Throughout the 1990s, Microsoft developers were in a race of one-upmanship to produce the most elaborate secret “Easter eggs.” These included games of pinball, racing, and even flight simulators, all hidden within Office and Windows. Let’s take a look back at some of the best.
What Are “Easter Eggs”?
“Easter eggs” are developer credits, silly features, or inside jokes hidden in software. Because you can only access these through a series of arcane steps resembling an Easter egg hunt, that’s how they got their name.
Easter eggs were a sly, fun way for authors to secretly immortalize themselves in their work, even if individual programmer credits were discouraged for the sake of company unity.
Microsoft’s history with software Easter eggs began as far back as the Commodore PET BASIC in the 1970s. Over the decades, it grew dramatically, continuing through MS-DOS and reaching peak complexity during the late ’90s in Microsoft Office applications.
Microsoft Management officially put the kibosh on the practice in the early ’00s, citing security and customer trust concerns.
For a while there, however, the eggs were on a roll—and they got pretty wild!
Excel ’95: Hall of Tortured Souls
In the ’90s, Excel attracted a large share of elaborate Easter eggs. For example, in Excel ’95, if you follow a series of complex steps, a window called the “Hall of Tortured Souls” appears. In this apparent reference to Doom, you can actually roam a 3D, first-person environment. After crossing a zigzag bridge, you discover a room with the names of Excel ’95’s developers and a low-resolution photo of the team.
Windows 3.1: Microsoft Bear Credits
During the development of Windows 3.1, one of the programmers carried around a stuffed teddy bear. It became an inside joke and unofficial mascot for the operating system.
When the team hid developer credits in the Program Manager of Windows 3.1, the bear naturally made an appearance. The Easter egg normally shows a man in a yellow suit next to a scrolling list of the developers’ internal email system names. If you perform the trick repeatedly, though, you might see the bear’s head in the yellow suit instead.
Excel ’97: Flight Simulator and Credits Monolith
Once word got out about the hidden “flight simulator” Easter egg in Excel ’97, it spread quickly in the press because it sounds so sensationally weird.
In truth, though, it’s not exactly a flight simulator in the sense of gauges and airplane controls. Rather, it’s more of a surreal 3D, first-person flying experience over a purple landscape. If you fly around enough, you find a black monolith with the scrolling names of Excel ’97’s developers on it.
Windows NT Pipes Screensaver: Utah Teapot
If you set the joint style to “mixed,” in the screensaver’s settings, one of the joints will sometimes be replaced by the famous Utah Teapot. The teapot originated in 1975 at the University of Utah and later became a standard reference model for testing 3D rendering across many platforms.
Word ’97: Pinball
Not to be outdone by the Excel ’97 team, the developers of Word ’97 included a simple game of pinball you could access via a series of obscure steps. It included a scrolling list of development team credits on a pinball-style, faux LED scoreboard.
Players used the keyboard (Z for the left flipper and M for the right) to control the game. It was simple, but amusing.
Windows 95: Musical Credits Animation
Windows 95 shipped with a hidden musical tribute to its developers. If you created a new folder on the desktop, renamed it several times, and then opened it, you saw the moving, fading names of the Windows 95 team accompanied by a MIDI musical score. Windows 98 included a similar developer tribute Easter egg.
Excel 2000: Racing Game
According to some Microsoft insiders (see the comments on this blog post), Office 2000 was the last version of the software to include Easter eggs as sanctioned by Microsoft management.
However, that might be true for Windows versions only, as a developer did hide a game of Asteroids in Office 2004 for Mac.
Excel 2000 made sure Easter eggs went out with a bang! A 3D car racing/shooting game reminiscent of the arcade classic Spy Hunter was included in the software. You raced down a road with the developer’s names on it while shooting at other cars.
Imagine how complex the hidden games might have gotten over the next few years if Microsoft hadn’t stopped to the practice.
Windows Vista DVD: Microsoft Security Team Photo
Finally, there was a physical Easter egg! In 2007, a Spanish blogger with the screenname Kwisatz discovered something stunning on the holographic anti-piracy label on the Windows Vista Business DVD. It was a tiny (less than 1mm wide) photograph of three men. News of this discovery rattled through the blogosphere until Microsoft responded officially about four days later in a blog post.
It turns out the three men were members of Microsoft’s anti-piracy team. They hid the photo of themselves and several public domain paintings as part of the label’s anti-piracy technique. These details were far too small to copy without specialized equipment, and most pirates duplicating Vista DVDs probably didn’t even know they were there.
Many More Easter Eggs to Find!
As more computers started to connect to the Internet in the early ’00s, and the world’s infrastructure became more reliant on Microsoft software (voting machines, ATMs, point-of-sale terminals, and U.S. Navy ships have all run a version of Windows at some point), the existence of secret undocumented code in applications took on a new meaning. As a result, Microsoft’s elaborate Easter eggs fell out of favor.
During the 1980s and ’90s, Microsoft developers tucked hundreds of amusing Easter eggs in their products. If you’re interested in finding more, check out Wikipedia’s list of Microsoft Easter eggs and the Easter Egg Archive website. Happy hunting!