Data Leaks the PC-Engine Way!

Exploring the Remnants of the Active Life Network Software

Nov. 2021, Chris Covell []


IN BRIEF: I extracted images, text, and source code to a rare piece of PC-Engine software, which were hidden in another PCE CD-ROM game.

[About ALN/MAC21] [1.ALN Menu] [2. Personality Quiz] [3. Dating Quiz] [4. Parties] [5. Other Data] [6. Source Code] [7. Appendices]


One of the rarest pieces of software on the collector's market for the PC-Engine CD-ROM System is a set of subscription-only discs for the Active Life Network (ALN), a Japanese marriage matchmaking service from 1989-1990. From the articles written at the time about ALN, its parent company MAC21 boasted having 6000 members nationwide. Thus, if we assume that only a smaller portion of those people sought to use the system delivered via CD-ROM, we can imagine the low numbers that these discs were printed in.

(Not that I would care about its rarity or value -- often the most exclusive items in gaming are also the most tedious to actually play or use.)

So, it gives me delight to find quite a substantial amout of images and source code to this Active Life Network software hidden in the data tracks of far more common PC-Engine CD games. With this, we can get a glimpse into what the ALN experience might have been like without needing to shell out the big bucks to obtain this rarity.

Wait -- What's a PC-Engine?

Ok, I guess for some of you, we'll have to start here. The NEC PC-Engine was a 1987 game system that in 1988 received the console world's first CD-ROM attachment. The era of CD gaming began with this system, each compact disc being able to store hundreds of megabytes of game data accompanied by CD-quality music. A typical PCE-CD game of the time would have a data track ranging from 3 to 150 megabytes, with the rest being filled by CD audio tracks. Some games had a much larger data track, potentially up to 600 megabytes, that often contained FMV or sampled audio. The PC-Engine data track wasn't using a PC-friendly filesystem; no, it was one single binary chunk that the game software would have to access sector-by-sector. Thus, only each game's programmer would know the logical layout of his or her game data.

To develop a game intended for a high-capacity CD-ROM, one would need a development kit with enough storage for the source code, CD audio and final binaries, wouldn't one? Yes, but this is still the 1980s, and 20-40-megabyte hard drives were still the norm and still cost PC users hundreds or thousands of dollars. The price for a PCE dev unit, equipped with 600 MB of hard drive space functioning both as asset storage and emulated CD drive, then, was astronomical. A third-party PCE developer would be lucky to have one such unit in their entire office. When a CD game project was completed, the game's image would be saved onto tape backup, and a new game project could then be started on that single dev unit. (See here for details.)

Picture, if you will, the condition of the hard drive in that dev unit, having newly-compiled binaries constantly written to it in succession. When a new project starts, the CD emulation software does not wipe the 600MB hard drive at all: it just allocates space at the start of this hard drive, and writes downwards again. Thus, each compile cycle, and indeed each overall game project, deposits a fresh layer of data overtop the old one like silt in a lake bed.

So, when you examine the data track of a PC-Engine CD ISO, you may indeed find data from older, mid-development, versions of the same game; or even from the game that the developer had been working on previously. This had even been documented as early as 1989, when game magazines found, through a CD-swapping trick, unused graphics data in the earliest PCE-CD game, No-Ri-Ko.

Absent a full archived image of a game company's dev PC, therefore, a PCE-CD image is the next best way to gain an inadvertent snapshot of the game company's dev system at the time.

CD Disc Swapping Trick as printed in PC-Engine Fan magazine, revealing hidden data in unused sectors

PC-Engine CD Golden Axe (by Telenet) might be a breathtakingly terrible conversion of the arcade game, but at least you get a substantial amount of the game's source code, macros, and startup ASM files with it for free.


So, who made Active Life Network?

