Side quests have a bit of a mixed reputation, and its pretty well deserved. A lot of them feel like filler: fetch this thing, escort that guy, stab this monster. But among the canon of side quests are a number of missions which rank as truly remarkable, either for the excellence of their storytelling, the power of their gameplay experience, or the sheer weirdness of their existence.
There are so many side quests scattered across gaming that narrowing the list down to ten proved pretty difficult. I tried to curate a list that represents notoriety, absurdity, smart design, memorability, and that feeling the creators went the extra mile to make this particular mission something unique.
Here are the technical criteria used:
- Massive optional branches from main plot lines count as side quests.
- Optional quests/levels that don’t necessarily have to be completed to reach a game’s credits count as side quests.
- Hidden levels that don’t have to be completed to reach a game’s credits count as side quests.
- Optional and secret boss battles count as side quests.
Side quests are often at their best when they’re zany. Since they’re purely optional, we’re more willing to accept when they’re tonally wacky, and they’re great places for creators to stretch their humorous writing chops.
Cappy in a Haystack is part of Fallout 4’s Nuka-World expansion. The Nuka-World theme park bears a startling resemblance to Disneyland, and Cappy in a Haystack leans heavily with this similarity. You’re tasked with using special glasses to locate ten hidden Cappy mascot characters painted on various surfaces, an obvious reference to the famous hidden Mickeys scattered around Disney parks.
Its ending is easily one of the funniest surprises I’ve ever encountered in a game.
Locating all the Cappys forces you to visit practically every corner of Nuka-World. It’s time consuming and can be tedious, but the narrative payoff is pretty great. Gathering all ten Cappys allows you to access the legendary upstairs office of John-Caleb Bradburton (read: Walt Disney). Inside his tiny oasis, (based on Walt’s real-life apartment) you’ll find a secret panel. Behind it is an elevator.
Descend beneath the park and you’ll find a hidden vault. Yep, turns out there’s a secret man-made world deep beneath Disneyla… I mean Nuka-World. And there, still very much alive, awaits Walt Disney’s still-conscious frozen head, begging you to kill him. OK, it’s not Walt Disney, except it is TOTALLY Walt Disney.
Cappy in a Haystack is metatextual genius, a sort of sublime capstone to Fallout 4’s skewering of American consumer culture worship. Its ending is easily one of the funniest surprises I’ve ever encountered in a game.
What makes the Snow Queen side quest so special is that it’s a truly huge departure from the main game. You can never maneuver back to the prime plot line after undertaking it, and you’ll arrive at a vastly different ending if you choose to follow it. It’s effectively several hours of content you’ll just never see if you’re interested in reaching the true, “proper” resolution to Persona.
While the massive side quest was always a part of the original Japanese PlayStation release, the alternate path through Persona had been trimmed from the 1996 American localization, instilling a rather mythic quality into the plotline. Hardcore Persona fans rejoiced at the news that the original Persona’s reimagining on PSP would include the legendary Snow Queen Quest. It doesn’t disappoint.
What could be more secret than a secret within a secret? Open the right hidden door in DOOM II and you’ll find MAP31, an accurate recreation of id’s FPS classic Wolfenstein-3D… specifically, the first stage.
But if you’ve played Wolf3D, you may know there’s a hidden exit to a secret stage tucked away near the end of the castle’s first level. Open that same secret door inside the secret stage inside the secret door inside DOOM II to discover MAP32, the even-more-hidden Castle Wolfenstein floor modified to include gristly references to id’s Commander Keen series. It’s the most recursive side quest of them all.
This is the greatest sponsored noodle-themed quest in the history of quests, or sponsorship, or noodles.
I wish all sponsorship in video games was handled this way.
This quest is one of my favorite things. I love it. I am not being ironic. It’s so blatantly, marvelously gratuitous, and it’s played so straight and executed with unapologetic, avaristic, slavish bluntness. Gladiolus just can’t stop talking about how delicious Cup Noodles truly are.
You choose from Meat, Egg, or Shrimp flavor, and then go off and slaughter a giant monster and harvest its flesh to season your own delicious instant snack. If only real life were so easy. I wish all sponsorship in video games was handled this way. I would absolutely have purchased this side quest as DLC.
Once upon a time, Konami made the greatest exploratory platformer in history and then hid half of it completely away. It’s entirely possible to finish Symphony of the Night without ever encountering a hint of the existence of the Inverted Castle. A triumph of level design, the secret flips the entirety of Castlevania’s titular structure over and reveals that every chamber, passageway, and room has been engineered with inverse traversal in mind. The entire place is crammed with new enemies, bosses, weapons, secrets, and the game’s best ending. The first time you found this thing, it melted your mind.
