Category Archives: Game Hacking

Reverse Engineering Clue Chronicles Compression

My last post described my exploration into the 1999 computer game Clue Chronicles: Fatal Illusion. Some readers expressed interest in the details so I thought I would post a bit more about how I have investigated and what I have learned.

It’s frustrating to need to reverse engineer a compression algorithm that is only applied to a total of 8 files (out of a total set of ~140), but here we are. Still, I’m glad some others expressed interest in this challenge as it motivated me to author this post, which in turn prompted me to test and challenge some of my assumptions.

Spoiler: Commenter ‘m’ gave me the clue I needed: PKWare Data Compression Library used the implode algorithm rather than deflate. I was able to run this .ini data through an open source explode algorithm found in libmpq and got the correct data out.

Files To Study
I uploaded a selection of files for others to study, should they feel so inclined. These include the main game binary (if anyone has ideas about how to isolate the decompression algorithm from the deadlisting); compressed and uncompressed examples from 2 files (newspaper.ini and Drink.ini); and the compressed version of Clue.ini, which I suspect is the root of the game’s script.

The Story So Far
This ad-hoc scripting language found in the Clue Chronicles game is driven by a series of .ini files that are available in both compressed and uncompressed forms, save for a handful of them which only come in compressed flavor. I have figured out a few obvious details of the compressed file format:

bytes 0-3 "COMP"
bytes 4-11 unknown
bytes 12-15 size of uncompressed data
bytes 16-19 size of compressed data (filesize - 20 bytes)
bytes 20- compressed payload

The average compression ratio is on the same order as what could be achieved by running ‘gzip’ against the uncompressed files and using one of the lower number settings (i.e., favor speed vs. compression size, e.g., ‘gzip -2’ or ‘gzip -3’). Since the zlib/DEFLATE algorithm is quite widespread on every known computing platform, I thought that this would be a good candidate to test.

My thinking was that I could load the bytes in the compressed ini file and feed it into Python’s zlib library, sliding through the first 100 bytes to see if any of them “catch” on the zlib decompression algorithm.

Here is the exploration script:
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Parsing The Clue Chronicles

A long time ago, I procured a 1999 game called Clue Chronicles: Fatal Illusion, based on the classic board game Clue, a.k.a. Cluedo. At the time, I was big into collecting old, unloved PC games so that I could research obscure multimedia formats.

Surveying the 3 CD-ROMs contained in the box packaging revealed only Smacker (SMK) videos for full motion video which was nothing new to me or the multimedia hacking community at the time. Studying the mix of data formats present on the discs, I found a selection of straightforward formats such as WAV for audio and BMP for still images. I generally find myself more fascinated by how computer games are constructed rather than by playing them, and this mix of files has always triggered a strong “I could implement a new engine for this!” feeling in me, perhaps as part of the ScummVM project which already provides the core infrastructure for reimplementing engines for 2D adventure games.

Tying all of the assets together is a custom high-level programming language. I have touched on this before in a blog post over a decade ago. The scripts are in a series of files bearing the extension .ini (usually reserved for configuration scripts, but we’ll let that slide). A representative sample of such a script can be found here:


What Is This Language?
At the time I first analyzed this language, I was still primarily a C/C++-minded programmer, with a decent amount of Perl experience as a high level language, and had just started to explore Python. I assessed this language to be “mildly object oriented with C++-type comments (‘//’) and reliant upon a number of implicit library functions”. Other people saw other properties. When I look at it nowadays, it reminds me a bit more of JavaScript than C++. I think it’s sort of a Rorschach test for programming languages.

Strangely, I sort of had this fear that I would put a lot of effort into figuring out how to parse out the language only for someone to come along and point out that it’s a well-known yet academic language that already has a great deal of supporting code and libraries available as open source. Google for “spanish dolphins far side comic” for an illustration of the feeling this would leave me with.

It doesn’t matter in the end. Even if such libraries exist, how easy would they be to integrate into something like ScummVM? Time to focus on a workable approach to understanding and processing the format.

Problem Scope
So I set about to see if I can write a program to parse the language seen in these INI files. Some questions:

  1. How large is the corpus of data that I need to be sure to support?
  2. What parsing approach should I take?
  3. What is the exact language format?
  4. Other hidden challenges?

