Gaming's most fiendish anti-piracy tricks

For as long as there have been games, people have been trying to copy them and play for free. The humble tape recorder was the first weapon of choice, then CD burners took up the mantle, and now the internet acts as one big black market for free and highly illegal games.

Publishers have struck back will all kinds of increasingly controversial copy protection systems over the years, the PC version of Assassin’s Creed II currently the latest title to raise the ire of gamers with its “No ‘net connection, no game for you” policy. But that kind of thing is no fun. We remember when publishers and devs used to come up will all kinds of crazy and imaginative ways to keep us off the pirate ship. And thusly, we’ve looked back in time and picked out our favourites. And thusly, here they are.


Used in: A whole bunch of ‘80s home computer games

How it worked: Once the cacophonic banshee-wailing of the tape loading sequence finally came to a merciful end, the game would compound the player’s emotional trauma by flashing up a garbled two-letter code on screen.

Above: Gaming in the '80s was seriously rock 'n' roll

The code could only be properly read by putting an included plastic prism lens up against the screen, and once deciphered it had to be typed in to make the game run. But there were two problems. Firstly, the code had to be manually scaled to make it readable on different sizes of TV, and the system didn’t work at all on particularly big or small screens. Secondly, the codes were incredibly easy to hack, given a bit of coding knowledge. Needless to say, it was dropped after much complaint.

Gimped Batman

Used in: Batman: Arkham Asylum

How it worked: Very sneakily indeed. Rather than simply blocking pirates from playing the game, Rocksteady chose to give them just enough tantalising bat-joy to show them what they were missing. Illegal copies of the game worked perfectly apart from one little detail. Batman’s cape glide ability was disabled, making the game playable but uncompleteable. If the Joker made DRM, this is the DRM he would make.


Used in: The Secret of Monkey Island

How it worked: Disappointingly, not by delivering a hot, oven fresh pirate to your door. The game shipped with a cardboard dial, comprising two circles of different size set one inside the other. Each disc was printed with one half of a series of pirate faces. The game displayed the face of a particular pirate on screen, and the player had to turn the middle disc in order to line up faces and identify the year the pirate was hanged. Typing in the date allowed the game to run.

All your base are belong to EA

Used in: Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2

How it worked: By asploding the pirates’ dreams of free RTS in a very real sense. After 30 seconds of play on a pirated copy of the game, the player’s base and units would detonate. Whether the cause was suicidal pirate guilt or an overzealous bid on the units’ part to escape the horror of war is unknown. What is known is that like more recent EA DRM, the base blasting trick caused all kinds of problems, in particular blowing up the armies of plenty of legitimate players. Call it a pre-emptive strike just in case they were thinking of passing a copy on.


  • Twirrim - December 4, 2010 12:35 a.m.

    Frontier: Elite 2 contained a similar trick to the Silicon Dreams trilogy. The manual for the game was exceptionally long and detailed, a few hundred pages long IIRC. After a little while of playing the game, maybe less than 15 minutes, the next time you docked it would require you to input a word from the manual, giving you a page and line reference.
  • dimomarg - March 6, 2010 8:13 p.m.

    Best DRM for a first person shooter I can imagine: You hit new game and it shows the intro to the game. Except that in in the first 20 seconds the main character gets sniped and then a black screen comes in that says: next time, try buying the game.
  • Spybreak8 - March 5, 2010 10:30 a.m.

    God I remember Star Control's wheel thingie and having to look through the book for Dune II and Arachnophobia. wow nostalgia boom! Of course this was all without having internet so then Ubisoft killed us, seriously always having an internet connection is just stupid. There are reports that the pirates have already gone around this with Ubisoft's Silent Hunter 5. Way to f*cking go Ubisoft, way to f*cking go.
  • AElli - March 5, 2010 9:35 a.m.

    Nice. The MGS was an amusment. As well as Batman archam asylum. I guess if you can't afford it, find another hobby.
  • Valntyne - March 2, 2010 11:35 p.m.

