(Written as of 2016)
Practical jokes and false information are nothing new to the gaming industry. In particular, there are two massive examples of rumors in fighting games becoming so widespread and believed by so many people to be true, that already popular games end up becoming a much bigger part of gaming history overall.
The first of these urban legends have to do with the first Mortal Kombat game, and the character, which initially started out as an elaborate hoax; Ermac.
Any fan of Mortal Kombat would recognize Ermac, but for readers who aren’t familiar with the series, I’ll give a brief rundown. Ermac first officially appeared in Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 as the red ninja character, but for some time, it was rumored that Ermac was actually an unlockable character in the original Mortal Kombat game.
It all began when somebody took a look at the debug menu for a Mortal Kombat arcade cabinet, which listed such stats as highest battle reached and number of characters picked. But the last listed stat was Ermacs, and no one knew what that truly meant, causing people to believe that he was an unlockable character, since it appears under the stat of Reptile battles; relating to the number of times players were able to unlock the secret fight against the character Reptile. Subsequently in October of 1993, the popular gaming magazine EGM (Electronic Gaming Monthly) published an article written by a reader named Tony Casey. Casey claimed in it that through a series of events, he was suddenly challenged by a red ninja called Ermac whilst playing Mortal Kombat. The character supposedly said “I’m Ermac. You will never defeat me”, and Casey was posthumously beaten by him. He also said that he didn’t know exactly how he’d caused Ermac to challenge him, and he apologized for the poor quality of the photo accompanying the article, claiming that it was due to it being a hastily taken snapshot in a poorly lit arcade.
At first, Midway took the stance that Ermac never existed by including an anagram among the cryptic messages in Mortal Kombat II. The message was “Ceamr Odse Nto Exits”, which transposed, reads “Ermac Does Not Exist”. But subsequently, their stance seemed to soften, as Mortal Kombat co-creator, Ed Boon, then said in an interview that “No one has found Ermac in Mortal Kombat One yet”, which got everyone trying to look for him again. But in reality, Ermac wasn’t at all in the first Mortal Kombat, and wouldn’t appear in the series until Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, in which he was given a brief ending story, saying that he was elusive, that he won the Mortal Kombat tournament to prove that he existed and that he would return for Mortal Kombat 4, although he didn’t.
But there is one huge giveaway that Ermac never existed in the first Mortal Kombat. If people were to again look at the photo accompanying the EGM article, they’ll find that not only what is supposedly Ermac is red, but also, the flags behind him in the stage are red too; and if players are familiar with the stage, they’ll know that the flags aren’t really red, but yellow. So the image is simply of Scorpion, but with the yellow color shifted to red, and with the “Ermac wins” graphic faked onto it. It also transpired that Midway themselves had purposefully put the Ermacs stat in the debug menu to spark the rumor, and thus, increase the popularity of the game. But it’s even more interesting to think of where Midway got this idea. And this brings me to the next, and much bigger urban legend concerning hidden characters in fighting games; the legend of Sheng Long.
Just like Ermac, it all began with an element of the game that players didn’t fully understand. Back then; gamers weren’t at the point of recognizing seemingly nonsensical dialogue in video games as simple mistranslations. In the game Street Fighter II, when players won a fight using the character Ryu, a win quote would appear on-screen saying, “You must defeat Sheng Long to stand a chance.” At first, no one knew what it meant, since Sheng Long was neither an initially selectable character, nor was he an unlockable one; or so everyone thought until EGM blew the entire thing out of proportion.
In April 1992, EGM published an article detailing how payers could presumably battle against Sheng Long in Street Fighter II; incidentally printed along with details of an April Fools contest. The method of doing this was to select Ryu from the roster, and reach the last fight against M. Bison, and not either deal any damage, or take any damage, and let the countdown timer expire, letting the match end in a draw. This apparently had to be done ten times. After which, the eleventh round would see a muscular white-haired man called Sheng Long enter the fight, defeat M. Bison himself, and challenge the player to a fight. Screenshots in the article showed Sheng Long throwing M. Bison out of the arena and Sheng Long using a variation of the dragon punch attack, whereby his fist was engulfed in flames. Shockingly enough, people fell for it, and the popularity of Street Fighter II soared to new heights. It’s especially surprising that people believed it, as it wasn’t EGM’s first printed April Fools joke. They’d previously detailed how to play as Simon Belmont in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 on the NES.
But the thing is even a cursory examination of the article would reveal how blatantly untrue it is. The person who supposedly uncovered this was called W.A. Stokins, which coincidentally sounds slot like “Waste Tokens”, who was presumably from Fuldigen, Hawaii, or “Fooled Again, HA”.
But aside from that, the supposed criteria that had to be fulfilled to make this happen is a joke in itself. It’s ridiculous to think that Capcom would not only expect players to be able to face M. Bison without dealing or taking damage, but to be able to repeat this ten times; especially since a game allows for no more than four rounds in a single battle. Still, none of this stopped gamers from all around the world wanting to experience this for themselves, and making an already popular game into one of the most historically significant games in history; all because of an April Fools joke born from a simple translation error. If translated properly, the winning quote that I mentioned earlier should say, “You must overcome the rising dragon punch to stand a chance”, referring to both Ryu and Ken’s iconic attack, which the western world knows best by its Japanese name, ironically; the Shoryuken.
Due to this article greatly increasing the status of Street Fighter II, Capcom would pay homage to it in a variety of different ways. Street Fighter II would go on to be re-released a staggering amount of times, effectively making it its own series; with the latest installment being Super Street Fighter II Turbo: HD Remix for the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade. One such homage to the article was in Super Street Fighter II: The New Challengers, which features Ken’s fist being engulfed in flames whilst performing his version of the Shoryuken; just like Sheng Long. Another came with the release of Super Street Fighter II Turbo, which introduced a character inspired by Sheng Long. If players met certain criteria prior to the final battle against M. Bison, a new character would appear called Akuma, who would defeat M. Bison and challenge the player. If the player defeats Akuma, he will become a playable character.
Finally, in Street Fighter IV, there’s another tribute paid, whereby Akuma’s brother, Gouken, featured as an unlockable character in the home port of the game. That all stemmed from when EGM tried to pull the Sheng Long trick again, by detailing how the character could be unlocked in Street Fighter III. They also explained that Gouken is Sheng Long’s alias; but that time, no one fell for it.