Yottabytes: Storage and Disaster Recovery

Oct 13 2019   12:23PM GMT

Interesting Insights from Video Game Archeology

Sharon Fisher Sharon Fisher Profile: Sharon Fisher

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Video games

It’s amazing how much computer scientists of today are learning from the stored data in old video games.

As you may recall, a couple of years ago some British researchers went to all sorts of efforts – including baking old tapes in an oven – to read the data from a series of text-based adventure games called Magnetic Scrolls. Baking the tapes was required because, in the years since the tapes were made, they started accumulating water and got sticky, which meant they weren’t able to play.

Now, there are people called “video game archeologists” who study old video games – not just to relive their childhoods, but to look at  programming techniques of the era. Because of hardware and software limitations, these programs often use remarkably imaginative techniques to work around these limitations.

In this particular case, it was a game for the Atari console called Entombed. It was a pretty obscure game, but that was the point, explained John Aycock at the University of Calgary, in Alberta, Canada, in a 33-page paper explaining the project. He teaches a class in retro game programming, and he wanted to find a game that hadn’t already been extensively studied.

Of course, Aycock and his co-author, Tara Copplestone at the University of York, UK, left out one of the most intriguing aspects of it. “We began by manually reverse-engineering the relevant parts of Entombed’s binary code, via both static and dynamic analysis using the Stella Atari 2600 emulator.” Okay. But how did they get the binary code from the cartridge into the emulator in the first place? No clue. Argh.

Like many games of that era, Entombed used a maze, but not just any maze. “Although the blocky, two dimensional mazes from entombed might look simple by the standards of today’s computer graphics, in 1982 you couldn’t just design a set of mazes, store them in the game and later display them on-screen – there wasn’t enough memory on the game cartridges for something like that,” writes Chris Baraniuk for the BBC. “In many cases, mazes were generated ‘procedurally’ – in other words, the game created them randomly on the fly, so players never actually traversed the same maze twice.”

Anyway, as it turns out, the game has one of those sections of code that many of us remember, that basically are commented “We don’t know how this section of code works, but don’t change it or it breaks the program.” The game uses a table to generate the maze, and neither today’s researchers nor the original writers – several of whom they tracked down and interviewed – know how the table works or how it came to be created. (Especially since, in this particular case, there weren’t even any comments, Aycock writes.)

“The best guess the pair have is that the programmer behind the maze algorithm must have manually fine-tuned the table values until the game worked as desired, but that still doesn’t really explain the logic behind it,” Baraniuk writes.

Alcohol may have been involved.

Aycock got two different stories about how the maze generation section of the code was created. “Regardless of which version of events is followed, it seems fair to say that some level of intoxication was involved in the development of the maze algorithm,” he writes.

Curious about video game archeology? As it happens, there’s a section of the Internet Archive called the Internet Arcade, which includes almost 2,000 arcade games, dating back to the 1970s, which have been emulated and can be run from a browser.

Good luck, Indiana Jones.

2  Comments on this Post

 
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  • goloria
    thanks for this great analysis 
    20 pointsBadges:
    report
  • tamibal
    Instant arhcive can yes help you out to recover the data
    10 pointsBadges:
    report

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