An untimely glitch can ruin the cinematic immersion that videogame producers and developers have dedicated hefty budgets and thousands of hours to developing. Sure, gamers will forgive the occasional NPC walking into a tree, but even this minor offense derails the experience and reminds players that they are, in fact, playing a game. Most bugs rightly earn the ire of developers, producers, and gamers alike, but once in a while, something different happens. Some bugs find a niche and take on a life of their own.
The Team Fortress series began with a Quake mod. Players had to take advantage of the specialties and strengths of their teammates if they wanted to defeat the enemy team, so a degree of trust and familiarity between teammates was an absolute must. Unfortunately, the game engine occasionally rendered enemy players as allies due to a graphical glitch. As a result, players often turned a blind eye to an incoming ally, only to fall victim to unexpected friendly fire. The graphics error directly disrupted the team dynamic and led to otherwise impossible comebacks.
The Team Fortress bug gave its developers an idea: Create a new class with the express purpose of disrupting the enemy team’s strategies. Using the display error as a basis, the Spy has the ability to disguise himself as a member of any class from any team.
The Spy added a new level of depth to Team Fortress. His Team Fortress II incarnation plays an important role in ending stalemates and eliminating key targets, acting as the wild card that reinforces the need for constant team communication.
The Spy wasn’t the first glitch to be adopted as a genuine feature. Prior to the internet, many gamers gathered in local arcades to show off their skills. In 1992, Mortal Kombat was on the rise and young gamers across America were chomping at the bit to discover its many secrets. With no access to strategy guides or online FAQs, players had to discern special moves and fatalities through trial and error or word of mouth.
In most other fighting games of the era, the single player objective was to defeat computer-controlled opponents through a tournament ladder and ultimately defeat the boss. While this was certainly also Mortal Kombat‘s main single player objective, the game added a new element to keep players coming back. From time to time, a green ninja appeared before a round began, taunting players to find him. In rare instances, he would actually challenge the player to a fight and award a massive point bonus when defeated.
Players eventually noticed that the green ninja only appeared for a fight on the stage appropriately named The Pit. They also eventually figured out that he only appeared after players went unharmed in both rounds without blocking and when they finished their opponent with a fatality. To further complicate matters, the green ninja only showed up if silhouettes flew in front of the moon in the background during both matches. The silhouettes appeared roughly once every five or so battles, so it was entirely possible for a player to do everything right and still miss out on the green ninja fight.
Every once in a while, a red ninja would show up in place of his green counterpart, convincing MK fans that they’d accidentally fulfilled some other mysterious set of requirements. In reality, the red ninja was the product of a completely random graphics error. During maintenance, Mortal Kombat arcade cabinet screens displayed a log of win streaks, encounters with Reptile the green ninja, and other secret information. The same log kept track of ERMACS, which increased each time a player encountered the red ninja. ERMACS was short for ERROR MACROS, referring to bugs like color palette errors, but Mortal Kombat fans swiftly adopted it as the red ninja’s name. Public interest in Ermac eventually reached the Midway Games developers, who rewarded the fans many years later by making Ermac an official character in Ultimate Mortal Kombat III.
The gaming public’s love for Ermac was echoed by Pokémon fans’ adoration of their own accidental character. The premise of Pokémon is spelled out in the “Gotta Catch’em All” tagline: There are a lot of cute little creatures and you haven’t succeeded until you’ve captured, traded, and leveled up each and every one of them. This mindset is directly reinforced with the in-game Pokédex, the cartoon’s Pokérap, and the release of two variations of the same game with their own exclusive Pokémon. The entire world revolved around this concept of completion, but one Pokémon challenged even the most dedicated trainers: Missingno.
Missingno resulted from the interaction between a programming shortcut in one of the game’s first locations and an encounter code error in one of the final areas of Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue.
In Viridian City, an old man demonstrates the process for capturing Pokémon. The game needs to temporarily replace the player’s name with the name “OLD MAN,” and has to store the player’s actual name somewhere. Viridian City has no grass tiles, so the programmers used the portion of the memory normally allocated to determining random Pokémon encounters on grass tiles as a temporary storage spot.
Cinnabar Island, which appears much later in the game, hosted a coding oversight along its eastern shore. Water tiles lacked the normal encounter probability code, meaning they did not overwrite old encounter data when entered by the protagonist. Players arriving from the sea encountered the usual ocean enemies, so the bug was very easy to miss.
When the player finished watching the old man capture a Weedle, they could then use a Pokémon’s Fly ability to move directly from Viridian City to Cinnabar Island. From there, the player could access the aforementioned water tiles and encounter wild Pokémon. The game still had the player’s name in the random encounter memory, so it incorrectly attempted to load this data as an enemy Pokémon. Based on the third, fifth, or seventh letter in the player’s name, it could produce a number of absurdly high-level Pokémon or a collection of unrelated sprite fragments. The most popular of the latter displayed the name MISSINGNO, which was short for “missing number.”
The freakish abomination of poképarts was hardly cute and was by no means the last glitch-based Pokémon, but it stuck with the audience because it filled the gameplay void left when players finally caught’em all. Missingno represented a new challenge beyond the limits of the official list. Players eager to obtain Mew, the game’s official secret Pokémon, needed to attend official events. Missingno, by contrast, was an extra Pokémon that anyone could get regardless of age or location. The fact that it registered in your Pokédex as Pokémon #000 just added to the sense of mystery.
Gamers are constantly looking for hidden secrets and new ways to enjoy their favorite games. The search for new experiences brings players back to games they’ve finished and glitches often provide some of the best unscripted easter eggs. Games grow more complicated with every sequel and quality control can’t possibly find every interaction between the game, its downloadable expansions, and the curiosity of a generation of problem solvers. YouTube, Wikipedia, and countless web forums ensure that if the Spy can walk like a crab, you’ll know about it.
William Bloodworth has written short stories, staffed anime conventions, and spent too much money on Magic: the Gathering. You can hear his nerdy ramblings at www.flavortextpodcast.com.