Whether it be the hard-earned prize of the meticulous explorer, or a freak discovery of the hopelessly lost, games have had secret areas hidden away in their code for decades. In the early days, these were often walls that slid back, blended into identical textures and seemingly something you never found yourself so much as heard from friends and relatives, passed down like ancestral knowledge. We all know about the warp zone from World 1-2 of Super Mario Bros., but how many of you actually found it yourself?
Of course, the internet – and more specifically the advent of a global gaming community – has had a hand in that in years since. Sites like GameFAQs make their ad revenue by doing the hard work for you: in addition to tips and guides for games, most of them include comprehensive lists of all the little nooks and crannies lovingly hidden away by the developers. On the one hand, this massively streamlines the gaming experience for the compulsive 100%-er, a serious boon with more and more games hitting shelves all the time. Purists, on the other hand, might argue that guides to finding secret areas in fact undermine the whole point of a secret area in the first place. And sure, it’s tempting to get someone else to do the work for you, but it’s certainly an understandable point of view. If you’ve ever found a secret area purely by chance, you know how satisfying it is to come upon that knowledge, or even better by finding it after looking on a hunch and having your insight rewarded. But finding it when you already know it’s there is like buying an Easter egg for yourself: strictly speaking, nothing is different, but it’s somehow less satisfying.
Of course, the rewards beyond the thrill of exploration can be plenty. Secret areas can skip chunks of the game – a vital tool for speedrunners – or give access to useful equipment otherwise hard to come by. Take the Metroid series, for example: riddled with so many areas hidden behind wall tiles and atop high areas that it’s practically more secret than main level. Missile expansions, energy tanks and even certain weapon upgrades are reserved for the adventurous and the cunning, so it can improve your game experience massively by sneaking a peek at a forum here and there for a little help.
Secret areas have certainly come a long way, and yet ostensibly changed very little. Some games still even have little chimes and pop-up messages for finding one a la Legend of Zelda or DOOM – Shadow Warrior, for example, apes the classic FPS in this fashion. In the end, they’ll always be out there, and it’s up to you to decide how to find them – will you succumb to the temptations of Google’s ‘easy way out’, or take the road less travelled and unearth them yourself? Either way, there are plenty of secrets waiting to be discovered: happy hunting.