Our guide to the unlikeliest drugs in videogames
Warning! You are about to read about mature subject matter, which shouldn't be discussed by minors without the presence of a responsible adult. Topics we'll be covering include drug use, drug crime, drug addiction, and the ending of Ghouls 'n' Ghosts. Consider yourself warned. And hopefully vaguely titillated. But mostly warned! For serious.
And just so you know, we're out to expose the drug-riddled underbelly of your favorite video games--but we won't be taking it easy. Yes, there's a Magic Mushroom in the manual for the original Super Mario Bros; and yes, that's also the name of a thing people take in order to trip balls. But if you think that's the best we can do in our search for unlikely illicitness, prepare to have your little mind blown...
Power Pellets (Pac-Man) are fundamentally DMT
One of gaming's first and most sought-after powerups was also one of the medium's earliest drug metaphors. The drudge of clearing mazes and dodging enemies could be briefly averted by scarfing one of these rare little gems, which grant Pac-Man the power to traverse the Great Beyond without fear, winning arguments with ghosts and sending fearful spirits packing.
Remember that the state of the video game writers' art wasn't all that sophisticated in '79: most other games' stories consisted of aliens are here and they're bad, or sport. Rather than credit some anonymous genius with the invention of the Power Pellet, it's easier to assume that someone at Namco had heard of Dimethyltryptamine, aka DMT: an Amazonian psychedelic whose users claim temporary potency within the Spirit Realm. In the '60s, DMT was popular among Western hippies with day-jobs, who'd take a hit and be back in time for the afternoon shift. Fast-forward a decade and the same folk were filling their lunch-hours with--what else?--Pac-Man.
The Blue Shell (Mario Kart) is basically cocaine
Mario Kart 64's introduction of the Blue Shell changed videogames like the cocaine trade changed American crime. The Blue Shell might be popular in the upper echelons at Nintendo, but good luck finding anyone else who doesn't regard it as a cheap thrill at best, scourge of society at worst. Folks in the middle of the pack have little chance of getting hooked by a Blue Shell; but if you're in any position to call yourself a winner, get ready to start turning this thing down on a regular basis. Because as Rick James would doubtless warn: the Blue Shell is a hell of a weapon.
Just like cocaine, the Blue Shell ruins lives with little care. It might seem like a sure-fire road to good times when you're toiling in the rat-race, but the Blue Shell's fleeting feeling of victory carries a high price: as soon as you've ridden that spiked train into the winners' leagues, you'll be on constant lookout for the next hit. Just Say No, indeed.
Master Emerald Shards (Sonic Adventure) function like Ecstasy
Sonic's been dodging doping allegations for years, with the character's self-confessed addiction to speed driving many a misreading of the series' chemical politics. But we're talking about the series that popularized the standstill animation, which we're pretty sure didn't involve Sonic curling up into a teeth-grinding fetal position, so frankly we're dubious on the amphetamine front.
However with Sonic Adventure, our hero's true proclivities became apparent. If your snarky best pal was suddenly collected a bunch of new fur-clad, socially insufferable friends, you'd think something was up, right? Particularly if that change coincided with a sudden enthusiasm for disposable dance music--much of it, again, pretty objectively awful?
And all of a sudden your boy's life revolves around the quest for these Master Emerald Shard dealies. MDMA has gone by plenty of street names--Ecstasy being the best-known--but Shard is, one must admit, one of the snazzier coinages.
Gysahl Greens (Final Fantasy series) are basically peyote
Referred to as carrots for their first English-language appearance during Final Fantasy III, someone apparently neglected to tell Square's translation team that Gysahl Greens was already a pretty opaque way of talking about peyote and probably didn't need camouflaging any further. But then, if you're trying to sneak Mexo-American hallucinogens past Nintendo circa 1990, it's probably best to err on the side of obscurity.
Because once you're out on the plains, alone but for your friends and the random-encounter algorithm, a few Greens will help you contact magical creatures that can take you on journeys, search for treasure and unlock new adventures. This was the traditional function of Peyote among Mexico's indigenous peoples; nowadays, the drug's found new use as something to regret after a really hardcore Spring Break. Which is silly, because that's what Magicite is for, surely.
Wheat/Corn (ActRaiser) is much like opium
Classic SNES God-sim ActRaiser bridged the gap between strategy and platforming action; tasking you with managing the lives of your flock and ending the lives of rival demons. The game takes a cue from Karl Marx, who famously proclaimed religion to be like opium unto the mass of humanity; this was the SNES era, so in this case it's more like "Wheat" and "Corn," but the effects are the same.
