A Bug is Just an Undocumented Feature

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Picture this: You’re playing Halo 3, and you’ve just joined a game. Let’s say you have a tradition that in order to start a round off right, you have to shoot a fusion coil (Halo 3‘s equivalent of the exploding barrel) as though you were firing a starting gun. When you shoot it, you’re rewarded with the message “you committed suicide.” Thing is, you weren’t standing anywhere close to the fusion coil when it exploded. What gives?

Thankfully, in this case, there’s a replay feature in Halo 3 that automatically saves footage of your game sessions. When you carefully analyze the footage for clues as to what happened, you find:

You were killed by a flying traffic cone.

At least, that’s what it looks like. Odds are what happened is the exploding fusion coil sent the traffic cone next to it at some untold miles per hour flying at your head. Halo 3‘s physics engine, in its infinite wisdom, decided the cone was moving fast – fast enough to kill.


Now, don’t get me wrong, Halo 3‘s physics engine is incredibly detailed and probably meant to be realistic. But you’re supposed to be playing a Spartan, the best of the best of the freaking best, with the finest military equipment money can buy, your armor capable of stopping bullets and the like. A traffic cone made of soft rubber should not kill you, no matter how fast it’s traveling.

You have just encountered a glitch. Perhaps upon this discovery, you might become infuriated and just turn off the Xbox 360, or you might just chuck the damn system outside of your third-story window onto some hapless passerby below.

But in the case of the gamer known as ZB Shogun, he took this glitch that killed him and posted it on YouTube for the world to see. Almost overnight he became a celebrity, and Bungie gave him a set of exclusive Recon Spartan armor for being such a good sport.

Glitches, anomalies and bugs can indeed hamper a game, but in the hands of the right player, they can be a lot of fun, too. Is leaving these bugs in a reason to get mad at the developers? Perhaps, but there are some players out there who want to thank them.

One such group is the speed runners, people who seek to complete a game in the fastest possible time. Speed running a game without making use of a game’s hiccups obviously has its limits and isn’t all that entertaining to the casual observer. In order to finish a game in a time that truly is notable, above and beyond that which the game developers usually intend, you usually have to bend or break the rules a little bit, not through the use of external cheats, mind you – that would be cheating. Rather, a speed runner has to look for ways to get around the usual constraints of the game, and this involves – you guessed it – finding flaws in the game engine. Those aforementioned bugs and glitches are actually essential for this purpose, and speed runners are glad they weren’t stamped out by quality control. The exploitation of these glitches, in addition to shaving off precious seconds, can make for some truly astounding feats that leave audiences in wonder, going “how the hell did he do that?”

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Some notable examples of such bugs include:

  • In Super Mario 64, two glitches involve the disgustingly cute little bunny called MIPS, and the endless stairs that lead to the final stage. Regular players of the game may remember MIPS giving you a star when caught, but for speed runners, MIPS is far more instrumental. If you use him the right way, you can teleport through doors and walls. Once you use MIPS to get to the stairway to the final stage, just exploit a physics glitch by repeatedly jumping backward in just the right way to rocket yourself up those endless stairs at a speed that would rival the interstellar speeds Mario attains in Super Mario Galaxy. These bugs allow players to complete the game with a mere 16 stars (out of 120, 70 being the minimum for beating the game normally).
  • Another classic game with advantageous glitches is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. First is the “infinite sword” glitch, which causes Link to swing his sword over and over. Players use the infinite sword in tandem with the “Bombchu glitch,” in which the player uses a moving bomb critter, the Bombchu, to cause Link to hover in midair.
  • Many of the most famous games used for speed running purposes are first-person shooters, and the now-classic Half-Life 2 is no exception. In Half-Life 2, speed runners can do things like fly off a can of paint, bounce off enemy energy orb projectiles and fall from impossible heights without taking damage, due to, again, things the physics engine doesn’t take into account.
  • It’s not just the 3-D games that have glitches ripe for the exploiting. Way back in the NES days, plenty of games had glitches that could be used to do the incredible. In the Mega Man series, speed runners use “zipping,” exploiting the game’s collision detection, to “push” Mega Man through walls.
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  • Metroid Prime is famous for its glitches. It was in Metroid Prime where “sequence breaking,” jumping ahead in the game’s otherwise linear path to acquire power-ups or other items that would otherwise be inaccessible at that point in the game, was born.

Some game companies are inadvertently providing features that make exploit documentation possible, even encouraged. The flying traffic cone of death wouldn’t have gained such notoriety if Bungie didn’t include the replay feature in Halo 3 that not only saves your game sessions, but allows them to be uploaded to an in-game browser for the world to see.

Of course, glitches aren’t always good. They can be used to gain an unfair advantage in multiplayer games – I’ve been a victim of the infamous “BXR” button combination in Halo 2 many times, so believe me, I know. And sometimes, they can make a game downright unplayable. However, as the old programming adage goes, a bug is simply an undocumented feature – some players love them, some players have come to depend on them.

It all boils down to one result: As much as developers and players alike usually frown on programming mistakes, finding how to make them fun is a way of using what you have to create something new. All you need is a keen eye, fast fingers, and a little bit of luck.

Philip Miner is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.

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