Juan Buis

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Finding MissingNo

How the world’s greatest glitch became a cultural phenomenon

Image by Destro-the-Dragon. This Paid Story is brought to you by Codacy
This Paid Story is brought to you by Codacy.

Growing up in the 90s was pretty great. It was the time of Yo-yo’s, Tamagotchis, Super Soakers and countless other hypes. These would often take the world by storm in a couple of months, only to disappear shortly after.

But one of them ended up being the highest-grossing media franchise of all time, making over $55 billion in the last two decades.

Released in Japan in 1996, Pokémon Red and Green were a smash hit. It didn’t take long for the game to make its way to the US and Europe, where it was eventually released as Pokémon Red and Blue.

The premise of the games is simple — you’re going on a quest to catch as many Pokémon as you can while defeating gym leaders and working your way up in the Pokémon league. The execution, however, was flawless — the stellar open-world gameplay, 151 different creatures to collect and endless replayability made it one of the best games of the decade. Thanks to a recent re-release, it’s worth revisiting even today.

Rumor has it

As the game got into the hands of more and more kids around the world, strange stories started to emerge. I still remember when a friend told me that the most elusive Pokémon, Mew, was hidden under a truck in a desolate area of the game. When you got there, you needed to use the Strength skill to push the truck away and reveal a Pokéball with Mew inside. In reality, however, it was impossible to move the truck — but that didn’t keep anyone from believing the story. Without the internet readily available to fact-check the rumor, it didn’t take long before every player in the world was talking about the mysterious truck.

While many more of these stories were doing the rounds at the time, most of them were completely made up, nothing more than pieces of gaming folklore. Except for one.

The legend of MissingNo

It wasn’t impossible to catch Mew in the first games, but it required you to go to an official Nintendo event and have it loaded onto your game card. Registered under number 151, it was the final creature needed to complete the Pokédex. But according to another rumor, there was one more left to catch… a Pokémon without a number.

MissingNo, as the mythical apparition is called, isn’t a Pokémon in the traditional sense. It doesn’t look like one for sure — the garbled mess of pixels bears no semblance to any of the other creatures. But you were able to fight or catch it, just like the others — if you could find it, at least. Encountering a MissingNo required a very specific set of events to take place, which in turn enabled a glitch that spawned it.

When the player gets in contact with MissingNo, things start to get weird. Because of its glitchy nature, the sixth item in the player’s bag is duplicated 128 times, replacing its counter with a strange icon. Visual artifacts flash across the screen, and the Hall of Fame menu becomes permanently glitched and is rendered unusable. If you’re particularly unlucky, the active save file gets corrupted and becomes unplayable.

A hidden creature that only appears under specific circumstances, with very unconventional looks and unexpected glitchy behavior— it all adds up to an enthralling and decidedly creepy story that caught the imagination of players worldwide. For many young players, nothing was scarier than a monster that messed with the very fabric of the game it existed in.

So why did MissingNo appear in the game? Trying to make sense of it, people came up with the wildest stories. Some believe that it was the result of failed science experiment at the Pokémon Lab on Cinnabar Island right next to where it’s found. Others think MissingNo is the result of what happens when a Pokémon is stuck inside its Pokéball for too long.

Confused by the origins of the monster, players would often call up the Game Freak hotline, a customer support telephone number set up by the creators of the game. Because it was flooded by people trying to figure out the same thing, the first thing you would hear was an automated message:

There is NO MissingNo.

Of course, this only added to the myth. What was Game Freak hiding?

The glitch behind the monster

Alright, so what exactly do you need to do to summon MissingNo? There are a couple of ways to do it, but the easiest is trigger the Old man glitch, which involves talking to a character in Viridian City that shows you a video on how to catch Pokémon. After that, you should fly to Cinnabar Island — there, you need to surf and down the coastline without going off into the water:

After a while, you’ll encounter MissingNo in one of its many forms — to encounter the ‘classic’ L-shaped one, your character’s name needs to have a specific letter in a specific spot: G, H, J, M, S, T, :, ], a, b, c, m, o, p, or v needs to be in the third, fifth or seventh slot of the name. The detailed version of these proceedings can be found here.

I know what you’re thinking — why the heck would a seemingly random set of actions trigger a glitch? As it turns out, three unrelated events come together in a spectacular way.

First, the game’s random battle encounter system. It assigns values to Pokémon in a data buffer which is read when a player runs into a wild Pokémon. For some reason, the east coast of Cinnabar Island doesn’t have any values assigned. Second, there’s the Pokémon catching video, that temporarily saves the player’s name to the same data buffer. When surfing along the coast of the island, the game now retrieves the hex values of this name when the player encounters a Pokémon. Third, the game’s error handling system messes up. When it tries to select a value that isn’t an existing Pokémon, in this case the name, a subroutine is triggered that makes MissingNo appear.

The blocky creature functions like any other Pokémon, but there’s one big difference — it occupies the number 000 in the player’s Pokédex, hence its name being MissingNo, short for ‘missing number’. Sometimes, another glitch Pokémon called ‘M will appear, which has slightly different characteristics.

Because of the handy item duplication and its sheer novelty, game magazines started publishing walkthroughs on how to catch the sought-after monster. The glitch eventually became so popular that it was removed from Pokémon Yellow, the follow-up release to Red and Blue that featured Pikachu as a sidekick during the player’s travels. MissingNo was no more.

MissingNo forever

Even though it never returned to the franchise, MissingNo has left a mark on a generation of gamers. The community has established its position in the Pokémon canon in all kinds of ways, including an abundance of creepy fan fiction and people dressing up as MissingNo for anime- and game conventions:

Even though MissingNo has been absent from any subsequent Pokémon games, that hasn’t stopped hardcore fans from putting it in anyway. Its latest occurrence is from Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, which were released in 2014 — a whopping 18 years after the original games.

MissingNo might be a big deal in the Pokémon community, but its immense popularity hasn’t gone unnoticed by the rest of the world, either. In a 2007 sociological study on software errors, its impact on players has been thoroughly analyzed, coming to the following conclusion:

[…] in a society that values individualism and creativity, metagames may be considered a higher activity, even though they often involve rule violation or the exploitation of game manufacturing flaws.

Yes — trying to find MissingNo is an expression of a player’s urge to do more with the game out of their creativity. It definitely explains the creature’s massive cult following.

Nintendo’s official statement about it, however, is a bit lackluster;

MissingNO is a programming quirk, and not a real part of the game. When you get this, your game can perform strangely, and the graphics will often become scrambled. The MissingNO Pokémon is most often found after you perform the Fight Safari Zone Pokémon trick.
To fix the scrambled graphics, try releasing the MissingNo Pokémon. If the problem persists, the only solution is to re-start your game. This means erasing your current game and starting a brand new one.

You read that right — MissingNo might not have been meant to exist at all. But does that take away the mystique around the world’s most famous glitch? No way — it only reaffirms its position as the most popular video game glitch of all time.

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