Brandon Sheffield (@necrosofty) is a senior contributing editor at Gamasutra.
Hidden games are among my favorite things.
I’m talking about games tucked away within published games. Specifically I’m interested in games that have little to nothing to do with the games they’re hidden in, and as a result cause the player to speculate. How did these games get in here? Was this a prototype nobody could sell? A canceled title? Did the team simply love this idea so much they decided to just put it somewhere?
It’s a danged mystery every time, but the recent discovery of the game Dark Left, a shooter hidden inside a relatively obscure PC Engine (Japanese Turbografx) RPG, made me think about this concept all over again.
So here we have my top 10 games hidden inside other games, as of 2017. Ranked according to my weird preferences, I pretend to nothing more.
[Editor's Note: Please forgive the quality of some of these screenshots! As it turns out, great images of hidden games are, in fact, hard to find.]
10) Dark Left (Tenshi no Uta II)
Platform: PC Engine
Developer: Riot/Nihon Telenet
Tenshi no Uta II is a mostly-traditional RPG for the PC Engine (Japanese Turbografx) that was released in March 1993. But it was only recently that the English-speaking internet discovered that the game had a hidden secret – a vertically-scrolling (music-less) shooter called Dark Left. Why did they decide to do this? Was it a prototype for something that never got picked up? Was it a side project? Regardless, it’s always intriguing to me when a game contains an entire additional game, completely hidden.
And the method for its discovery is not so simple either. The PC Engine had system cards – they were more or less RAM upgrades. In order to find this game, you must insert a system card that’s lower than what’s required to run the RPG, then input up, up, down, down, then buttons I+II simultaneously.
9) Frog Fractions 2 (Glittermitten Grove)
Developer: Jim Crawford
Frog Fractions 2 is a slightly different story from the rest of these, because it’s deliberately hidden in an unrelated game. Glittermitten Grove was created by Craig Timpany, while Frog Fractions 2 was created by Jim Crawford as a completely stand-alone game. (Full disclosure: I worked with Jim on a game in the past.)
You have to actually play Glittermitten Grove in order to access Frog Fractions 2, after which you can import save data from Mass Effect 2 if you so choose. Jim Crawford is in the business of hiding games, and made an entire ARG to hint at the release of the game, so it’s no surprise this makes the list.
8) Guardian Wing (Kita e: White Illumination)
Developer: Hudson? Sega?
Kita E (To the North) is a dating sim/visual novel published by Hudson and developed by… I’m not sure. It’s one of those games that has a fair number of company names on it without a lot of indication of what they did, aside form Red Entertainment, who took care of the character design… which is the main thing that has kept me from playing the game for very long.
Anyway! Like many dating sims, there are a few minigames in here, one of which is a vertically-scrolling shooter called Guardian Wing. You have to play through the game’s main scenario to unlock it, but as an early Dreamcast game, a system known for its shooters, finding something so mysterious is always a treat. Now if only the main game were better…
Also there are no screenshots of Guardian wing on the internet, so you’ll have to make do with this ancient YouTube video.
7) Phalanx (Zero Divide)
Platform: PlayStation, Saturn
Phalanx is probably most famous for its much-discussed North American SNES box cover, depicting a bearded elder playing a banjo. Nothing like the side-scrolling shooting action found inside. But did you know that was not the last Phalanx game? No, there were (at least) two more, both hidden inside different versions of their fighting series Zero Divide (which has excellent music, by the way).
The first, “Tiny Phalanx,” is hidden in the PlayStation Zero Divide, and is unlocked by holding Select and Start on a P2 controller as the game loads. The second, Mini Phalanx, is hidden in the final Zero Divide game, which was released for the Saturn. Unlocking this one requires that you unlock another minigame first, then play the game for three more hours. Unfortunately Mini-Phalanx has no sound, and little background art to speak of.
6) Guy Savage (Metal Gear Solid 3)
Platform: PlayStation 2
Developer: Konami/Kojima Productions
Guy Savage is an odd, out-of-place hack and slash minigame present in Metal Gear Solid 3, and it’s an extra weird one for me, because I found it organically. I had missed my flight from Krakow back home to California, and went back to my friend’s place to wait for the next flight. He had been playing through MGS3 on the hardest difficulty, but I’d never played it at all. He was about to go to bed when I arrived, and said “you can play whatever you want, just don’t save over my progress.” He was in the prison just then, and saved. I decided to play some Drakengard instead.
I went back to MGS3, just to check out what it was like. When I loaded the game up, I was quickly playing “Guy Savage” instead. I was real confused, but it turns out we’d accidentally just met the exact requirements to unlock it. Guy Savage is directed by MGS3 writer Shuyo Murata, and MGS3 director Hideo Kojima stated on twitter that it was basically a canceled game. It’s only available in the original release as well, so you’ve got to work to find this one!
