“L is Real” and the Lost Age of Video Game Legends
Late July was a fascinating time for those of us who grew up playing video games in the mid to late ‘90s. On July 24th 2020 a “gigaleak” of files related to Nintendo was leaked onto the internet. This leak was a treasure trove of internal Nintendo documents as well as notably, the source code for a myriad of Nintendo games and prototypes. Within hours people were pouring over these files and found tons of fascinating bits of information about many of our favorite games. But one item in particular briefly blew up in the gaming community — A model for Luigi and corresponding audio files in the beta for Super Mario 64. Thus proving 24 years after the release of Super Mario 64 — That L was in fact real.
Lets backtrack a little bit for those who aren’t familiar with “L is Real”. When Super Mario 64 released in 1996, players quickly found a curious star statue in the castle’s courtyard with a hard to read inscription on the base. While there were a handful of interpretations of what exactly this inscription said, one of the most commonly accepted interpretations was that it read “L is Real 2401”. Given the history of the franchise and the notable absence of Mario’s brother Luigi, many took this to assume that Luigi was somehow an unlockable playable character. Rumors spread like wildfire about this message and what it possibly meant. One theory for example was that there were 2,401 coins available in the game and gathering them all and returning to the star would somehow unlock Luigi. Another suggested that running precisely 2,401 laps around the statue would do the trick. Of course none of these actually did anything but the obscure and hard to track nature of them had plenty of players fooled for years to come.
My personal first experience with a gaming urban legend however was the infamous “Mew under the Truck” rumor for Pokemon Red/Blue that seemed to spread like wildfire in the late ‘90s. The existence of Mew was confirmed in the games due to cheat devices like the Game Shark or Game Genie, and the number of glitches in the original games such as “Missingno” led people to believe that there had to be some way to capture this elusive Pokemon.
The rumors spread even further when some resourceful player managed to discover a Truck next to the S.S. Anne that was only accessible through a particularly convoluted method. The player had to make sure the ship did not sail away by losing a battle on the ship in order to “white out” and be sent to the Pokemon Center after receiving the Cut HM so that the S.S. Anne would never sail away. The player would then need to return to the area once they had obtained the Surf HM. As a resourceful 10 year old I actually managed to do this myself and came face to face with this rumored truck. Of course the rumor was bunk and nothing I did would ever get the truck to move and reveal mew to me, but boy did I keep on trying for quite some time and would discuss with friends and read on the internet about other people’s attempts. I recall I even tried specifically teaching the Strength HM to a Rhyhorn since it’s Pokedex entry made mention of it being strong enough to “send a trailer flying”. Alas all my effort got me absolutely nowhere and I eventually was able to get a Mew the same way most everyone else did — Through a promotion at Toys R Us. Nintendo even included the truck in subsequent remakes of Pokemon Red and Blue even up to the latest release with Pokemon Let’s Go Pikachu/Eevee, likely a nod to the original rumors.
On the note of nods to rumors, some became so prolific that they actually ended up influencing the developers to actually add said rumors to the series. The most notable examples being the character Ermac from Mortal Kombat, and the Cow Level in various Blizzard games (most notably Diablo II). Ermac started out as a rumor due to a listing in the menus of Mortal Kombat’s original arcade cabinets. While the listing was eventually confirmed to just be a developer item that was used to catch coding errors, hence the name Ermac being short for Error Macro, at the time no regular player knew of it’s purpose. Midway addressed the rumor with a secret anagram in the credits of Mortal Kombat II that translated as “Ermac Does Not Exist” which amusingly only fueled the growing rumors. Eventually a character named Ermac was created for Ultimate Mortal Kombat III as a result of the continuing rumors.
Similarly anyone who is a fan of Blizzard’s library of games is probably at least passingly familiar with references to the “Cow Level”
In the original Diablo there were a number of Cows that could be found in the outskirts of Tristram. They seemingly served no purpose whatsoever except to moo as you clicked on them. At some point a rumor developed that there was a secret cow level that was accessible through -as always- some obscure method such as clicking on the cows a certain number of times. When the unofficial expansion Diablo: Hellfire was released, there was even a quest that poked fun at the rumors which simultaneously helped them grow. When Blizzard released Starcraft in 1998, they included a cheat code referencing these rumors that read “There Is No Cow Level” which similarly to the “Ermac Does Not Exist” — provided many players with their first exposure to the rumor in the first place. But despite all this, the prevalence and popularity of the rumor resulted in Blizzard North adding a secret cow level to Diablo II, featuring an army of bipedal “Hell Bovines” for the player to kill. The popularity of this resulted in numerous further references and similar inclusions in future Blizzard games.
I could fill pages talking about the various other popular rumors and hoaxes that existed in the ‘90s and early-to-mid ’00s. The likes of Reviving Aeris in Final Fantasy VII, The ability to get the Triforce in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, or the supposed inclusion of Bigfoot in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It is interesting to think about how these rumors spread at the time. It is not difficult to note that with a handful of exceptions such as “Herobrine” in Minecraft, most of these rumors came about during a very specific time period. So why did they spread so much during that time period — and why have they stopped?
It’s hard to say exactly how and why these rumors spread the way they did (and most of this is pure conjecture on my part), but I think the nature of the internet and computing in the ‘90s certainly played an integral part. For the first time in the history of the world people were connected on a level they had never been before. But at the same time this technology was still newly available to the public and public adoption of Home PCs and the internet itself was still in a form of infancy.
