Secrets have been a major part of video games almost from their inception. Indeed, a huge part of playing video games is the appeal of discovering things yourself and the self satisfaction that comes with it (get your mind out of the gutter, perv!). Most of us who call ourselves gamers enjoy doing things in games simply because we can. And what do we like even better? Finding, and then pushing, those limits of what we can and can’t do. Even though video games are mass produced and we’re often only one out of literally millions of people playing some game, we feel special when we pull off something special. And then we share what we’ve done with our friends. Some of us even go so far as to spend our own time and real money running a website showing off various accomplishments, such as beating Gauntlet on the NES! But this article isn’t about the players. It’s about the developers.
Atari definitely made the right call by softening its stance on the issue. The company started allowing programmers to hide their initials in video games and this became the norm for quite a while. In one such case, the secret laid dormant for 26 years before anyone found it! Donkey Kong for the Atari 400 was written by Landon Dyer. This game is already noteworthy because it actually contains all the levels from the arcade game. Not even the NES game did that! In order to get the big reveal, you have to have one of the following scores: 37000, 73000, or 77000, then lose your last life by falling. Finally, select difficulty level 4 and wait until LMD appears on the screen.
Even now, Ed Boon claims that Mortal Kombat II still holds a secret that has yet to be discovered. In truth, though, extensive datamining efforts have proven that he’s really full of crap. But his words do offer us some insight into the mentality behind his secrets. He’s keeping the game relevant and keeping us talking about it. Well, I’m talking about it, at any rate. Similarly, Capcom insists there’s an undiscovered secret in Mega Man 9. I kinda doubt it, but I certainly wouldn’t mind playing through that game again to try to find it.
Battlefield 4 practically had a full on National Treasure level secret in it. Go to the Dragon Valley Map. There’s a specific lantern that will start to flicker if you idle by it long enough. This lantern is flickering Morse code messages at you, but even if you considered that, you still wouldn’t get it unless you knew Belarusian (it may have just as well been Kingon). And this is only the beginning… There are 7 well-hidden switches throughout the level that you, honestly, didn’t notice when playing. They manipulate the 20 lanterns in a temple in the level and your goal is to turn them all on. Done, and done, right? Not even close!
This is the first, and most obvious, reason behind obscure secrets in video games: immortality. Sometimes, those who code the game aren’t even interested in putting themselves into the annals of digital history. There’s a short-lived, little known game series called Halo. I know you probably haven’t heard of it, but Halo 3 has a really cool message tucked away deep within its bytes. Four years after its release, gamers finally unlocked it, with a little help from the programmer, Adrian Perez. On Christmas Day (really, any day you want, so long as your console thinks it’s Christmas), start up a campaign and hold both sticks down during the load screen to see the message, “Happy Birthday, Lauren.”
Wait, that’s not right… Chris Houlihan won this contest and wound up in a secret room in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. His room was so secret, how secret is it? It’s as secret as those deleted emails on Hillary Clinton’s server. It took 10 years for anybody to find it, in large part because of a mistake. This room wound up becoming the failsafe if the game isn’t sure where to send you, meaning you’ll almost never find it unless you go through a very specific (and incredibly unobvious) sequence of actions. Oops. I guess it really IS a secret to everybody. Still, I wish my name was in LttP! At least it will be in Bloodstained…
One man even embodies both of these mentalities. He is Kazumi Totaka, and there’s a good chance you’re familiar with at least some of his work, at least if you’re a Nintendo fan. He has a trademark 19 note song that he loves to hide in nearly every game he’s ever composed for. It’s easiest to find in the Animal Crossing games, where all you have to do is request “K. K. Song” from K. K. Slider, who, incidentally, is based on Totaka himself. You’d be surprised at some of the other games where you can hear the little ditty. Games like The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Luigi’s Mansion, Yoshi’s Story, Mario Paint, and that’s only the beginning.
Similarly, you can create strange maps in the original Metroid. The venerable title is unable to scroll both horizontally and vertically on the same screen. Using a technique called the Door Jump, you can confuse the game’s normal scrolling in order to force it to load otherwise empty spaces. They’re called the Hidden Worlds, and, surprisingly, they make up over 3/4s of the planet Zebes! These bizarre locations both do and don’t exist! That’s actually the most shocking part of this glitch. There simultaneous are and are not Hidden Worlds! You can go there, so they must exist, right? Yet they take up no data on the cart. Not a single byte has anything to do with the Hidden Worlds! In all honesty, it’s just the game going haywire knowing that it must load something but having nothing to actually display. Let’s just say it gets creative… It’s almost like the Metroid you know, just a little… off. You might find lava that doesn’t hurt you, looping screens, or mysterious floating doors. It’s all playable, but it feels a bit different, almost like it’s the same universe you know, only you were never born.
