Every online game dies eventually. Twisted Metal Black, the gold standard of Twisted Metal games, officially went offline in 2008. But some fans weren't willing to accept that, and recently, they managed to bring it back. Online multiplayer was old hat to PC players, but it wasn't until the PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube that it truly came to consoles. The PS2 was released worldwide in 2000, and Sony launched the network adaptor accessory in 2002. The peripheral started with five online games: NFL GameDay 2003, NFL 2k3, Madden NFL 2003, SOCOM: US Navy SEALs and Twisted Metal Black Online.
Twisted Metal Black was an important pivot for a couple of reasons. One, it revitalised the stagnant vehicular combat series after its popularity lead Sony to release sequel after rehashed sequel. (Twisted Metal 3 and Twisted Metal 4, the franchise's black sheep, weren't made by the original developers.) Two, it was the last great game in the series — Twisted Metal on PS3 was a disappointment.
Hardcore fans have been dreaming about a private sever for years. When Sony shut off Twisted Metal Black — March 2007 in the US, June 2008 in Europe — a handful of players turned to LAN tunnelling services to get their fix. (LAN tunnelling involves tricking an offline multiplayer mode into working online.)
"It was fun but it just wasn't the same as the old days of the real server," said tester and Twisted Metal diehard myabsolution, one of a number of people involved in this revival. "It wasn't easy to get working, first-off, and it had some annoying barriers of entry, so lots of players were not enthused to try it."
(Everyone involved in the project asked to go by their online handles.)
There was reason to think it was more than a joke, though. myabsolution's friend, DarkForce, had captured network packets when the server was live, so they had evidence of how the online services worked for Twisted Metal Black. Unfortunately, neither had the technical know-how to do anything with it.
A few years ago, another group of dedicated fans revived Capcom's quirky online Resident Evil game, Resident Evil Outbreak. In that case, however, it was only for the Japanese version — there wasn't enough information about how the other versions operated to make bringing those servers back a realistic option.
the_fog, a programmer who genuinely calls "cyber necromancy" a personal hobby, was one of the folks chiefly responsible saving Resident Evil Outbreak.
"It always annoyed me that the operation of servers for the online portion in many video games was dropped sooner or later," the_fog said. "Publishers and operators leave their customers and fans of the games alone with an incomplete game. I found this unacceptable and started to learn everything I need to know for emulating dead servers."
("Cyber necromancy" is my new favourite phrase, by the way.)
myabsolution had gotten involved in the Resident Evil Outbreak project as tester, and worked alongside the_fog. Though the_fog admitted he'd never played Twisted Metal and wasn't into car games, he found the revival idea intriguing.
When companies shut down a game's servers, you can't just turn them back on — you have to emulate them. Emulation requires data, but that data isn't on the game disc, which is why you're hoping players were monitoring the network when the game was online. That can provide a foundation for reconstruction.
Since people were worried about Twisted Metal Black dying, some did.
"It has nothing to do with black magic," said the_fog. "All it takes is a lot of reading and trying to understand what happens when data is transferred over the wire. With the packet captures we had from old game sessions when the original server was still alive, it was relatively easy to build up a working environment and write a prototype software to simply replay the old packets."
Long before the game was playable, little milestones raised their spirits.
"The first time I got to see the games room lobby, which is something no one had seen in nearly ten years, was when I knew we had really done it," said myabsolution. "It's a feeling of pure bliss, nostalgia and excitement all rolled into one."
It took months of work, but eventually, Twisted Metal Black was online again.
"It's comparable to the feeling when you start the motor of your old-timer car the very first time after you restored it with a lot of time, money and dedication," said the_fog. "Before you turn the key, you are excited and have some doubts, maybe you're even scared. But when the engine starts and you know you did it, that's unique!"
In December 2014, they launched a beta, and roughly a year later, it went live for everyone else. Years after Twisted Metal Black went dark, it's back.
It's not as simple as turning on a copy of Twisted Metal Black, though.
- Get a PS2 or PS3 with backwards compatibility.
- Buy Twisted Metal Black Online — not Twisted Metal Black. There's a difference! The game's region must match your hardware region, as well.
- A PS2 memory card.
- Another online multiplayer PS2 game, as Twisted Metal Black Online does not come with a network utility feature. You need that to play online.
If you're looking at all this and going "hey, isn't this illegal?" you're not alone.
These folks aren't providing ways to download the game, though it's not exactly hard to track down a torrent for it, if you wanted. But Twisted Metal Black isn't exactly a rare game — there are copies going for less than $14 on eBay right now.
The server situation is a little more complicated.
"From an emulation project like this arise some legal questions," said the_fog. "To prevent problems we agreed on some simple rules. First of all, we drive the project as a strictly non-profit private service. We don't even accept donations. Also, publishing the source code of the emulation is not planned as of now."
You never know, but Sony hasn't given many indications they care about the Twisted Metal franchise right now, after the last game flopped. Twisted Metal Black was recently emulated for PS4, but doesn't include the online component.
For now, they're probably safe, and Twisted Metal Black Online lives on.