Before the internet these kind of hoaxes and rumors usually spread with the aid of some sort of media assistance, a la the Satanic Panic of the 1980’s. And traditional media certainly played a part with these rumors via the numerous gaming magazines of the era. But magazines would often only publish once a month, and these kind of rumors weren’t getting discussed each and every issue. The internet however provided a tool to disseminate this information much more rapidly via message boards and personal websites, while home internet adoption was still growing and not as widespread. Here we had a perfect recipe for this kind of information to spread rapidly without nearly as many people looking at the actual sources. Combine that with early days of Photoshop and image editing and it boiled together to create rumors that spread quickly while simultaneously being harder to disprove. And even if a rumor was proven false such as in the Ariana Almandoz scenario (linked in the above Zelda screenshot source) — The images were still out there and being spread by people who did not know better and did not think to fact check. If the conspiracy theories of 2020 are any indication however, it seems the more things change the more they stay the same in that regard.
Another factor was that there were often traces or references to ideas that later got scrapped or altered throughout the course of game development. To jump back to Super Mario 64 and “L is Real”, the inclusion of that text on the statue could quite possibly be a tongue-in-cheek reference to Luigi originally being planned to be a part of the game as the inclusion of Luigi’s model implied. After all even before the model was uncovered we knew from Miyamoto himself that co-op was originally in the works for Super Mario 64. These kind of traces play a huge part in why rumors of Aeris being revivable in Final Fantasy VII and the Triforce being obtainable in Ocarina of Time survived as long as they did for example. In the case of Aeris’s death — Using a Gameshark for the PS1 would allow players to hack the game and keep her in the party. This kind of thing was perfectly normal to do with cheat devices except that for some reason Aeris still had dialogue for a handful of later scenes. While we know now that the exact timing of her death changed and she was always intended to die — at the time some though it suggested that there was some way to save or revive her. Similarly, a large factor in the Triforce rumors was the Nintendo’s very own beta Spaceworld trailers that appeared to show Link obtaining the Triforce which suggested to many that it was possible to do so even though there appeared to be no direct way in the course of the game itself. Along these same kind of lines is actually one of my personal favorite video game secrets — the Forgotten Crypt in World of Warcraft, a scrapped area developed back in vanilla WoW that was left in the game (albeit incredibly difficult to access) that fueled years worth of rumors about it’s connection to “Lower Karazhan” in Warcraft lore. These vestiges of former ideas in various games that were somehow accessible to players only added kindling to the rumors that would spread.
The last major factor I think played a part in their spread was the fact that plenty of games did in fact have some pretty obscure secrets and unlockables. Games by and large have pretty much always had Easter eggs of some sort. Some of them were put there to reward particularly diligent and skilled players such as unlocking Ryu’s Hadoken in Mega Man X or unlocking Spider-Man as a playable skater in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2. The fact is while these kind of obscure and hidden unlockables and rewards were pretty much always around, it was often near impossible to figure out which games had them and which didn’t. If I as a kid knew that my friend clearly somehow had Mega man shooting out a Hadoken, what was to say that my own different game didn’t have some equivalent secret?
So if these kind of things did exist in some games, why did these urban legends and hoaxes by and large die off? I would say there are two reasons. The first being arguably the same reason they rose and spread so quickly — The internet. As internet adoption continued to grow into the late ’90s and early to mid ’00s, reaching over 70% of adults by 2006, more people had access to this information to see for themselves. This helped curb the spread from people who might have passed it along themselves without access to direct sources. Combined with the prevalence of photo manipulation software like Photoshop in the mainstream, more and more people now had the tools to scrutinize the images that spread helped spread these rumors.
But what really killed gaming urban legends? If you ask my opinion it was the advent of Achievements and Trophies in the seventh generation. Don’t get me wrong, I personally love achievements and trophies. But when Microsoft introduced achievements and gamerscore in 2005 for the Xbox 360, it changed the landscape going forward. See game developers never really stopped putting in small Easter eggs for their players even as the nature of game development changed. Even as gaming became more popular and mainstream and developers grew from small teams of one to two dozen to teams of hundreds, they still included the same kind of silly gags to amuse players or hidden unlockables and rewards for those skilled enough to find them.
But Achievements now provided one thing these kind of unlockables and secrets never had before — Proof. Proof of both their existence, but also of their attainability. These things were no longer the stuff of playground legends, but things you could show off and prove. The narrative around these things changed from whether or not they actually even existed, to how do you achieve and/or find them? The death knell was essentially that they were no longer secret. At least not secret in the ways we had previously known them to be.
So here we are in 2020 with these kind of legends/rumors/hoaxes all but gone. And if I’m being honest there is a part of me that honestly misses discussing the random rumors of say, Sonic being unlockable in Super Smash Bros Melee around the junior high lunch table. But at the end of the day this time has passed. I personally think that if nothing else, the brief existence of this phenomenon is more of a fascinating window into a particular mix of technological and cultural factors in a specific period of time and we will likely never see their like again — at least within the realm of video games. But as modern conspiracy theories get increasingly silly, absurd and dangerous, it is nice to look at a time when random internet theories were a little simpler and a lot more fun.