For the past 16 years, Dan Filner has made a career of porting classic games to modern hardware. Writing most of the code himself. Working from home in Wellington, New Zealand. Isolated from his employer, Backbone, by over 6,000 miles.
It's a noble form of game preservation, spending his days converting other people's games. But a side bonus for Filner is that, every now and then, he gets a glimpse at something few of us have seen. If I ran a game history trivia website, he'd be on speed dial.
He's a mimic moonlighting as an archeologist, basically — looking to uncover bits of trivia in the code, while hoping they don't make porting the game a bigger challenge. Once he found a Japanese programmer's phone number hidden in a game, but didn't call because it was 20 years after the fact.
Then sometimes, 20-year-old trivia pops up and he can't keep it to himself.
Last year, while Filner was working on Midway Arcade Origins — a compilation disc containing 31 classic arcade games from developer Midway — he ran into an issue with Total Carnage, the sort-of sequel to crude Running Man-style overhead shooter Smash TV. The ending, it seemed, would simultaneously congratulate and criticize players who unlocked the game's "Pleasure Domes," regardless of their performance. Given the game's sassy tone, this could have just been the developers messing around. But to Filner, something seemed off.
So he started digging through the code, and discovered a deleted scene that many might find insignificant at this point. I had to know more.
The 20-year bug
Filner's story begins with a bug report he received from Backbone's testers while Midway Arcade Origins was in development.
At the end of the Total Carnage port, the report read, players who had collected the right number of keys, unlocked the bonus Pleasure Domes room — essentially a hallway filled with treasure — and picked up every piece of treasure earned the same ending as those who left some behind.
Either way, the end screen showed the game's heroes on a throne alongside the stars of Smash TV, celebrating with three bikini-clad girls. Regardless of whether players collected all the treasure, text scrolled saying they missed something.
"However, as greedy as you are, you failed to pick up all the cash and prizes sitting in the Pleasure Dome," the text read. "If you do this, the ladies will prove that pain before pleasure is worth it. Can you do this?"
In the released version of Total Carnage, this screen shows up for all players who make it through the Pleasure Domes.
In the Total Carnage ROM files, Filner discovered this unused end screen showing what players should have seen if they missed some treasure in the Pleasure Domes.
Upon getting the bug report, Filner didn't know what to think. He wasn't familiar with the original game, so he ran the error through his normal protocols.
"When bug reports [from ports of classic games] come in, my initial reaction is usually skepticism," he says via email. "Are the testers sure of themselves? Are they complaining about something that's an authentic original behavior? ... [But] they'd been super careful and they claimed that they had collected every bonus prize but the message never changed.
"A little googling turned up the fact that nobody ever had been able to get a perfect win message. At that point I started looking into the original source code, and the actual bytes of the ROM files."
It wasn't a new bug. It had been in the game for 20 years.
"That's when I was finally able to see the 'lost' win screen, possibly for the first time anywhere outside of Midway's development team."
As Filner discovered, the source code overwrote the designers' original intent to have "good" and "bad" versions of the ending. In theory, the girls were supposed to appear if players collected all the treasure, and the "Can you do this?" text was to appear if players didn't. But in the game, both always showed up, making for a perpetual taunt.
Filner started messing with the code, took out the override and — in a kind of reverse Hot Coffee scenario — discovered the "bad" ending, an image showing what the end screen would have looked like without the girls.
"That's when I was finally able to see the 'lost' win screen, possibly for the first time anywhere outside of Midway's development team," he says.
It's the kind of thing that's more exciting in theory than in practice. The screen consists of the same characters, in the same positions, using the same artwork as the end screen players saw in the shipped game — to the point that one of the characters' arms is positioned so it looks normal whether or not there's a girl on his lap.
Not the first time
After hearing Filner's story, I couldn't shake the idea that there needed to be a reason for the change. Was it an attempt to make more money? A last-second tweak? A joke? A mistake? I'd already taken this pretty far — might as well see it through to the end.
I track down three members of the original Total Carnage development team to see if there's a story behind this weird little end screen. And the answer, like the game, has a good backstory but a less-than-satisfying conclusion.
These days, original Total Carnage designer Mark Turmell (best known for NBA Jam) and art director John Tobias (best known for Mortal Kombat) work together at Zynga San Diego, recently reunited on an unannounced game. When I describe Filner's bug and lost win screen to them over the phone, Turmell's mind initially goes back a bit further, to the game that came before it, where a similar situation occurred.
