Let’s face it, developers are human. As much as we demand from them and as far along as technology comes, no video game will ever be perfect. Glitches will always happen, and we accept them as a fact of life.
Put simply, a glitch is a fault within a video game that causes something to happen that shouldn’t. It could be a minor graphical anomaly, or it could be something more major like an extra item or level that shouldn’t be there. Glitches have become an annoying but accepted part of playing video games.
Some glitches, however, have become more famous than others. Some have been accepted into canon by the players, and others have become the stuff of memes. Like anything in life, some glitches have made more of a footprint on the trail of video gaming history, for better or for worse.
Here, we look at ten of the most famous glitches of all time.
10. MissingNo. – Pokémon Red, Blue & Yellow
We start off with one of the most well-known glitches, MissingNo. from Pokémon Blue, Red, and Yellow. This glitch has taken on almost legendary status within the Pokémon canon, partly down to the massive payoff the player gets when they discover it.
MissingNo. appears by exploiting one of a few different glitches. Encountering MissingNo. causes the sixth item in the player’s pack to increase by 128 (unless the item in that slot already numbers more than 128, in which case the glitch will be ineffective). There is a small risk that the encounter will also corrupt the player’s save game data, however, this risk appears to be minimal at best.
The glitch was first officially reported on in the May 1999 issue of Nintendo Power. It came with a warning that exploiting the glitch may corrupt save game data, leaving the player to start the game over entirely. Naturally, video game players around the world ignored the advice, and proceeded to hunt MissingNo. without caution. In a savvy piece of PR, Nintendo eventually acknowledged the existence of MissingNo., preferring to refer to it as a “programming quirk” rather than a glitch.
MissingNo. has gone on to become one of the most famous glitches in video game history. The games’ widespread popularity, combined with the outrageous benefit the glitch provided, have allowed MissingNo. to take on a life of its own. Fan theories are abundant about how and why it came to be, turning it into video gaming’s first-ever cryptid.
9. Nuclear Gandhi – Civilization
Mahatma Gandhi is most well known for his peaceful ideologies as he led India in its non-violent resistance against British rule. He is also known for his propensity to deploy his nuclear arsenal upon you for the most minor of slights.
The Nuclear Gandhi glitch first came about in 1991’s Sid Meier’s Civilization. Initially, an extremely peaceful leader, Gandhi’s diplomacy takes a turn for the absurd partway through the game. Usually, the discovery of Democracy lowers a leader’s aggression by 2. But Gandhi’s peace rating is already so low that an integer overflow glitch causes it to wrap right round to 255, instead of dropping to -1. This causes Gandhi to turn into an absolute warmonger.
This paradox naturally led to a myriad of memes, taking aim at the preposterous nature of someone so peaceful being so quick to anger. Firaxis have even kept the trait in the game’s sequels – while the glitch no longer exists, Gandhi will still happily drop a nuke or two on you if you don’t vote his way in the United Nations. Later interviews from the original developers have claimed that it was intentional after all – but it all seems a little too late to be claiming something like that, doesn’t it now?
8. Y2K20 – WWE 2K20
Every year 2K Games release a new iteration of the WWE series. Yes, like many other sports games, some were very guilty of being slightly dressed-up versions of the previous year’s game. Some years they have made improvements and introduced new game modes, others they have been criticised for outdated graphics and a myriad of microtransactions.
2019 was a particularly bad year for 2K Games, starting when longtime collaborator Yukes left the project. Deadlines remained the same though, and the game was still released to a barrage of poor reviews and criticisms for the game’s poor graphics, physics, and bugs. It walked into many year-end ‘Worst Games’ lists, and even spawned the hashtag #FixWWE2K20. It was so bad that WWE 2K21 was cancelled, so 2K Games could go back to the drawing board.
