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May 11, 2011 / jwaxo

Captain Comic II (Copy Protection)

Kind of a ripoff of Super Mario, in retrospect. Just more awesome!

Probably the defining game of my childhood was Captain Comic II: Fractured Reality. I mentioned this a bit during Introducto, my introduction post, but that was more of a “hey, remember to talk more about this at a later date”. You might notice that my avatar is a picture of the eponymous captain himself, with a very awkwardly-angled right hand that I should fix sometime in the future. This is because, when I think about Captain Comic, about traveling and exploring those huge levels, finding all of the upgrades and extra Blastola-Colas, memorizing routes and jumping patterns, I get the warmest fuzzies imaginable. More than Zelda gives me, more than Ninja Gaiden, more that the memory of unwrapping my GameBoy or of first hearing the squished cries of enemy soldiers in Red Alert.

So, since both of the Captain Comics are pretty obscure games, here’s the low-down on what was going on in them:

You, Captain Comic, land on a planet. In the first game you crash-land, in the second game it’s in answer to a distress call. You then set out, with very little in the way of objectives or instructions, across the approximately linear landscape, platforming your way. Touching any enemy will hurt you, but you can shoot fireballs that travel in a straight line. There’s a limit to the number of fireballs on the screen at a time, but you get Blastola-Cola upgrades that let you fire more, along with a bunch of other sweet upgrades: moon boots that double your jump height, a corkscrew that makes your fireballs spiral as they fly, a wand that lets you teleport to almost random locations on the screen, a lantern that… what did the lantern do, again?

I think it just sat in your inventory. That’s lame.

Anyway, the game, in short, was awesome. I started it up and started it over and over again, even though it had a save system that everyone else took advantage up.

Then it disappeared for years.

At last, in seventh grade, I recovered the disc for Fractured Reality, gleefully already drunk on the nostalgia it would bring me.

I’ve always been a sucker for nostalgia, even when I was far too young for it.

I plugged it into the computer and ran the installation program that consisted purely of copying the entire contents of the disc to my hard drive. I double-clicked the program. I remembered that games didn’t run like that pre-Windows 95, so I booted up MS-DOS and flexed my arthritic DOS skills to navigate and run. I chose my sound drivers, and was rewarded with the glorious playing of the Marine Corps Hymn! I was almost there!

And then a screen came up that asked me for a code at coordinates G,4.

What. The. Heck did that mean.

I looked on the internet, using my rudimentary searching skills. Dogpile.com had no answers! I combed through code databases, hoping against hope that someone had uploaded these “codes” there. No luck! I resorted to randomly typing in words that made sense to me as Captain Comic-related. Still nothing.

I resorted to the final answer. I went to that all-knower of computer problems, my dad.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I vaguely remember doing that. There was this sheet of codes that came with the game.”

But there had been no sheet with the disc that I found! Surely there was another answer.

“Well, it has to be based off of a random character generator. If you could somehow attach it to a program that tried out every combination of numbers and letters possible…”

I left Dad’s office a broken man.

This was not the first time I had encountered such a system. A long time prior my brother had come into possession of the world-famous game Jordan vs. Bird: One on One. While truly a glorious feat of mankind and basketball games in general, the game also had a mystifying cardstock wheel with it, and at various points would give you your “ticket number” and “row number” and ask you to find your “seat number” from it. You would then spin the wheel until two of the numbers met and would enter the third one. If you failed, the game would start getting annoyed. “Please enter your seat number.” “Please enter your seat number.” “Please enter your seat number.”

Geeze, program. You only need to ask once. Not that I was very good at the game, but that is beside the point.

This, friends, was the most rudimentary form of copy protection.

In case you can’t get it, the idea was that people who “copied that flopppy,” as it were, would not possess the spinning wheel/sheet of codes/whatever, and would not be able to play their misbegotten goods. Just like the CD keys that still occasionally show up in games, these only worked well before the internet was wide enough to figure out the patterns and create algorithms to generate more. I guess my dad was pretty much right, in that aspect!

Back then it was a different story, though. Jordan vs. Bird would at least let you play for a bit before asking for your ticket, but Captain Comic wouldn’t even let you in the front door.

Not that you would enjoy those few minutes. Ooooh, a dunking contest, woooo. Stupid game.

In closing, digital rights management has made these ancient ways of protecting against pirates obsolete, and you can look up a billion fun ways that companies try to stop it (Earthbound/Mother 2 probably being the craziest example).

I found the sheet of codes for Fractured Reality, by the way. We moved a year later and it was tucked in the back of a filing cabinet. You know, with important stuff.

I guess it kind of belonged there.

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