5) Cycho Rider (Anearth Taikenban)
Playform: PC Engine
Developer: Media Works / Hudson Soft
Cycho Rider is yet another complete shooting game hidden inside a PC Engine RPG, in this case Seiya Monogatari - Anearth Fantasy Stories. But what makes this one different is its lunatic obscurity. Cycho Rider isn’t included in the final game, no! It only comes with the taikenban version – a demo of the game that’s packed in with an Anearth guidebook. Even then, you’ve got to hit a code (though it’s just down down) to access the game.
Cycho Rider and Force Gear (which we’ll get to) even prompted a secondary grey market for these hidden shooters, with unscrupulous sorts selling $40 pirate copies of game that’s hidden inside a demo CD of an already obscure game that came with a specific guidebook. Phew.
4) Motto Moero Taisen Puzzle Dama (also Twinbee and Yie-Ar Kung Fu) (New Love Plus)
Konami’s venerable dating sim/visual novel series Tokimeki Memorial has long been host to a variety of minigames. The series is currently dormant, but Love Plus has more or less taken up the mantle. New Love Plus for the 3DS is no exception to this, and has plenty of minigames packed away inside it. Given that this is Konami, they’ve got plenty of older content they can stick in there, from Yie-Ar Kung Fu to Twinbee, but more interesting is the puzzle game, Motto Moero Taisen Puzzle Dama.
Once unlocked, you can play a full vs puzzle game, with a long and strange history. The Puzzle Dama games were sort of a repository for existing character sets. There were two official Tokimeki Memorial editions, a Twinbee one, and tons of others across the years. Takara even ripped the system and format off for their own Puzzle Arena Toshinden.
Hiding a Puzzle Dama game in Love Plus (one which allows you to play with other non-Love Plus Konami characters to boot) shows that no matter what anyone thinks of Konami as a company, the developers there still love their games and their history.
3) Everything in System Shock
Developer: Looking Glass Technologies
System Shock was a well-regarded first-person shooter, which in 1994 ought to have been enough. But Looking Glass included an in-game device called the MFD Game Player, also known as the GamePig. You could find cartridges for this in-game console around the world, and unlock 6 games, including an Ultima-like RPG, golf, and more pedestrian games like tic tac toe. Many of these games, like Swine Hunter (Spy Hunter), were riffs on existing popular games of the era.
I love the idea of in-game game consoles, an idea which has showed up in various ambitious games across the ages, from Shenmue to Minerva’s Den. Of course, in System Shock, the world keeps going on around you as you play, so if you don’t post up in a safe spot, you can get killed while trying to play Minesweeper – or Swinesweeper, as it’s called here. Check out all the minigames here, if you like.
2) Death Tank Zwei (Duke Nukem 3D)
Developer: Ezra Dreisbach / Lobotomy Software
Lobotomy Software was one of the few Western companies that really pushed the Saturn hardware to its limits. After the success of their original Doom-like Powerslave, they were given a number of big ticket licenses to work on, including Quake and Duke Nukem 3D. It’s in the latter that they included one of the greatest sequels to a hidden game.
Death Tank, an artillery / terrain deformation game like Scorched Earth and others, was originally hidden in Powerslave for the Saturn. But in Duke Nukem 3D, they upped the ante, making a proper sequel to Death Tank (called Death Tank Zwei), which had actual networking. The game could be played multiplayer across the Saturn’s Netlink service, with up to 7 online players, way back in 1997. The game gained legendary enough status that it got a proper XBLA sequel in 2009 (with Death Tank Zwei hidden in it yet again).
1) Everything in Tokimeki (Tokimeki Memorial series)
I hinted at it before, but wow, it sure seems like if you’ve got a minigame or an unfinished project or a hankering to work on something other than a visual novel, and you’re assigned to the Tokimeki Memorial team, you’re in luck. This series is just packed with hidden games.
In the PC Engine version, you can play Force Gear, a mech shooter, and a special Twinbee variant. In Tokimeki Memorial 2 Substories 2: Leaping School Festival, you can play Go Driller. In the Saturn version of the original, there’s another shooter called Psyth. Even the spinoffs have hidden games - in Tokimeki Memorial: Irodori no Love Song, you can play the vertical scrollers Conquer, and Star Crasher.
I can’t even begin to document all of them, so read this article on Hardcore Gaming 101 if you want to see more. But suffice it to say, the Tokimeki Memorial series and its spinoffs (including spiritual successor Love Plus) is the ultimate hidden game series. Decades later, and we’re still looking.
Want to read more about the best of 2017? Don't miss our picks for the Top 10 Game Developers of 2017, the Top 5 Trends of 2017 and Top 5 Events that shaped the year.
Gamasutra contributors also each wrote up a personal list of their top games, and you can read them here: Kris Graft, Katherine Cross, Alex Wawro, Alissa McAloon, Chris Kerr, Phill Cameron, Bryant Francis, and (another from) Brandon Sheffield.