The Nintendo Entertainment System was more than just a gaming system for millions of people. It was a hobby, a friend-maker, a bond-creator, an escape, a therapy method, and, for many, an obsession. The fact that the developers behind the games were just as intent on creating worlds within worlds, secrets and nods to be sussed out by the devoted, or shortcuts to allow the impatient to tour the entirety of their work, made the games of the NES all the richer. We, in turn, were also all the richer for these incredible experiences.
We’ve combed through the catalog of the nearly seven hundred titles released for the Nintendo Entertainment System to put together the greatest secrets these games have to hold. However, the list is cobbled together in an admittedly unscientific manner.
What makes for one of our “greatest” secrets? Some of them are chosen for their influence in popular culture, some for their popularity and wide usage among gamers, some because they are among the most bizarre, some due to the sheer power or awesomeness of the secret, and others are chosen because they impact a game that is too iconic to ignore.
So, without further ado, here are the 15 Greatest Secrets Of The NES You Never Knew.
15 The Legend of Zelda - 2nd Quest Code
You could count on one hand the number of games more influential to all of video games than 1986’s The Legend of Zelda. The action-adventure game follows young Link as he sets out to recover the Triforce and rescue Princess Zelda. The game resonated with gamers of all ages due to its creativity, its depth and puzzle-solving, and its difficulty.
Already a famously challenging game, The Legend of Zelda held a re-vamped map and challenge once the main quest was finished. This Second Quest was far more difficult than the main quest. Nintendo made it playable, however, without going through the rigamarole of the main quest.
The cartridge for the game was one of the very few that used an internal battery for saved games instead of relying on the more typical code-based system for starting a game in the middle. If you name your saved game “Zelda," you are instantly thrust into the Second Quest. However, don’t say we didn’t warn you.
14 Kirby's Adventure - Unlimited Mics
Kirby, Nintendo’s pink puffball with the voracious appetite and healthy set of lungs, was a latecomer to the Nintendo Entertainment System. Kirby’s Adventure was a surprising hit for Nintendo in the twilight of the system, when it was released in 1993. In it, enemies can be inhaled and spat out as weapons or digested (with Kirby consequently gaining their powers).
One of the most devastating abilities you can get is the microphone (from an enemy called Mike). There are a couple places to acquire infinite mics, but the easiest is during the Paint Roller fight.
In order to do this, you must use up your last mic (you usually get 3 blasts) after the boss is defeated, and use it right where the Star Rod would appear in the middle of the screen (ending the level). Because you don’t technically lose it before the end-level animation, the game loses count of how many you have and resets it to a near-infinite level (you definitely don’t need more than it gives you). The game appears as though it’s glitching out each time you use the mic ability after that, though.
13 Battletoads - Hoverbike Warp
Battletoads is a classic beat-em-up/platformer from Rare (who would later go on to make classics like Donkey Kong Country, GoldenEye 007, and Perfect Dark). The characters are alien humanoid toads with juvenile names like Rash and Zitz who have extreme rock’n’roll ‘tudes and can easily be traced to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle hysteria of the early ‘90s. The original game is more famous, though, for its difficulty than its charm.
The most famously difficult level comes quickly (level 3) and is called Turbo Tunnels. In it, you pilot a speeder bike around upcoming obstacles that come at an absurd pace and require laser precision to avoid. However, there is a warp out of the infamous level.
It requires you smashing into a very specific wall obstacle. What’s the catch? It comes so late into the level you might as well just finish the thing. The warp is so far after most players give up or break their controllers that it’s nearly useless.
Fortunately, there is another way to get out of the level using a glitch that involves dying before getting on the bike… but this appears to be somewhat problematic to achieve and unreliable.
12 River City Ransom - Merlin's Mystery Shop
River City Ransom, unknown to most Western gamers, is actually the third game in a series called Kunio-Kun (preceded by Renegade and Super Dodge Ball). The game, which has a unique cartoonish style, is an open world beat-em-up.
Characters must fight their way through the gangs and streets of River City. Beating up gang members nets pocket change, which can be spent in town on books teaching new fighting techniques or food and gear to replenish health or improve stats.
About two-thirds through the game, just after the big fight in the tire shop, the game begins to ramp up in difficulty. Suddenly you are facing gangs like The Mob and The Squids (no more Generic Dudes or The Frat Guys for you).
After the fight, you will walk through a tunnel. If you push up on the D-Pad at the top of the middle of the tunnel, a secret door opens in the darkness. Therein lies Merlin’s Mystery Shop. The shop is pricey, but contains unique items that provide incredible stat boosts: Excaliber (yes, with an "e"), Zeus’ Wand, Rodan Wing, Gold Medal, and Isis Scroll.
