Of all the developers putting out games today, Nintendo has possibly the best reputation for delivering rock-solid, glitch-free and glorious gaming experiences. The patented ‘Nintendo polish’ is something of a given when you fire up a first-party game - we expect an assuredly smooth, jank-less time where in games from 'lesser' developers you might expect the odd freeze or hard crash. Hey, that’s the Nintendo difference!
The thing is, though, Nintendo-published games have had their fair share of game-breaking (if not game-ending) bugs over the years. We’re not only talking about fun glitches people discover while poking around where they shouldn't, or hardcore speedrun exploits mined through many hours of work picking at the seams of the game world and actively trying to ‘break’ the game. There are also plenty of bugs that can cause the average player serious problems if they stumble into them.
In the grand scheme of the company’s entire library, the examples below are a drop in the ocean, and game-ending issues are much less of an issue nowadays when things can simply be patched up the wazoo even once they’re in the wild. In general Nintendo has the resources to plug a leak relatively rapidly once it’s been identified, so you’re rarely more than a few days from an update that will fix your issue.
We took a look at comical localisation errors many moons ago, but here we're concentrating (in the main) on technical hiccups that run the gamut from gleeful and fun to potentially game-ruining. Nintendo has done well to avoid the latter for the most part, but that’s not to say it has a spotless record.
Let’s take a look at some of the whoopsies that have slipped through Nintendo’s QA net over the years...
Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo) – ‘Minus World’
Let’s start off with one of the most famous. While you’re not likely to stumble on this, anyone can do it in most versions of Super Mario Bros. - even we managed it, as you can see below. Jumping while ducking and hitting the pipe just so at the end of World 1-2 will see you clip through the wall to the ‘secret’ warp pipe area you normally access by jumping on top of the ceiling a bit earlier on. Heading through the pipe will take you to a whole new world (cue the Aladdin music):
Labelled ‘World -1’, it’s actually World 7-2 except with one significant difference: the pipe at the end returns you to the beginning of the stage without resetting the timer. Thus, you are trapped and forced to endure an inevitable, watery end.
Hardly a game-ender, it’s an obscure glitch very early in the game that you’ve really got to seek out. We include it here for posterity and as a nod to the multitude of glitches the original Super Mario Bros. threw up. Even the best ’uns are riddled, you know.
Metroid (Nintendo) – 'ENGAGE RIDLEY...'
Klaxon! Fruity language alert!
The western versions of Metroid featured a passcode system rather than the save slots in the Japanese original. Upon dying the game spits out a code which you can use to return to the same area with all the gear you've collected to that point. Using it these days brings to mind the horror we still endure when entering Friend Codes on Nintendo systems, and it’s no wonder gamers started playing around with the words they input.
Each code consists of four sets of six-character spaces and there are a variety of famous examples. At some point – probably through sheer boredom – some gamer input the code ‘ENGAGE RIDLEY MOTHER F****R’ and, thanks to the way the pass codes are generated, this created a state with over 300 years on the clock and a variety of game-breaking outcomes. Entering it on the Switch Online version of the game results in an error message, as seen below:
This would seem harmless enough, although the 3DS Virtual Console version caused a system crash. Reports of damage to original hardware are unsubstantiated, although the idea of Ridley reading your filthy code and raising an eyebrow before short circuiting your NES amuses us. Ridley is nothing if not a refined pterodactyl-dragon thing and he refuses to countenance foul language. Quite right, too.
Pokémon Red & Blue (Game Freak) – ‘MISSINGNO’
Another legendary glitch (well, famous enough to have its own Wikipedia entry), the exact reason for its existence is far less interesting than the wonder it stirred in Pokétrainers the world over when it was discovered. A secret Pokémon? One that can cause glitches and – as Nintendo warned – even had the power to wipe your game save?
The genius of MISSINGNO (short for ‘Missing Number’) is how a glitch created by the way the game’s random battle system works fed into the mystery of the game itself. You had Mew as the enigmatic 151st monster, so fans rationalised that a ‘number 0’ could also exist. For fanatical kids in the playground, the hearsay this created was electric. Missingno’s state in the Pokémon canon remains uncertain, but it represents the mystery of the series beautifully.
Again, it’s not a game-ender, but it is arguably top of the ‘it’s not a bug, it’s a feature’ category. It would seem even Nintendo’s bugs are charming.
Mario Kart 64 (Nintendo) – ‘Shortcuts’
One of the proudest gaming memories from our youth is doing that shortcut over the brick wall on Mario Raceway in Mario Kart 64 on each of the three laps – an achievement we’ve still got saved in ghost form on a Memory Pak somewhere.
Of all the shortcuts in the game, though, that was one of the more ‘honest’, if you will. It simply meant you skipped a tricky turn; other 'shortcuts involved completely gaming the course geometry or falling out of the level to skip entire laps. If you attempted and pulled off the Mario Raceway skip during a multiplayer race, fair play, son. If, however, you were the irritating individual who ruined races by reversing immediately on Frappe Snowland, we’ve got no time for you and your unsportsmanlike behaviour.
‘Oh, but it’s legit if the game allows it!’ Yeah, whatever numbnuts; you stay home and play it on your own if you love doing it so much - we’re here to race! You can check out a good selection of the shortcuts in the video above (and feel free to discuss in the comments section which ones are legitimate and which would get you ejected from your local 4-player session). Game-breaking? This broke relationships.
Donkey Kong 64 (Rare) – A costly bug you never actually saw
This is a bug that no-one in the game-playing public ever encountered in the wild, although it caused Rare and Nintendo quite the headache. If you recall, Donkey Kong 64 required the Expansion Pak, a sexy little peripheral which doubled the Nintendo 64’s RAM to an almost-unimaginable 8 megabytes. While it generally offered an optional visual boost to compatible titles, other later games wouldn’t work without it.
Donkey Kong 64 was supposed to be an example of the former, but a persistent game-breaking bug cropped up which only occurred while playing with the console’s standard 4MB of RAM. The developers at Rare were unable to squash this bug before release, therefore forcing Nintendo to bundle the peripheral with the game. As pointed out by Chris Seavor, this ended up benefitting Perfect Dark which released the following year and only ran a limited form of its multiplayer mode (and no campaign whatsoever) without the Expansion Pak.
We can’t imagine Nintendo top brass were too pleased at the time, though. Reports that this was the primary reason why Nintendo allowed Microsoft to take Rare off its hands are entirely unfounded and utterly spurious. Still, we wouldn’t have wanted to be the ones to deliver the news to President Yamauchi at Nintendo headquarters. That man was fiery.