(Source: arstechnica.com)

The historical record of video games received a strange shake-up on Wednesday from Ed Fries, the ex-Microsoft executive who had a huge part in the creation of the original Xbox. Fries took to his personal blog, which typically covers the world of retro gaming, to announce a zany discovery: he had found the world’s earliest known arcade game Easter egg.

His hunt began with a tip from Atari game programmer Ron Milner about the 1977 game Starship 1. This tip seemingly came out of nowhere, as the duo were talking about an entirely different ’70s arcade game, Gran Trak 10, which Fries was researching separately. Starship, Milner said, had a few special twists that didn’t all make it to market, but one did: a secret message to players. The game would display “Hi Ron!” if players put in the right combination of button commands. This type of thing is better known to gaming fans as an Easter egg, and more than a few Atari games had them as a way to include the developer’s name (which Atari never put in games or on cabinets).

Milner didn’t tell anyone at Atari about the secret message for 30 years, he told Fries, and one reason is because he’d forgotten how to trigger it.

“No wonder no one ever stumbled on this ‘feature’”

Intrigued at the idea that this could be the first Easter egg in a video game, predating well-known examples like Adventure, Fries set out to try to trigger it himself. What follows, as detailed in his blog post, is one of the wilder retro-gaming goose chases in recent memory. First, with the help of another ex-Atari staffer, Fries and Milner used a hex dump of the game’s ROM file to find the “Hi Ron!” text in the source code. They then connected the machine-language dots to figure out what made that call appear on the screen (along with 10 free game credits).

After that, Fries learned how to add the right set of custom commands to the game’s MAME emulation version to “hatch” the Easter egg on his home computer. Starship 1’s irregular control scheme was emulated in a way that wouldn’t work with the egg’s trick: players had to drop in a quarter while holding two buttons, then release them and “slam” the game’s “slow” control lever. “No wonder no one ever stumbled on this ‘feature,'” Fries wrote.

His success with the MAME version was posted to YouTube in February, but his confirmation of an arcade unit doing the same thing took another month. The arcade cabinet he’d ordered from a dealer in Vancouver, British Columbia, was delayed, and it arrived with issues that most arcade operators would never notice. In Fries’ case, however, he needed the quarter-drop signal to trigger the right hexidecimal value. He recalled lying in bed while envisioning dip-switch modifications to the machine (weird way to count sheep, Ed), and the next morning, he opened the cabinet up and made the changes.

Further Reading

Decades later, a new Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! Easter Egg has been foundThe result: Fries got the “Hi Ron!” message to work. With that, along with research about the game’s release date and a look back at other hidden messages in classic computer programs, he issued the confident proclamation that he had found the first Easter egg in an arcade game. But Fries is not necessarily interested in his discovery being the end of the story.

“More than one hundred arcade video games [were] released before Starship 1,” Fries wrote in the blog post’s conclusion. “Maybe somewhere deep inside one of them lies another even older Easter egg just waiting to be discovered. I hope so!”

Listing image by Arcade Flyer Archive

More Info: arstechnica.com

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