A developer named Fun Project appears to have done the programming, planning, graphics, etc. of the ALN discs. Concurrent to the ALN project, Fun Project also developed the Ultra Box magazine on CD, Magical Saurus Tour (a virtual dinosaur encyclopedia), and J.B. Harold Murder Club. (This company seems to be adept at the menu-based, interactive multimedia database type thing, now that I think about it.)

And indeed, a number of the above games contain vestiges of ALN data. Much of it has been overwritten and corrupted, but there is still enough here in image and text form to get an idea of how the software works. Let's look more at the matchmaking company that commissioned the ALN discs first.

MAC21 & Active Life Network

Active Life Network Coverage in the Media
Transcriptions of the above three articles are HERE

Not a lot can be found about the ALN service these days, but a small flurry of news articles in technology magazines in mid-1989 paint the intended picture of MAC21's publicity drive for ALN. Billing itself as "the world's first matchmaking membership service", the company launched a new way to connect its 6000 members more efficiently and discreetly. (I don't see how this is exactly a "world's first" of anything, since computer dating services were a bit of a fad in the 1970s and 1980s, but I digress.) After paying 370,000 yen (~$2,700 at the time) for a membership with MAC21, and a CD fee of 16,000 yen, members will receive a CD each season for two years. (It is noted that a PC-Engine and CD-ROM system are also required.)

Using the ALN CD, members can input their personal details, interests, and preferences for a marriage partner, and then either let the software run a search for a suitable match, or browse / search the database of partners manually, filtering by different criteria. The results will show a greyscale picture of their possible marriage partner with their stats and a self-introduction. Using this CD, members can then arrange through MAC21 to meet with up to 10 people per month.

Why spend so much time and money on matchmaking? Just hit the singles bars, for god's sake!

Okay, even today, strangers just don't walk up to each other and "turn on the charm" in Japan. Most relationships grow out of connections between mutual friends, from frequenting the same hobby circles, and through connections at work. It may still seem odd though, depending on what country you're from, to rely on a service to find someone for you that you can jump right into matrimony with.

For various reasons (being geographically isolated, ie: your area's tiny gene pool; being deathly shy; *cough*daddynotbeing*cough* aroundto*cough* teachtheirsons*cough* howtotalk*cough*togirls -- sorry, I need a cup of tea before I can keep on typing -- being just a couple of examples) people in Japan still seek matchmaking through family friends or even services -- called the o-miai kekkon. In the 1980s, it was more common than now: according to this page on Japanese o-miai culture, up to 30% of marriages before the turn of the millennium were still done through o-miai or something similar. Though there is some social pressure to hurry up and tie the knot, marriage is not a foregone conclusion, and each partner is free to call off the match and keep the o-miai search going. At least one benefit I can imagine from the ALN system is that a member can simply choose "no smokers" as an option on her TV screen, rather than have to argue with her mother and convince her of her preference, as in the traditional way. :)

So with all that out of the way, let's get to the media!


You'll have to excuse the crudity of the Active Life Network title screen -- it's obviously a preproduction mockup. So I guess it doesn't matter that there's a strip of fresh PC-Engine data written right through the middle of it. More disappointing is the main menu screen's corruption. But let's try to piece together what options are available to members using this ALN disc.


The first option says BEST MATCHING. Likely prior to running an elaborate search, the ALN software asks you for your personal details, then saves your answers in the PCE-CD's backup RAM. Using it, this option will probably have the ALN software find the best match for a marriage partner for you. Along with a 112x192-pixel greyscale image of the selected partner, the ALN software displays their relevant personal statistics over about 4 screens of text.