What about those secrets that are so well hidden even the developers didn’t know they existed? These are the result of bugs in the code. Quick aside: Most people use the terms glitch and bug interchangeably, but there is a subtle difference. Glitches happen when the game doesn’t behave according to the code, such as a graphical anomaly, etc. They’re usually not repeatable. Bugs are unintended consequences of code that is behaving like it “should,” at least as written. Bugs are usually repeatable. Have you ever been to the Minus World of Super Mario Bros.? That’s a bug. You should see what happens in the original Japanese version… There’s actually a trick involving Tennis that you can use to discover a whopping 256 MORE LEVELS! It should be pointed out that these are unintended and produce extremely weird outcomes, such as underwater castles or finding multiple, out of place Princess Toadstools.
Occasionally, game developers include red herrings in their offerings. Hot on the heels of Mortal Kombat, with its hidden character, Reptile, Ed Boon included a few entries in the operator settings of Mortal Kombat II to start a few rumors. Kano isn’t playable in II, but there’s a listing in the operator menus for “Kano Transformations.” Anybody who saw that would naturally think, “Wow! There’s a way to get Kano in this game.” Nope. This little trick actually led to the creation of a character in a later MK game as well. There’s a listing for ERMACs in those Operator Settings as well. It really means ERRor MACros, but the same word of mouth that murmured about Kano also spread the word about a character named Ermac.
One intrepid designer whose name I hope you remember from the last paragraph rose to fight this oppression. Psst. In case you’re too drunk, dumb, or ADD-riddled (of course, I know that doesn’t describe any of you, dear readers. Then again, there’s a chance some of you are over the legal limit…), it’s Warren Robinett. He sought to undermine this policy by sneaking his name into his most famous (though not his first) Atari offering, Adventure. In the Black Castle, near the end of the game, there’s a small, inaccessible room. Well, mostly inaccessible anyway… If you bring the bridge with you, you’ll be able to reach it. In this room, you’ll find a dot. Yes, a dot. People often claim that this dot is invisible, but it isn’t, it’s just the same color as the background. If you take this dot one screen down and one screen right of your starting point outside the Gold Castle, and drop it and 2 other items there, then you can go through the right wall to reveal the message, “Created by Warren Robinett.”
Pictured: Unintended consequence of Philo Farnsworth’s invention of the television.
Activision also got in on the self referential secret game in Call of Duty: Black Ops II. Head to the Nuketown 2025 map. If you manage to behead all the mannequins in 2 minutes, you can play Pitfall!, Kaboom!, River Raid, and H.E.R.O. These represent some of the earliest and best known games in Activision’s library, so it makes sense to honor them like this. In fact, you owe it to yourself to at least try these relics of video game history. I’ve actually got a perfect score on the 360 leaderboard of Pitfall!, an influential game in its own right.
Let’s look at the psychology behind absurd secrets in video games. Why? Because this is my site and I want to. And because Patreon donor, Harrison Young wants to see it. Do you have a spifferiffic idea you want to see immortalized here at The Culture Cache? If so, consider Patreon your Golden Ticket!
Finally, I think some developers are either running social experiments on us players. That or they’re just plain sadistic. Many of the earlier mentioned secrets are just hard to find. But what about the ones that are so hard to perform? That’s why I think we’re really guinea pigs. One of these exists in Gears of War 3. If you’re playing on Insane difficulty (you can see where this is headed already), and you manage to stay close to Dom during the entire flashback at the start of the game, you unlock Beard Mode. If you think your testosterone fueled FPS game is too girly, then this is the mode for you! Everyone now has a beard. Everyone. EVERYONE!
I’ll leave you with, perhaps, the ultimate in absurd video game secrets. Trials Evolution was released in 2013, and that date will be important in a sec. In the game, you can find various wooden planks, which you could assemble to create a funky (to say the least) message. Some people smarter or luckier than me figured out that it led to pulling off a specific trick on a specific track to get a special song to play. You then had to fire up your handy audio software (twice in one article?) to find a Morse code message in it. This led to a website with strange, daily updates. Apparently, these updates referred to some scientist whose name was the cipher to decode the message on the website. It was a message about the heat death of the universe.
