Alpha and The Catman / The Phsycos,
Spar Es Crackers,
The Papillons Inc.
Added on October 24th, 2013 (5522 views)
Hi guys! First off, it's an honour to get this interview with you. You were among the best cracking groups back in the day, and because we've heard so little from you over the last 25 years, many questions have been left unanswered, such as: Who were they? Who did what? Where are they now? Why did it take so long to unpack their cracks? ;) Et cetera. Alpha, what went through your mind when I called you and started talking about your history on the C64 scene, how meaningful your contributions were, and that I would like to talk some more with you and the rest of the TPI gang about it?
Alpha: Well, I was quite surprised and a bit sceptical, in the sense of "who is this guy calling me on a Saturday evening asking about The Papillons?" After all, it was 25 years ago. :) But, as you know, you gained my trust, and perhaps it is time to reveal the facts about The Papillons and comment on the myths which have been associated with us.
Now, you've asked to stay anonymous, but what can you tell the fans about yourselves? Peel back a little bit of the myth that is The Papillons Inc.!
Alpha: Well, I was 16 or 17 back then, so I must have turned 40 by now... I still reside in Copenhagen, but I am out of the computer industry. It's a shame in some ways, and I do sometimes miss the technical art of programming. But on the other hand, I am pleased to be doing what I am today.
The Catman: I have also turned 40; actually, my 43rd is coming up pretty soon. I have an 11 year-old son and a 10 year-old daughter. I have them on a shared basis with my ex-wife. I recently remarried. I've never left the Copenhagen area and have no plans to do so. I've kept up my interest in computers. My current line of work is in tech support.
Tell us about those years and how you got onto the scene and into cracking.
Alpha: I was totally fascinated with computers from about the age of 13 or 14. I would go to the local radio store and look at the C64 and the Amstrad. I didn't know what to do with them, I just stared at them. Eventually, I got up the courage to place my hands on the C64 keyboard. It was at the startup screen with the "READY." statement and the cursor blinking. I typed "YES" and got the "?SYNTAX ERROR" reply. I was lost, I remember wondering why it didn't ask me something else now I'd answered the first question. Haha! :)
In the eighth grade, I attended a programming class, and soon after that, I became known as a whiz kid at school. I went on to take an advanced course with the older students, and my teacher gave me my own key to the computer room at school. Almost every day, I would go and program for 20 minutes or so after I'd finished lunch, instead of hanging out with my classmates. I wonder what they thought about that. But I was never teased, as I could beat them all in maths, physics and chemistry. I was respected for my skills, though the girls obviously didn't fancy me any more. ;-)
What handles did you use and how did you come up with it/them?
Alpha: Well, my story is boring – as is my handle. I don't recall any specific reason for picking it. If I were to do the same thing today, I would probably choose something else. Zaz tells me that he suggested it as he was inspired by a physics class.
The Catman: My first computer was a C64. My interest started in school, and one of my classmates and I spent practically every hour doing stuff on the C64. We were both into programming and games. Our group at that time was called Spar Es Crackers. No cracks ever actually came out of Spar Es, though. Gaming, and the actual process of getting new games, increasingly took over for me. You could say I was a collector of games at that time. As time went by, I naturally wanted to get games faster and faster. That was when I started making some good contacts. I had a particularly good collaboration going with Zen, who made the first Catman intro for me. The name Catman (or my three-letter handle TCM for The CatMan) came about simply because I'm fond of cats. A short time later, I met the Phsycos, who lived not too far from me. I joined Alpha and Zaz, and we decided the new group would be called The Papillons. My role was always trading and supply, we left the programming to Alpha who had far and away the best skills in that area.
What groups were you in?
Alpha: Oh boy, here we go... Zaz and I first formed a group called The Phsycos (note the spelling mistake). Our common friend C3PO was also a member. We didn't do much as The Phsycos, starting out with a demo in which Zaz' younger brother had done a picture in CorelDRAW showing two or three guys with a chainsaw, which was probably inspired by the movie Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Later, we did a few imports and added our logo.
The Catman: Spar Es Crackers, The Papillons Inc., and Goffy Crackings.
Alpha: Actually, I cracked a few games on the PC in the early 1990s using the handle "4U". It was really just to prove to myself that I could do it, rather than any attempt to kick-start a carrier on the PC scene. ;-) I don't think the cracks were ever distributed, as the games were rather old.
What roles have you fulfilled?
The Catman: Swapper, organiser and supplier of originals.
Alpha: Coder, cracker, designer, swapper and organiser.
What fun stories from those days can you share with us?
