Ah, the good-old days. No internet. Buggy games. Nowhere to go with questions about anything. Getting lost, game overs, and losing all of your progression in a single moment was all just a part of it. The dawn of the "auto-save" was decades away. The best you could even hope for was a measly "continue" that would spring you back to the beginning of the level you were on, rather than putting you back to the start of the game. These were wild times, indeed.
Hidden among every Nintendo Entertainment System title were loads of goodies waiting to be uncovered by passionate (and sometimes bored) game developers. These come in the forms of secret messages or hidden items. The most rewarding of them all was the "hidden level," a magical oasis of fun that was intentionally stowed away among the chaos of pixelated monsters and tough platforming. Easter eggs, bonus stages, and new-game plus rewards are still prevalent today, but it's hard to truly compare the feeling of finding something new back in the time of 8-bit gaming.
Below is a list of 25 incredibly well hidden, oh-so-secret, levels/areas and rewards that most gamers never found. Either the puzzles were too obtuse or the challenges were too demanding for the player to accomplish. Some of these you might have heard of, gotten yourself, or accidentally stumbled upon during your retro-gaming years. The NES cornered the market for a long time, so let's uncover some of the mystery behind it's bountiful reign of gaming goodness.
23 Level Warp 1 (Super Mario Bros.)
The original Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo Entertainment System was a cultural phenomenon. There was no game quite like it, and there would be no game like it ever again. It shook the 2D platforming genre like a bolt of lightning. The game is known for being very difficult at times, but for the resourceful player you can bypass whole worlds.
In level 1 - 2 if you jump from the moving elevator platforms on top of the bricks ABOVE the pipe and run right. You will find three warp pipes that will take you straight to later stages 2, 3, or 4.
22 Minus World (The Legend Of Zelda)
The Legend of Zelda is known for it's sprawling map with timeless challenges that kept gamers puzzled for years. There are so many secrets locked away in this game that picking only one is tough. That was until nearly thirty years after its release gamers found that the game was actually supposed to be a LOT bigger due to another half of the map covered up by code. This area sits just below your starting area and can be uncovered by a series of steps and/or hacks. Leave it to pesky gamers to uncover even more mysteries in Zelda.
21 Level Warp 2 (Super Mario Bros.)
Just when you thought that the secrets couldn't get any sweeter, Super Mario Bros. gives you yet another level warp. This one can be found in world 4 - 2 and will transport to either world 6, 7, or 8. To access this you will need to make sure not run too far into the level or you won't be able to go back.
Located just before a pipe with a piranha plant inside, hit the invisible blocks until you find the leaf-ladder and climb up that to claim your prize.
20 Second Quest (Castlevania)
Castlevania has a similar end game as Ghost 'N Goblins if you can actually make it to the brutal end of that long and difficult game. If you manage to beat Dracula the first time you fight him, you will be spit back out into the beginning of the game (keeping your inventory from the end) and forced to play a much more difficult version of Castlevania. It's grueling, and ultimately separates the "chaff from the wheat" in terms of 2D puzzle platforming. Most players never experienced this because getting here was a total slog.
19 Bonus Stage (Duck Tales)
DuckTales for the NES was one of the most underrated games of the console's life-cycle. It was full of fun level design and Capcom's patented tight platform challenges. If you can collect enough money, with a "7" in the 10,000 place, find Launchpad within a level. He will take you up into the skies for a diamond collecting free-for-all. This is one of those bonuses that a player would have likely stumbled upon by accident if they ever found it at all. Remember, no internet!
18 Level Warp 1 (Super Mario Bros. 2)
Few games are as wild as Super Mario Bros. 2 for the NES. Famously, America received a different version of the game because Japan's Super Mario Bros. 2 was deemed "too difficult" for us. They took an already existing game (Doki Doki Panic) and slapped Mario all over it. However, all of your favorite Super Mario staples still remain including Warp Pipes!
In world 1 - 3, if you find a "door potion" and run with it (to the right) longer than most people would have thought to, and throw it atop a pipe, you will be transported promptly to world 4.
