Pokemon Yellow Total Control Hack


Written by:

Robert McIntyre

Full Source : http://hg.bortreb.com/vba-clojure

Youtube Video w/ Visual Keypresses: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5T81yHkHtI

Special Thanks to:

1 Introduction

Think of pokemon yellow as creating a little universe with certain rules. Inside that universe, you can buy items, defeat rival trainers, and raise your pokemon. But within that universe, you are bound by the rules of pokemon. You can't build new buildings, or change the music, or change your clothes.. There are some games (like chess), where it is not possible to alter the rules of the game from within the game. No matter what moves you make in chess, you can never change the rules of the game so that it becomes checkers or basketball. The point of this run is to show that you CAN change the rules in pokemon yellow. There is a certain sequence of valid actions (like walking from one place to another or buying items) that will allow you to transform pokemon yellow into Pacman, or Tetris, or Pong, or a MIDI player, or anything else you can imagine.

2 Background

This speedrun by Felipe Lopes de Freitas (p4wn3r), beats pokemon yellow in only 1 minute and 36 seconds. It does it by corrupting the in-game item list so that he can advance the list past its normal limit of 20 items. The memory immediately after the item list includes the warp points for the current map, and by treating that data as items and switching and dropping them, he can make the door from his house take him directly to the end of the game.

When I first saw that speedrun, I was amazed at how fast pokemon yellow could be beaten, and that it was possible to manipulate the game from the inside, using only the item list. I wondered how far I could extend the techniques found in p4wn3r's run.

The gameboy is an 8 bit computer. That means that ultimately, anything that happens in pokemon is a result of the gameboy's CPU reading a stream of 8 bit numbers and doing whatever those numbers mean. For example, in the gameboy, the numbers:

[62 16 37 224 47 240 37 230 15 55]

mean to check which buttons are currently pressed and copy that result into the "A" register. With enough numbers, you can spell out an interactive program that reads input from the buttons and allows you to write any program you want to the gameboy. Once you have assembled such a program and forced the game to run it, you have won, since you can use that program to write any other program (like Tetris or Pacman) over pokemon yellow's code. I call a program that allows you to write any other program a "bootstrapping program". So, the goal is to somehow get a bootstrapping program into pokemon yellow and then force yellow to run that program instead of its own.

How can we spell out such a program? Everything in the game is ultimately numbers, including all items, pokemon, levels, etc. In particular, the item list looks like:

item-one-id         (0-255)
item-one-quantity   (0-255)
item-two-id         (0-255)
item-two-quantity   (0-255)

Let's consider the button measuring program [37 62 16 37 224 37 240 37 230 15 55] from before. Interpreted as items and item quantities, it is

lemonade     x16
guard spec.  x224
leaf stone   x240
guard spec.  x230
parlyz heal  x55

So, if we can get the right items in the right quantities, we can spell out a bootstrapping program. Likewise, when writing the bootstrapping program, we must be careful to only use numbers that are also valid items and quantities. This is hard because there aren't many different items to work with, and many machine instructions actually take 2 or even 3 numbers in a row, which severely restricts the types of items you can use. I ended up needing about 92 numbers to implement a bootstrap program. Half of those numbers were elaborate ways of doing nothing and were just there so that the entire program was also a valid item list.

The final part of the hack is getting pokemon yellow to execute the new program after it has been assembled with items. Fortunately, pokemon keeps a number called a function pointer within easy reach of the corrupted item list. This function pointer is the starting point (address) of a program which the game runs every so often to check for poison and do general maintenance. By shifting an item over this function pointer, I can rewrite that address to point to the bootstrapping program, and make the game execute it. Without this function pointer, it would not be possible to take over the game.

3 The Run

I start off and name my rival Lp/k. These characters will eventually be treated as items and shifted over the function pointer, causing it to execute the bootstrapping program that will soon be constructed. I start the run the same as p4wn3r's and restart the game while saving, so that the pokemon list is corrupted. By switching the 8th and 10th pokemon, I corrupt the item list and can now scroll down past the 20th item. I shift items around to increase the text speed to maximum and rewrite the warp point of my house to Celadon Dept. Store. (p4wn3r used this to go directly to the hall of fame and win the game in his run.) I deposit many 0x00 glitch items into the PC from my corrupted inventory for later use. Then, I withdraw the potion from the PC. This repairs my item list by overflowing the item counter from 0xFF back to 0x00, though the potion is obliterated in the process. I then take 255 glitch items with ID 0x00 from the computer into my personal items.

