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How Easter Eggs first hatched in video games

How Easter Eggs first hatched in video games

In the early 1980’s 15 year-old Adam Clayton noticed a rather unusual hidden message whilst playing the 1980 Atari 2600 game Adventure.

The box art and manual of the game describe an epic dungeon quest to retrieve three keys across three castles in order to get hold of an ‘Enchanted Chalice’. All the while you have to either kill or avoid three dragons as well as fend off a bat which takes a magpie-like interest in your items.

As this was the start of the Eighties, the actual graphics were little more than a square avatar surrounded by blocky walls and pixelated items. Still, the game broke new ground by allowing both the player and enemies to move across multiple screens.

Young Adam had previously completed Adventure (which is featured within Atari 2600/7800: A Visual Compendium), but discovered that when you retrieve a rather intangible item known as “the dot”, then take it to one of the walls in the “Golden castle”, you could push through into a previously inaccessible room. This revealed the text:


Warren Robinett coded his name into Adventure secretly as Atari didn’t properly credit programmers at the time

Where’s Warren?
In the early Eighties, intellectual property law hadn’t quite caught up with video games. Some companies seized on this to impose unfair terms on video game developers. Atari, for instance, made a point of banning any mention of programmers names from games and their literature, perhaps out of fear they’d be headhunted by competitors.

This lack of recognition (and therefore bargaining rights) did not sit well with Warren, who decided to secretly code this message into the game. In a 2015 interview, he stated:

“I thought of it as a self-promotion manoeuvre. Adventure sold a million units at $25 apiece. Meanwhile, I got a $22K a year salary, no royalties, and they never even forwarded any fan mail to me.

This is ironic given that Adam decided to send a detailed letter to Atari explaining what he’d found, complete with hand-drawn maps. By that time Robbinet had already left the company. It was too expensive to recall or rework the game cartridges so the hidden message was left in.

The Wright Stuff
Unlike his overseers, Steve Wright, the director of software development of the Atari Consumer Division argued in favour of hidden messages like Warren’s. He pointed out that such features would actually make people even more eager to replay games.

In an interview with Electronic Game magazine, Wright confirmed the existence of the message and that in future other games would have “Easter Eggs” for players to find. 

Electronic Games, the first dedicated video games magazine printed an interview with Steve Wright in their very first issue in 1981 where he coined the term “Easter Eggs”

Which came first?
Naturally the idea of hiding one message inside another is nothing new. The Beatles used “backmasking” to great effect in their songs, sparking a panic in the USA that rock music contained subliminal influences from Satan.

Wright was certainly the one who coined the term “Easter Egg”. This may be why the dystopian futuristic film Ready Player One claims that Adventure contained the first video game Easter Egg. 

Robbinet certainly didn’t “poach” the idea from other programmers but his game wasn’t the first to contain a hidden message. 

For instance, Atari’s 1977 space shooter Starship 1 was first available as an arcade cabinet, where players piloted their ship using two control sticks. 

If a player inserted a coin, whilst at the same time holding the “phasor” and start buttons, then slammed down the “slow” control stick, the screen would display the message “Hi Ron!” (A reference to Ron Milner, one of the game’s designers). The player would then automatically get ten free games. The “xyzzy” magic word in 1976’s Colossal Cave Adventure could also magically transport players between rooms. 

While ‘xyzzy’ is the first ‘magic word’ in video games, it’s not technically an Easter Egg given the word’s necessary to complete the game with a full score

One Giant Leap for Egg Kind…
A purist would argue that the Starship 1 and Colossal Cave Adventure Easter Eggs are more of the “free range” variety. Although both take some working out, they actually help you when playing, rather than revealing a hidden feature or message, so aren’t really Easter Eggs. 

This would leave Adventure ruling the roost if it weren’t for one exception: 1972’s Moonlander.

The game was designed to showcase the capability of DEC’s GT40. These were usually used to display scientific data like weather patterns but as this model came with its very own “light pen”, DEC wanted to show its full potential.

Moonlander was created to show off the capabilities of the GT40, which was normally only used for displaying scientific data

This is why they hired programmer Jack Burness to produce a ‘killer’ game for the GT40 which he dubbed Moonlander. A keen fan of the Apollo program, Burness designed the premise around a rocket ship which you’re trying to land carefully on the lunar landscape (later versions of the game were often known as Lunar Lander). 

Players used the light pen to carefully manoeuvre their thrusters and land the craft safely. This was difficult enough but the game included multiple screens. Scrolling through enough horizontal screens without crashing or running out of fuel, resulted in an odd sight on the ground in the form of a McDonald’s restaurant. A successful landing next to the golden arches results in the astronaut merrily skipping out of the rocket to score himself a Big Mac.

In a 1974 interview with the Boston Globe, Burness justified his choice by saying he felt his game needed a little “something extra”.

Easter Bunnies
Over time Easter Eggs have become even more tongue-in-cheek and self referential. For instance the Windows DOOM 95 port has a (slightly) hidden image of the player’s pet bunny Daisy. The rabbit later reappears on a missing poster in the 2016 game, with a reward offered for her safe return. The original trilogy contains no fewer than 42 other Easter Eggs.

Doomguy’s bunny Daisy makes a number of cameos throughout the entire DOOM series

As one of the first Easter Eggs unlocks a secret room, it’s hardly surprising that more modern ones do the same: for instance in LucasArts’ 1993 graphic adventure Day of the Tentacle if you use the computer in Weird Ed’s bedroom, you can actually play the full game of Maniac Mansion the 1987 predecessor to Day of the Tentacle

Playing the fangame Super Mario Blue Twilight DX on December 25th will unlock special Christmas levels

The Easter Eggs Archive maintains a database of the very best video game Easter Eggs. 

Atari may not have hatched the first Easter Egg but titles like Adventure on their home consoles were the first to spark the explosion of gaming in people’s homes. Read more in Atari 2600/7800: A Visual Compendium

If our mention of Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle is making you feel nostalgic, don’t forget to also check out The Art of Point-and-Click Adventure Games.

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