To figure out how large the data corpus is, I counted all of the INI files on all of the discs. There are 138 unique INI files between the 3 discs. However, there are 146 unique INI files after installation. This leads to a hidden challenge described a bit later.

What parsing approach should I take? I worried a bit too much that I might not be doing this the “right” way. I’m trying to ignore doubts like this, like how “SQL Shame” blocked me on a task for a little while a few years ago as I concerned myself that I might not be using the purest, most elegant approach to the problem. I know I covered language parsing a lot time ago in university computer science education and there is a lot of academic literature to the matter. But sometimes, you just have to charge in and experiment and prototype and see what falls out. In doing so, I expect to have a better understanding of the problems that need to solved and the right questions to ask, not unlike that time that I wrote a continuous integration system from scratch because I didn’t actually know that “continuous integration” was the keyword I needed.

Next, what is the exact language format? I realized that parsing the language isn’t the first and foremost problem here– I need to know exactly what the language is. I need to know what the grammar are keywords are. In essence, I need to reverse engineer the language before I write a proper parser for it. I guess that fits in nicely with the historical aim of this blog (reverse engineering).

Now, about the hidden challenges– I mentioned that there are 8 more INI files after the game installs itself. Okay, so what’s the big deal? For some reason, all of the INI files are in plaintext on the CD-ROM but get compressed (apparently, according to file size ratios) when installed to the hard drive. This includes those 8 extra INI files. I thought to look inside the CAB installation archive file on the CD-ROM and the files were there… but all in compressed form. I suspect that one of the files forms the “root” of the program and is the launching point for the game.

Parsing Approach
I took a stab at parsing an INI file. My approach was to first perform lexical analysis on the file and create a list of 4 types: symbols, numbers, strings, and language elements ([]{}()=.,:). Apparently, this is the kind of thing that Lex/Flex are good at. This prototyping tool is written in Python, but when I port this to ScummVM, it might be useful to call upon the services of Lex/Flex, or another lexical analyzer, for there are many. I have a feeling it will be easier to use better tools when I understand the full structure of the language based on the data available.
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Translating Return To Ringworld

As indicated in my previous post, the Translator has expressed interest in applying his hobby towards another DOS adventure game from the mid 1990s: Return to Ringworld (henceforth R2RW) by Tsunami Media. This represents significantly more work than the previous outing, Phantasmagoria.

Return to Ringworld Title Screen
Return to Ringworld Title Screen

I have been largely successful thus far in crafting translation tools. I have pushed the fruits of these labors to a Github repository named improved-spoon (named using Github’s random name generator because I wanted something more interesting than ‘game-hacking-tools’).

Further, I have recorded everything I have learned about the game’s resource format (named RLB) at the XentaxWiki.

New Challenges
The previous project mostly involved scribbling subtitle text on an endless series of video files by leveraging a separate software library which took care of rendering fonts. In contrast, R2RW has at least 30k words of English text contained in various blocks which require translation. Further, the game encodes its own fonts (9 of them) which stubbornly refuse to be useful for rendering text in nearly any other language.

Thus, the immediate 2 challenges are:
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Approaches To Modifying Game Resource Files

I have been assisting The Translator in the translation of another mid-1990s adventure game. This one isn’t quite as multimedia-heavy as the last title, and the challenges are a bit different. I wanted to compose this post in order to describe my thought process and mental model in approaching this problem. Hopefully, this will help some others understand my approach since what I’m doing here often appears as magic to some of my correspondents.

High Level Model
At the highest level, it is valuable to understand the code and the data at play. The code is the game’s engine and the data refers to the collection of resources that comprise the game’s graphics, sound, text, and other assets.

High-level game engine model
Simplistic high-level game engine model

Ideally, we want to change the data in such a way that the original game engine adopts it as its own because it has the same format as the original data. It is very undesirable to have to modify the binary engine executable in any way.

Modifying The Game Data Directly
How to modify the data? If we modify the text strings for the sake of language translation, one approach might be to search for strings within the game data files and change them directly. This model assumes that the text strings are stored in a plain, uncompressed format. Some games might store these strings in a text format which can be easily edited with any text editor. Other games will store them as binary data.
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