In the world of video games, it's been the general consensus that Adventure for the Atari 2600 featured the first "Easter egg," a secret buried in a game, not meant to be found by normal means. It's common now. But when Ed Fries, a former Microsoft executive part of the original team behind the Xbox, found himself in conversation with Atari engineer Ron Milner, it seemed possible that he'd stumbled upon an Easter egg that predated Adventure in a game called Starship 1.
Fries published a blog with an exhaustive account of his journey to document this Easter egg from Starship 1, and for any history buff, it's a compelling read:
Ron explained how he designed an "axial coil" around the neck of the CRT which would cause the stars to rotate when the player turned the control yoke. A pretty neat trick. Unfortunately that feature was cut to save money in the production version of the game.
Ron continued, "That was the first and only game that I ever programmed and I think it was maybe one of the first games with a backdoor in it. I didn't tell people about this, even within Atari, for at least 30 years, but I had some code in there that if you did a certain sequence of controls it would say 'Hi Ron!' and give you 10 free games."
Adventure's Easter egg involved a frustrated programmer leaving his mark with a hidden message: "Created by Warren Robinett." In Starship 1, it was possible to earn a 10 lives and see the words "Hi Ron!" pop up on the screen by...well, that was the problem. Even Milner wasn't sure how to trigger the Easter egg, and he could only recall having shown it to a few buddies before.
After digging around to try and confirm that Starship 1 predated the release of Adventure, a detail nobody involved can be totally sure about, Fries opened Starship 1's code. The original documentation from 1977 doesn't exist anymore, but ROM dumps do, and they found their smoking gun:
So the message was there! But could we actually trigger it? Ron looped in another early Atari engineer, Michael Albaugh, and the three of us got to work. Starship 1 was built using the 6502 microprocessor, the same one that was used in the Atari 2600 and the Atari home computers, so it was something we were all familiar with. Ron and Michael dove into the schematics and I provided the ROM dump and disassembly listings of various sections of code. A portion of the schematics showed the memory map which told us how the various buttons on the control panel were exposed to the game's software
What followed was a slow, experimental dissection of the code by three different people, as they worked backwards to try and to coax meaning from the code. The running theory was a complicated one, explaining why no one had figured out it by accident: players would have to drop a coin into the game while holding two buttons down, release the coin, remove your fingers from the two buttons, and quickly move the machine's gear shift into the "slow" position. Again, tricky.
From there, Fries found an original machine from someone online, and began experimenting with the game in emulation, while he waited for it show up.
Fries does a great job explaining the twists and turns in a way that's easily understandable for non-programmer types, and it's a thrill to watch him find unconventional solutions to the problems that crop up, which includes rewiring coin slots and opening the machine up to look at the game boards.
Long story short, Fries does reproduce the Easter egg. His research, however, muddies the waters on whether Starship 1 can truly lay claim to having the first Easter egg in a video game. Even if it predates Adventure, it's possible other, similar experiences already had Easter eggs. Whatever the case, it's a fun journey.
"In my opinion, Starship 1 is the earliest arcade game yet known that clearly meets the definition of an Easter egg," wrote Fries, "and the clever young programmer who put it there, Ron Milner, deserves our recognition and respect. Still, there were more than one hundred arcade video games released before Starship 1. Maybe somewhere deep inside one of them lies another even older Easter egg just waiting to be discovered. I hope so!"