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Easter Eggs and Vintage Secrets Modern Games See as a Weakness

There’s something especially magical about vintage video games and how they feel to play. Maybe it’s the simplicity, the nostalgia, or how without all the bells and whistles, the heart of the game is able to shine through. Nearly every gamer has that one game/game series they grew up playing that pulls at their heartstrings a little harder than any others can. For me, that was Sonic The Hedgehog. My sister and I grew up in a pretty humble home with no cable and no internet, so all we had was an old Sega Genesis and a collection of Sonic Games given to us by a family friend. We had no deficiency for entertainment, however. Along with our expansive creativity in the games we’d make up, we would get lost in the world of Sonic for hours on end.

One thing about the early Sonic games that fascinated me as a child was placement of Easter eggs and secret spots throughout the levels. Easter eggs are, for me, the pinnacle of entertainment in video games. There’s no feeling like the excitement a child gets when they discover something in a game that very few or no other players have explored enough to find. Even a couple months ago, I was playing through Sonic 2 for the millionth time, and I discovered an entry to a secret level (Hidden Palace Zone) that absolutely blew my now 28 year old mind. I was so enchanted by the new discovery that I researched the hidden level, and found out it was one of a handful of unfinished levels that were originally destined for Sonic 2. I also found out that there’s a fan made compilation of all the “lost levels” made into a computer game!

Sonic and Tails stand at the beginning of Hidden Palace Zone, a secret level accessible through Mystic Cave Zone
Hidden Palace Zone in Sonic 2, a hidden level accessible through Mystic Cave Zone

In The Witcher III, an Easter Eggy detail is that Geralt’s beard grows depending on how much time a player has spent in the game, and how much they travel around. When asked about this, 3D artist Remy Lauret from Ubisoft said, “For me personally, these kinds of details in games are very valuable because they make the games seem more real and we need realism a lot to be fully immersed.” The Dark Souls series is famous for its discoverable secrets, and games like Castlevania, Mega Man X, Resident Evil 2, Silent Hill 2, Fallout New Vegas and Undertale all have them - so why do in-game secrets seem to be getting less popular as video games rocket forward in looks and mechanics?

A screenshot of main character Gerald and a stage of his beard growth in a cutscene of The Witcher III
Geralt and a stage of his beard growth in a cutscene of The Witcher III

I’ve found quite a few good explanations for why this seems to be the case. One comes from Miguel Valdespino, as an answer to a question on Quora. Miguel says, “Almost all big games have multiplayer modes. Games without multiplayer have limited sales. Cheat codes in multiplayer is a really bad idea. It will kill any chance at fairness and cause a problem. They will often disable them in single player mode just in case. As for Easter eggs, the scale of programming means that bigger and bigger teams are making games. There are more and more moving parts to interact with and extensive testing. Hiding code is hard to do and could cause unexpected problems. So any Easter eggs become part of the planned development. And when there is a time crunch, Easter eggs are optional enhancements, so that is where they cut back.”

Another perspective comes from Mick Waites in a thread in response to a question about the lack of cheat codes and god modes in modern games. Mick says, “When publishing games on console, all game content, modes and options have to be listed as part of the submission and are subjected to (what these days seems to be theoretical) testing by the console manufacturers prior to release. If a developer has added some semi-hidden cheat option, the functionality that is offered still has to be tested. If a bug is found that only happens when the cheat is running, this can delay the launch of the game. Why risk delaying launch by leaving code that was really only written to aid development? Most code is developed under environments where there are "build configurations" that allow certain routines only to be included and executed under development environments (for example writing text into a log file to help understand what might have happened when a rare bug occurs) but this code is not present in final submission builds. It makes sense to include "cheat modes" in this code for the reason stated above. For reference, I included an "autoplay" cheat in a game I submitted to Sony which demonstrated that all the Trophies could be collected (some were pretty hard to get) thinking it would speed up submission as it would test the Trophy collection for them. They rejected the submission as the same cheat then violated one of their rules that Trophies must require effort from the player to earn. The cheat was intended to ease the submission process, but in reality it delayed it.”

A screenshot of the inverted Castle Dracula in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Players will discover the entire game was designed to be played upside down as well as right side up!
Inverted Castle in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Players will discover that the entire game was designed to be played upside down as well as right side up!

So while these are valid reasons for the cutbacks on secrets, Easter eggs and cheats, there is still no doubt about the magic and plain old fun that secrets in games bring. If the Dark Souls series, which won Game of the Year for its newest installment, Elden Ring, at GDC in San Francisco, repeatedly utilizes the allurement of secrets and secret levels, shouldn't the rest of the game industry follow suit even just to ride on their successful coattails? I’d rather have a 2d platformer like the old Sonic the Hedgehog games, full of secrets, than the insanely huge build of a modern game, but with no fun secrets to discover.

A player faces Crossbreed Priscilla, the boss of a secret area called The Painted World of Ariamis, which is accessible through a guarded painting in the game, after picking up a mysterious item in a previous area.
Crossbreed Priscilla, the boss of The Painted World of Ariamis in Dark Souls. The Painted World is a secret area accessible through a guarded painting after picking up an item prior.

Maybe it’s just because I’ve been deemed an explorer by Bartle’s taxonomy of the four types of gamers (this is a survey we take as a part of the Game Design major at WVU!) - but I think the definition of fun is discovery. So next time you’re playing Sonic 3, leave your screen idle on the saved data select screen - the one with the tropical sounding music - for at least 45 minutes. My sister and I may have been the first to discover this back in the early 2000s, since there was no record of it on the internet until more recently. Listen closely and tell me that little Easter Egg doesn’t get you excited.

A screenshot of the Sonic 3 data select screen, which I have mentioned has an audio Easter egg after staying idle on it for over 45 minutes.
The Sonic 3 data select screen!

Works Cited:

McKenzie, T. (2021, October 9). The importance of immersive details and Easter eggs in games. 80lv.

Mediawiki. (2019, November 13). Sonic the hedgehog - the lost worlds. Sonic Retro.

Valdespino, M. (2017). Why has there been a lack of Easter eggs and cheat codes in recent video games? [Online Forum Post]. Quora.

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