Below is just a small sampling of the personal details that users can choose for themselves and the partner they seek. There are pages and pages more in Appendix II.
(Personal Details)  
血液型 Blood Type A型 B型 AB型 O型 不明 Unknown      
職業 Occupation 無職(家事手伝い含む) Unemployed (includes Homemaker) 会社オーナー・自営 Company Owner / Self-Employed 会社役員 Company Executive 管理職 Management
一般職 General Staff 公務員 Civil Servant 教員 Teacher 医師 Doctor
続柄 Birth Order 長男 Eldest Son 次男 2nd Son 三男 3rd Son 四男 4th Son
五男 5th Son 長女 Eldest Daughter 次女 2nd Daughter 三女 3rd Daughter
結婚歴 Marital History 未婚 Unmarried 離婚 Divorced 死別 Widowed    
(Preferences in a Potential Partner)
身長 Height 149cm以下 150〜155cm 156〜160cm 161〜165cm 166〜170cm 171〜175cm 176〜180cm 181cm以上
体型 Body Type
Slim ふつう Average 太りぎみ Overweight 特に気にしない No Preference
メガネ Glasses メガネは好まない I don't like glasses. コンタクトも好まない I don't like contacts either. 特に気にしない No Preference    
Hobbies and Interests  
読書 reading 文芸創作 Writing literature 音楽演奏 Music performance 音楽鑑賞 Music appreciation
服飾 Clothing 料理 Cooking グルメ Gourmet food 写真 Photography
旅行 Travel 園芸 Gardening 演劇鑑賞 Theatre 日舞 Japanese stage arts
散歩 Walking 書道 Calligraphy 生け花 flower arrangement 茶道 tea ceremony
釣り fishing 囲碁・将棋 Go / Shogi 奇術・手品 Magic / Card tricks ドライブ Driving

And About Those Portraits...

There were over 850 photographic images of ALN members still intact in the UltraBox data track that I combed through. And, Oh My Goodness, are some of them spectacular. Normally, when taking a picture for a dating service, you'd think you'd want to put your best foot forward: smile or look generally attractive for the camera. And yet the majority of these were either the neutral, non-smiling driver's license-style of photo, or worse: sullen, scowling countenances on people who you'd think wanted to stay single forever.

As a fig leaf to protect the privacy of these ALN members, I've covered part of their eyes when displaying their portraits. The large gallery of member photos in Appendix I is not to be missed, I think!


The second option, SELF MATCHING, appears to match you with a partner in a more "fuzzy" way, by conducting a personality quiz. The software shows several statements about your own personality and you have either to answer Yes or No to them, or select the statements that best fit how you see yourself. It will then try to pair you up with a partner that has a similar personal makeup, having answered their own questions in a compatible way.

(Artist's Rendition of Personality Quiz)
Some more Personality Quiz Statements
決められた金銭ワクの中でうまくやっていける I manage well with a limited income.
整理整頓されていないと落ち着かない I'm not comfortable in untidy places.
友達を頼ったり、あてにしたりすることは、ありません I don't overly depend on my friends.
ひとりでいることが寂しくありませんし、その方が気楽だと思います I don't get lonely when I'm by myself; in fact I think it's easier.
タレントなど有名人や金持ちにあこがれる気持ちが強いほうです I am strongly attracted to celebrities such as entertainers and rich people.

Again, the full list of personal detail options and personality statements is in Appendix III.


The third option, ONE POINT LESSON, appears to run a quiz to test you on the etiquette of dating. The full list of questions, answers, and digitized pictures are presented in Appendix IV, but the purpose of this quiz is interesting to think about. MAC21 obviously has plenty of experience with dates gone wrong. In theory, some of the people enlisting MAC21's help have never gone on a date in their lives and need basic training on how to be appealing, how to come off as sincere, and how to show courtesy and interest towards a member of the opposite sex.

To that end, the ALN software features digitized female and male hosts who role-play some typical interactions before and during a date.

I'm loving his pixel-thin suit accents.
A St. Patrick's Day date, then.
Our couple together. Definitely not a composite.
Ouch, and an unfortunate bee sting during the drive to the restaurant.

Following our hosts' introduction, it's quiz time once again.

A picture flashes on-screen to show one situation, then a statement is shown relating to dating etiquette. The ALN user should decide if the behaviour in the statement is acceptable or unacceptable, then the correct answer is shown. It's quite an interesting time capsule especially for looking at the social mores of a time long since passed.


