True story — back in 2004 I was sitting in a coffee shop in Houston, Texas. The coffee shop owner, a nice lady named Stacy, knew I worked with computers but nothing much more than that. She would visit the tables and chat up the customers, and on this one particular day as she came over to my table, I was feeling a bit devious. I muted my laptop, got her attention, looked left and right, and nodded for her to come over.
“You’re always asking what I do for a living, right? Well, let me show you.”
I proceeded to bounce my Internet Connection through InterNIC, then to a London bank, then through some university network system… clicks of the mouse drew dotted lines over the entire world map as I tried to hide my real location through a series of network jumps. I explained all this to Stacy as I clicked on the final location of some unknown company’s computer system, calling up a Username and Password login box.
I next loaded up a password cracker program and pointed out to Stacy that the Trace Tracker program wasn’t yet pinging so I was still safe. I clicked on the password cracker program and then on the username field and the cracker went to work — at the same time, the Trace Tracker began to flash and report 16%.
“What are you doing?” asked Stacy, a bit of fear obvious in her voice.
I opened an email message and double-checked the file’s name. The password cracker finished and gave me the full password and then logged me in automatically. The Trace Tracker was reporting 33%.
I clicked on the File Access button on the screen, browsed down the list and found the file specified in the email. I opened the File Deleter program, clicked on the file, and BOOM! Deleted.
Stacy was very nervous. “Did you just…?”
“Hang on… I’ve got to cover my tracks.”
I disconnected from the company server, logged into InterNIC (once again just clicking on the world map to make one jump). I opened up the Log Deleter program and then clicked on the Log Access button on screen. I clicked on each of the four entries on screen that recorded my jump from InterNIC to that bank.
“If they trace the signal back to the bank, and then from the bank to InterNIC, there’ll be no way to track me from InterNIC to the coffee shop. You’re safe. It’s all cool,” I said, logging off InterNIC. “Just made a fast $1,300.00.”
Stacy was far from cool.
“You did not just do that!” Other regulars were looking over at us… it took everything I had to keep a straight face.
“Want to see me change some kid’s college grades?”
“NO! You stop that! I don’t think you need to be using my Internet anymore!” (Most of this conversation is best of my memory, but I do remember her distinctly telling me I wasn’t welcome to use the free WiFi anymore.)
At this point, I had to come clean — some folks were getting nervous and I think Stacy was about to call the police on me. I calmed her down and showed her what I was really doing. I was playing a game called Uplink. (I had muted the laptop because I think the background music would have given it away.)
Uplink is a hacking simulator game. It’s 100% completely unrealistic… unless you’re not that familiar with computers, IP addresses, and the most basic understanding of how network connections are made. But, if you’re able to suspend reality for 20-30 hours, it’s a fantastic game that will put a smile on your face as you perform some of the most devious (and fake) hacking of your life — changing grades, deleting files, copying files, stealing money, framing corporations, planting digital files, and more. Your heart rate will definitely increase as the beeping of the Trace Tracker gets close to 100% as you’re finishing up a job and hurrying to log off and go delete log files to cover your tracks. You’ll find yourself actually pounding the desk for the password cracker to finish up as the Trace Tracker hits 50%. And you’ll go nuts when you find yourself typing at certain points and making spelling errors as that Trace Tracker hits 75%.
You assume the role of a newbie hacker hired by the Uplink Corporation. You take jobs, get paid, and try to cover your tracks so the authorities don’t hunt you down, arrest you, and destroy your Gateway (your super-computer that allows you to do all sorts of mischief). As you earn money and increase your rep, you get bigger, more dangerous jobs. The riskier jobs pay bigger bucks, allowing you to upgrade your hardware and software — it’s such fun to browse the software store on the Uplink Server to buy version 3.0 of a Password Cracker or version 4.0 of a piece of software that can rewrite logs and send trackers looking elsewhere.
I don’t want to give away much more of the game, but there is a back story (two, actually, depending on whether you go the good hacker or bad hacker route) that you’ll drop into at some point when you begin to make a name for yourself and get noticed.
The game was released in 2001, so it might be on the fence to call it a retro game, but the interface, sound effects, music, and graphics are so basic and 1980s looking (think WarGames and you’ve got it) that you’ll think the game is much older.
I’ve played this game three or four times over the last decade — and I have yet to grow tired of it. The blue-tint user interface, the world map, the simplistic dialing of IP addresses (hilarious numbers such as 657.425.0.1 for those of us geeks who understand IP), and the funny stats as you upgrade your computer to 5Gq (Gigaquads!) of memory. It’s so cheesy and fake and pure movie-style graphics… and so fun.
You can get Uplink for $9.99 at Steam, but it’s always going on sale for $4.99 or less (usually bundled with Introversion’s other great game, Darwinia – yes, another GeekDad Retro Gaming review I might do later). Do me a favor and try your best not to get on the (real) Internet and look up cheats and walkthroughs — the game has been out long enough that there are modifications and plenty of solutions available. If you’ve not played Uplink and the game is of interest to you, you’ll really appreciate avoiding spoilers and cheats as you learn your elite hacking skills “on the job.” After you’ve completed the original game, you’ll be happy to know there is a still-strong modder’s base out there cranking out new missions, adding new Gateway models, and more.
Stacy forgave me, but I really did shake her up. I felt bad for a while, but it was hilarious and no harm was really done. If you’ve got a spouse or friend who is CCC (complete-computer-clueless), it’s a fun prank.
If you’ve finished Uplink and enjoyed it, you’ll definitely want to try other Introversion games – I’ve played both DEFCON and Darwinia, and they are just as enjoyable. (DefCon totally feels like you’ve been dropped into the WarGames movie and are standing in front of the large screens showing wire-frame versions of the world map — missiles arc across the screen, white circles flare indicating detonations… it’s morbid and sick and totally addictive.)
Given that Uplink just reached its 10 year anniversary, I reached out to Introversion with some questions. I’m including this interview below, including some notes about a game I’ve been anticipating for years called Subversion. You might also find this short article on the development of Uplink interesting.