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Opinion: I Want Passwords Back

Passwords can let you experiment the game in ways the game designer did not expect. If they prolong the gaming time, why can't they be used again?

Roberto Alfonso, Blogger

April 1, 2009

4 Min Read

I remember very well a game titled Bananan Ouiji no Daibouken, or Banana Prince. The game itself was really good, it was long, it was complex, it had rings as currency and shops where to buy new weapons. Platforms, weapons, and even a Japanese trivia. And quite a lot of secrets. I must have played it for a couple of months non-stop.

Besides a number of weapons, the player could expand the character's health with extra energy containers or "bananas". The combination of current level, weapon and amount of extra bananas generated a unique password.

Password? Do you remember them still? Before memory, before batteries, passwords were the only way to record the current level and items in console games. They consisted of letters, numbers and symbols, sometimes specifically created, sometimes generated based on the inventory of the character.

In this game, it was represented by 8 bananas in 4 different states of peeling, for a total of 65,536 different passwords. With zero to four extra bananas to obtain, 21 levels and 16 weapons available, there were 1,680 valid passwords.

One day, I pondered: are all of them valid? The best weapon in the game could only be bought in the last stage, 7-3, just before facing the final boss. Could it be possible to get a password where the character obtained it before the last level?

The passwords varied slightly from level to level as long as you maintained weapon and amount of extra container, so there was a chance. 1,680 valid passwords in 65,536 passwords would mean a 2.5% chance of randomly hitting one. Or in other words, one in every forty passwords.

Since there were no penalties for trying a wrong password (other than a beep), I started choosing random bananas at random positions and kept pressing the A button after every change. And indeed, after a while one was accepted, one that took me to a later stage with an early weapon. A few more tries, and I was in an early stage with a weapon that was not yet available there.

This was the start of my career as "game password analyzer". I spent the following weeks generating random passwords, advancing the game, and analyzing the different combinations. Indeed, some time later I was able to generate any password, including the two most appreciated ones: the first stage with the best weapon and the most energy containers, and the final stage with the worst weapon and the least energy containers.

I enjoyed the game twice: playing it the way a gamer plays it, and playing it the way a programmer does.

I repeated the analysis with other games like Kick Master, Captain Tsubasa 1, Captain Tsubasa 2 and many others with different degrees of success. Games that were supposed to be played once lived again and again, as new challenges like starting the first level with all the items, or the last one with none, made the game more interesting. In some games there were even bugs to be found: there were passwords for the Game Boy version of Chessmaster where all pieces in a side were Kings and all the pieces of the other were Queens, for example.

Saving features make it easier for everyone to play the game. Nobody wants to write 100 or more characters for a single password. The gamer in me appreciates it. But the programmer in me doesn't. He wants to go where the game designers never thought possible. The game is not just what the designer wants, but also what the player wants.

This is why I want passwords back. You can start Resident Evil 4 with weapons you had at the end of the previous session, but you cannot start it in the last fight without items and your original energy container. Imagine playing a stage with weapons you were not supposed to obtain yet, or without the necessary items to end the stage. Endless possibilities, limited only by our willingness to write down in a paper.

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