Alpha: I remember that complete panic took hold at one time – the police were arresting crackers in Denmark, so Zaz and I cleared out our rooms and hid everything in C3PO's basement. Wow... ;-)
At one point, TPI also included C3PO and Zen. How did you know these guys and what did they bring to the group?
Alpha: Well, Zen was a friend of Catman, and C3PO was a friend of Zaz. I met C3PO through Zaz and became friends with him. Actually, I've lost contact with him now. I would say that Zen became a member very early on because he could program assembly code and we thought he could crack, though it turned out he couldn't. He did the intro with the stars rising in the background, but that routine turned out to be stolen! He told us he'd done it. I think that's when we kicked him out. C3PO left of his own volition. He was never that into the scene and didn't really do much for the group while he was a member.
Describe a typical day for you in front of the computer back then. Did you often meet up at each other's place or did you mostly work separately?
Alpha: A typical day while we were at our peak involved getting home from school (having probably skipped the last class) to call stores and check for new games. Betafon in Istedgade was really fast sometimes. We would always fight about who should call, because the workers in the store got so pissed off that we kept calling and calling. If they had a new game, we would take the train to go and get it, be back around 4 or 5 pm and crack it. That would take up to one hour, including adding the intro and such like and copying the game and sending it to our customers and contacts. The deadline for next-day delivery by surface mail was 11 pm! An unthinkable method of delivery for a 17-year old today...
The Catman: Yes, I remember it as Alpha describes. We spent a lot of time together when new games came out, mostly all of us together at Alpha's house.
Alpha: Yeah, we would always meet at my place, partly because I did the cracking but also because I'm allergic to cats, so Catman's place was not really an option. Also, my parents were cooler about the whole thing.
Cracking and spreading games has been discussed for many years in terms of how illegal it really was. Did the crackers see it as illegal, and how did it affect the games industry? Was the C64 scene the perfect playground for those of us who were a part of it? Guys, what's your take on this?
Alpha: Well, there's no doubt that it was illegal, even in my estimation at the time. The more complex question to answer is whether or not our work actually hurt the games industry. I think the answer is: probably not a lot. Actually, the very fact that one could get cracked games really cheaply helped make the C64 so popular and so created this huge market. I think the software houses ultimately sold more and did better business as a result. Having said that, I don't actually approve of illegal copying, on the grounds that the programmers should of course get paid for their work.
The Catman: Yes, it was illegal, though I didn't think much about that at the time. From time to time, we heard about the police mounting raids, but that may have just been rumours.
Alpha, were you the only cracker in the group?
Alpha: Yes, all the cracks and trainers released by The Papillons Inc. were done by me. Wow, I really did spend a lot of time on this, as doubtless also reflected in my school grades. ;-) I made several attempts to convince Zaz and Catman to learn how to program, but they didn't really fancy it, did you Catman?
The Catman: 'Fraid not, Alpha. Zaz and I were happy with our functions in the group, and we were always cheering you on in the background when you were working. :)
Alpha: Yeah… working like a dog. ;-)
I can't remember ever seeing "Cracked by Alpha" in any of the intros. That was pretty rare back then, because the point of cracking a game was largely to show other people what you'd done and tag it. Instead, credit was always given to TPI. Why was that?
Alpha: You are absolutely right, it was never stated in any intro that I had done the cracking or training. For us, I think it came down to the spirit we had in the group. We wanted to stand out as a strong group of equals rather than focusing on the achievements of any one person. We saw TPI as a brand – a group formed by three friends who were fascinated with the scene and wanted to take it by storm, together. I also think that the very fact that we didn't itemise our personal achievements added to the myth that built up around us. What do you think, Catman?
The Catman: You're absolutely right. We stood together as a team and that's what made us successful.
Alpha: Yeah, we had a strong friendship and that was an important factor underlying our success. You wouldn't prioritise spending so much time with people if you didn't like them. And it took up a hell of a lot of our time back then! Big groups like Triad and Ikari, for example, would have a broad – and fluctuating – membership, hence personal achievements had to be stated so the individual could get recognised and move on to join another groups. We were different. We were The Papillons Inc. No more, no less.
What specifically was the driving force for you when cracking games?
Alpha: It was the fact that I could, and of course the admiration and recognition that came with it. Being fast was also important.
The Catman: Yeah, it was about recognition from others on the C64 scene, and definitely the pride in being fast.
How did you learn to crack? Did someone help you or did you further your own knowledge by investigating other people's work?
Alpha: Trial and error! As simple as that. Well, I had to learn assembly code first. Then I bought a Danish translation of the book Commodore 64 Machine Code by Ian Stewart (published 1986) and read it several times. After that, I had to familiarise myself with the C64 at a more complex level, by examining and interpreting other people's code work.