17 Secret Room (Bubble Bobble)
Hours of fun can be had bubblin' and bobblin' to the sweet sonic tunes of that 8-bit chip. Bubble Bobble was a two player blast from the arcade-past, and it's NES port was a solid addition to any NES cartridge collection. It is very hard, but not impossible, to reach the secret room. You must make it to stage 20, 30, and 40 without losing a life. A door will appear and you will be transported to a secret room filled with 36 diamonds and a secret message.
16 Level Warp 2 (Super Mario Bros. 2)
Warping to world 5 is totally doable in Super Mario Bros. 2, you just need to know where to look. Upon entering world 3 - 1 you will see a giant waterfall. Intuition will tell you not to jump down it. Do it anyways! Falling down the waterfall will land you on a platform with a door. In typical Mario 2 fashion you will find a potion inside of this area that you will throw on top of the pipe. Enter the pipe and you will be warped to world 5. Pretty awesome.
15 Level Warp 3 (Super Mario Bros. 2)
Continuing your journey throughout the weird dream-like play-scape of Super Mario Bros. 2 will be a heck of a lot easier with a plethora of warps. Luckily for us, there are! In world 4 - 2, (the level with the whales,) if you grab a potion and take it to the pipe half way through the level, toss is on top and go down. You will suddenly transported to world 6 where you can continue your journey there. Mario might not have Scrooge McDuck money, but he is definitely rich with hidden secrets.
14 Hidden World (Metroid)
Metroid is everyone's favorite forgettable Nintendo franchise, always just barely keeping its head above water. Known for it's creepy atmosphere and sci-fi Alien-esque art direction, the Metroid games were all full of bizarre secrets to unlock. None are as wild as the "Hidden World" which was uncovered by gamers way after its original release. This was an unfinished area of the map that was supposed to be blocked off by the development team, but the assets remained in the game. Well, guess what... you can go there! There's not much to do here, then again, it's always been about the journey- not the destination.
13 Bypass Level 2 Boss (Double Dragon)
Double Dragon was an arcade title that took the beat 'em up genre to new heights. Playing it today is not quite the same, but back then you'd be hard-pressed to find any American boy or girl NOT fully invested in Double Dragon. It was a hard game, but certain secrets and hidden areas made it a little more reasonable. In Mission 2, if you simply crawl down the ladder once the boss arrives, you'll be able to bypass this sequence altogether. Save your health, and move on!
12 Best Ending (Castlevania II: Simon's Quest)
The follow up to Castlevania was a wild attempt to expand its universe and add RPG like elements to the platforming classic. Some people love it. Some people hate it. Across the board, people mostly agree that it is very obtuse and its puzzles are impossible to complete without a guide. If you complete the game in 7 (in-game) days, then you will get the best ending possible. This is incredibly difficult to accomplish and most gamers have never seen it live with their own eyes. Unfortunately, you can't keep a good Dracula down, and he survives the fiasco no matter which ending you get.
11 Level Warp 4 (Super Mario Bros. 2)
The last and final warp in Super Mario Bros. 2 is located in world 5 - 3. This one comes late in the game, but is actually very easy to obtain (assuming you have Luigi.) After climbing up the first ladder, hit down on the D-pad to charge your jump. You will fly up to the upper platform and throw your door-potion onto the pipe (or near it.) Upon climbing down the pipe you will be whisked away to world 7, which is nearing the end of the game.
10 A Cutscene (Dr. Mario)
In my opinion, there are two true puzzle games that belong among the greatest games ever made: Tetris and Dr. Mario. Dr. Mario is simple, but still intensely difficult, and very fun. There is not much to this game outside of what is presented upfront, however there are hidden cutscenes that you would have only seen if you were a maverick at zapping viruses. Beat levels 5, 10, 15, or 20 on medium or hard difficulty and you will be given a little treat. These cutscenes don't really flesh out the universe of Dr. Mario more than they just add a little flavor.