Let your followers deliver a little of either crop and you'll start to feel lighter, more capable and yet less compelled. Your character takes on the form of an angel, content to fly around and take in the surroundings. But the comedown is harsh: when supplies run out, your character plummets to earth and things get tougher.
Now your skin's made of stone, bodily control is minimal at best, and you're beset by horrific demons. Olden-time opium addicts cautioned against heavy use, lest "The Fear" set in; by the time you're fighting six embodiments of evil in a row, all on one depleted energy bar, you'll know exactly what they meant.
Psycho Cannon (Ghouls 'n' Ghosts) has a lot in common with marijuana
Okay, so lots of games have leaves and/or smoke in them, and we trust you can figure out the subtext. But being as recreational marijuana use is openly referenced in games from LA Noire to the Modern Warfare series, we're frankly not all that impressed.
Genuinely open-minded gamers, ready to glimpse a life lived in the grip of Reefer Madness, need look no further than Ghouls 'n' Ghosts' Arthur. Once a brave knight, his obsession with kind bud has led him down a dark path: now the poor unshaven wretch hangs out in dodgy areas, treading back and forth with neither rhyme nor reason (nor pants, we're betting). He can barely remember why he left his home in the first place.
And once someone reminds him that he should never have left home without his greatest treasure, the elusive Psycho Cannon, be honest: often as not, Art will call it a day then and there. Turning his life around and getting his girl back can wait.
Potion (Super Mario Bros 2) isn't dissimilar from crack
Not everyone can afford the high-end thrills of Blue Shells and prescription Mushrooms. If you came up in the ghetto, you know that sometimes relief looks like a glass vial full of poison. Potion is killing Super Mario Bros 2 just as surely as crack cocaine; but if you're not down with thug life, don't rush to judge. We've seen The Wire. We know things are tough all over.
But the high lent by Potion--just like that chased by crack users--is fleeting. Sure, it'll dim the lights and make your problems vanish for a while, but come back down and all you have to show for it is a few coins. The Potion game is so harsh that the only use for those coins is gambling to buy another day, always searching for more vials of that demon brew. Ghettos are the same all over the Mushroom Kingdom: they stink.
Flares (SSX) may as well be nitrous oxide
Originally, SSX's flares were intended as only as course-markers but when the developers noticed that players were trying to collect as many of the items as possible, the humble glow-sticks took a more active role. And hey, SSX started in the early 2000s, so why not make flares work like those Nitrous Oxide party-favors everyone was getting all worked up about back then?
Collect a flare and you'll get a hit to your boost-bar (Nitrous makes you go fast, as we know because we've seen Vin Diesel movies) and a top-up for your combo-meter. SSX veterans know what that means: sudden overwhelming confidence, the urge to do foolhardy things while laughing and yelling like an idiot, and high-flying feats of derring-do accompanied by temporary auditory distortions. If you went to the right parties in the early 2000s, you know that flares, here, is apparently a polite way of saying huffing laughing-gas like you were waiting for a root canal.
Tactical Nuke (Modern Warfare 2) will remind you of black-tar heroin
This item's relative scarcity might make it seem desirable, but be warned! By the time you're in a position to go trying it out, you'll have climbed the ladder of softer powerups and probably think you can handle anything. So you strap in, shoot the Nuke up, sit back and wait for blessed oblivion. You damned self-destructive fool.
Just like the deadliest black-tar heroin, the Nuke will indeed make your problems seem to fade away in a flash; and just like horse, brewing up and firing off a Nuke will briefly make you feel like the world's coolest person. But the message of Modern Warfare 2 is grim: Nukes might seem sexy and awesome, but they will destroy you and everyone you know. Like every junkie, you insist the Nukes make you feel great, but behind your back, everyone's talking about what a tragic waste it all is.
Holy Glasses (Castlevania: Symphony of the Night) work as the equivalent of LSD
When your hero is on a quest to murder his father and maybe burn his house down along the way, drugs are a sensible thing to leave out of the equation. Most mushrooms in Symphony of the Night, for instance, are of the harmless edible variety, and the rest are deadly poisonous. This is Konami, teaching you valuable lessons about not eating dangerous things. Educational!
