ARWhich was the best cracking cartridge on the Commodore 64?

I come across this question irritatingly often, and usually at my mobile, where writing a longer text is not really an option. So I’ll spill the beans here in order to have a source of reference next time I need the longer text.

First

Let me first state why I believe I am qualified to judge:

  • First of all I didn’t try them all, but I tried most. If you only had one, which you liked, then you have a poor base for comparison.
  • I see myself as a quite qualified judge of this given my hacking background – I did crack games. A lot of them. And the carts were the key tool in this deed.
  • I also freelanced for magazines, writing comparing texts at least on a semi professional level.

Second

Cracking is the removal of protections and can only properly be done by going through the loading process and stopping the program exactly on the very instruction the game starts. You should have a clean RAM beforehand and only maintain in the crack the portions that is relevant. That means that old artefacts of loading pictures and loading music should be cleaned in a proper crack.

This is VERY different from freezing. Freezing interrupts a running program and stores it on disk in the state of the freeze. All carts could do freezing, including Icepic and a bunch of others from the very early days. But freezing is not cracking.

To the background and early years

Back in the early days, hackers used quite simple utility cartridges. HesMon was a prominent one for disassembly, but most of the crackers I know from the mid 80s used CCS Mon by PHS. It had additional features that saved a bit of manual work hacking tape loaders. These were really kewl for the period. I’m not sure, but I do believe that CCS Mon is a derivat of HesMon. Would welcome if someone could share views on this,

Today

Today the 1541 Ultimate and Turbo Chameleon are the two leading ones, as they support virtual drives from SD cards. They do have the utility cart function as well – typically the RetroReplay, which is a derivat of the Action Replay. Either one of these is what you should get today if you use the original c64 hardware.

The golden years

Looking at the period between these – say from 1988 to 1998 or thereabout, I see three contenders for the title.

  • Action Replay – General utility cartridge with a great freezer. You could freeze almost ALL programs in their running state, inspect, modify and resume. Speed loader for most drives, including the 1581. Great monitor with the ability to set freeze points. Technically it placed a JSR $DFD3 in RAM which it replaced for the original code when the freezer was triggered.
  • The Expert Cartridge – A specialised cartridge for inspecting running programs – also supported undocumented opcodes, which made it particularly good for that purpose . The cart was basically blank, so you needed to program it first. So the software could hence be expanded and you could pick different modules from the disk that you got with it. Turning the computer off made you have to reprogram it so if you didn’t have a hardware speeder (Like DolphinDOS, ProfessionalDOS or JiffyDOS), it was quite annoying.
  • SuperSnapShot – Tried one for a brief period and I believe it was a really good one as well, but don’t have the longer experience to actually be really sure.

All these contain RAM, which means that a freezer can kick in and have places to store stuff without touching the computer RAM in any way. A freezer with no RAM will always be crappy, as you need to store registers and you also need a bit of work space – if nothing else then the 1000 bytes of screen.

The NO GOOD cartridge was the so called Final Cartridge. Don’t get me wrong – the basic extension was good, the speedloader good and a lot of the other software was absolutely fine. But it was all ROM. There was no proper way to freeze, inspect, modify and resume. It was SHIT as a cracking cartridge. Adding to this, if you didn’t pay attention, you entered the desktop mode and thereby killing some 8KB of memory by placing the bitmap there.

The conclusion is that back then Action Replay or The Expert was a matter of taste. The Final Cartridge has always been a prime “Lamer marker”. Only people who didn’t know better used one.

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