Some of these hidden features are so obtuse, there’s almost no way to find them without some online assistance (or, if you’re stuck in the 90s, perhaps a physical Player’s Guide). A perfect example of this is the Pupu in Final Fantasy VIII. It’s easy to find poo in Dog’s Life, but in this game, you have your work cut out for you. This RPG has a massive overworld and you must spot a UFO in 4 specific places on it. You probably wouldn’t have done even that, but let’s assume you did. Then you can go to a 5th specific location and find the UFO again, only this time, you have to fight it. Mission accomplished! Err, no. Now you have to go a final destination (Fox only! No items!) and fight the alien, Pupu, again. In a manner of speaking. You can kill him, but you shouldn’t. Instead, feed him 5 Elixers, expensive and semi-rare items in their own right, to finally finish this bizarre quest. And what do you get for all this work? You get a card for the Triple Triad mini-game built into Final Fantasy VIII…
Final Fantasy X has one of those nearly impossible to pull off feats. There’s an area called the Thunder Plains. Appropriately, there’s a lot of thunder here. Bolts of lightning strike at you pretty frequently and you can press X to dodge them. Sounds easy enough, right. It is! But doing it 200 times in a row isn’t! Yes, you read that right. And that’s just for one component for one character’s best weapon… Many of the others are just as bad… I actually did all this crap once, but the memory card that held the data got wiped during a power surge. And, no, I won’t be doing this again. The point of a video game is to have fun, not torture yourself, self-flagellating because you missed lightning bolt #198 and bearing a “Scarlet F” for your sins… What is Square gonna make us do in Final Fantasy XVI? Dodge raindrops?
No, we’re not finished, and no, I’m not kidding! This revealed yet another website with 4 sets of longitude and latitude coordinates to real life locations: Helsinki, Finland, San Francisco, California (as opposed to San Franciso, Botswana), Sydney, Australia, and Bath, Great Britain. Three of these places each had a small box with a metal key inside it. The last one, in Helsinki, contained a property deed from the 1700s (seriously!) and a map, which led to a cemetery. In the graveyard, explorers found yet another box with a pocket watch inside, and, finally, the phrase, “Midday in Year 2113. 1st Sat in Aug. One of Five keys will open the box Underneath the Eiffel Tower.” Supposedly, arrangements have been made to actually do something then. In 100 years. We’ll keep you posted with any and all developments right up until the day it happens!
And Super Mario RPG still isn’t done! Throughout the game, there are clues sprinkled about that mention a special casino. It’s pretty hard to find, but don’t dismiss it! There’s a hidden exit in Bean Valley that will take you to the Grate Guy Casino. The hidden block you must find requires 3 jumps to appear, unlike literally all the other hidden blocks in the game, which only need one. But when you find it, to your dismay, you discover that you need the Bright Card to get in. To my knowledge, there are literally zero clues where to find it. But I’ll point you in the right direction. Head back to Booster Tower (my favorite part of the game, which holds the awesome original SMB Easter Egg as well) and climb up until you encounter Knife Guy. You have to play his stupid guessing game (a harbinger of things to come) and win 10 times. Grate (pun fully intended)! Back to the casino! There are a whopping 3, count ‘em, 3 games to play! Blackjack and the slot machine offer you the opportunity to win Frog Coins, which are plentiful in many other areas of the game. Then there’s Grate Guy himself, who plays the dumbest game just this side of Peggy Hill’s Spin the Choice. Grate Guy will look one way and you have to predict it and look the other way. Riveting! The prizes are mediocre to okish, and if you’re a sane person, you’d likely conclude that this is it. All that work for a bust (hopefully not in blackjack)… But nope! If you win (read: can tolerate) 100 games with Grate Guy, you’ll get the Star Egg, an infinite use item that deals respectable damage to all enemies. Again, there’s no indication that this item even exists… But at least I can say I’ve done this one!