I need to leave the table to call a business associate during our date. Should I do it?

Of course not! You Oaf.

If you can't even punch out the clock for a date, she'll get a stark preview of the distant workaholic husband you'll eventually become.

Also of interest is that there are separate quiz questions for the male and female ALN members. For example, for the men, situations such as "Should I order for her?" crop up; for the women, there's "Should I let him pay for the whole meal?"



The ALN main menu may be corrupted from this point, but there is still space for three more menu options, one of them being "おわり" / "End". Of the remaining two menu options, from other data remaining on the disc, I believe that one shows a schedule of upcoming matchmaking parties and seminars arranged by MAC21 and open to ALN members. Past events are also listed, perhaps comprising the second menu choice. Some examples:

Upcoming Events
Past Events
Halloween Party
Have a fun party illuminated by Jack-o'-lanterns.
October 29 (Sun)
Live talk in Aoyama
Fun talk event. hosted by Ayako Sato, an advisor of MAC 21, Mikisuke Katsura, a guest commentator, and Tomoko Oshima, an entertainer.
Topics covered were marriage, lifestyle, and networking among the 300 single people who participated.
September 2nd (Sat)

"Nice Middle" Party
Japanese Katakana for dapper, well-mannered middle-aged men who haven't lost their looks.]
Would you like to have a little bit more formal encounter?
Saturday, November 11th

☆協賛☆ カネボウ/ サントリー/ ソシエdeエステ・銀座ワールド
☆協力☆日本電気ホームエレクトロニクス / クローバーにじゅういち
☆ Sponsor ☆ Kanebo / Suntory / Socie de Este Ginza World
☆ Cooperation ☆ NEC Home Electronics / Clover 21 [Nijuichi]

Worthy of note about this list of parties is the fact that one of the sponsors / business associates for them is NEC Home Electronics, makers of the PC-Engine system. The other point of interest is that the finished parties end in early September 1989, and future parties start in late October, 1989, pretty accurately dating this buried data to Sept./Oct. of '89, and intended for the Autumn '89 edition ALN disc.

5. What Else is There?

Well, there's no more evidence in the binaries or source code, but we can assume that once the user has chosen up to 10 potential partners to contact, they'll need to write their partner ID number in a list, or save the list somehow, then contact MAC21. This part probably isn't automated, I'm guessing. Thus, in addition to the party schedule in Part 4 above, there is also stored a list of seven MAC21 offices around Japan.

MAC21 Offices and Special Offers too
That building in Ginza, Tokyo
○ 東京 〒104東京都中央区銀座6ー14ー5(銀座TSサンケイビル8F)  03(546)0555(代)
○大阪 〒550大阪市西区阿波座1−13−11(アワザ心斎橋ビル9F)  06(535)1030(代)
○札幌 〒060札幌市中央区南1条西3丁目(札石ビル5F) 011(222)5740(代)
○仙台 〒980仙台市青葉区一番町4−6−1(仙台第一生命タワービル13F) 022(262)0030(代)
MAC21 map
○Tokyo 6-14-5 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo (8F, Ginza TS Sankei Building) 03 (546) 0555 (main)
○Osaka 1-13-11 Awaza, Nishi-ku, Osaka 550 (Awaza Shinsaibashi Building 9F) 06 (535) 1030 (main)
○Sapporo, Minami 1 Jonishi 3-chome, Chuo-ku, Sapporo 060 (5th floor, Fudaishi Building) 011 (222) 5740 (main)
○Sendai 4-6-1 Ichibancho, Aoba-ku, Sendai 980 (Sendai Daiichi Seimei Tower Building 13F) 022 (262) 0030 (main)


Take advantage of MAC21 benefits with participating businesses:
○ Discounts are available for top-class city hotels, tourist hotels, and inns in Tokyo and major cities. (10-20% off)
○ Discounts on Shinkansen, various airline tickets, and package tours. (10-20% off)

I've checked all the building addresses on Google Maps & Images, and real estate listings for each building. I couldn't find any trace of MAC21 occupying any of those offices, so I guess the company is long gone.


