I’m about to buy a Secret Passage.
I’m playing Dragon Warrior. The landscape I traverse is lit in glowing 8-bit pixels, the terrain a beautiful, eye-frying saturation. I am Eldrick, questing for gold, a princess, and out to kill the Dragon Lord. It was endless combat, tense warfare against slimes, mandrakes, and other fantastic enemies. These foes sprang out at the worst times, randomly and forever pulling me away from my exploring. The game then switched to combat mode, music flipped to a minor-key, with attacks and parries exchanged and magical spells hurled back and forth.
The Dragon Warrior soundtrack was a gliding, wistful, medieval-sounding symphony. Today, I remember the feel of the game, plus some rudiments of its story, but most clearly—barring one strange exception—I remember that enchanted video game score, its endless melodic themes hypnotically sponged up by my awareness.
The key to The Secret Passage was found in the Game Genie, that primitive hacking device. Like some grade-school-aged Cold War operative, you’d scour a codebook for the proper sequence of letters. There were all manner of improvements to be had—more lives, more endurance, more time. It never quite felt like cheating, really. Some NES games were supremely tough, and who wouldn’t say no to more power? Dragon Warrior, with its endless lands and all-too-frequent battles, was practically begging to be hacked.
You could use codes straight from the book. Or, you could hack on a more experimental level—scrambling codes, substituting letters, putting codes in backwards, or just freestyling. Then you’d start the game to see what strangeness—or, more often, what hue of anticlimactic frozen screen—your creative thumbs had wrought. Sometimes, the game played no better or no worse, the code just unexpressed DNA under the surface.
My Dragon Warrior hacking eventually turned freestyle. And eventually, due to boredom, carelessness, or who knows what, I coded in the sequence that would unknowingly take me to The Secret Passage. It was beyond simple: the letter O typed into every available slot on the code screen. Enter…The O-Code.
Dragon Warrior begins in the castle of Tantegel, in the torch-lit hall of the King. Here, The O-Code did nothing. I left the castle, heading into the vast plains. Still nothing. Yet I played on, making my way to the next town over, the pleasant village of Brecconary, with its welcoming inn and its armory. No change, but for some reason, I let The O-Code ride. Maybe I was absorbed in the music, autopiloting along for several minutes. But then, still in Brecconary, I sauntered up to the armory, and the proprietor—along with offering me a staff, some armor, or a sword—presented something totally unexpected and completely new.
He’s selling a “Secret Passage.”
I’m confused…But I’m buying.
There’s an audible crunch and a momentary screen scramble. The game recovers, and I notice, top left, my character’s name is now an incomprehensible smear of alphanumeric runes. I have all this random loot, and a treasure trove of experience and magic points. I’ve hit the lottery, but the game graphics are weirdly tweaked—glitched out, extra-pixelated. A bizarre metamorphosis for character and game alike has shaken the Dragon Warrior universe to its core.
I deploy The O-Code repeatedly and the results never seem to repeat. More often than not, the game just crashes. But when it doesn’t, all manner of strangeness ensues: text turns to gibberish; sometimes I’m bestowed with cursed items; or maybe I’ve already saved the princess.
Somehow, the code’s effect is never quite duplicated, and because Dragon Warrior only allowed three games to be saved, countless far-out game world mutations were discovered and discarded, erased to chase an even stranger dimension behind the next secret passage.