ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

The Art of the Crack —

By request, I’m going to write a little bit about the concept of “Cracking”.

Like any good computer-related term, it has gone through many different meanings, all of them hotly fought over in certain tiny corners. Many of these uses are correct, as long as you take into consideration the time being spoken of. In my case, let’s go back again to those late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

One of the lost qualities of the online experience is the pure factor of time, where the amount of minutes required to download just one side of a floppy disk (between 100k and 300k) could be excruciating. While in today’s world of 800-1000 megabyte bittorrent collections might seem similar, at least you can do other things with your machine at the same time; play a video game, read your e-mail, even be downloading via other methods at the same time. With an Apple II or Commodore 64 or Atari 800, that was it; you just got yourself a plastic-cased Floppy Disk Transfer Machine that could do nothing else.

While this would normally be a small nod to the potential for exercise, in fact it was one of the factors towards the goal of “cracking” a program, to remove the copy protection and potentially shrink the amount of data by turning an entire disk side into a singular file. This file would be much smaller than the original, and could be transferred in a fraction of the time.

The piracy of today often involves the use of .ISO or similarly-named and formed images; basically exact copies of the entire data range of a CD or DVD, compressed with today’s much-faster compression routines like .ZIP or .RAR or .ACE, and then sent along its merry way while the game companies curse your name. Outside of the fundamental issue of acquiring the pirateable data before anyone else and having access to a method of distribution, this is not a challenging or intellectually stimulating endeavor. You are generally not changing one whit of the data and you are, essentially, a glorified photocopier.

Not so in the days of the Crackers, when a program contained incredible tricks and traps to make sure that it was on an honest-to-goodness floppy disk and hadn’t had some sort of unauthorized duplication set upon it. To be able to wrest it into a file, you had to step through the actual assembly language of the programs, decipher what was trying to be accomplished, and remember that in many cases the program was trying to fool you. You had to really know your stuff to be one of this tier of software pirate; Cat Burglars where others were smash-and-grab thugs. As a result, talented and quick crackers were few and far between and prized by the groups that had them.

Ah, groups. In a phenomenon that exists to the present day, those involved in the duplication of items have often decided to give themselves handles, and refer to their set of friends or acquaintances as a team, or pirate group. Even from the beginning the names were colorful: Black Bag, 202 Alliance, 6502 Crew, Apple Mafia, West Coast Pirates’ Exchange… and a few dozen others. All of them battling to crack the protection, get the ware out, and keep the glory.

I can tell you with very strong belief that the term WAREZ arises out of “Wares”, itself a shortened version of “Softwares”. I have message bases caught by my own computer from 1984, so I know that the term definitely stretches back that far. Going through those message bases, I see terms that are very hard to pick up on their face. Terms like “Catsend”, “G-Sections”, “AE Line”. While I think a lot of these files are vital history, I am very concerned that the terms will have no meaning by the time others come to them for any learning.

Concerned about this, I created a very large, very thorough file called The Annotated Pirate’s Guide, an exhaustive research of terms and meanings from Apple Pirate days, based off the original file, called The Real Pirate’s Guide by Rabid Rasta. You could lose an afternoon on that file, so beware.

We wouldn’t have any idea of the involved processes of cracking where it not for a select group of crackers who chose not only to crack games but write informative guides about how to do it. The most prominent of these is Krakowicz, who wrote “The Kraking Korner” in the early 1980’s and lays out the whole process with a talent for writing and a sense of the magic in the process. Krakowicz is also officially my Last Great Unfound Hacker, so if you’re Krakowicz, please write in. Other guides by Buckaroo Banzai and The Red Pirate are also excellent insights into the Cracking life.

But if the actual nuts and bolts of the Crackers doesn’t interest you, perhaps the crack screens will. For not only were Crackers able to turn a disk into a file for easy transfer, but they would often modify that file so that the title screen would have a special little shout-out from the cracking group, letting you know who did the work. This sense of pride coupled with ability enabled groups to get their name out to people who were copying the disks as fast as they could. After a while, you knew you were seeing a Black Bag release or another disk from the Apple Mafia. And after a while, these crack screens grew more and more elaborate, including animation, sound (and music on platforms like the Atari and Commodore 64 computers), and multi-screen thank-yous and membership lists.

After a while, these opening screens became so elaborate that separate divisions of pirate groups had to be formed just to program them. And after a while, these programmers said “why do I need to be associated with a pirate group to make really great-looking programs?”

And they went by themselves, into the darkness.

And so were born demos.

As it stands, I recently did some work taking the Crack Screens of over 350 Apple II programs and putting them online. If you’re feeling like giving your machine a workout, try looking at the thumbnail gallery. If you were brought up looking at pirated Apple II programs, like I was, it’s like someone grabbed the Memories Hose and turned it full blast upon you. Wear a raincoat.

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