After a month or two, 2K would have been forgiven for putting the debacle behind them and never speaking of it again. New Year’s Day 2020 had other ideas, bringing around a nasty little surprise for 2K, as well as any faithful gamers still persevering with the game. When the year 2020 started, WWE 2K20 wouldn’t. It had been afflicted with a Y2K-style bug that wouldn’t allow it to operate in its namesake year. While 2K Games scrambled to remedy the issue and put it behind them for once and for all, they found themselves on the receiving end of merciless mocking from two of the most brutal online communities – wrestling fans, and gaming fans.
7. Kill Screens – PAC-MAN, Donkey Kong, & More
In the early days of gaming, storylines and cutscenes were few and far between. Instead, you kept playing until you died, and then started all over again. To that effect, game developers just kept making levels to a point where they felt no gamer could reach.
Well, they underestimated us.
In games such as Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, you don’t reach and surpass the final level to beat the game. No, instead you reach the game’s kill screen. The kill screen is a technical limitation where the game cannot go on creating levels and glitches, making it unplayable.
These two games are two of the most famous examples. Who doesn’t remember Brian Kuh announcing Steve Wiebe’s Donkey Kong kill screen in The King of Kong? But there are many more of these from this generation. Pac-Man’s kill screen involves a half-developed 255th level which is impossible to complete, while Donkey Kong’s 117th screen gives the player only four seconds to complete the level – nowhere near enough.
Both of these kill screens are caused by an integer overflow. By using an unsigned 8-bit integer to store the game’s level value, the game malfunctions when a player makes it to a number beyond the game’s storage.
These kill screens are so great because they represented the first time anyone properly beat a video game. It was, and still is, a badge of honour. The fact that someone can play a game that is so notoriously difficult, taxing, and cut-throat, to a point where the computer can’t take it anymore, is an achievement modern games cannot replicate.
6. Tiny Titan – Madden NFL 15
When I think of NFL, I think of big men in pads charging at each other and getting CTE. What I don’t think of is tiny little men straight out of The Borrowers. However, in one of the more wholesome entries on this list, Madden 15‘s Ultimate Team mode was struck by a unique glitch where Christian Kirksey, a man who is usually 6’2” and 235lbs, instead appeared no bigger than your average Pikachu.
Kirksey’s new stature didn’t stop him from giving it his all. Despite barely reaching the opponents’ shins, he was more than able to hold his own. He tackled runners and blocked passes like someone six times his size. He even high-fived his teammates, who appear to offer him no easy options despite his vertical deficiencies.
To their credit, EA Sports leaned right into the glitch. They created a Madden ad based on Kirksey’s new stature, chronicling the “Tiny Titan” like he was the sporting world’s latest rags-to-riches story. Fair play EA, fair play.
Kirksey has been changed back to his normal measurements for the subsequent Madden instalments. But no matter what his dimensions, he will always have this tiny little battler to look back on for inspiration.
5. Horror Faces – Assassin’s Creed Unity
Set in the French Revolution, Assassin’s Creed Unity took a time in history that is often entrenched in romantic revisionism, and instead showed it to us in a more gritty, realistic light. Naturally, the Assassin’s Creed series takes history with a pinch of artistic licence, and deviates when appropriate. Despite this, Ubisoft has always kept an astonishing level of attention to detail.
That’s right. While other editions of Assassin’s Creed have focussed on features such as pirates and the crusades, Unity took the French Revolution and turned it on its head – although not intentionally. Ubisoft ran into a few problems with the development of the game. It got so bad that they had to offer free games and DLC to stop players from suing them for releasing such a poor product.
The most prominent issue was a graphical one that made the characters look like something from a Tim Burton movie. Caused by facial textures not loading correctly, this disturbing glitch left characters with misaligned and poorly-placed facial features, and Ubisoft with a lot of egg on their (presumably fully-formed) faces.
4. Sony PlayStation Holiday 2004 Demo Disc
Before the days when a plethora of games were released every week, getting new games was a special occasion. Sometimes, a demo disc that came with a magazine was the gateway to a whole new world of gaming. Often this was your only chance to test the waters until your next big gaming purchase.