Who supplied you with originals?
The Catman: We got our originals from certain computer stores in the Copenhagen area. I was also able to get some import originals really fast through a company I was involved in at the time.
Alpha: Yeah, the company was a great trick by Catman! But at some point, the Danish importer got suspicious, didn't they?
The Catman: Yeah, they started wondering why I usually only needed one copy of a game.
Alpha: Haha, that's very funny, now that I think about it. :)
How did you go about cracking a game? Take us through the process.
Alpha: Cracking a game is basically a matter of strong analytical thinking. You run through the code to find out where it checks for "something" and then quits the program if the condition(s) is/are not fulfilled. Then, you simply remove this piece of code and that's it. For tape versions on the C64, all you basically needed to do was prevent the program from executing after it had finished loading. Then you could save the memory to a file and pick out the starting address from the loader code. You sometimes needed to write a small routine to move memory around before executing the program, because you couldn't load directly into all the memory of the C64.
What was the hardest game for you to crack and why? Do you remember the copy protection that was used?
Alpha: Well, I never got the tape version of The Last Ninja to work. That still pisses me off now, 25 years later! There was this loader which reloaded itself several times. That was usually not a problem. But there was some sort of timer built in, or something like that. I believe, if I'd had more time, I would have nailed it. In that one case, I guess it was a huge drawback that I was the only coder/cracker in the group.
Did you invent any special techniques or tools to make things easier for you when cracking?
Alpha: Sure. Many of the companies would use the same tape loader over and over again, so I would write a complete program which took control of the loader and prevented the game from running once it was loaded. Then, as I say, I simply saved it and fished out the starting address. When the Expert Cartridge came along, things became much easier because you then had a hardware-based assembly monitor on which you could look through all the memory and just save what you needed. Of course, we never used the ICEPIC cartridge (freeze'n'save) – how could we retain any pride after using that kind of trick?
A major reason why people remember TPI is the classic intro that graced most of your cracks. The combination of the logo, the colours, the big scroll and the fantastic music by Markus Müller makes it one of the most memorable crack intros of all time. Who coded and designed it? Why did it take so bloody long to unpack the game, and whose idea was it to use that awful unpacking noise? :)
Alpha: Well, we all contributed to the design, and I obviously coded it. There were two versions of this intro: one with a tech wave running through the logo letters and one with a light effect doing the same. However, the tech wave version crashed on the US C64s so we had to ditch that one. I just couldn't get it to work! The delay routine was added for fun. It was a simple double countdown routine, like DEC $xxxx and BNE (branch back if not zero). At the same time, it would copy memory and, for the fun of it, store the very same values in the sound chip register. We should have credited the musicians for the very nice tune. That was a mistake!
In the demo Fast Imports, you stated that you had got hold of a modem and were ready for new contacts and ready to make new imports. Who was doing the modem trading? Did you run a BBS? Did you get hold of the phone company's service codes to be able to call for free? Did you use AT&T calling cards or did you actually pay the phone bill with real money (horrid thought)?
Alpha: There is this rumour that we had rich parents and THEY simply paid the phone bill, which is of course not true. It was crazily expensive to call the US, something like 12 Danish Kroner a minute, which in today's money would be about 3 Euros per minute! Well, the US groups called us up using calling cards. The key to transatlantic modem trading was to get hold of a US C64 (which ran at 60 Hz/110 V as opposed to the Danish 50 Hz/220 V) and hook it up to a Danish power supply. Once that was operational, it was easy enough to trade 1200 baud. Sometimes, however, the phone line was too noisy and we only managed 300-600 baud.
I remember one evening, Zaz and I held a conference call between my private phone number, a Danish phone box and one of our US friends – and charged the call to the Danish phone box number! :) Two weeks later, the Danish national phone company called me at home, but my dad answered it. When I got home from school that day, he said: "Well, son, I know what you're doing, but now it's gone a bit too far!" I happened to talk to my dad about this last week – and he still remembers the scenario well. We had a great laugh about it. :-)
In We Are The Champions, it said that that would be the last TPI production ever. But in 1991, you released Music Madness 3 (http://bitworld.bitfellas.org/demo.php?id=32898) with Goffy Crackings on the Amiga. I know The Catman was in Goffy, so was TPI's name put in there as a tribute/joke or did any of the other guys help out with the demo?
The Catman: As I recall it, that was just my Papillons spirit refusing to leave me. :)
Alpha: Haha, has it left you now, Catman?
