the E-A-T report

Secret messages in games

by Jens von der Heide

If you get a lot of pleasure out of uncovering skeletons in your friends’ closets, imagine how much fun it would be to discover the secrets of the aliens in your video games-especially after you’ve had the cartridge for a month or so and have already mastered it. Don’t let those games sit around collecting dust. Play them, not to top your score, but to search for idiosyncrasies, program bugs and secret messages.

Several games offer you this opportunity. I have chosen to focus on the following: Laser Blast (Activision), Maze Craze (Atari), The Empire Strikes Back (Parker Brothers), Space Invaders (Atari), Missile Command (Atari), Grand Prix (Activision) and Adventure (Atari).

In order to find many of these quirks, you will have to tum the game on and off repeatedly, so a word of warning is in order. This can be hazardous to the health of your video game cartridge and we don’t recommend that you do it too often. Each time you tum a game on and off, the game becomes just that much more vulnerable to power surges. In other words, you can fry your cartridge if you’re not careful. It’s safe to try, however, if you don’t go overboard.

Laser Blast

By turning the game on and off several times, you will eventually come up with a messed-up playfield. By “messed-up,” I mean that instead of getting a normal picture, you’ll get a slightly skewed representation of the playfield—the Laser Blast ground area may be one-quarter of the screen higher than usual or the picture may be blinking or faded. After you get this, reset the game. If the word “Activision” at the bottom of the screen is spelled funny. you’ll find yourself—90 percent of the time—playing the game without having to worry about the aliens firing back at you. You’ll also notice that every other number in the score is backwards.

Maze Craze

While the Laser Blast quirk might take a while to find, the Maze Craze quirk generally appears much faster. By turning the game on and off repeatedly, you can find, as well as play. the very basic grid which all of the other randomly generated mazes are based on. What happens is that the color shifting that normally occurs—which prevents you from seeing the screen while the computer is generating the new maze—is stopped and the maze grid is frozen on the screen.

The Empire Strikes Back

By turning the game on and resetting it simultaneously, you can cause the Imperial Walkers to appear on the scanner at the bottom of the screen, but not on the screen itself.

Missile Command

One of the most intriguing quirks is found on Missile Command—an extra, lost dot in the explosions. It will appear only when you have your cursor lined up at a point vertically above the left half of the top plateau of your missile base. You’ll find the dot either on the upper right or the lower left of the explosion. You should also notice that there is a dot “missing” from the other side of the explosion (lower right and upper left respectively).

Missile Command also contains the designer’s signature. Rob Fulop’s initials can be found near the bottom right-hand city in game 13-ifyou don’t score any points. Fulop, the designer of several of Atari’s best-selling games, placed his initials on Missile Command because he wanted more recognition. When he didn’t get it, he quit and now works at Imagic. Subsequently, Atari removed the initials so games manufactured later don’t have them.

Grand Prix

Most quirks are caused by a program loophole or are just mistakes. But sometimes they are deliberate—little shortcuts the designer uses to program the games or additions that can be helpful to the player. Grand Prix is a good example. If you travel at the same speed as one of the competing cars, it will stop when you get near a bridge or the finish line. Since the other cars are there to get in your way, this is a good way for you to get across first and win. Also, if you travel slowly enough over an oil slick, you will see it pass “under” the driver’s seat. That’s because the driver’s seat is really a hole in the bottom of the car.

Space Invaders

Tum the game on and reset it at the same time. In game variation one, you’ll be able to fire two shots at a time. This quirk will remain as long as you don’t tum the game off or reselect the variation.


By now you probably know the famous Adventure quirk. If you follow a particular set of steps in Game 2, difficulty B, and pick up the Transmolecular Dot, the words “Created by Warren Robinett” will flash on the screen. Also in Adventure, when you’ve been eaten by a dragon, if you wait before hitting the reset button, a bat will fly in and carry you away inside the dragon. You can control the bat by using your joystick.

These are only a few of the quirks that are out there. By fooling around with your cartridges—and being careful not to fry them—you might discover some of your own. Game makers might even want to capitalize on the popularity of secret messages and, who knows, maybe in the future, finding secret messages and discovering quirks will be the game.

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