:alrest

Created at 2023-12-04 18:01

In the history of floppy disks, there is one that has garnered much attention and gained
great popularity, not so much for its content, but for what it concealed.
Creators and piracy experts were completely defeated by a single piece of plastic.
The floppy disk, in fact, contains a seemingly simple and common game for those times, as
it was common to pirate and violate these disks.
However, in this case, there was something strange and complicated about doing so, because
its creator had found a way to make the floppy disk completely secret and inviolable.
This is why it became a tough challenge for the hacker community for more than three decades
because even when its security is breached, it still retains a small enigma that certainly
won't be solved soon.
For many, piracy is the best thing that can exist in the world.
For example, the most common and widely used form by most people is streaming, where you
can access a catalogue of movies and TV series completely for free.
Of course, if you use a paid platform, it's easier because you just need to click play.
But if you resort to piracy, you'll have to search through different pages and watch
various types of ads.
In the context of video games, however, the situation is more complex.
If you want to pirate a game for your computer, you'll need at least a basic knowledge of
Piracy is a well-known problem, acknowledged by video game companies, that have tried to
address it in every possible way throughout history.
For instance, in recent times we have witnessed the emergence of so-called anti-piracy screens,
used by various companies, including Nintendo.
These screens, as the name suggests, appear when attempting to run an illegal copy of
a video game.
They often prove annoying and in many cases make playing the game practically impossible.
Initially, these screens proved quite effective, although eventually hackers managed to develop
methods to bypass them and still use the content.
Some programmers adopted an intermediate solution called off-disk copy protection.
This involved a physical element included in the game's packaging, along with the disk,
allowing anyone with this physical item to create and use as many copies of the disk
as they desired.
At times, players were asked to input a keyword printed in the game manual, but this method
was not very effective in copy protection, as the manual could be photocopied and distributed,
along with the disk copies.
Other developers took more stringent measures to protect copies outside of the disk.
Lenslock, for instance, was a prism device included in the game's packaging.
Before the game started, an unpleasant capture appeared on the screen, and the player had
to look through the prism to decipher it.
These copy protection algorithms typically exploited highly technical details at the
hardware level.
Concerning how computers read data.
And this is where the story of the obscure floppy disk begins.
Not everyone has had the chance to see one in person, it's simply a small, colorful
device made of plastic and is quite fragile.
Even touching the internal disk with just a finger can damage it.
They were usually sold with limited capacity, like two or three megabytes.
Often piracy became more of a necessity than a whim.
In the 80s and early 90s, programmers faced limited resources.
Hackers, one way or another, always managed to overcome the barriers placed before them.
Piracy prevention for video games seemed to be a lost battle for many, except for one.
Goombal, the original video game from 1983, which later received adaptations for consoles
like the Atari 800 and the Commodore 64.
Although initially created for the Apple II a specific 8-bit microcomputer, Goombal
proved to have an advanced anti-piracy system.
Goombal is an action video game where the player operates in a factory.
In fact it's a fairly simple game, you have to guide a rubber ball through a system of
inverted tubes until it reaches specific containers.
Your mission is to accurately sort the ball based on its color.
What makes it interesting are the peculiarities, like appearing to be an employee progressing
through various levels.
Despite not being a masterpiece, it has its charm.
Indeed, Goombal was never a hugely successful game, even though it received many positive
Despite its apparent simplicity, this game represents one of the greatest failures in
hacking history.
It all started when attempts were made to hack its computer version, and it was discovered
that there was no way to hack it.
In fact this might have been the reason for its poor sales because, thanks to its security,
only a few people played it, losing its commercial value.
On the other hand, it became very popular for any hacker who wanted to demonstrate their
Goombal's copy protection system was praised as one of the most ingenious and challenging
ever devised, mentioned in specialized magazines of the time, and even labeled as evil.
It was impossible to violate it and pirates realized it.
While rumors started and increased, it was thought that everything could be resolved
as technology advanced maybe within a few years, but it wasn't the case.
33 years passed before someone managed to do something.
Indeed in 2016, a hacker known as 4AM and his team decided to take on the challenge.
During this endeavor, they discovered a hidden Easter egg.
The goal of 4AM with Goombal was simply to find a copy for Apple II computers extract
the file and save it so that anyone could access it.
However, they soon found themselves dealing with something larger.
As usual, things designed for Apple systems were a bit more complex to manipulate, entering
these operating systems is complicated, because in this case most copy protection software
acquires small portions of data called sectors and replicates them one after another.
But in this situation, the absence of the 16 sector format prevents copying through most
Apple programs.
These disks have a special code that tells the computer how to load data from the disk.
This code is called the bootloader.
The bootloader explains how to read data and where to put it in the computer's memory.
Usually this process is simple and efficient, but in Goombal's case it's incredibly complicated.
It's as if it had infinite numbers and indecipherable codes.
At this point the situation becomes even more complex.
The hackers found themselves facing something like a puzzle.
Let's say it's like instead of reading a normal text, you have to build it based on sections
of a sheet where they only give you half words and you have to complete them by guessing.
4AM was a very intelligent hacker.
When 4AM saw this code he didn't even know what it was.
And more importantly everything I just explained made it impossible to play the game beyond
the third level, even if they succeeded in hacking it.
The game was designed to stop working if this complicated process wasn't executed.
It was created to make it difficult for people to intervene and try to play without following
the intended procedure and his team spent a lot of time unraveling the mysteries of
this strange programming.
They managed to make the game work without using the bootloader and once they did that
they made changes to the gameplay.
This helped them discover that the game had a hidden secret ending that no one had ever
seen before.
If a player pressed a specific set of keys during certain scenes they could create a secret
message instructing to enter a three letter code when finishing the game.
Using another set of keys you could access a special screen that said double helix and
when you completed the final level you had to type the acronym ADN to reveal a special
message from the developer that said, you made it, either you are an excellent game player
or program breaker you are certainly one of the few people that will ever see this screen.
This is not the end though, in another Broderbund product, type Zodware for more puzzles.
Have fun, bye.
This shocked everyone because there was another puzzle with the code Zodware to solve, which
was found in another Brotherbund product, the company that developed the game.
Shortly after 4am solved the puzzle, an email arrived from the main developer of this game,
Lubinka Cook.
Lubinka had served as a model for one of the characters in the classic Prince of Persia
games and was the mastermind behind all of this.
In the email she said, I assumed it would take a thousand but you solved it in a mere
thirty three years.
Despite 4am's success, Lubinka probably feels unbeatable because there is still an easter
egg to uncover in one of Brotherbund's games.
Brotherbund existed until 1988 and developed a wide range of titles so figuring out which
game it should be inserted into and under what conditions is an ongoing task.
It's likely one of the most challenging easter eggs to solve in the history of video games
which could take another thirty three years or maybe even three hundred and thirty.
Who knows.

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