The Catman: Well, it's been a few too many years since we "partied", but they sure are good memories!
Who did you look up to on the scene and why?
Alpha: I began programming in COMAL80 in eighth grade, which is why I bought a C64 shortly after that. I would write my own word-processer, and various other programs. I didn't care much for playing games, but I must admit that when I saw the logo by Danish Crackers, with the statement "They make them, we break them" on Bruce Lee (or maybe it was Pitstop 2), I surrendered: I knew then what I wanted to do! I was so fascinated, I can hardly even describe it here. It was so cool!
What, for you, was the coolest thing ever invented on the C64? (e.g. a tool, routine, method of cracking, etc.)
Alpha: Well, I think the 1001 Crew full-screen view, opening up all the borders, was amazing. I wish I had had the time to explore stuff like that. I can't remember the title of the demo.
Did you go to any copy-parties, meetings or tradeshows? I know you attended the Jewels party and the Dexion party. Tell us about them, who you met, what happened there, etc.
Alpha: I don't remember much. Zaz and I went to Uppsala in Sweden once and took a case of beer with us. The party was held at a school. Hmm... I remember Danish Tuborg beer was very popular in Sweden.
In your opinion, what was the scene all about?
Alpha: You know, I would say it's similar to the world of graffiti artists: doing some cool stuff to gain the admiration of others and get your name out there, to get recognised. Also, I think when you're 15, 16, 17 years old, the fact that it was illegal added some excitement too.
The Catman: Yeah, I was at some copy-parties. I went to see if anyone could add value to our group, but also just to get recognised.
What were the particular highlights for you? (e.g. favourite event, demo, game, crack by TPI or others, software house, copy protection, etc.)
The Catman: For me, there was no one special event, I simply enjoyed the years with Alpha and Zaz, just spending each day with two such good friends. I really look back on those years with great happiness!
Alpha: Well, our final intro was really nice and people enjoyed it a lot. I don't have a favourite crack, but cracking a multi-loader like Winter Edition was always a nice achievement, and getting it to work felt very good. :-)
To outsiders, it seemed like you left the scene quite suddenly. Was there a reason for that?
Alpha: We had always planned to stop when we were at our peak. As time went on, the C64 began to lose its popularity – the Amiga was the hot new thing, and we did consider going over to the Amiga, but we didn't have the motivation to do it all over again. I think it was a wise decision to quit the scene in the summer of 1988.
Zaz left the computer scene to surf, and The Catman left for the Amiga. Alpha, what did you move on to?
Alpha: Well, I started to take my high school studies a little more seriously! And I worked on this game PacWar that never got finished… too bad. But it freed up a lot of time for me, which I enjoyed. Later, I went to university, and today I'm using my strong analytical skills in a more constructive way – working on figuring out how Nature works, with the goal of discovering new medicines. Now, this is an exciting lifelong challenge – much more complex than just figuring out another person's code work! ;-)
What about your C64s and old disks? Do you still have enough lying around somewhere that we could preserve a complete TPI collection?
Alpha: I did have the COMPLETE collection, even including a game called Pac War, which I programmed and a friend from school did the graphics for. But I tossed all those disks away about three years ago. What a bummer!
The Catman: Sorry, it's been many, many years since I last saw a C64 disk.
Was the C64 really as special as we like to think it was?
The Catman: Yes, I think it meant a lot to those of our generation.
Alpha: What made the C64 so special was the hardware limitation. You really had to think about your code and be creative so as to reduce the CPU cycles and memory used. Nowadays, you would just say: "hmm, this program is running too slowly, I'll have to buy a new computer with a faster processor and/or more memory". Programming was more of an art back then: only when resources are limited do you push yourself to be creative enough to use them to their full potential.
Are you still in contact with any old C64 people today?
The Catman: Not face-to-face, but everyone is on Facebook.
Alpha: No-one except for Zaz and Catman.
Well, that's the end of the interview, I hope you've enjoyed reliving the past with me! Before you disappear for another 25 years, do you have any greetings or messages for your scene friends or anyone else? Think of this as your movie end up-scroller, so make it good! ;)
Alpha: Well, Matrix from the Dominators comes to mind. I remember him as a friend. Rob from the Alliance, I was on the phone with that guy for hours and hours. The Wild Boys from the US – also on the phone for hours and hours. And of course Crox from Ecco, who was a close friend back then. But a big hello to all our contacts, friends and fans. I hope everyone is doing great!
The Catman: Well, I just hope everyone got out ok and has had a good 25 years. For myself, I can't complain, I'm having a good time. Wishing you all good speed ahead.
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