However, Alucard's rather more trusting with man-made substances. He'll eat a tab of paper that transports him across space and time; given the chance, he'll toy with the even more LSD-esque Holy Glasses, which grant visions of strange glowing orbs and allow users to experience the world afresh.
Everything in the LSD world of the Upside-Down Castle is topsy-turvy and crazy-colored, as our hero experiences visions of forgotten spiritual trauma and familial unease. The founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, dosed with LSD during his own substance-abuse therapy, reported similar experiences; nowadays, doctors prefer the less salacious but somewhat safer method of talking about things. Luckily for players, Alucard apparently doesn't believe in therapy.
Musou (Dynasty Warriors series) certainly reminds us of PCP
The usual joke when talking about Dynasty Warriors is to say, those games are worse than Madden, with their yearly updates on the same formula. But there's an important difference: whereas Madden is named after the guy sometimes credited with bringing steroids to pro football, and hence might involve some use of performance enhancements, Dynasty Warriors is definitely about dudes who are absolutely ripped on PCP.
Phencyclidine, aka PCP or Angel Dust, became notorious in the 70s and 80s for fueling a spate of ridiculously violent street crimes and incidents of self-harm: besides removing inhibitions and turning the world into a dizzying blur (fix that camera already, Koei!), the drug can reduce users' senses of pain and empathy alike. Striding into a crowd of enemies to perform seemingly-impossible acts of violence? No need to invent a supernatural warrior's instinct to explain that: Liu Bei and friends are just hopped up on good old-fashioned Angel Dust.
P-Wing (Super Mario Bros 3) has a lot in common with meth
Travel far enough into Mario 3's boonies and you're bound to come across a shack selling these dodgy little dealies, which have a common (outside the US, at least) street name for crystal meth stamped right onto them. And, like most backwoods P/meth dealerships, the place won't last long before it's vacated or abruptly wiped off the map.
The item itself helps players get to the game's highest regions, and can be a proper trial to wean yourself off of; in fact, if our high school drug educations are to be trusted, the relatively common Raccoon Leaf is just a gateway powerup to the harder, more intense P-Wing.
We tried to decipher any hidden metaphorical significance to the Leaf itself, but nobody who offered to explain this particular joke could get any further than complaining of extreme peckishness and marveling at how the human hand is pretty amazing if you, like, really look at it.
T-Virus (Resident Evil series) sounds a lot like bath salts
Remember when that dude bit that other dude's face off in Florida earlier this year, and the entire Internet freaked out because that was the sort of thing zombies would do and zombies are awesome?
When everyone thought it was because of Bath Salts, the whole story gained a whole new level of meme-readiness: not only was there something even scarier than zombies, but you could become one (if you were particularly stupid about ingesting mystery substances).
By the time it transpired that Bath Salts weren't even to blame for that particular attack, it was too late: the compound (which, zombies or no zombies, tends to be pretty bad news) had passed into geek legend. There it joins substances like Resident Evil's T-Virus--which has a similar habit of turning regular people into freakout monsters, then forcing awkward discussions about whether or not they're zombies, and whether or not that makes a difference when they're trying to eat your face.
Tears of Light (The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks) shares the properties of Devil's Breath
As drug tolerance goes, Hyrule is Amsterdam with less backpackers: magic mushrooms grow wild, smart-brews are sold in the Town Square, everyone's hammered on milk, and the world's greatest hero is a kid who thinks his hat tells him secret messages. But there's one substance even the Hylians won't touch: Spirit Tracks' Tears of Light.
Exposure to the Tears of Light drains victims' free will while leaving them fully conscious and able-bodied. This is the same effect gained by exposure to Scopolamine, aka Devil's Breath, aka the world's scariest drug.
Scopolamine-controlled victims speak of helplessly emptying out their own apartments and bank accounts while under the drug's influence. The Tears of Light, similarly, have been used to compel Phantoms to aid in emptying out their own dungeons, wading uncontrollably into pits of lava at the behest of their impish tormenter. With heroes like this, who needs villains?
Want another hit?
Thanks for joining us for this spurious romp through the seedy subtext of your favourite games and ours. In closing, we'd like to stress that (a) we don't actually think Shigeru Miyamoto is trying to get you hooked on meth; and that (b) neither are we. Who's going to read our listicles if you're lying in a gutter with your teeth falling out?
But with that out of the way, the night is young and you are ingenious - so what's the most notorious substance you reckon you've found hidden in-game? And did you inhale?