11 Adventure Island - Bonus Stage
A big part of the reason why Nintendo’s premiere platforming series Super Mario Bros. has had so much staying power was that for all of its creative aesthetic, it was also fiercely intuitive. Without a strategy guide, a Nintendo Hotline (it existed), or a movie to show you, you would be able to pick up on 99% of the secrets the game held simply through logic. Platformers like Hudson Soft’s Adventure Island picked up on the creativity portion but lacked the understanding that one idea should flow from another.
Because of this, all of the secrets in Adventure Island owe themselves to random exploration and luck. Perhaps the biggest instance is the hidden fruit area of the first level, as Master Higgins (the hero) passes by totem poles.
If you stand between the two poles closest together and throw your weapon (you’ll know you’re in the right spot if your weapon disappears quickly), a random platform made of dots rises through the ground and takes Higgins to an area filled with fruits on springs. The timing must be precise in order to rack up the fruit, but falling simply means the end of the bonus area.
10 Mega Man 2 - Stars To Birds
Capcom’s Blue Bomber, Mega Man, enjoyed several outings on the NES. None are more highly revered, however, than the second game. The general premise of the Mega Man 2 is that you control a little blue robot in a severely difficult action platformer.
Each stage can be selected in any order, and is topped off with a robot master whose attacks are based on an element or item. Each defeated robot master allows Mega Man an ability based on the boss, and each boss has a specific weakness to one of these new abilities.
So, when Mega Man 2 opens up, you are faced with a stage select screen. Ordinarily after selecting a stage, you are treated to an animation of the robot master flexing in a field of flying stars. For no apparent reason at all, holding the A-button while making your selection transforms the flying stars to a field of flying robot birds (they are called Pipis when you face them as enemies). This does nothing to change the gameplay, and has yet to be given a satisfactory reason for existing other than just to be a cute easter egg.
9 Bubble Bobble - Life Stealing
Bubble Bobble is an adorable little action puzzle game where 1 or 2 players control cute dinos that must trap enemies in bubbles and then pop them. The game’s levels are laid out like the original Mario Bros. (not Super), so it is a stationary screen of platforms that must be navigated. The game becomes infinitely more fun, but also difficult, when played with 2 players.
This is also where this secret comes in handy. Because it is so easy for one player to accidentally endanger the other by being negligent or chasing their own quarry (or the special bonus fruits and items that occasionally pop up), the developers at Taito came up with a handy trick for retribution. If you are playing with 2 players, you can pause the game and hit the select button to steal a life from your partner. Remember, all is fair in love and war and Bubble Bobble.
8 Kid Icarus - Medusa Code
Kid Icarus is one of the great underutilized franchises for Nintendo. Only recently, with a critically lauded 3DS game and roster spots for characters from the series in the Super Smash Bros. games, has there been a mini-renaissance.
The original is a difficult action-platformer from 1986 that fuses together Greek myth and typical Nintendo weirdness into an unforgettable surrealist feast for the eyes (for example, the villainous Eggplant Wizard who turns the hero Pit into a walking eggplant).
The strangeness hides the true challenge of the game; where a single misstep or poorly timed arrow shot can land you and Pit in some serious hot water. To that end, there are a number of passwords available so players can see other levels and other powers.
While several are iconic, none are moreso than the easy-to-remember “8uuuu” code. Simply enter the number "8" followed by all lower-case "u"s and you are transported with nearly unlimited health and full upgrades to the final level. It allows you to see what a truly epic final level can look like.
7 Duck Hunt - Brightness Trick
Duck Hunt was one of very few games released for the NES Zapper-- the light gun peripheral that came packed-in with most versions of the NES console. If you owned a Zapper, then dollars to doughnuts you also owned Duck Hunt, which was usually included on the same cartridge as Super Mario Bros. (and later also World Class Track Meet) that came along with the system.
If you’re looking to perform the brightness trick, we have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that there are plenty of video tutorials to help you with adjusting your television’s brightness to the right level (it is very high up to the point that it’s tough to tell what’s what).
The bad news is you will need an old CRT TV and not a flat screen to do it. The idea is that the brightness of the TV confuses the Zapper and tricks the game into thinking you’re hitting the ducks no matter where you aim, making you unstoppable. Another version of the trick involves holding up a magnifying glass to the barrel of the gun, but we have yet to verify this one.
6 Metroid - Secret Worlds
The NES sure did have some major, iconic games, didn’t it? Metroid came along in 1986 and featured the first strong and capable woman hero in gaming. On top of that, it was a visually unique and challenging action-adventure game that required the player to traverse and revisit the labyrinthine map after acquiring new power-ups in order to access new areas.
Amidst all the twists and turns and nooks and crannies that warrant exploration in the game, it was only a matter of time before someone stumbled onto what is known as the “Secret Worlds”. These are accessed in specific rooms by exploiting the bubble doors in order to launch hero Samus Aran up above the door area.