On the other end of the spectrum, but still in the Final Fantasy series, IX rewards those players who can (somehow) get to the final dungeon of the game in less than 12 hours with the ultimate sword, Excalibur II. Keep in mind that there are 35 minutes of unskippable (outside of exploits) cutscenes that chew up your time, and if you’re playing on a PS1, the load time is not your friend either. Factor in that you’ll be giving up pretty much everything else in the game (including many permanent missables) to get this single weapon and you have a nearly impossible challenge on your hands. If you truly want a “perfect” save of this game, play through at your own pace, getting everything you already need, especially those missable items. The game timer rolls over after maxing out, changing colors each time in the process. You CAN let it roll over (and over… and over…) until it’s back to its original white, then go pick up your shiny Excalibur II. Just be warned that it takes over 2 YEARS to do this. And that’s not real time, that’s how much time must actually pass while you’re playing the game in order to pull this off. Needless to say, I’ve never gotten the Excalibur II, nor do I intend to.
In any discussion involving secrets in video games, you pretty much have to start with Warren Robinett. This secret is so famous, it’s even plot-centric in Ready Player One. In the late 70s, Atari was not very appreciative of its employees. Imagine, if you will, that Comcast, Google, and Electronic Arts somehow distilled all their worst traits into a single company. The horror… The horror… Anyway, that was Atari back then. Well, OK, that’s not entirely true. They had an extremely lax dress code, which was basically “wear clothes,” and even that wasn’t always enforced, as Atari was also renowned for its hot tub parties and keggers. But the company really did fear losing its best and brightest to competitors, so it prohibited employees from making their presence known in their video games.
But then that guy tasks you with doing 100 Super Jumps in a row! It may not be as time-consuming as dodging lightning bolts, but it’s much harder, given that strange timing change. I’ve never even come close (again, 20). Even worse, SMRPG has other strange secrets that are even harder, maybe even impossible, depending on where you are in the game (odds are, you’ve already missed it). Reflecting hidden items in the regular Mario games, this first foray into RPG territory also has hidden treasure chests. One specific NPC keeps track of how many of them you’ve found and goads you into finding them all. Except that by the time you reach him, there’s one chest you may have already permanently missed. In fact, it’s the very first hidden chest in the game! And do you know what the best part is? The reward, which is… Drumroll please… NOTHING! You could argue that the treasures you found while completing this undertaking are, themselves, the reward, but finding them all gets you absolutely nothing (except some flowery text) in and of itself.
Atari was furious! This completely defied their idea of the anonymity of their talent! The first solution was to recall and reprint the game, but two obstacles nixed this idea. The programmer they hired to edit this little surprise opted to change the secret to “Fixed by Brad Stewart,” which totally defeated the purpose. Additionally, the cost would have been over 10 grand. And that’s in 1970s dollars. Instead, then Director of Software Development, Steve Wright, persuaded the higher-ups to leave this little nugget intact. He argued that it incentivized players to be more thorough in their games so they’d play them even more. He used the metaphor that it would be like finding hidden Easter Eggs on Easter Sunday morning. And a video game legend was born.
Occasionally, Easter Eggs don’t even promote people in any way related to the games at all. In the 16th issue of Nintendo Power (RIP, my childhood), there was a contest in which you had to defeat Warmech in Final Fantasy. Warmech is an entirely optional boss (and you thought that started with the Ruby and Emerald Weapons…) who only appears on a single screen, and very rarely at that. He is also exceedingly difficult, making this challenge quite a beast to best! Of those who pulled it off, one was chosen to get his name put into a video game. And his name was Kurt Zisa, who became an optional boss in Kingdom Hearts II!
This opens up a keypad near that first lantern which you can use to get said lantern to give you MORE Morse code tips. Now you need to crouch near a specific rock and listen. No, really! You’ll hear a really low sound effect, which you must record and open up your handy sound editor. You did bring Audacity to play this FPS game, right? Now you have to manipulate this sound by slowing it down and pitch shifting it to hear some song lyrics. That earlier Morse code message was acting as a cipher for you to use to know which letters to multiply by which letters in this message. Still with me? I didn’t think so. Anyway, you FINALLY punch this number into the keypad from earlier to unlock some exclusive camo that lets you blend in with, well, nothing. Oh, and did I mention that the starting arrangement of the lantern puzzle is random, so you and only you must solve that part? And your multiplication problem is also unique, so you can’t just look up the solution to this puzzle online.
