Methods and ethics of cheating in retro computer games

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Adam James
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Methods and ethics of cheating in retro computer games

Post by Adam James » Thu Jul 09, 2020 3:03 pm

Back in the day, I never used save-state cartridges and I never used pokes for "cheating" in games. The thought of such things, and the very word "cheat", made me feel uneasy. One should play fair, one should experience the game as the programmer intended, and one should feel great about oneself when one finally completed a game! Cricket, and all that:)

Except... 40 years on, we now can look back with hindsight and realise just how rare it was for anyone to complete many of those wonderful games.

Recently I've come to appreciate things like infinite-lives cheats. I felt bad as I entered a code to get infinite lives in Vindaloo, but then I played it. And played it. And played it. And still haven't completed it. It was still challenging, you still need excellent timing, you still need to learn and work out ways through the levels, and unless you can complete the game in one session, you need to start over next time you turn the computer on.

It turns out that infinite lives did not ruin the game for me. Rather, it made it more enjoyable, and more exciting, because I think I will get to the end at some point, and I think I will have overcome a significant challenge to get there.

If anything, modern games seem to have evolved strongly towards completability. Developers want the average player to get to the end. Even notoriously punishing modern games like Dark Souls have endings which seem more attainable than that of Manic Miner. The vast majority of modern PC and console games *are* infinite-life games.

So I'm going to try to stop using negative words like "cheat". The only type of "cheating" which is truly negative would be, for example, if we entered one of the high-score competitions this forum runs, and used save-states without telling people.

By contrast, an infinite-life *version* of Vindaloo, is a version of Vindaloo for modern tastes (do you see what I did there?). It will still punch you hard in the face, you will still need to get good at it, but now, there seems to be a point in trying. The balance of time-vs-reward feels right.

For a lot of games, I feel like an explorer rather than a scorer. Or perhaps, in the context of retro games, more like an archaeologist. I play to unearth the next level, buried by the sands of time: weird and wonderful worlds which I would not have ever seen were it not for infinite lives. And worlds which I can't help but think the programmer would want me to see, otherwise he/she had wasted their time.

This has been a revelation to me. So I'm wondering what people's views on such matters are? I think it's important for us not to tell others what is right and wrong; games are clearly a hedonistic thing, it's all about personal enjoyment, and I'm curious about the sweet-spot for others when it comes to maximising their enjoyment of retro games.

For me it seems to be heading this way:

* Text adventures: if I get stuck, I wait for a day, thinking about it. Then I'll try built-in hints. If not present, I'll read a solution if available, trying desperately not to read more than I need.

* Arcade games like space invaders / frogger / phoenix: I have no motivation to alter the game, I see them as 10-minute diversions and I like to see how far I can get / what score I can get.

* Arcade adventures / platformers: As of now, I think I'll be trying to find infinite-life versions unless they are easy. I don't like other types of variation, e.g. I've just tried an invulnerability alteration in Citadel. I didn't see the point, there was no challenge because you could walk through enemies. I couldn't find an infinite-life cheat, but there was one where you can greatly increase starting energy. This appealed to me a lot.

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Re: Methods and ethics of cheating in retro computer games

Post by Lardo Boffin » Thu Jul 09, 2020 7:03 pm

I apply a similar mindset to modern games. I played Fallout New Vegas when it first came out on xbox in hardcore mode without any mods, all the way through to completion. Because I had no kids and had the time.

Now however when I find time to switch a game on (and wait for the inevitable update that takes more time than I have available to play) I play through on the easiest setting possible so I can actually get somewhere without investing a load of time in each battle (making extensive use of cover, slow acting stimpacks and ammo that has weight etc.).

The same principal applies to old games. In order to see more than the first screen I would not hesitate to get a little assistance if necessary. I just don’t have the time to invest anymore. So I would accept help in Exile for example, as the purpose is to get to the end, but not in Elite where the purpose is basically to kill X number of pirates to get the Elite combat rating. Having extra lives / energy in Exile would allow further progress and exploration, having elite cheat lasers would make the whole thing pointless.
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Re: Methods and ethics of cheating in retro computer games

Post by richardtoohey » Fri Jul 10, 2020 2:52 am

@Adam - definitely had the same association with the "cheating" "scene" back in the day - but maybe they had it right and it's taken us this long to realise it. :?:

I'd feel it was "wrong" to try the codes that were in the magazines because I'd "spoil" my experience - but I was spoiling my own experience by not seeing 2/3rds of a game. :-k

But in my case I had a friend who was a lot better at the games so I did get to see more of them by watching him. We'd take turns and my games would be minutes long (if that!) and then I'd have to wait and wait for his turn to end!