9 Hidden Room (Solomon's Key)
Solomon's Key was a hit in both the arcade and the NES home console. It was a puzzle game that allowed you to magically summon platforms in order to get to items that would allow you to progress. Both, the arcade and home console versions are full of hidden rooms and secrets full of randomized items. This was a revolutionary gaming mechanic that set late-'80s gamer imaginations on fire! It made you carefully plan your moves in order to try and access every hidden level.
8 Warp Whistle 1 (Super Mario Bros. 3)
Super Mario Bros. 3 was such an upgrade to the Mario series, that it almost doesn't belong in the same lineage. It remains one of the greatest games of all time and is easily in the top-five Mario game ever made. In world 1 - 3, once you get to the second white platform, if you hold down on the D-pad long enough you will fall through it and behind the various shrubs and platforms of the level. Run through to the end and you will find yourself in a room with Toad who will grant you a Warp Whistle. This can take you to world 2, 3, and 4.
7 Secret Passage to Level 5 (Gauntlet)
Gauntlet was another fun arcade-y puzzler that lives proudly in the fantasy genre, with plenty of secrets and hidden items to keep the treasure hunter in you eager and ambitious. There is a hidden area in level one that will transport you to level 5 if you can find it. In the upper right hand corner of the map you will see a TON of ghosts. Shoot the walls around these ghosts to find your exit, and reap that sweet sweet cheat.
6 "Here Lies Erdrick" (Zelda II: The Adventure Of Link)
Zelda II: The Adventure Of Link is always going to be a divisive entry in the Zelda series. It basically changed everything we loved about the first game in favor of innovation and risk. I personally love this game! It has a good sense of humor, as well. In the Japanese version they even rib fellow game developers with a super secret message.
In Saria, there is a hidden graveyard and if you can find it there is a tombstone that reads, "Here lies Erdrick." Erdrick is the main character in Dragon Warrior (Dragon Quest). Take THAT, Enix!
5 Locked Door In Kol (Dragon Warrior)
More than Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior (Dragon Quest later on) was the most influential RPG ever made. It spawned the very genre we know today, and has been iterated on in meaningful ways for over thirty years. It is full of hidden areas and secret items that help the game progress in fantastical ways. One of these hidden areas are revealed by two locked doors in Kol. This quest line results in obtaining the Fairy Flute. The instructions to do this can be found here. Good luck, and godspeed.
4 Warp Whistle 2 (Super Mario Bros. 3)
It wouldn't be a Super Mario game without multiple ways of launching yourself into the various worlds without having to ACTUALLY traverse them yourself. In the World 1 fortress, if you already have a Mushroom, get to the mystery block in front of the door with the skeleton Koopa. Crush him so he isn't in your way and grab the Tanooki suit in the block. Run back and forth to fly up and around the top of level to get to your hidden area. This will grant you a second Warp Whistle.
3 Stage 1 Warp (Gradius)
Gradius is a sh'mup with style. Developed by Konami, it has a fun arcade bent with a unique pace that keeps your experience light enough to progress without punishing you too hard in the process. In stage 1 you can actually warp to stage 3 if you happen to destroy four hatches that appear on screen. However, these will only show up if you have an EVEN number in thousands digit of your score. Sure, it's math, but it's also fun!
2 Merlin's Mystery Shop (River City Ransom)
This game was way ahead of it's time. A brawler with RPG upgrades and basically an open world? Count me in! The weirdness of River City Ransom cannot be stated proudly enough. This is quirk at it's finest. There is plenty of hidden stuff to find, but none more satisfying than Merlin's Mystery Shop. Under the fourth light in Armstrong Thru-Way Tunnel, hit the "up" button on the D-pad. That's it! It's not hard to get to, but there are some goodies once you get there.
1 Warp Whistle 3 (Super Mario Bros 3.)
The final, and most intuitive Warp Whistle in Super Mario Bros. 3 is found in the hub-area of World 2. Get the "hammer" as a reward for beating one the hub-area enemies, and smash the rocks in the upper right-hand corner of the map. That will unlock your hidden level where you can grab your last Warp Whistle. If you have collected all three, you can go right to World 8 (the final and most difficult world.) Though you can skip most of the game this way, I would still advise you play through it anyways. It's simply amazing and a great piece of gaming history.