Another famous example of this type of secret-as-marketing approach is on full display in the Batman Arkham games. In the first (and best) game, Arkham Asylum, savvy players were able to find Warden Sharp’s secret office. There’s a specific, nondescript wall you have to bomb 3 times to get in. It is worth noting that other walls are pretty obvious if they can be bombed and no other walls in the game need more than 1 application of the explosive gel to crumble, so even if you bombed every wall in the game once, you’d never find it. But what about those players who did find it? They were treated to a glimpse of Quincy Sharp’s plans for Arkham City. Wait, Arkham City? That the name of the next game! And wouldn’t you know it? A similar secret exists in Arkahm City where you can find Dr. Crane’s (not Frasier) notes and lots of bugs. This is a clear preview for Arkham Knight. Could it be that, even now, Arkham Knight still holds some undiscovered clue as to Rocksteady’s next game?
Geez. Some of these hush-hush surprises are really hard to access! That’s actually another aspect of why devs do this. There’s a certain amount of satisfaction gained by being one of (if not THE) only people to know the confidential morsels hidden deep within a game. Sometimes these secrets are hidden right in plain sight. Consider the case of Resident Evil 2. You already have to search various objects in the game to find files, so surely nothing can stay hidden in this game for long, right? Wrong. Standard operating procedure is to check everything, then check it again. If you got the same message, you’ve done everything, so you can move on. Except when that isn’t the case. If you’ve never played a Resident Evil game, remember the name Albert Wesker. He’s important to the series in the same way oxygen is to you. So when you come across his desk, be sure to search it. Search it again. No, really. Keep going. Ok, I’m not going to type out 50 different ways to inspect his desk, but if you really do that, you get a unique piece of film that helps develop the story a tiny bit more. And, yes, you really do have to click on his desk 50 times to get it.
Sometimes, secrets are remnants of debugging materials and unintentionally make it into the final game. Need an example? Quick! What’s the Konami Code? If you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you, but I am going to burn your gamer card. Bonus points if you answered 573. Even more bonus points if you know why 573 is important to Gonami, I mean, Konami. Anyway, the first appearance of this code was in Gradius for the NES. Kazuhisa Hashimoto was porting the game, but he found it too hard, so he wrote this little piece of history to give himself a winning edge. The only problem is that he forgot to take it back out. Thankfully! It caught on and spread like wildfire! In fact, the Konami Code has long since transcended gaming and it’s entered pop culture at large. Lots of websites even accept the input. Go on, try it!
Some companies actively encourage scavenger hunts and use the rewards as promotion for their other products. My favorite of these has to be Mega Man X. You have to beat all 8 bosses, find all 4 suit upgrades, 4 sub tanks, and 8 heart tanks in order to find the games in order to access the game’s über secret, the Hadoken. Simply go to Armored Armadillo’s stage and at the very end of the stage, jump to the health power-up just above the boss door. Many people claim you have to suicide after getting it, but this isn’t true. You can complete the level. Either way, keep coming back to this place repeatedly until you find the familiar capsule, and Dr. Light (dressed as Ryu!), will give you the Hadoken, which one shots everything in the game except Sigma’s final form! Capcom even repeated this not-so-subtle nod to Street Fighter by including a similar Shoryuken upgrade in Mega Man X2!
So let’s recap. Developers like to hide such absurd secrets in video games for one or more of these reasons. Some desire the fame that comes with being associated with such a massive and iconic discovery or to be recognized at all. Perhaps it even becomes a trademark. Others like the knowledge that they are the sole owners of some hidden, apocryphal piece of information. Still other programmers are borderline sadists who get off on the pain they inflict by putting us through such tribulations. Sometimes, the point of the Easter Egg is purely promotion. Finally, some of our favorite covert video game discoveries are simply the results of accidents, intended or otherwise.
Now let’s look at a case that involves tasks that you are both unlikely to figure out and unlikely to accomplish. The game is Super Mario RPG. I promise not all of these games are by Square, but they’re the ones I’m most familiar with. Anyway, Super Mario RPG is loaded for bear with Easter Eggs, most of which are easy to find. In fact, the game, as a whole, is not that difficult. That’s what makes these next few tidbits so surprising! It starts with something blatantly obvious. An NPC wants you to do 30 Super Jumps in a row, and if you do, he’ll give you the Attack Scarf. This sounds innocent enough. Super Jump is one of Mario’s special techniques whereby he can string together multiple jumps by timing his landing correctly. The problem? The game changes timing on you WITHOUT WARNING after 18 jumps. Personally, I’ve never managed more than 20, and I couldn’t actually tell you how I even got that far…
Maybe we should’ve dodged this Lightning…