I do enjoy the "easier" modern games, but not the ones that are too obviously "on rails".

BITD with the limited hardware the way to make things last was to ramp up the difficulty level but with the resources modern computer have - they don't have to be so mean to the player! But also means modern games need a lot of $$$s and people and time and $$$s!

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Re: Methods and ethics of cheating in retro computer games

Post by Adam James » Fri Jul 10, 2020 12:53 pm

Well I'm relieved the polite people on this forum have resisted the temptation to tell me to stop whining and "GIT GUD"!

@Lardo, yes, time is the biggest factor in my change of heart I think. I remember as a kid I imagined I'd have forever to finish games, now I find I'm looking backwards rather than forwards and wondering where all the time went.

@Richard, I was having exactly the same thoughts ... perhaps those "cheaters" back in the day were not weak-willed devious people, but realistic people, and it's taken us this long to achieve their level of wisdom!

I also realised my thought that developers now try harder to make sure games can be finished, may be wrong. Perhaps the games industry, after decades of learning, now has a much better idea of what the average gamer can do. Also I imagine they spend a lot more resources on having games play-tested before release.

I can well imagine Matthew Smith creating each level of Manic Miner, and playing through it so often while testing, that it seemed easy to him, and he didn't fully appreciated the hellish combination of levels not only getting harder and harder, but having to repeat the earlier levels over and over and over, so that by the time you got to the next harder level, you got 20 seconds of practice on it before you had to wait 10 minutes to get all the way back there. It's great fun, until it isn't, and then you find yourself drifting away from the game.

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Re: Methods and ethics of cheating in retro computer games

Post by Lardo Boffin » Fri Jul 10, 2020 3:41 pm

I have always wondered if the level select / infinite energy / god mode ‘cheats’ that magazines published were put there deliberately by the devs so that they can jump to the latest level to test it or at least get there very easily?
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Re: Methods and ethics of cheating in retro computer games

Post by sydney » Fri Jul 10, 2020 4:40 pm

Cheating. Back in the day I was always dead set against it. I only remember once using a cheat printed in electron user to give super fast energy recharge in Starship Command just to see what the later ships looked like.
I did however buy a solution and map for Exile and possibly Codename Droid, would that be considered cheating? I don't think so myself but maybe some people do. I completed Plan B 2 sometime in the last few years by using a map and solution from Stairway to hell but noticed that the solution was incorrect!
In the present I'd agree that 'cheating' is totally acceptable in order to see later parts of a game or even to learn how to complete a part of a game to help in an attempt to beat the game properly. I've certainly used save states at a hard part of a game so that I can try several strategies to get beyond it without having to play to that point every time.
Modern gaming leaves me feeling unfulfilled due to the low difficulty level and 'on-rails' gameplay. The only modern games I play at all are football or fighting games with my friends and Minecraft with the kids.

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Re: Methods and ethics of cheating in retro computer games

Post by geraldholdsworth » Fri Jul 10, 2020 6:30 pm

sydney wrote:
Fri Jul 10, 2020 4:40 pm
I did however buy a solution and map for Exile and possibly Codename Droid, would that be considered cheating?
I describe the Repton Resource Page as a help page, not a cheats page, because it has maps and passwords.
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Re: Methods and ethics of cheating in retro computer games

Post by Lardo Boffin » Fri Jul 10, 2020 8:00 pm

sydney wrote:
Fri Jul 10, 2020 4:40 pm

Modern gaming leaves me feeling unfulfilled due to the low difficulty level and 'on-rails' gameplay. The only modern games I play at all are football or fighting games with my friends and Minecraft with the kids.
If you want modern (some more so than others) games with no rails try:

Morrowind (graphics aside best of the three)
Oblivion
Skyrim

Or if you prefer bullets to fireballs:

Fallout 3
Fallout: New Vegas (graphics aside best of the three)
Fallout 4

They are about as far from rails as it is possible to get. :D
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Re: Methods and ethics of cheating in retro computer games

Post by Dan1975 » Fri Jul 10, 2020 8:05 pm

I won a copy of Cheat it Again Joe 1 & 2 in an Electron User competition back in the day. Rarely used any of them but I did prefer playing Spy Cat with invincibility as meant you could concentrate on solving the puzzles rather than trying to stay alive

