When Copy Protection Was Fun

Spudvision has your new desktop wallpaper – high-res versions of the original pen’n’paper sketches from The Secret Of Monkey Island’s copy protection code wheel.

Aw. I’m feeling nostalgic about being charmingly inconvenienced. DRM’s so much easier to swallow when it’s got a sense of humour about it. We’d probably all have been so much more comfortable with that Ubisoft badness if it wasn’t so grimly didactic about its handcuffing.

Let’s revisit those heady, floppy days now, with another chap’s unboxing of SOMI:

He said “backside.” Heehee.

Spudvision is, incidentally, the blog of artist/writer/LucasArts alumni/Sam & Max creator Steve Purcell. He posts there under the alias Starchie Spudnoggen. I have no idea why, but I like it.


  1. krejcie2 says:

    I still remember getting asked to find the 4th word in the 2nd paragraph on page 23

    • pipman3000 says:

      please type in letter 2 of word 5 of sentence 9 in paragraph 1 on the 3rd page of chapter 6 of the RPS manual to continue reading this site.

    • Shih Tzu says:

      I vote in all seriousness that RPS make Dial-A-Pirate its new CAPTCHA.

    • Inglourious Badger says:

      Ahhh, now that was DRM we could all enjoy

    • Dinger says:

      My favorite (back when I was working in the industry) was a game called The Perfect General, which was evidently some PC adaptation of a hex wargame simplified for nerd-bashes/conventions. For the PC version (which was cool, but susceptible to the Zerg^H^H^H^HLight Tank rush) you needed to type in a word from the manual. But the copy protection was even more helpful, giving you the first letter of the word. Yet the designers did not have the richest word-horde in the world; and what few words they had, they couldn’t always sepll. So, in the office, where we’d be playing a legitimate copy, we’d never need the manual: they’d never list one of the complicated words, because they’d surely get it wrong, so we could count on the words falling into a putative 800-word vocabulary (double what they actually used). Now, give us the first letter, and it’s easy. M? Modem, medium, mouse….

      I was doubly amused when, in the early years of the internet, I came across a “how to crack gamez” guide that used The Perfect General as an example. Why would you want to crack what was already broken?

    • qrter says:

      The PC game version of Carcassonne (which came a couple of years before the XBLA version and was rather shit), came with about 30 or so “exclusive” (or exculsive, in Consolevaniaspeak) Carcassonne tiles, you know, for the actual boardgame. Each little cardboard piece had a code printed on the back.

      The game would install, show you a picture of one of the tiles and you had to sort through the stack of tiles to find the one with a bendy river and a bit of city. Utterly ridiculous.

    • Jonathan says:

      @Shih Tzu

      If I had any idea where to start programming it, that would have to happen.

    • ShawnClapper says:

      If you are actually serious, I can make it happen :).

      link to c-blend.com

  2. Quasar says:

    I actually grinned when I caught a glimpse of the codewheel behind the reference card. What a tease this man is.

    I have a lot of fond memories of this sort of thing. I’m hoping that one day I’ll open up a box in my grandparents attic and come across all of my old Amiga games, but unfortunately it’s far more likely that they disappeared to wherever it is old technology goes for that brief period between it being replaced, and becoming a collector’s item.

  3. Maevre says:

    I own that box! :)
    *pride makes place for feeling old*. Yeah…

  4. Ezhar says:

    Ah, the days when software piracy involved arts & crafts: Carefully disassembling the code wheel, photocopying it, then cutting it into shape and putting all the windows in the right places, then putting original and copy back together with a split pin). And when I say original I of course mean an equally carefully handcrafted copy. It did often take a few tries to get in because the faces were only black & white, a bit blurry from being copies of copies and the holes didn’t quite line up, but the game was worth it! :)

    • Pani says:

      Or a photocopy from each rotation! That’s what a friend did for me.

      I’d like to add that I’ve since rectified my pirating ways and am now the proud owner of all previously copied games! I am one of the few that see the error of their foolish youthful ways and gets a chance to fix it.

    • Hoaxfish says:

      The advanced stuff used transparent shapes on a black-backing… photocopy proof!

    • Ezhar says:

      Ah yes, Wizardry (forgot which) had such evil photocopy protected copy protection. Sadly it was also very hard to read even on the original. See, even before TAGES copy protection was annoying the legitimate users! :)

    • Ezhar says:

      Oh look, the internet provides a sample. I forgot it was annoying tiny symbols (originally printed in black on dark red, glossy background). And seven pages of them!

  5. Phydaux says:

    Anyone remember the Lenslok? The plastic device you held up against the screen? Apparently it was the start of the end for DRM back in 1986.

    One of the snippets from Sinclair User Letters (link to sincuser.f9.co.uk):

    Surely such a system is self-defeating. The dedicated hacker may see it as a challenge to get round the protection system but the average games player will be put off after reading about all the troubles others are having.

