We all love hunting video games for secrets and Easter eggs, the little homages or gags that are staple ingredients in the 3-tiered, marble cake of pop culture.
The mystery behind their validity, the pride and joy of finally locating them, and the realization that developers are way more nerdy than you realized are like no other sensations. It's like sharing an in-joke with them and everyone who gets it feels brilliant to be a part of it!
At least those were the joys I found after playing DOOM 2 and seeing its incredible Easter egg that had you shooting at the head of co-creator John Romero (attached to a bloody stick, no less) in order to finish the game! My friend who I'd been watching discover this felt so proud for finding that — and rightfully so! I would have never bothered to have looked for it. The base game was great enough!
But the stories behind some Easter eggs have more unfortunate and nefarious roots — roots bound by mistreatment and the necessity of having to take to more secretive methods to have your voice heard in the grinding of the corporate machine. Such is the story of Warren Robinett, the creator of the very first video game Easter egg.
Adventures Through Secret Rooms
Warren Robinett was 26 when he became a programmer at Atari back in 1977. Fresh out of completing his Master's degree in Computer Science at Berkeley, he applied for the fledgling position of game designer due to his passion for computer graphics.
He hadn't even heard of Atari before applying, but the work the legendary company was creating was enough to distract him from contemplating a life of designing "less sexy" software for data-terminals.
After Atari accepted Robinett with open arms, he would go on to create the Atari 2600's classic Slot Racers and educational title BASIC Programming before moving on to what would become one of the console's most successful games, Adventure — which also happens to be the very first graphical adventure game ever made.
Envisioned as being the visual counterpart to the text-based Colossal Cave Adventure by William Crowther & Don Woods, it took Robinett a year to program the game himself. A year that was fraught with arguments and mistreatment.
At the time of Adventure's development, Atari devs were paid a typical engineers salary of $22k per-year, weren't paid any royalties for their IPs and their names were to remain exempt from all marketing materials, including the box-art and in the game itself. Naturally, Robinett took a disliking to that.
In an interview with The Jaded Gamer, Robinett discussed the hardships faced by Atari devs in the late 70s:
"Atari would not give public credit to game designers. This was right after Atari had been acquired by Warner Communications. It was a power play to keep the game designers from getting recognition and therefore more bargaining power."
So in order to clap back at the dictatorial antics over at Atari, Robinett decided to take matters into his own hands:
"I created a secret room that was really hard to find, and hid my signature in it. I didn’t tell anybody (this was a hard secret to keep to myself) and let Atari manufacture a few hundred thousand cartridges and ship them around the world."
This cheeky move turned out to be even more astute, for when Atari finally did learn of the secret room (roughly a year after the game was released) it was too late for them to act. Robinett had already quit.
"Nope, they couldn’t punish me. Well, they could garnish my royalties…oops, no royalties. Well, they could remove my name from the box…well, no, it was never on the box. Well, they could at least remove the offending code from future cartridges. That would have cost $10,000 to make a new ROM."
Considering the game sold around 1 million units, $10k per unit would be quite the load of money to drop for removing this secret. But, hey, at least we learned where the term Easter egg came from:
"The manager of the 2600 game designers at that moment was named Steve Wright, I believe, and he said hey, it’s kind of cool to have little hidden surprises in video games. It’s kinda like waking up on Easter morning and hunting for Easter Eggs."
After his time at Atari, Robinett went on to found The Learning Company where he would go on to create Rocky's Boots for Apple II computers. At one point, he even worked with NASA on a VR project. He's had quite the career, Robinett, and left quite the legacy for future developers to build upon, a task which many have done spectacularly.
What are your favorite Easter eggs? Bear with me as I ramble on about my top 5 favorite Easter eggs.
Let's get crackin'!
1. The Blueprints to Arkham City (Batman: Arkham Asylum)
This one is so awesome it lay hidden for 2 years before Rocksteady announced a sequel. In Batman: Arkham ASylum, Warden Quincy Sharp's office in Arkham Mansion holds a secret room. Why secret? It can only be discovered by using Batman's explosive gel. Inside the secret room are blueprints for a new, super-prison planned for Gotham called Arkham City. And we all know how that turned out...
2. Hidden Heroes (NBA Jam Tournament Edition)
There's no doubt that NBA Jam was the most badass of basketball games in the 90s, and discovering this hidden roster of heroes only amped up the awesome factor. Entering some super sweet cheat codes gave you control of The Beastie Boys, Fresh Prince & DJ Jazzy Jeff, Sub-friggin'-Zero, and who else than Bill Clinton? How about that for a shot of nostalgia from downtown?
3. That Rude Door (Fallout 3)
This one is freaking hilarious! Right over by the NN-03d SatCom array is a well-hidden door that, when opened, doesn't exactly hold back in letting you know how it feels about you. Right back atcha, buddy!
4. Nest of the Rat Man (Portal 2)
The now-legendary phrase regarding the validity of baked sweets was first found in the lair of scientist Doug Rattman, who was unfortunately trapped in Aperture's underground labs and, understandably, went insane. I'd go mad, too, imagining a world without cakes.
5. The End (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater)
This one is typical Kojima. When you come face-to-face with grizzled sniper The End at Sokrovenno, if you save the game beforehand and then set the console's clock forward a week, The End will have passed away of old age. A fitting curtain call? Perhaps not — but brilliant regardless!
What do you think?
Go on, share some of your favorite Easter eggs in the comment box below!