Leaving my house takes me directly to Celadon Dept. store, where I sell two 0x00 items for 414925 each, giving myself essentially max money. I hit every floor of the department store, gathering the following items:

|##| Item           | Quantity |
|1 | TM02           |  98      |
|2 | TM37           |  71      |
|3 | TM05           |   1      |
|4 | TM09           |   1      |
|5 | burn-heal      |  12      |
|6 | ice-heal       |  55      |
|7 | parlyz-heal    |  99      |
|8 | parlyz-heal    |  55      |
|9 | TM18           |   1      |
|10| fire-stone     |  23      |
|11| water-stone    |  29      |
|12| x-accuracy     |  58      |
|13| guard-spec     |  99      |
|14| guard-spec     |  24      |
|15| lemonade       |  16      |
|16| TM13           |   1      |

After gathering these items, I deposit them in the appropriate order into the item PC to spell out my bootstrapping program. Writing a full bootstrap program in one go using only items turned out to be too hard, so I split the process up into three parts. The program that I actually construct using items is very limited. It reads only from the A, B, start, and select buttons, and writes 4 bits each frame starting at a fixed point in memory. After it writes 200 or so bytes, it jumps directly to what it just wrote. In my run, I use this program to write another bootstrapping program that can write any number of bytes to any location in memory, and then jump to any location in memory. This new program also can write 8 bits per frame by using all the buttons. Using this new bootstrap program, I write a final bootstrapping program that does everything the previous bootstrapping program does except it also displays the bytes it is writing to memory on the screen.

After completing this bootstrapping program, I go to the Celadon mansion, because I find the metaness of that building to be sufficiently high to serve as an exit point for the pokemon universe. I corrupt my item list again by switching corrupted pokemon, scroll down to my rival's name and discard until it is equal to the address of my bootstrapping program, and then swap it with the function pointer. Once the menu is closed, the bootstrapping program takes over, and I write the payload….

4 Infrastructure

The entire video was completely produced by bots — I didn't manually play the game at all to produce this speedrun. Here is a brief account of the infrastructure I built to make the video. The entire source of the project is available at http://hg.bortreb.com/vba-clojure

The first step was to build a programmatic interface to pokemon yellow. So, I downloaded vba-rerecording from http://code.google.com/p/vba-rerecording/. After repairing their broken auto-tools scripts so that it would compile on GNU/Linux, I added a low level C interface that I could call from Java via JNI. This C interface gives me basic control over the emulator: I can step the emulator either one clock cycle or one frame, and I can get the contents of any memory location or register. The interface also allows me to freeze the state of the emulator, save it to a Java object, and reload that state again at any time.

I built a layer of clojure code on top of the JNI bindings to get an entirely functional interface to vba-rerecording. This interface treats state of the emulator as an immutable object, and allows me to do everything I could do with the lower level C interface in a functional manner. Using this functional code, I wrote search programs that take a particular game-state and try out different combinations of button presses to get any desired effect. By combining different styles of search with different initial conditions, I created high level functions that could each accomplish a certain general task, like walking and buying items. For example, here is some actual code:

(defn-memo viridian-store->oaks-lab
  ([] (viridian-store->oaks-lab
     (->> script
          (walk [↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓
                 ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← 
                 ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓
                 ← ←
                 ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓
                 ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓
                 → → → → → → → →
                 ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓
                 ← ← ← ← ←
                 ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓
           [↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓])
          (walk [↓ ↓ ← ↓ ↓ ↓ ←
                 ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓
                 → → → ↑])
          (do-nothing 1))))

This script walks from the Viridian City pokemon store to Oak's Lab in the most efficient way possible. The walk-thru-grass function guarantees that no wild battles will happen by manipulating the game's random number generator.

(defn-memo hacking-10
  ([] (hacking-10 (hacking-9)))
     (->> script
          (deposit-held-item 17 230)
          (deposit-held-item-named :parlyz-heal 55)
          (deposit-held-item 14 178)
          (deposit-held-item-named :water-stone 29)
          (deposit-held-item 14 32)
          (deposit-held-item-named :TM18 1)
          (deposit-held-item 13 1)
          (deposit-held-item 13 191)
          (deposit-held-item-named :TM02 98)
          (deposit-held-item-named :TM09 1)

This script calculates the fastest sequence of key presses to deposit the requested items into a PC, assuming that the character starts out in front of a computer.

I also wrote functions that could grovel through the game's memory and present the internal data structures in usable ways. For example, the function print-inventory returns the current inventory in a human readable format.

|##| Item           | Quantity |
|0 | poke-ball      |  14      |
|1 | TM28           |   1      |
|2 | TM11           |   1      |
|3 | TM45           |   1      |
|4 | nugget         |   1      |
|5 | s.s.ticket     |   1      |
|6 | helix-fossil   |   1      |
|7 | moon-stone     |   1      |

Armed with these functions, I constructed a bootstrapping program that could be expressed as items. This is particularly hard, since many useful opcodes do not correspond any item, and the item quantities must all be less than 99.

Here is the first bootstrapping program in all its glory.

