Alok Menghrajani

Previously: security engineer at Square, co-author of HackLang, put the 's' in https at Facebook. Maker of CTFs.

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In 1998, people were competing to write the smallest possible DOS games, a type of progamming competition later coined as "code golfing".

I decided to revisit one such piece of code (nibbles.asm) but turn it into a bootable floppy image which can fit in a tweet (140 characters):

perl -E"say'swFoAKAHvqB9uBMAzRC/wPi5gAjzqqqBxz4Bc/jkYDxIchE8UHcNN5hISH
      IFLAJrwLCJwwHetIa2780VtEUmMCR72uv','B'x589,'Vao='"|base64 -D>boot.img
note: on some systems, e.g. Linux, you'll have to use base64 -d.

* Technically, my code isn't a bootloader. A real bootloader does things like setup the x86 machine in protected mode, load more data from the disk (the BIOS only loads the first 512 bytes), etc. I skip all of that and instead setup some registers and jump straight into the game.

A popular website which hosted such competitions was Hugi and one of my favorite entries was "Nibbles by Altair/ODDS entertainment", an implementation of nibbles (also known as Tron or Snakes) in only 48 bytes.

Unfortunately, running the original code today isn't very easy: you need DOS and if you are running in an emulator, the assumptions the original programmers made about their hardware (and often the speed of their hardware) needs to hold up.

I therefore decided to take Altair's code and turn it into a bootable floppy disk. I also made a few tweaks to make the game more playable.


Here is my code with some of the original comments as well as some of my own.

; floppy.asm: a bootloader(*) + retro game which fits in a tweet:
; perl -E"say'sgFoAKAHvqB9uBMAzRC/wPi5gAjzqqqBxz4Bc/jkYDxIchE8UHcNN5hISH
; IFLAJrwLCJwgHWtQa0C80Q4vwmMCR72uv','B'x589,'Vao='"|base64 -D>boot.img
; to compile and run:
; nasm floppy.asm -o floppy.img
; qemu-system-i386 -fda floppy.img
          [bits 16]                    ; Pragma, tells the assembler that we
                                       ; are in 16 bit mode (which is the state
                                       ; of x86 when booting from a floppy).
          [org 0x7C00]                 ; Pragma, tell the assembler where the
                                       ; code will be loaded.

          mov bl, 1                    ; Starting direction for the worm.
          push 0xa000                  ; Load address of VRAM into es.
          pop es

          mov       si, 320*100+160    ; worm's starting position, center of
                                       ; screen

          ; Set video mode. Mode 13h is VGA (1 byte per pixel with the actual
          ; color stored in a palette), 320x200 total size. When restarting,
          ; this also clears the screen.
          mov       ax, 0x0013
          int       0x10

          ; Draw borders. We assume the default palette will work for us.
          ; We also assume that starting at the bottom and drawing 2176 pixels
          ; wraps around and ends up drawing the top + bottom borders.
          mov       di, 320*199
          mov       cx, 2176
          stosb                        ; draw right border
          stosb                        ; draw left border
          add       di, 318
          jnc       draw_loop          ; notice the jump in the middle of the
                                       ; rep stosb instruction.

          ; We read the keyboard input from port 0x60. This also reads bytes from
          ; the mouse, so we need to only handle [up (0x48), left (0x4b),
          ; right (0x4d), down (0x50)]
          in        al, 0x60
          cmp       al, 0x48
          jb        kb_handle_end
          cmp       al, 0x50
          ja        kb_handle_end

          ; At the end bx contains offset displacement (+1, -1, +320, -320)
          ; based on pressed/released keypad key. I bet there are a few bytes
          ; to shave around here given the bounds check above.
          dec       ax
          dec       ax
          jc        kb_handle
          sub       al, 2
          imul      ax, ax, byte -0x50
          mov       bx, ax

          add       si, bx

          ; The original code used set pallete command (10h/0bh) to wait for
          ; the vertical retrace. Today's computers are however too fast, so
          ; we use int 15h 86h instead. This also shaves a few bytes.

          ; Note: you'll have to tweak cx+dx if you are running this on a virtual
          ; machine vs real hardware. Casual testing seems to show that virtual machines
          ; wait ~3-4x longer than physical hardware.
          mov       ah, 0x86
          mov       dh, 0xef
          int       0x15

          ; Draw worm and check for collision with parity
          ; (even parity=collision).
          mov ah, 0x45
          xor [es:si], ah

          ; Go back to the main game loop.
          jpo       game_loop

          ; We hit a wall or the worm. Restart the game.
          jmp       restart_game

TIMES 510 - ($ - $$) db 0              ; Fill the rest of sector with 0
dw 0xaa55                              ; Boot signature at the end of bootloader


The code in the tweet creates a bootable file boot.img. You can boot the code in qemu, virtual box or your favorite virtualization software and play the game with the arrow keys. You can also put the code on a floppy and boot it, as seen in the video at the top of this page.