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Re: Methods and ethics of cheating in retro computer games

Post by julie_m » Fri Jul 10, 2020 9:14 pm

For me, as a natural born hacker™, cheating at games was just a way of adding a new dimension to the entertainment. First there was the thrill of the chase: discovering how to hack a game was a fun challenge in its own right! Sometimes there was a layer of protection to be defeated. Once you could get the game into memory, and possibly also into the clear if it was encrypted, you could go exploring for DECrease instructions: C6 xx for the short address version, CE yy xx for the long address version, CA for DEX and 88 for DEY. Any occurrences of the starting number of lives would also be worth noting down. A printer helped, if you had one (especially given the ease of enabling and disabling it, on the Beeb); otherwise, a notepad and pencil would have to suffice. From then on, it was just a case of trial and error; changing the wrong instruction would usually result in a horrible crash, or maybe some mild corruption to the graphics, but once you found where the program was reducing the number of lives and replaced that instruction with the appropriate number of NOPs, the game would play with infinite lives. There would be an even chance of accidentally (but usefully) finding the decrease to any time bonus before the decrease to the lives counter ..... if there was one and I missed it, it would be worth looking for.

With simple hacks like infinite (or just extra) lives, nobbled collision detection or a stuck timer, you could discover parts of a game you could later try and get to without cheating; and you could keep repeating a particular challenge, without having to go all the way back to the beginning every time you ran out of lives. So that was an additional bonus; as well as playing the game the hard way -- as the original programmer intended -- and your new easy way, you also had the one-off experience of discovering how to make the game easier.

Other things I have been known to have done included changing the control keys of games that used A and Z for up and down, and two keys from the right-hand side of the keyboard for left and right! And I once patched a "keyboard-only" game to use a joystick (just before JOYSET2 came out, so I never pursued this further). But I definitely did not change any instruction text or starting names in high score tables, and you can't prove otherwise :D

As for ethical considerations, well, it was hardly the sort of thing you could get away with doing between your friend's turn with a game and your own, so the issue never really arose. Gaming was essentially a solitary pursuit; and while scores might be compared, if you were scoring more than ten times as much as anybody else, your honesty would surely be called into question. And other computer users probably would be impressed if you had actually gone to the bother of hacking a game and finding a poke. At the end of the day, it's all just pixels on a screen, that disappear forever with the flick of a switch; and if someone would rather go to the grave knowing they never even tried to cheat at a video game, far be it from me to interfere.

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Re: Methods and ethics of cheating in retro computer games

Post by richardtoohey » Sat Jul 11, 2020 11:47 pm

@julie_m - I also definitely enjoyed trying to break the protection (didn't have a high success rate!) and moving games from tape to disc (with PAGE moving).

Often more fun doing that than playing the game, given my gaming "skills".

I broke the Bone Cruncher protection (don't think it was that much but I felt smart at the time!) to dig out the level passwords - and sent them to one of the magazines and they got published. My claim to fame!

And I modified Rocket Raid so that one key press did both shoot & bomb to make it a bit easier for me!

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Re: Methods and ethics of cheating in retro computer games

Post by Adam James » Sat Jul 11, 2020 11:51 pm

Some great thoughts here. It's helping me form my own ideas about getting the most out of these old games.

I'm now thinking that the "practice using any means, then do it for real" is probably the most satisfying approach. To be honest I wasn't contemplating doing Vindaloo again once I've completed it with infinite lives, but now I feel it would be an awesome achievement:)

It's also made me have a good think about methods of practicing.

Saving state is probably the perfect means of practicing before doing it for real. You can keep practicing just the levels you find the hardest. Whereas you don't get to do that with infinite-live "cheats", not really anyhow. You might just scrape through a hard level with luck, not really remembering the best approach, and it's gone for good unless you start all over.

