Video games. As long as they’ve existed there have been easter eggs (video game secrets). In fact, the earliest known video game secret—in the 1979 Atari game “Adventure”—is what gave us the phrase “easter egg” in the first place.
It shouldn’t be any surprise. Games are built on millions of lines of computer language which the average player will never see. That’s millions of chances for developers to secretly sign their name, whether literally or metaphorically. Sometimes they sign their name in big ways, like whole-other-level big. Whether put in as rewards for masterful gamers or just as jokes, there is no shortage of hidden levels in video games, and here are ten of the best.
10 Rogue Leader: Vader’s Vengeance
The “Rogue Squadron” series was a short-lived but much-loved trilogy of flight simulators set in the Star Wars universe. The games are known for fun, challenging, lore-respecting space battles set above dozens of beloved Star Wars planets and space stations—and for including an insane amount of easter eggs and secret codes. Though the first installment, just titled “Rogue Squadron,” had a pair of short hidden levels, it’s the second game, “Rogue Leader,” where the best-hidden levels lie.
The pair of levels put you in the seat of Darth Vader’s TIE Advanced as you rewrite history and crush the rebel scum. In “Triumph of the Empire,” you repel the rebel assault on the first Death Star, saving the massive station by systematically killing Rogue Squadron—including Luke Skywalker. Then in “Revenge on Yavin,” you (as Darth again) get to take the fight to the rebel base, bombing the secret Rebellion headquarters, cementing the Empire’s total galactic victory.
9 Borderlands 2: Mysterious Minecraft
With its comic book-inspired cell-shaded visuals, love affair with extensive gun arsenals, and irreverent humor, “Borderlands” is essentially the Deadpool of video games. Even more so than the actual Deadpool game because “Borderlands” is actually enjoyable. And like Deadpool, Borderlands does not shy away from pop-culture references. In “Borderlands 2,” one takes the form of a hidden level homage to “Minecraft.”
In the toxic landfill area known as Caustic Caverns, you can find a set of tracks with mining carts on them. Past these is a set of oddly low-res brown blocks, which can be broken. Moving past this makeshift barrier, you’ll enter a cave that is all “Minecraft.” Suddenly stones are pixelated cubes and “Minecraft”’s famous Creepers greet you with their awkward attacks. You’ll even find similarly pixelated skins for yourself and a gun inside.
8 Star Fox: Secret Slots
The original SNES “Starfox” was an amazing experience. On a home console in 1993, players got to experience fast-paced flight simulation in space, which was unique enough in itself. Crazier still was that the game used the Super FX processor to create actual, polygonal graphics, which meant real(ish) 3D in your home—a first for most of us. Another first for everyone was its insane floating slot machine dimension.
It is accessed by shooting one particular asteroid, which causes a giant origami bird to appear in space. You can then fly straight into the bird, which will teleport you into the “Out Of This Dimension” level. The level is a warped, mutating acid trip of a stage, with creepy carnival music and giant moons with faces. And it gets weirder. The boss, a giant slot machine, appears and suddenly the music changes to ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ on a loop. You have to shoot triple 7’s into the slot machine to defeat it, and your reward: you’re trapped in the nightmare dimension forever.
7 Super Mario Bros. 3: Golden Galleon
When I was little, a friend told me “Super Mario Bros. 3” had a secret level which was just one giant flying treasure ship, known as the Coin Ship. I didn’t believe them and never saw it once. Until 20 years later when I discovered that the ship was completely real, just hidden in the most ridiculous of ways.
To reach the Treasure Ship (the official name, apparently), you have to be in one of four specific levels, find a wandering hammer brother, beat the level with “a coin total that ends in a multiple of 11,” “the tens digit of the player’s score must match the multiple of 11,” and mathematically that means the timer must end in an even number. Like I said: ridiculous. The ship itself is coin after coin, as well as other rewards, so you can only imagine how cool it would be to randomly discover it on your own.