At the end of Smash TV, he recalls, players received a message saying that, no matter how many keys they collected in the game, it wasn't enough, and therefore they couldn't enter the "Pleasure Domes." At that point, Pleasure Domes didn't actually exist in the game. The text was a simple taunt from the developers — then working for Williams Electronics Games, before the company became Midway — aimed at players.
"We thought that was kind of funny," says Turmell, "and we didn't know if anyone would beat the game to begin with."
As the game became popular, though, players took the message seriously and started to complain. "We started getting a lot of flak from the arcade owners that said, 'Hey, what's going on here? My guys are saying they can't complete the game,'" says Turmell. "Magazines in that era started doing stories on not being able to beat it, and who's been in the Pleasure Domes."
While many suspected there was an elaborate but undiscovered route to reach this secret area, in reality there was nothing for them to find. And, whether Williams intended them to or not, certain hardcore fans spent a lot of money trying to figure it out.
"When I remember back to that period of time, I remember us thinking ... 'Players will never get there.'"
"That's the real story that would piss people off," Turmell says. "Because a lot of people would collect those keys, and then still fail, and go back and play it again, and go back and play it again. The standard [Williams] response was that you were too good at the game, and that you were beating the levels that had keys too quickly, and you didn't give a chance to the computer to loot drop enough keys for you to collect. So then people were trying to milk different levels. It was a bit of a mess."
Because of that flak, in a move that may remind some of the recent Mass Effect 3 ending add-on, Turmell's team took the feedback to heart. It added Pleasure Domes — a single room filled with hundreds of girls for players to "collect" — through new EPROMS, months after the game shipped to arcades.
"You know, it's funny because when I remember back to that period of time, I remember us thinking a lot of the time, 'Players will never get there,'" says Tobias. "'They won't play the game enough ... They'll never get there anyway so it doesn't matter.' And players got there, and so that surprised us. We thought the same thing on [Mortal Kombat] about the fatalities: 'They'll never find these things.'"
"In hindsight," says Turmell, "we would have done it correctly from the get-go."
History repeats itself, accidentally
When I bring the conversation back to Total Carnage, Turmell initially seems confused.
Given the mini-controversy over Smash TV, Midway's plan was to do right by players the second time around. So when the team added Pleasure Domes to Smash TV, it also added them to Total Carnage. And they worked. If players collected the proper number of keys over the course of the game, then at the end the twin doors would open and they could pick up treasure in a long hallway.
And the scene following that hallway, the one that kicked this article off, with the girls in the room and the message taunting players? Turns out it was a mistake. Prior to our interview, Turmell says he was unaware that was only ending to that sequence.
"That shouldn't be the case," he says. "Should be the code in there to compare and do one or the other ... I remember writing the code, checking a few conditions."
To make sure I'm not telling the person who programmed the sequence that he's wrong, I then go back to the original and double check. Sure enough, one ending. It turns out Filner isn't the first to dig through the code and find the official result, either. I then get the original source logic and send it to Turmell to see if that sparks any memories.
"I do recall writing all that stuff, but not sure why I adjusted the code," Turmell says. "It worked at one stage, but maybe I couldn't help myself and simply kept the text even when showing the girls."
I also check with Tobias and Total Carnage lead programmer Shawn Liptak, to see if they remember a reason, and neither of them remember why it changed.
Finally, Filner sends over screenshots from the ending as it exists, and I forward them to Turmell, just to triple check, make sure there's no confusion and ask one final time that the girls should never show up alongside the taunting text.
"Yup," Turmell says. "That's the correct way it should have been working. He should fix that!"
Filner can't fix it now. Midway Arcade Origins is in stores, and short of a patch — which would be expensive for publisher Warner Bros. — the Total Carnage port will remain the same as it always was.
A larger issue, perhaps, is that the source material hadn't just locked away this content; it only included half of it: the deleted screen. Filner briefly considered a fix early on, but couldn't find the right text in the source files to make it work.
"I had hoped to find additional existing text or graphics," he says. "Unfortunately, if there ever was such a text, it's not in the files I have. The plan may have been to disable the taunt part of the message, but no code exists in either ROM or source that would have made that happen."
And that was that.
Perhaps the game ended up the way it did to mask that it wasn't 100% complete. Perhaps Turmell felt the screen with the girls offered a better payoff and forgot.
That answer seems lost to history, perhaps in part because of Total Carnage's lack of success. While the game was high-profile enough to earn console ports, the original arcade version was a sales flop — selling less than 2,000 units, according to one report.
Or maybe it's a sign of the game industry in 1992, where something like this could go by unnoticed to the people who made it, compared to the game industry in 2012, where something like this gets caught in a port of a 20-year-old game on a 31-title collection disc.