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 (opens in new tab) 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 (opens in new tab): 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 (opens in new tab)’s introduction of the Blue Shell changed videogames like the cocaine trade (opens in new tab) 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 (opens in new tab): 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 (opens in new tab), 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 (opens in new tab)–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 (opens in new tab), 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 (opens in new tab) 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 (opens in new tab) 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 (opens in new tab) 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 (opens in new tab)’s flares were intended (opens in new tab) 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 (opens in new tab) 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.