It's also helped me to see the appeal of "level skipping" hacks. I noticed a few of those when I was browsing through the "Ready Trained" game hacks on Stairway To Hell. I didn't like the idea, as it just seemed like it would encourage skipping anything that was too hard. But of course, it can help you train in the same way that saving state can, if you don't have a means to save state. Excellent! I've gone from finding level-skip hacks off-putting to wonderful:)

Anyway...
sydney wrote:
Fri Jul 10, 2020 4:40 pm
I did however buy a solution and map for Exile and possibly Codename Droid, would that be considered cheating? I don't think so myself but maybe some people do.
I'll bet it was still hard and very satisfying to complete? And that's what I'm coming to realise - each of us will have their own way of achieving that bliss point, and I don't consider anything cheating, not in a negative way anyhow. E.g. I found towards the end of Skyrim, I had to remove all my clothes (the character's clothes, I should be clear:)) and armour and weapons and set the difficulty to highest before entering each 'dungeon', so that I had the same sense of dread I had at the start of the game. Conversely with a lot of these 8-bit arcade adventure type games, I have a feeling my bliss point will almost always require hacks.
Lardo Boffin wrote:
Fri Jul 10, 2020 8:00 pm
If you want modern (some more so than others) games with no rails try:

Morrowind (graphics aside best of the three)
Oblivion
Skyrim
Seconded. Morrowind was my first ever RPG. Must have put 200 hours into it and when I finished the main storyline, I realised that the map, which records where you have been, was only about 30% visited! A couple of years ago I got the Morrowind "graphics overhaul" set up and not only did it look stunning, it also had the advantage of having a much greater draw distance than the original, so you got a really good feeling for the island - you could see the volcano from pretty much anywhere for example. I must actually play it now that I've installed it!
julie_m wrote:
Fri Jul 10, 2020 9:14 pm
For me, as a natural born hacker™, cheating at games was just a way of adding a new dimension to the entertainment.
I hadn't thought about it from the point of view of the hacker:) Was that the main thrill, or, once you'd found (e.g.) an infinite life hack, did you then go on to finish the game?
julie_m wrote:
Fri Jul 10, 2020 9:14 pm
At the end of the day, it's all just pixels on a screen, that disappear forever with the flick of a switch; and if someone would rather go to the grave knowing they never even tried to cheat at a video game, far be it from me to interfere.
I've been so surprised at how enjoyable and challenging Vindaloo is with infinite lives, I'd go so far as to recommend people try an infinite-life hack of any game they are interested in. They may find, as I did, after an hour, that they forget they have infinite lives, they are just engaged in a great, challenging game which might have played better without a "lives / start from beginning" in the first place.

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Re: Methods and ethics of cheating in retro computer games

Post by caspian » Tue Jul 14, 2020 1:48 am

Repton 2 was one of my favourite games. One thing I liked was you could go to a different place from the start (using the transporters), without having to do everything else in order. So there wasn't a very big starting part you had to do every time if you were trying a later part over and over. I don't think my experience would have improved if I'd been able to complete it as easily as I could complete most of the individual screens, I probably would have got bored with it afterwards.

I also liked that when you get to a new place, it's completely fresh - I don't like how maps spoil that, showing you the place before you get a chance to interact with it. The new mobile versions do that, and I wish they had a no spoilers mode.

I also liked that there was a bit of mystery about where everything was, and whether there was more to discover, but that may have got a bit frustrating once I'd discovered almost everything. At some point I looked at the maps, it was interesting, but it was also a bit spoilery.

I think in my ideal mapping system, after you had seen a place on screen several times, you could press a key to add what's currently on screen to your map, or something like that.

Thinking about other games - I don't like having to go back to a long boring part at the start of a game over and over, in order to practice a later part. But I'm not sure if I'd rather get infinite live, or switch to another game and come back to it in a couple of days or a week. I may have had some games I didn't like when I used infinite lives (invulnerability definitely spoils some games for me), but I haven't tried Vindaloo yet.

I've found with roguelike games, having savepoints makes them more repetitive, becaues I'd try to get past a particular situation over and over again, instead of starting again with a new character.

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Re: Methods and ethics of cheating in retro computer games

Post by tautology » Wed Jul 29, 2020 1:56 pm

For I ended up enjoying finding cheats and breaking protection more interesting than the games themselves and I kept this when I moved to the Arc.

I still have a host of Electron cheating programs that I wrote BitD.

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Re: Methods and ethics of cheating in retro computer games

Post by JasonStonier » Fri Jul 31, 2020 5:23 pm

Back in the day, a friend of a friend of my mum's was a bit of a hacker (his 1337 name was Percy Penguin) and he took our original of Citadel and produced an "infinite lives" version whereby contact with an enemy would still buzz you back to the start of the screen. That was the perfect version for me - I played it through like that, then played the original to the end (and, yes, submitted a photo of the end screen to the Superior Software competition address).

I've tried in vain to find that version for an emulator - but the only infinite lives versions I have found let you walk right through enemies which takes all the fun away. Now that I have my floppy reader hardware working, my next task is to find that original disk and rip it myself if it has survived the years in the loft.

