Xenon 2 and DRM, almost irreparable damages?
Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies and their noxious inclination to spoil the day for PC gamers are steadily at the focus of the gaming debate, and almost everyone takes for granted the fact that it’s a contemporary issue not concerning games of the past at all. Nothing more wrong: maybe some years ago (or many years ago) they were more trivially called “copy protection”, but DRM restrictions continue to do harm even among people that engage in the noble art of retrogaming or are interested to digital contents preservation.
I’ve had reconfirmation of the enduring threat of DRM against games, gamers and the gaming industry historical memory after having acquired an old copy of Xenon 2: Megablast, a glorious vertical shoot’em up designed by The Bitmap Brothers and released (on PC) between 1990 and 1991. I already own the game in other versions more friendly to modern systems, but this copy (won through an eBay auction) was the first for me to store the game on double density 3 and half inches floppy disk (720 Kilobytes).
At a first glance the game seemed to be in good conditions, a seemingly original single floppy disk and a manual to support hope that everything would have gone well once I had inserted the disk in my loyal USB FDD by TEAC (IBM branded). Contrariwise, it went wrong: trying to run the game under DOSBox or Windows (Vista), all I have been able to experience has been an intro image from the publisher and then the very unpleasant “Key disk not found” message show on the screen.
Whatever I tried afterward has been useless, the game didn’t want to run whether I mounted (on DOSBox) the disk image created with WinImage (“Key disk not found”), whether I tried to start the PC with a bootdisk based on MS-DOS 6.22 or 7/WinME (floppy file system garbled, UEFI BIOS incompatible?) or simply copied files from the floppy to a directory of the hard disk leaving the floppy disk in the drive (“Key disk not found”).
From what I have been able to understand from clues collected after a short period of on-line research, the original version of Xenon 2 should be locked up with the Copylock system made by Rob Northen, a nefarious piece of code whose creation the aforementioned programmer prides himself in a recent interview. My goal, of course, was not to be able to play Xenon 2: there are always plenty of choices for that, like the copies available in my software archive or those downloadable from the excellent abandonware sites on-line.
No, my goal was to guarantee the full working of that particular copy on floppy disk which recently came in my possession. Luckily, this time at least, the creators of the game themselves have helped me thanks to an old patch available on their (as much old) website: the patch is designed to fix a completely different issue, but by replacing the executable file with the one included in the archive I have finally turned a malfunctioning software into the game I remembered: strained fingers, high difficulty and obsessive soundtrack indecently played by the DOSBox virtual buzzer.
At the end of this short story, some open questions still remain and I will definitely try to answer them in the future: was the floppy disk altered somehow by the previous owner? Why does the boot sector contain references to the PC-DOS start-up files? Would the game behave differently on a “real” FDD connected to a native floppy port on the motherboard, maybe with the MS-DOS operating system installed on the hard disk?
What I want to underline now is the idea that DRM are not just a nuisance for the present: the pernicious restrictions to free copy and free storing of games are a persistent threat to the past and the future of video games. Until there will be the chance to rely on the abandonware, the work of archivists and stubborn retrogamers or “DRM free” services like GOG.com the gaming bits will be safe, but if and when the remote-controlled anti-user systems will be considered the only possible way to sell games everything could be lost.