Finally, in amongst all the photo, bitmap image, and quiz text data were fragments of HuC6280 ASM code (Appx VI.1) and C source code (Appx VI.6), about 1,600 lines worth. They don't account for the entire source body for the ALN software, but provide a few nice glimpses into the image handling and ALN member data storage, searching, and display functions.

Source Code Snippet
e:\pcxxxxxx\binxxxxx\bestxxxx.bin 89/07/21 17:33  	; A date! July 21, 1989


;−−−−−−−− 検索ルーチン −−−−−−−−  		; "Search Routine"

		;−−−検索中の表示−−−  		; "Display [something] while searching"

		picload	search  				; A macro to load an entire BAT+Tile data into VRAM
		pcms	search 				; Hmmm, but what does this macro do? 

		jsr	fin
		window	4,16,26,18  			; Macros to draw boxes and position text
		locate	4,16
		print	"  ただ今検索中です。"  		; "Now Searching."
		locate	4,18
		print	" しばらくお待ち下さい"  		; "Please Wait"

		ldx	#low chgpal
		ldy	#high chgpal
		lda	#$04		;sync
		jsr	ex_setvec
		smb4	irq_m

Strings generated from the buried C code, as well as executables that the programmer used on their dev computer for assembling the game program and writing binaries to the CD image, were also found in the same disc data (Appx VI.7). People have extracted similar programs from other PC-Engine CD games: graphics editors (see below), the HuC6280 assembler, etc., which still can run on DOS PCs or in DOSBox. (cue familiar Jurassic Park metaphor of discovering valuable dinosaur DNA from insects encased in resin...)

Buried PC Executable Text Strings
 Hu7CDハードディスクにファイルを登録します。  			; "Saves a File to Hu7CD Hard Disk."
 使い方: [cdm filename] --- filenameを登録します。  			; "Usage ... Save as filename."
          [cdm @filename] --- filenameの内容にしたがって登録します。  	; "... Save According to Contents of filename."
          [cdm -e{filename}] --- filenameにエリアの内容をEQU定義します。  ; "... Sets the Contents of Area EQU to filename."
  			; "Format of the Indirect File is the Same as that of the dir Command."
  			; "Area Files and EQU Files are Created in the Same Directory as This File."
 HDに書き込まれる名前は、PROGRAM,TEXT,PICTURE,ADPCM,PSG,GENERALです。 ; "Names that can be Written to the HD are PROGRAM, ..."

Example of a screen from UltraBox being edited in Hudson's own PCE graphics editor (left), compared to the same spot in a 1990 magazine (right)



Well, I hope you have enjoyed this dive into old CD game archaeology. For me, it was fun first finding something odd in the data tracks of a game, then documenting all the text and images that I uncovered -- which took a while. But the icing on the cake was the amazing and hilarious member portraits: I'm sure you could tell I had the most fun going through those.

The idea that undiscovered, rare data is lying in wait in other PC-Engine games makes it an especially interesting field of "research" despite not even appearing on the radars of most retro gamers.

It is my suspicion that some (or all) of the ALN discs have indeed been digitally preserved by one organization or another, but since they often have their hands tied behind regulations and fear of copyright infringement, the public at large will never see these discs in full.

Therefore, I hope this tiny glimpse into the ALN system proves informative and valuable for the time being.

- Chris Covell, Nov. 2021


Appendix I: [LINK] Awesome Member Portraits

Appendix II: [LINK] Personal Statistics

Appendix III-a: [LINK] Hobbies

Appendix III-b: [LINK] Personality Quiz Statements

Appendix IV: [LINK] One Point Lesson Questions & Pictures

Appendix V: [LINK] Parties and Events for ALN Members

Appendix VI: [LINK] Source Code & String Data

<-- Chris' Homepage