It’s the 80's, or perhaps the 90's. You're a game programmer, working long, hard hours slaving over code for which your corporate overlords will likely not even give you the dignity of a credit. If they do, they’ll make you use some goofy-sounding nickname.
You’re stressed, you’re frustrated, you’ve barely seen your loved ones in weeks. You can’t vent to anyone about the coworkers that are pissing you off, your game is likely to be pirated upon release, but you’ve done amazing feats of code. What do you do to vent your frustrations while leaving your mark on your hard work?
You hide a personal message in the game's code.
Many a game designer has left messages etched permanently in the data of our games, buried deep within the code and not intended to be seen by us. The most famous was the hidden digital signature that Warren Robinette left in his game Adventure, in rebellion against Atari's policy of total anonymity for its creatives.
But he was hardly the last. The content and scope of these messages varies wildly, from furtive credits to gigantic essays about the ills of the game industry. Sometimes these messages can only be seen by hacking into the game’s code, while other times the programmers have hidden them in the gameplay itself. There have even been cases where these messages have helped settle legal disputes over who actually created the games.
The Cutting Room Floor is a repository of content that lies hidden beneath the surface of games. Here are some of the fascinating treasures these tireless digital archaeologists have unearthed.
Donkey Kong (Arcade)
When Nintendo first got into creating arcade videogames, it didn't yet have the capability to program them itself. This hidden message in the code of Donkey Kong shows that development of Nintendo's breakout hit was at least partially outsourced to a company called Ikegami Tsushinki:
CONGRATULATION !IF YOU ANALYSE DIFFICULT THIS PROGRAM,WE WOULD TEACH YOU.*****TEL.TOKYO-JAPAN 044(244)2151 EXTENTION 304 SYSTEM DESIGN IKEGAMI CO. LIM.
The message, among several other bits of code, helps prove Ikegami’s otherwise-hidden role in the game's development. Ikegami would later sue Nintendo for illegally producing extra Donkey Kong games without its consent, as it was also the contracted manufacturer, as well as reverse-engineering Ikegami's code to create Donkey Kong Jr.
Ms. Pac-Man (Arcade)
The hidden text in Donkey Kong that helped spur a lawsuit unintentionally spawned another hidden message in another legendary arcade game. While working at General Computer, a company that created upgrade kits that altered the graphics and gameplay of existing arcade games, programmer Steve Golson was investigating the code of Donkey Kong when he came across Ikegami's hidden signature.
While programming General Computer's most famous upgrade kit Ms. Pac-Man, he remembered the text and slipped a message of his own into the code, one directed at Masaya Nakamura, head of Pac-Man maker Namco:
GENERAL COMPUTER CORPORATION Hello, Nakamura!
Years and an untold amount of ports of Ms. Pac-Man later, the former General Computer developers realized they weren’t getting paid their fair share. Namco insisted that the ports had been reprogrammed, but by dissecting the code – and showing, specifically, the presence of this text – the programmers could prove that at least some of the versions were emulations rather than pure ports.
Chase H.Q. (TurboGrafx-16)
Another message in plain sight… or perhaps plain earshot. Leaving the game paused for around 10 minutes and 45 seconds will play what most will simply hear as a strange series of beeps.
It’s more than just random noise, however – it’s actually Morse code.
-.. . / .--- -. .---- -.- - .--- / -.-
The sequence spells out "DE JN1KTJ K," shorthand for "This is JN1KTJ. Over." JN1KTJ is the nom de cyber of Yujix Terada, one of the game’s programmers. Another PC Engine game, Gokuraku! Chuuka Taisen, features a similar Morse message from Terada.
(Credit: The Cutting Room Wiki)
The New Tetris (Nintendo 64)
David Pridie was a programmer who passed away suddenly in 2001 at the young age of 29. He left us with several games, one containing a notorious chunk of hidden text. The Nintendo 64 puzzle game The New Tetris contains a blistering rant targeted at the game's producer. Pridie didn't think anyone would find his message for a long time; it actually took all of three days before it was found and posted online. Here is an excerpt:
I must say, this was a fun time coming down to San Francisco to do The New Tetris. Allthough there were a few problems. First of all being our producer.. D*N, my god.. is this guy useless or what?? I don't hate you D*N.. but you SUCK, and I mean SUCK as a producer. You should go back to testing video games, but I doubt you could even manage that properly. I feel sorry for you. During this project you just sat around and played video games.. starcraft and everquest.
Don't even deny that.. when you WERE working, it was making stupid Excel (tm) spreadsheets to try and tell me how many bugs I had left to fix on a graph.. like WTF is that??? who cares.. I have the bug list in front of me, like I need to see it in freaking technicolor. So D*N, I must say this.. hold onto, and fake your job while you can, because once they find out how truely useless you are, you will be out of a job. I cannot think of any skillset you would fit into in this industry, so you better hold on tight. (This guy thought I could save a name in 8.4 BITS.. like umm.. .4 BITS?? WTF is .4 BITS?? its either ON or OFF, not in between... anyhow, Enough about you though.
Well boys and girls, I just thought I would immortalize some thoughts I have at the moment into a rom which will be burned forever. This game sucks. The music is great but the game itself is not how we wanted it unfortunately. I mean, it is a good game, but some things could be polished, as well as sped up. Could use another month to finish this thing off AFTER all the bugs are fixed. oh well, woh is me.
(Credit: The Cutting Room Floor)
Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega Genesis)
At this point, Sonic the Hedgehog games have been extensively dissected by fans looking for unused and hidden content. The original Sonic, however, has a cleverly hidden set of Japanese credits on the "Sonic Team Presents" screen, rendered invisible due to the palette of the text being black to match the background. A code exists in the Japanese version to access them.
(Credit: The Cutting Room Floor/CC BY 3.0)
The use of proper names here is unusual: In this era it was still common for Japanese programmers to use pseudonyms, usually under orders from corporate overlords afraid of their star employees being headhunted. A prototype of the first Sonic game displayed this screen when it was loaded up, prompting Sonic creator Yuji Naka himself to declare it a fake on Twitter - he explained that there was no way full-name credits would have been permissible.
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