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Re: Methods and ethics of cheating in retro computer games

Post by billcarr2005 » Fri Jul 31, 2020 9:44 pm

JasonStonier wrote:
Fri Jul 31, 2020 5:23 pm
... he took our original of Citadel and produced an "infinite lives" version whereby contact with an enemy would still buzz you back to the start of the screen.
I think I've managed to duplicate the effect :)
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Re: Methods and ethics of cheating in retro computer games

Post by Diminished » Fri Jul 31, 2020 9:57 pm

billcarr2005 wrote:
Fri Jul 31, 2020 9:44 pm
JasonStonier wrote:
Fri Jul 31, 2020 5:23 pm
... he took our original of Citadel and produced an "infinite lives" version whereby contact with an enemy would still buzz you back to the start of the screen.
I think I've managed to duplicate the effect :)
Scooped. I was just looking at that myself. :P

Did you NOP out the SBC &0?

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Re: Methods and ethics of cheating in retro computer games

Post by billcarr2005 » Sat Aug 01, 2020 8:07 am

Diminished wrote:
Fri Jul 31, 2020 9:57 pm
Scooped. I was just looking at that myself. :P

Did you NOP out the SBC &0?
Exactly! :)
Was just a little lower down than the other cheat that didn't make the sound. Had tried first on the original disk, but the final file CITAM is encrypted, so resorted to using the PIAS version.

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Re: Methods and ethics of cheating in retro computer games

Post by Diminished » Sat Aug 01, 2020 1:19 pm

billcarr2005 wrote:
Sat Aug 01, 2020 8:07 am
Exactly! :)
Was just a little lower down than the other cheat that didn't make the sound. Had tried first on the original disk, but the final file CITAM is encrypted, so resorted to using the PIAS version.
Pleased to know I was on the right track. You did me a favour since I got to do the fun part of working out where the patch should go but not the tedious part of actually producing a release. :lol:

Good stuff. Noted for future inclusion in a potential updated release of the Citadel reassembly.

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Re: Methods and ethics of cheating in retro computer games

Post by JasonStonier » Sat Aug 01, 2020 6:08 pm

billcarr2005 wrote:
Fri Jul 31, 2020 9:44 pm
JasonStonier wrote:
Fri Jul 31, 2020 5:23 pm
... he took our original of Citadel and produced an "infinite lives" version whereby contact with an enemy would still buzz you back to the start of the screen.
I think I've managed to duplicate the effect :)
Awesome. Just let me know where to send the beer.

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Re: Methods and ethics of cheating in retro computer games

Post by Marvin » Sat Aug 01, 2020 8:04 pm

sydney wrote:
Fri Jul 10, 2020 4:40 pm
I did however buy a solution and map for Exile and possibly Codename Droid, would that be considered cheating? I don't think so myself but maybe some people do. I completed Plan B 2 sometime in the last few years by using a map and solution from Stairway to hell but noticed that the solution was incorrect!
I've never considered maps to be cheating, especially in games such as Codename Droid as they have a built in map function available from very early on in the game.

Often I would make my own map as I played the game, whether it is a platform game or a text adventure...

Getting a copy of the Exile map made me realise just how little of the game I had discovered whilst playing it, I remember our computer studies teacher played it to completion BITD and loaded up a save game to show us the ending. I remember being underwhelmed by it :lol: but he'd invested many many months playing it to get to that stage :shock:

For quite a few games I had more fun hacking the game to run from disc or just hacking it to get extra lives than I ever did just playing it. Mind you I only had a lowly Elk so getting games running from disc was always fun.

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Re: Methods and ethics of cheating in retro computer games

Post by JasonStonier » Sat Aug 01, 2020 11:40 pm

I remember once, must have been about 1991 or so, I found in a discount computer shop a tape of a Repton game that we didn’t have. We didn’t have a tape player but I managed to get something working with an old stereo and a 5pin DIN cable. I spent weeks finding a way to rip that tape to disk on the beeb: went through loads of tries, copying another repton disk and replacing the levels with the ones off the tape...eventually finding an obscure copy program on a cover disk from BBC Micro User that would copy the whole tape. The disk is labelled “Repton Infinity - three weeks, two days, four hours, and 17 minutes taken to get this far but I finally did it!!!!!!”.

I reckon that was actually foundational for the rest of my life, the time spent plugging away at that problem until I managed to solve it.

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