Nintendo gamers of a certain age knew the trick: type "Justin Bailey" into the password screen of Nintendo Entertainment System classic Metroid and the game's hero would change outfits. Fast forward -- oh my god, I'm old -- 29 years later.
I'm playing Axiom Verge, a love letter to Metroid in the form of a brand new, downloadable PlayStation 4 video game. I notice there is a password screen. I type in Justin Bailey, of course.
Since Axiom Verge is a modern video game, it saves your passwords and codes. That's why, when I went back today to capture some footage to show you, the code was already there. Here's what happens when you select it:
In case you didn't know, Samus, the hero of Metroid, usually fights in her armour (image via NESHQ):
And here's what happened if you punched "Justin Bailey" into the original Metroidvia a video by YouTuber metallicaphyll:
In the headline up top, I did call "Justin Bailey" Nintendo's most famous secret code. That's relative, of course (and kind of an oxymoron, but you know what I mean). The "Konami Code" is far more well-known and was used in many games on Nintendo's systems, but Nintendo themselves didn't do a lot with cheat codes, at least not to my recollection. "Justin Bailey" was unusual for them.
It'd be unusual today, too, though for different reasons. You typed it into Metroid in -- get this -- the password screen that was otherwise used to resume your game. Metroid didn't have a proper save system. That wasn't a thing in early games (you knew this, right?). If you wanted to turn on your Nintendo Entertainment System and pick up where you'd left off in Metroid, you'd have to input the passcode the game gave you the last time you played.
Metroid was a mysterious game. By the end, you'd discover that one of the game's best secrets involved the character you were controlling. When you first played Metroid, there was no indication that Samus was a woman, not until you finished the game and she took her helmet off. Her sex was a surprise, but it was otherwise irrelevant to her adventure. That earned the game and most of its sequels a reputation as being unusually progressive in how little they exploited Samus' gender. Samus wasn't portrayed as a sexy space warrior, as you might have expected; she was just a warrior or, to put it more aptly, a bad-arse space-detective with an ice beam.
To modern eyes, the Justin Bailey code might seem like it undermines that by showing that, if you knew the right code, you could make Samus explore Zebes in more feminine attire. I always thought Samus' armour looked cool and preferred to play the game that way. But what were the developers' intent? I've never had a chance to ask them, but I am intrigued by how mysterious the code is and how little seems to be known about its origins. Check this out from the Metroid wiki:
There are many theories regarding the password. For example, Justin Bailey was originally thought to be one of the creators of the game, but no such name appears in the game credits. It was also often said that the Justin Bailey code was a reference to an English or Australian term for a bathing suit. Bathing suits were, according to this rumour, referred to as "bailies," so "Justin Bailey" would more accurately be rendered as "Just In (a) Bailey", which is what Samus appears to wear when the code is used. However, Samus' outfit with this code is a leotard, not a bathing suit, and "bailey" is not actually slang for "bathing suit" anywhere in the world.
"Justin Bailey" is a mystery.
And now, in Axiom Verge, it's a joke, as you can use it to get that game's hero to run around in Samus' pink leotard.
I asked the game's creator, Thomas Happ, about the password presence in Axiom Verge. "The Justin Bailey code is just there to give players all the more fabulous an experience," he told me today. A suitable tribute, as far as I'm concerned.