Gumball, a game released in 1983 for the Apple II and other early PCs, was never all that popular. For 33 years, it held a secret that was discovered this week by anonymous crackers who not only hacked their way through incredibly advanced copyright protection, but also became the first people to discover an Easter Egg hidden by the game’s creator, Robert A. Cook. Best of all? Cook congratulated them Friday for their work.
For the last few years, the cracker known as 4a.m. has been systematically cracking the DRM on old Apple II games and uploading them to the Internet Archive. Because almost all of the games are completely out of print, all-but-impossible to find, and run only on old computers, 4a.m. is looked at as more of a game preservation hero than a pirate.
Thus far, he’s cracked 683 games and told me over Twitter DM that most games that came out in the early 1980s can be trivially cracked with automated utilities. Gumball was different.
“Copyright protection developer Roland Gustafsson was legendary at Apple II copy protection. Roland was in a class by himself,” 4a.m. told me. “To give you a sense of how extraordinary it was, consider that this is my 683rd crack, and this write-up was almost twice as long as my previous longest.”
But the DRM wasn’t the only extraordinary thing about the game. As he was cracking the game with his sometimes partner (who goes by “qkumba,”) he noticed a cipher.
“I stumbled on a site that had a vague reference to the initial step in revealing the egg. I told qkumba to try it, and he said it came back with these messages on screen after each level,” 4a.m. said. “I recognized it as a simple substitution cipher and put it into an online cipher solver I found through a quick Google search.”
The game puts you in charge of a gumball factory worker who progresses to become foreman, supervisor, manager, and vice president of the factory—if you hit “ctrl+z” during the cutscenes between levels of the game, you get different codes of the cipher. Solved, the cipher reveals this code:
If you hit ctrl+z again during “retirement,” which is the end of the game, there’s one final code: “DOUBLE HELIX.” 4a.m. and qkumba entered “DNA” at the end of the game and got this screen:
As far as 4a.m. knows, this is the first time anyone has ever solved the cipher or found this Easter egg. When he tweeted about it, Cook himself thought the same:
As I mentioned, 4a.m. has become a bit of a folk hero in the Apple II community, which is still going strong. He says he got the copy of Gumball on loan from a friend who was a former developer that worked with Broderbund. [Update: This copy of Gumball apparently came from a shoebox in famous game designer Jordan Mechner’s garage.]
“I’ve never seen a copy of Gumball for sale on eBay or anywhere,” 4a.m. told me. “It really is quite rare.”
And now you can play it—and find its secret—for free online.