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GameMaker Tutorial: Password systems 1: password entry

In old school console games, especially for the NES, it was common to enter a “code” or “password” in order to resume play where you had left off previously. Back in the day, memory was extremely expensive, and very few games implemented a battery backed RAM solution that allowed the player to Save and Restore a game.

Instead, a system of encoding the game state data into a long “password” was often used in lieu of a real save system. In addition to encoding the game state, these password systems often had some kind of validation built into them, so that not just any arbitrary input would be accepted. For fun, sometimes games would have special, secret codes that would enable cheats. For a few players, cracking the encoding system to enable you to configure the gamestate to your exact wishes was a kind of advanced meta-game, excellent for budding young hackers. There is great nostalgia value in these systems if you are into old school retrogaming.

Password systems (general overview)

If you want to build a password save system, at a high level there are a few things you need to do:

  1. Password Entry
  2. Validation
  3. Encoding/Decoding GameState
  4. Password Display

This article will cover Password Entry, while future articles will cover the other topics.

Get the input

For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume a four-character code will encode all the information that we need. In practice, most 8-bit NES games used much more than this, but for a simple input demo this should be sufficient.

The easiest way to enter a string in GameMaker is the get_string_async() function.

save_pw = get_string_async("Enter password", "");

Since get_string_async is an asynchronous function, it does not return a value immediately. We need to add an Async Event to catch the return value when the function calls back to the main program. The correct Async Event to use for this function is the Dialog event. The get_string_async() function doesn’t simply return a string value, though; rather, it returns a data structure called a ds_map, which contains 3 values: an id, a status, and the result. The result is the string that was entered by the player, the password that we are looking for.

We can put the following code in the Dialog Event to handle the return callback:
Dialog Event:

var i_d = ds_map_find_value(async_load, "id");
if i_d == save_pw{
 if ds_map_find_value(async_load, "status"){
 password = ds_map_find_value(async_load, "result");
 }
}

The interface that get_string_async() provides is not very satisfying, aesthetically, but it works well enough for now. (We’ll explore a few other methods later that will more faithfully replicate the “password entry” screens from old NES games, in a future article.)

Right away, we have a few problems with simply getting a string:

  1. Because get_string_async() allows the player to enter any string they want, the player may enter a string of arbitrary length. For our demo, we need them to enter a string that is exactly the right length.
  2. The get_string_async() is not constrained in the characters it will allow the player to enter. Passwords for NES games varied in their alphabets, but many would allow A-Z, a-z, 0-9, and often spaces and special characters. Some games would allow only capital letters, while others would allow lower and upper case. One serious flaw with the old password systems was that the letters were displayed in fonts which often made it difficult to differentiate certain characters, like 1 and l, or 0 and o, etc. Later NES games sometimes corrected for this by using a more distinct font, or by omitting the ambiguous characters from the alphabet entirely.

There are many ways to constrain the allowed characters, but we don’t need to get super fancy with it for our demo.

In the next article, we’ll demonstrate how to decode the password — that is, to translate the password value to game state information. Finally, we’ll demonstrate how to generate and display the password when the game is over (or paused, or at a save point, or whenever it’s appropriate for your game), so that the player can write it down and enter it the next time they play to resume where they left off.

Part 2

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