For those too young to remember, demo discs gave you a handful of demos to play. Of course like any demo, it was only a tester, in the hopes it was enough to get you to go out and purchase the full game (Narrator: It was not).
In 2004, an innocuous demo disc with a minor range of new releases became a bit of a problem. The Holiday 2004 Demo Disc, specifically the demo for seminal classic Viewtiful Joe 2, came with a rather troublesome glitch. It was caused by just playing the game, which would corrupt the player’s memory card, removing all of its data.
Like all good developers, Sony eventually acknowledged the issue. They warned that if gamers needed to get their Viewtiful Joe fix, they should remove the memory card before playing.
Oh, what a simpler time it was.
3. Minus World – Super Mario Bros.
Now for another glitch from the early days of gaming, this time for Super Mario Bros for the NES. Super Mario Bros is one of the all-time greats of the gaming world – the Hulk Hogan of its time. A simple glitch within this game has gone on to as much fame as the game itself – the Macho Man Randy Savage if you will.
The Minus World glitch (aka World -1) is found after manoeuvring Mario in a special way after World 1-2. At the end of the level, the player needs to squeeze between the bricks that separate the normal exits from the Warp Zone area. By jumping through these bricks, Mario finds himself in World -1, a copy of World 7-2. The only difference in this world is that this one is an endlessly looped level that cannot be completed, leaving the character in a horrific purgatory until they meet their demise.
The level has gone down in folklore for, well, no real reason in particular. The level itself isn’t anything groundbreaking, yet it has become an absolute phenomenon. Minus World has even become a proprietary eponym for any similar glitch levels.
After initially denying the existence of such a level, Nintendo has since admitted such. They haven’t taken full responsibility for it however. Instead, they claimed that because it does not crash the game it’s a feature rather than a glitch. A nice bit of reactive marketing from Nintendo – and who can argue with that logic?
2. Spinning Guards – GoldenEye 007
Back in ancient times when video games came on a cartridge and not a disc, you could cause a game to glitch simply by tugging on the cartridge while playing the game, and slightly dislodging it from the console.
One such example of this was in GoldenEye 007 for the Nintendo 64. If you snuck up on the guards and tugged on the cartridge ever-so-slightly on its left side, you would send them spinning out of control like a mini tornado. Now I’ve seen James Bond movies before, and I certainly don’t remember anything like this ever happening.
While hilarious in itself, this is only the beginning. The glitch was first reported in the year 2000, but was thrust into prominence once more years later as a part of a meme involving combining scenes of the spinning guards with J-pop songs to create hilarious mash-ups under the title GET-DAN, or ‘Get Down’. Since the original in 2008 there have been hundreds of versions, helping cement this glitch into internet immortality.
1. Corrupted Blood Incident – World of Warcraft
Perhaps there is no glitch more fitting to today’s current settings than the corrupted blood incident – a literal plague which ran through World of Warcraft for a week in September 2005.
The virtual epidemic began when a new boss was introduced to the game, Hakkar the Soulflayer. Hakkar had the power to cast a spell on the player. The spell was intended to last for only a couple of seconds. Except it didn’t – and for some reason, it was contagious too.
The effects started spreading, quickly killing off lower-levelled players. In a frighteningly-relatable series of events, players soon began quarantining, avoiding populated places, and doing everything they could to avoid contact with those who were infected. Others continued to go about the game as if nothing was amiss, spreading the infection to others (sound familiar???).
The incident soon grabbed the attention of epidemiologists. They studied it to see if any real-world comparisons could be made in case of future events, including how people reacted and what they did to avoid infection. If only there was something applicable affecting today’s world…
Modern video games have reached a level we never thought possible. They will always keep improving as technology is upgraded, and we as gamers will be the ones who benefit. But no matter how powerful the hardware, no matter how knowledgeable the developers, there will always be the odd bug to remind us that you can never rely completely on technology… and give us something to laugh at along the way.