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    • Magic Words

      The first home game to feature a password system was 1983’s Survival Island for the Atari 2600. Although primitive by today’s standards, Survival Island was a technical tour de force, featuring a large world to explore, the ability to populate and maintain an inventory of items, 3D mazes and, of course, passwords to let you pick up where you left off the next time you wanted to play. It’s one of just a handful of 2600 games to feature a password at all.

      Passwords really hit their stride on the Nintendo Entertainment System a few years later. The NES was a technological leap beyond the 2600 and could offer much richer gaming experiences. Password-backed games began appearing a little more than a year into the NES’s North American lifetime, starting with Konami’s May 1987 release of Castlevania. By June of that year, Nintendo itself was promoting a line of “Password Pak”-branded games at the summer CES trade show[2], starting with Kid Icarus and Metroid.

      Passwords caught on in a flash, and it was common for gamer kids to keep a notepad next to their controller. Passwords were both treasured and traded, shared on playgrounds and even published in magazines and books[3].

      Passwords opened up a new level of possibilities for gaming, but they were still limited. Passwords could only store so much information before becoming unreasonably long, and even writing down even short passwords was still a distraction from playing the games. In Japan, both of Nintendo’s premiere Password Paks had been released on the Japan-only floppy disk drive add-on for their home console. Using a floppy disk meant that progress could be saved directly on the game disk itself, freeing players from the tedium of copying down passwords on slips of paper and the responsibility of keeping track of them afterwards.

      What the world needed was another technological leap. How could progress be saved onto game cartridges that were inherently read-only?

      Image: the password entry screen for Metroid (1986), one of the first NES games to feature passwords.