Then a combination of jumping into the wall, and launching yourself up with timed explosions and rolling will take you there. There isn’t much to the Secret Worlds; they are nonsensical rooms in the same vein as the rest of the game and were just leftover information on the cartridge. They quickly became part of Metroid lore, though, and the later Metroid Prime series specifically created Secret Worlds to be accessed.
5 Final Fantasy - Hidden Puzzle Game
Created by Square, Final Fantasy is a traditional role playing game that has become so influential and iconic that it has spawned a movie, 14 main sequels (and countless spin-off games), a restaurant, a fashion line, and more. The original helped define what we’ve come to expect from a video game RPG, and features a small group of adventurers of different classes (including fighter, black belt, and black mage) doing battle in a high fantasy setting.
Inside the original game is a hidden mini-game. Once a player has acquired a ship, the player can board it and then press the "A" and "B" button together a total of 55 times in a row. This takes the player to a traditional slide 15 puzzle (the kind you usually get as a cheap prize with arcade tickets that features a picture that must be slid into place).
This one features numbers which must be rearranged into numerical order. While the inclusion of the game doesn’t really make much sense, it is a welcome break from the action of the rest of the game. You are also rewarded considerably for completing it (with better rewards for finishing it faster).
4 Super Mario Bros. 3 - Warp Whistles
For the NES, there might not have been any more advanced fanfare for any game than Super Mario Bros. 3. Luckily, the game lived up to the hype. Beyond the usual tricks of highly advertised games of the day, SMB3 went one step further and secured a movie.
The Wizard was a road trip movie featuring a boy played by Fred Savage and his estranged brother, who appears to have autism (but it is explained away more as trauma). Think of it as Rain Man, Jr. The boy turns out to be a video game "wizard," so they hotfoot it to the gaming championship Video Armageddon. The final game is the as-yet unreleased SMB3.
Somehow Savage, his girlfriend Haley, and the savant himself seem to know tricks about the game despite it being the first time they’ve ever seen it. Most iconic of the secrets the movie/feature-length advertisement spilled, was that of the warp whistle.
The boy finds his by flying over a castle wall. Thanks to the movie, it became the least secret secret in gaming history. An interesting side note: the whistle is taken directly from The Legend of Zelda, where the jingle and animations are identical.
3 Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! - Bald Bull Trick
Punch-Out!! was a boxing game released by Nintendo first for the arcades. In 1987, it was released for the NES, and in North America it was given the Mike Tyson licensing. The game is known for its cartoonish and somewhat racist/stereotypical opponents.
It is also known for being more about rhythm and timing and reading the game’s cues than it is about any sort of actual boxing prowess. Much of the strategy for defeating opponents could be figured out through trial and error, but many people took to strategy guides or the hotline for the ways to knock out their foes.
There is one game cue, however, that stands out from the rest in this game. It stands out because it remained totally undiscovered for over twenty years. In a 2009 interview with a member of the original development team, Makato Wada spilled the beans about a hint in the crowd during the Bald Bull fight.
When an audience member in the game on the right of the screen takes a flash picture, it is a warning for the precise moment when you should punch Bald Bull for maximum effect. Since then, other audience cues have been discovered.
2 Super Mario Bros. - Warp Pipes
This is the game that essentially broke the dam for home gaming after the market crashed in the early ‘80s. Super Mario Bros. is as close to the Platonic ideal of a platforming game as we are ever likely to get. The game was packaged with nearly every NES console, and as such, was technically the best-selling game in the system’s history.
We’re not exactly sure how it happened, but one secret in particular seemed to be common knowledge to anybody who’d seen or touched the game. It might have been word of mouth, it might have been the popular Nintendo Power magazine, or it might have been something in the collective subconscious… but everyone knew about the first set of warp pipes in the game.
The player must use the floating lifts towards the end of level 1-2 (the first underground level) to jump on top of the brick ceiling. You may then run across the top of the ceiling to a secret chamber that features 3 pipes. The pipes can warp you automatically to Worlds 2, 3, or 4. Most gamers knew that, to get to the next warp pipe quickest, they had to warp directly to World 4.
1 Contra - The Konami Code
What secret could we finish with other than the Konami Code? While Contra wasn’t the first game to use it (it was Gradius), it is the game that made the code an icon. Contra was a sci-fi run-and-gun game released in 1987 by developer Konami.
Incredibly popular, the game is notable (as with many games for the NES) for being particularly unforgiving. To make the game easier, a code was instituted to give 30 extra lives to the player. The sequence is Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A on the controller (many people know it as ending with Select and Start, but this isn’t always the case in Konami games).
The code has been used in dozens of Konami games. It has also been used in games from several other companies as a tribute. It’s the name of a Deftones song, has been an Easter egg for major websites such as Marvel and Facebook. It’s been used or mentioned in so many places it’s impossible to keep track. In 2017, it was even used by the Canadian government as an Easter egg on the Bank of Canada’s website.
What are some of your all-time favorite NES secrets? Do you have any special memories attached to any of these codes and cheats? Let us know in the comments!