Around the mid-80s, hacking became cool. War Games was released in cinemas in 1983, followed by Activision’s imaginatively titled Hacker on home computers in 1985. Neatly sandwiched in between them is the lesser known System 15000, released by A.V.S in 1984.
Of these entries, System 15000 is one of the more realistic portrayals of hacking. It casts you in the role of a hacker (what else?) charged with retrieving £1.5 million dollars of a friend’s money which has been stolen by an unscrupulous company. To retrieve the money, you will need to hack into various computer systems to find it and restore it to its rightful owner. This is not going to be easy, since your only clue is a phone number and an entry code. Better crank that modem up.
When it comes to presentation, System 15000 is never going to win any awards. Taking its cue from the early online systems, graphics (bar a few logos and teletext style pages) are virtually non-existent, with most screens limited to basic menu-driven screens which give you information that might be helpful in your quest.
Sound is similarly basic, limited to simple beeps imitating old telephone dialling tones and modem signals. It is not a game that is going to instantly appeal to most gamers; with its lack of presentation, obscure gameplay, absence of action and relative paucity of information on what you are meant to do, it does its best to put most people off.
Persevere, though, and you find one of the most gripping and atmospheric games I have ever encountered. From a gameplay genre perspective, it’s essentially a text-based adventure based around hacking. Hacking into various systems will give you little scraps of information (a phone number here, a password there, a company name). Your job is to piece all of these bits together and use them to hack into new systems, which will uncover further information and allow you to make progress. Like adventure games, there is a lot of trial and error (trying different passwords with different systems) and quite a bit of frustration. At times, progress can seem incredibly slow and then you will seem to make several breakthroughs all at once, making all that blundering around worthwhile.
Written down, this maybe still sounds pretty dull; in fact it is highly compelling. Each time you dial a new number and try out a password, there is a tense wait to see if you can get access. Even getting connected takes a while, and all this builds the tension. When you do get through, there is a real sense of euphoria, followed instantly by curiosity as you dig around to see what you can find. There is frustration as systems throw you out and occasional scares as the systems scan for intruders and threaten to disable you and report your activities to the police. The further you get into the game, the more determined you are to succeed, and the higher the stakes become. Not bad for something rendered almost entirely in text (and in the BBC and Spectrum versions, entirely in BASIC)
I don’t think I ever actually completed the whole game because I eventually came up against a brick wall and couldn’t get any further. However, whilst it lasted, I found it a compelling, tense and very different game and on returning to it recently, it had lost none of its appeal.
Perhaps because of its lack of graphics and sound, System 15000 still stands up well today. In today’s age of cybersecurity, the hacking theme resonates whilst the core gameplay is as compelling and tension-filled as ever. Like adventure games, it will appeal to those who like a more cerebral challenge to shooting endless waves of aliens.
If you fancy playing it, it’s well worth tracking down. Just one word of advice: write down everything you see. You never know when one of those seemingly random notes might just be the password to a system you are trying to hack…