    • stahlwerk says:

      THAT… THING!!! ARghaga
      It successfully kept me from using Rainbird’s “Advanced Music System” software – which my parents had bought legitimately – on the C128. The guys who greenlighted that piece of TISH should feel deeply ashamed.

    • terry says:

      I had this on Art Studio and Elite, I got through it maybe 30% of the time :-(

      link to birdsanctuary.co.uk

  6. Colthor says:


  7. Wilson says:

    Please insert disc 163.

  8. Al__S says:

    I seem to remember Worms (Amiga verison) using a book of codes printed in black glossy type on a black matt background. Settlers went for the “Page/Paragraph/Word in the manual” approach- a manual that was entertainingly translated from the German (or, in parts, not).

  9. Ravenger says:

    The Infocom text adventure games were the best for this, as the codes were made a part of the in-game experience.

    For example Starcross had a star map which you used to work out coordinates to travel to your destination at the start of the game. The location you travelled to was random, so you had to input a different set of coordinates each time.

    As for lenslok, I could read the code easily just by looking at the TV screen edge on. What a stupid system.

  10. Prion says:

    I remember Zak McKraken’s sheet of “Exit Visa Codes” that were needed to fly to international destinations. Black text on a deep maroon sheet. Impossible to photocopy and since the symbols were not ascii, it couldn’t be typed out (although an older me would suggest to a younger me to use a substitution system). A friend spent weeks drawing all the symbols but then his mom threw out the notebook because she thought the writing was weird and creepy. Ah. Good times.

    • stahlwerk says:

      Hypothesis: for any group of young nerdlings in the early 1990s there exists at least one member, or parent’s colleague who did manage to type up or copy the zac mckracken protection scheme to ordinary black & white.

  11. Acosta says:

    It wasn’t fun, I wasted more time with the stupid codes through red glassed from Last Crusade than playing the game.

  12. Hidden_7 says:

    The Sierra games would go the route of having information in the manual be required to pass certain puzzles, which is neat and less obtrusive and all, but sometimes the placement of said DRM puzzle could be really bonkers.

    I remember for Conquest of the Longbow there was a puzzle where someone would give you a description and then present you with a bag of stones and you had to pick which stones matched that description based on characteristics of the stones in the manual. Thing was, this puzzle turned up at least a quarter into the game, maybe even a third. By the time my young self had reached that puzzle I had long since misplaced the manual which I didn’t think was particularly important. I recall being beyond frustrated by this one puzzle that just came out of nowhere, asked me information that I absolutely had not learned in game, and then killed me if I got it wrong.

    I think I eventually got through it with trial and error, making inferences about the characteristics about each stone by noting when I was told I was wrong. You had to get three correct in a row; it took awhile, but it wasn’t like I had a bunch of other games to play at the time.

  13. lurkalisk says:

    Weird thing about the original Civilization’s system (a usurper has claimed you are not the rightful king! Tell him how to go about discovering combustion to prove him wrong!) was that you only needed the manual on your first playthrough, and after that you should know the tech-tree well enough.

    Come to think of it, that doesn’t really sound like anything but a bizarre game mechanic, as there was little in the way of consequence for failure…

  14. bill says:

    Indiana Jones and the last crusade had a cool red sheet that you had to use th eb able to read the codes.. and a grail diary that i never discovered the use of.

  15. Vesperan says:

    AD&D Gold Box games had decryption discs, and “what is the 8th word of journal entry 132?”

    Brutal. And awesome. Actually, thinking about it – having to use the journal for critical plot and story points was itself a form of copy protection.

    I also liked the Master of Orion copy protection – after a random amount of type you get asked to identify the name of a ship type. The game must have come with it on a chart or something, but you could guess.. and gradually create your own chart. Fun times, when you’re 12.

  16. adonf says:

    When copy protection was not fun: A 1990s LotR PC RPG I owned came with a book of descriptions. Sometimes the game would tell you to read a page from the book instead of printing the page content on screen. In the version I owned this book was fully translated into French and the rest of the game was not. The game had a text parser, and I guess that it worked with the word from the original English text, but this version did not come with the original English text so it took a lot guessing what the original English was to play this game. Eventually I got stuck on a simple word like ‘épée’ (‘sword’) that was in a descriptive paragraph but the parser would not accept ‘sword’ or ‘dagger’ or anything I tried so I gave up.

    That’s probably the last localized game that I bought. Even twenty years later it makes me angry when I see game menus in anything but English (seriously, my Windows is a US version, my web client is an English-language version, so why do games insist on starting in French, how do they even know ???)

    • qrter says:

      Do you exude some sort of Frenchiness, perhaps?

    • adonf says:

      No I don’t think so. I always hide my baguette and my beret and I never surrender to the Germans when my computer is on.