6 Dying Light: Mario Mention
Speaking of Mario, the light-hearted franchise is mentioned in the most unexpected of places: the parkour-zombie-shooter game “Dying Light.” On a roof in the game’s open city is a familiar-looking green pipe, which you can use to teleport downward.
You enter a hidden, linear map comprised of cubes and pipes, clearly a crude recreation of a Mario level. There are even ‘goombas,’ really just oddly-flattened zombies. The level ends—in true Mario fashion—when you reach and slide down a flag pole and pipe out.
5 Sands of Time: Obscured Original
The 2003 gaming masterpiece “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” has a hidden reference to the original 1989 “Prince of Persia” game right at the beginning. From the main menu, hitting ‘start new game’ puts the player on a balcony (seamlessly, by the way) from which they are expected to enter the first stage.
Instead, staying on the balcony and entering a string of buttons teleports the players to a side-scrolling underground tomb. The tomb is a near-exact replica of the first level from the 1989 “Prince of Persia,” but with a few fun inclusions. At its end, players can find a secret scimitar, some cases of beer, and a picture of the entire dev team.
4 Sonic Adventure 2: Hidden Hills
Sonic Adventure 2 has a fun shoutout to the very first Sonic game. The only problem, it takes a lot of effort, skill, and worse, tons of hours sunk into a post-Genesis Sonic game. In order to access the hidden level, players have to beat every level of SA2, obtain A ranks (the highest possible score) on everyone, and collect all 180 emblems (in-game trophies).
For all that work, players gain access to a 3D recreation of the Green Hill Zone. The GHZ is the most famous level in Sonic history, appearing in most of its titles, and is usually the first level of the game. The 3D recreation level in SA2 is a pretty cool easter egg if you have the patience and energy to go for it (and if you love Chao farming that much).
3 Doom: Retro References
The 2016 “Doom” game is a model for developers looking to recapture the spirit and success of a stagnant franchise. The game is a blast and truly feels like playing a classic “Doom” game, albeit an order of magnitude more gorgeous. Not to cut any corners, it went all out for its hidden levels, as well. All 13 of them.
In every level of the 2016 “Doom,” there is a hidden lever that opens a hidden door. Crossing through the door’s threshold, players enter a ‘classic level.’ Every classic level is a trip back in time to the first days of “Doom”: maze-like corridors of low-res blocks guide the player to enemy after enemy, with the same endless browns and grays of yore. And again—there is one in every single level.
2 Red Alert: Concealed Colony
This is one of the greatest hidden levels ever. Four of them, actually. In the Counterstrike expansion to the classic (and still fun) “Command and Conquer: Red Alert,” there is a hidden sequence of missions in which your Allied Forces take on a colony of giant bloodthirsty ants. For a game which had been solely (human) Allies vs (also human) Soviets throughout the entire experience until that point, this was a wild surprise. Even more surprising is how it’s accessed.
At the main menu, players have to hold shift and click on the speaker icon, which is normally the audio settings. Doing so brings up a series of fun, campy, classic-horror-homaging levels in which you have to fight off giant ants and eventually exterminate their queen. It is great fun, totally out of left field for the franchise, fairly lengthy for a hidden stage, and would clearly be a paid DLC these days.
1 Diablo 2: Moo Moo Monsters
The Secret Cow Level in “Diablo II” might just be the most famous hidden level of all time. Back in the day, fan-favorite games inevitably spawned internet rumors about hidden secrets, glitches, and hacks. Most were untrue (though somehow MissingNo. actually existed) and the rumored secret cow level in the first “Diablo” was no exception. It was completely fake, and no matter what weird gymnastics you went through, it was never going to appear. Until it did.
As a nod to the rumors, developers put the Secret Cow Level in “Diablo II” for real (as well as in the Hellfire expansion to the first game). The level is chock full of slow-moving cow-people with halberds, as well as the boss monster: Cow King. It was good fun and showed that the developers A) listened to the community and B) had a good sense of humor.