    That last cover art looks like the whole plot of Lost...
  • oldgrammastinkyfeet - March 1, 2010 5:20 a.m.

    That batman one is my most favorite, just because it is completely evil. I mean that game must be impossible.
  • Ravenbom - February 28, 2010 7:34 p.m.

    Where in the _____ (World, Time, etc) is Carmen Sandiego used the same thing as Silcon Dreams. I lost that stupid Encyclopedia that came with the games and even though I knew enough to know the answers, whenever you'd finish a case the game would ask for the first entry on a certain page. Also, it wasn't really piracy related, but Star Tropics had the thing where you had to dip the manual in water to reveal a code to move forward in the game and if you rented the game you were fucked.
  • Major_Wuss - February 28, 2010 6:38 a.m.

    The Operation Flashpoint and Arkham Asylum DRM is pretty funny. I'd be super mad if that happened.
  • Slaanash - February 27, 2010 9:13 p.m.

    Eh, Earthbound's was worse. It made the final boss fight uncompleteable, made more, harder random encounters with less EXP/loot given, and took out some of the things that made the game easier.
  • CH3BURASHKA - February 27, 2010 8:10 p.m.

    I thought that the Batman "DRM" was incredibly appropriate: it was basically an elongated demo. In terms of other DRM, its preferable because it didn't punish the people who bought it legally, unlike almost every single other DRM out there
  • DryvBy - February 27, 2010 8:09 p.m.

    I don't remember any of these. I guess it's amateur piracy that gets caught up in most of these because more real pirates go in and remove stupid DRM measures. I support pirates as long as there's limited activations / root kits / the need to be constantly online to play a single-player game. DRM doesn't work. It never will.
  • Zerochantista - February 27, 2010 7:33 p.m.

    I kinda miss those crazy little copy-protection trinkets from early 90s PC games. In a way, it felt like you got more for your money - yes, it was copy-protection, but it was also a fun and unique little item to play with that helped give the game a sense of unique identity.
  • jackthemenace - February 27, 2010 6:53 p.m.

    some of these are really celver, but they'd be so annoying to have to find a code and put it in every time you want to play nowadays. the one in operation flashpoint is REALLY clever, i wish i could think of something that brilliant @reCAPTCHA- not bucked? i thought you said something else...
  • philipshaw - February 27, 2010 12:02 p.m.

    The Batman anti-piracy measure is so good. Just shows me even more how good Rocksteady are as a game developer
  • barrage7667 - February 27, 2010 3:24 a.m. guessing ur so called truce will only last bout 2 days @cyberninja way to represent how to be a good fanboy!!! i dont mind people being fanboys as long as they dont make stupid comments *xboxrulez* without proper evidence. i am a fanboy of hating on annoying fanboys so yea btw good article lol
  • Cwf2008 - September 19, 2012 12:27 a.m.

    You sound like a dumbass
  • phoenix_wings - February 27, 2010 1:40 a.m.

    It sounds like there are a couple of pirates in the comments section. If you run CFW on the PSP, things you legitimately purchases from PSN on your PS3 or PC won't transfer
  • nik41507 - February 27, 2010 12:53 a.m.

    If the RA2 piracy thing worked properly, it would be freakin genius
  • Cyberninja - February 27, 2010 12:50 a.m.

    good thing i dont pirate games like some people and @xboxrulez fine their can be a truce as long as you dont leave out us nintendo fanboys like me
  • RebornKusabi - February 26, 2010 11:59 p.m.

    Chrono Trigger DS has one where if you had a pirated copy, the first portal you go through will never end. The only way to fix it is either find a hack that inserts coding so the game works like a legitimate copy... or buy a goddamn copy of the game. Oh yeah and Spirit Tracks also had a anti-piracy trick where the train overlay to move forward, control speed and direction and stop- all of those, GONE! The way around it was the same as Chrono Trigger DS's.

Showing 1-20 of 39 comments

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