(defn pc-item-writer-program
  (let [;;limit 75
        limit 201 ;; (item-hack 201 is the smallest I could make this.) 
        [target-high target-low] (disect-bytes-2 pokemon-list-start)]
     [[0x00  ;; (item-hack) no-op (can't buy repel (1E) at celadon)
       0x1E  ;; load limit into E
       0x3F  ;; (item-hack) set carry flag no-op

       ;; load 2 into C.
       0x0E   ;; C == 1 means input-first nybble
       0x04   ;; C == 0 means input-second nybble

       0x21 ;; load target into HL
       0x37 ;; (item-hack) set carry flag no-op

       0x00 ;; (item-hack) no-op
       0x37 ;; (item-hack) set carry flag no-op
       0x00 ;; (item-hack) no-op
       0xF3 ;; disable interrupts
       ;; Input Section

       0x3E ;; load 0x20 into A, to measure buttons

       0x00 ;; (item-hack) no-op
       0xE0 ;; load A into [FF00]

       0xF0 ;; load 0xFF00 into A to get
       0x00 ;; button presses
       0x0F ;; select bottom four bits of A
       0x37 ;; (item-hack) set carry flag no-op

       0x00 ;; (item-hack) no-op
       0xB8 ;; see if input is different (CP A B)

       0x00 ;; (item-hack) (INC SP)
       0x28 ;; repeat above steps if input is not different
       ;; (jump relative backwards if B != A)
       0xED ;; (literal -19) (item-hack) -19 == egg bomb (TM37)

       0x47 ;; load A into B
       0x0D ;; dec C
       0x37 ;; (item-hack) set-carry flag
       ;; branch based on C:
       0x20 ;; JR NZ
       23 ;; skip "input second nybble" and "jump to target" below
       ;; input second nybble

       0x0C ;; inc C
       0x0C ;; inc C

       0x00 ;; (item-hack) no-op
       0xE6 ;; select bottom bits
       0x37 ;; (item-hack) set-carry flag no-op

       0x00 ;; (item-hack) no-op
       0xB2 ;; (OR A D) -> A

       0x22 ;; (do (A -> (HL)) (INC HL))

       0x1D ;; (DEC E)

       0x00 ;; (item-hack) 
       0x20 ;; jump back to input section if not done
       0xDA ;; literal -36 == TM 18 (counter)
       0x01 ;; (item-hack) set BC to literal (no-op)

       ;; jump to target
       0x00  ;; (item-hack) these two bytes can be anything.

       0x00   ;; (item-hack) no-op
       0xBF   ;; (CP A A) ensures Z
       0xCA   ;; (item-hack) jump if Z
       0x01   ;; (item-hack) will never be reached.
       ;; input first nybble
       0x37  ;; swap nybbles on A

       0x57  ;; A -> D

       0x37  ;; (item-hack) set carry flag no-op
       0x18  ;; relative jump backwards
       0xCD  ;; literal -51 == TM05; go back to input section
       0x01  ;; (item-hack) will never reach this instruction

      (repeat 8 [0x00 0x01]);; these can be anything

      [;; jump to actual program
       0x37  ;; (item-hack) set carry flag no-op

       0x2E  ;; 0x3A -> L

       0x00  ;; (item-hack) no-op
       0x26  ;; 0xD5 -> L
       0x01  ;; (item-hack) set-carry BC

       0x00  ;; (item-hack) these can be anything

       0xE9 ;; jump to (HL)

I use the glitch items 0x00 and 0xFF to great effect in my run. 0x00 sells for almost half of maximum money — I use just 3 of them to finance the purchase of all the other items I need. 0x00 is also a NO-OP in the gameboy's machine language, which means that I can stick them anywhere where I need to break up an otherwise illegal pair of opcodes. 0xFF is also extremely useful because it is the end-of-list sentinel. Normally, the game will "compact" your items whenever you make a purchase or deposit. For example, if you deposit a pokeball, then deposit another pokeball, the item list looks like:

pokeball x2

instead of:

pokeball x1
pokeball x1

However, the compaction stops after the first 0xFF item, so if there is an 0xFF item at the beginning of the list, it will "shield" all the items below it from compaction. It the beginning of the run, I stick an 0xFF item at the top of the PC item list, allowing me to put items in with impunity. At the end, I toss the 0xFF away to reveal the completed bootstrap program.

The final payload program is multiple programs. I created a reduced form of MIDI and implemented it in gameboy machine language. Then I translated a midi file from http://www.everyponysings.com/ into this reduced MIDI language. The payload program contains both the music data and the MIDI interpreter to play that data. The picture works in a similar way. There is code to translate a png file into a form that can be displayed on a gameboy, and other code to actually display that image. Both the image and the display code are also written by the final bootstrapping program. Even though my final payload is rather simple, you can write any program at all as the payload. The source for the sound and image displaying code is at http://hg.bortreb.com/vba-clojure.

Author: Robert McIntyre

Created: 2016-02-08 Mon 02:18

Emacs 24.5.1 (Org mode 8.3beta)