My first steps in programming probably go back about thirty-five years on the HP-38 and HP-41 but nothing will ever top the amazing times I had cracking games on the Apple ][ in the early 80s.
The Apple ][ and its DOS were extremely fertile grounds for software protection that led to some of the most fascinatingly intricate approaches to making sure that your program could not be easily copied. I’m not going to dive very deep into technical details about the Apple ][ architecture but the short version of it is that this computer let you reimplement how bytes are stored on the diskettes that you ship your software on, so needless to say that companies selling software for a living were more than happy to go ahead and do just that in attempt (mostly futile) to curb piracy.
I did a lot of cracking back in these days, mostly for the fun of it. Actually, I enjoyed getting my hands on games more for the pleasure of cracking them than actually playing them. However, one particular game resisted my attempts: “The Blade of Blackpoole”. A pretty mediocre adventure game in the style that was very popular then.
This copy protection used a lot of tricks that I just was not able to handle at the time. Remember, this was the early 80s. There was no Internet and pretty much nobody around me with enough technical knowledge of the Apple ][ to help me out. I had to figure things out on my own.
Recently, I had the crazy idea to revisit this old skeleton of mine and see if I can do better now, given all the tools and technology that the 21st century affords me. So I grabbed an image of the protected version of the game, fired a few emulators (I did this work both on Windows and Mac OS) and went to task.
It was slow at first but I was spooked to realize how much I actually remember of the Apple ][‘s internal architecture. And what I didn’t remember, the Internet happily provided for me. As it turns out, the Apple ][ cracking scene is still quite active (shout out to my inspiration for this work: a2_4am, who’s been actively cracking hundreds of Apple ][ games this past year alone]).
I carefully documented all my work cracking the Blade of Blackpoole in this document. I decided to store it in a separate file because it’s long and gruesome and goes into excruciating details about the Apple ][ and 6502 assembly. It’s not for the faint of heart, but I think you might find it interesting to follow even if you’re not completely familiar with all the technical details because it captures pretty accurately the timeless struggle between programmers who write copy protections and programmers who defeat them.
Fast forward to 2016. Copy protection is more alive than ever and the producer side seems to have struck a very serious blow to the cracking scene with Denuvo, a system that is proving extremely hard to crack and, to everyone’s surprise, which is actually an anti-temper mechanism and not an anti-piracy technology. There is so much to say about this that I’ll probable save it for another post, but in the meantime, I hope you enjoy my old school cracking report.