“There is no Cow Level.” Blizzard says so. Yet this secret land of bovine mysteries does in fact exist, despite the myriad denials. Home to hordes of weapon-wielding cattle and the mysterious Cow King, the Secret Cow Level (sometimes called the Moo Moo Farm) is almost impossible to find without knowing the secrets to generating a portal leading to it.
There’s not a lot to see in the Secret Cow Level… just hordes of angry cows and a few unique drops. It’s relatively hard to get to and even harder to return to (kill the Cow King on any difficulty level and you’ll never be allowed to return to the hidden stage at that same difficulty). Its notoriety lies in novelty and in the legacy of Cow Level-related references that continue to permeate Blizzard lore.
Being a nice person and freeing a trapped demilich may seem like a relatively mundane task in the fanciful world of D&D, but those who have learned firsthand the price of unloosing Kangaxx still shudder at the memory. Collecting his scattered body parts and defeating their guardians is difficult enough, but Kangaxx’s idea of a reward is to wipe your party out.
Despite his diminutive size, Kangaxx is one of the most terrifying optional bosses is gaming: a tiny floating skeleton head that will COMPLETELY mess you up. He’s ridiculously powerful… unless you’ve carefully studied the ways to counter every threat he presents, freeing Kangaxx generally proves a unpleasant ending for many an adventurer.
I’m cheating just a tad with this one, because I think it’s too important to miss. Midway through Chrono Trigger, your party will face an unavoidable confrontation with Magus, a dark mage who’s been your primary antagonist and done his best to make your life miserable up to that point in the game. You have every reason to hate this guy, your party has just suffered a terrible loss, and he flat out asks if you’re ready to fight.
Since you last battled Magus, unexpected events in the story have revealed that your party and Magus share a common enemy, an elemental alien force with the power to destroy the world. And as much as you hate Magus, the game’s creators do a good job of making your violent feud with him seem relatively inconsequential in the face of the raised stakes you now face. You’ve started to understand his motivations. You feel like this is a real choice… indulging in revenge in a vulnerable moment or simply walking away to deal with other seemingly insurmountable challenges.
Magus is a milestone in popular video game storytelling.
And here’s the thing: should you choose to walk away, Magus follows, stops you, and asks to join forces with you. He doesn’t like you, he doesn’t play nice with Chrono Trigger’s characteristic team attacks, he’s laconic and sullen, but he needs your help to get what he wants and he’s willing to humble himself to do it. Also, he’s completely awesome.
It’s a relatively tame video game troupe now, but in 1995, big bads were big bads. They did not join with your party. They did not make peace. They certainly didn’t appear as secret optional party members that you could easily and justifiably pass by. Magus is a milestone in popular video game storytelling, the progenitor of the contemporary side quest and the mysterious rewards that taking roads less traveled could provide.
I’m not trying to be cute here. Breath of the Wild is one giant side quest. Absolutely everything outside of the Great Plateau and the final boss is a side quest. It’s entirely possible to win the whole game without ever shopping in a store, farming a dragon, riding a horse, or facing a Divine Beast. The whole of the colossal game is one massive collection of side quests, most of which you undertake just for the joy of the exploration and the gradually escalating rewards.
The GTA V Epsilon missions are demented poetry in motion. They play like something Hideo Kojima would have concocted if he’d stayed up all night chugging Monster Energy Drink with Andy Kaufman. Each Epsilon mission centers around an exploitative cult coercing Michael to perform a number of expensive, tedious tasks. Every quest in the series is drudgery by design, a test of the player’s willpower, patience, and tolerance for the inspidly mundane.
If this all sounds terrible… it’s because it is.
The whole Epsilon line is irritating, but Exercising the Truth is next-level infuriating. It invites the player to run five miles on foot in circles through the desert wearing silly robes. That’s it. Just keep running. Tap that A button. Hope a wild animal doesn’t attack. Run and run and run. It takes 20-25 minutes to complete. The rewards for completing the Epsilon mission series are a pretty substantial two million dollars in cash… if you make the right choice at the end. If you make the wrong one like I did on my first playthrough, you get an old tractor instead.
If this all sounds terrible… it’s because it is. So why rank it among the greats? Because it’s so rare a AAA developer creates such a substantial troll inside a glossy consumer product. Rockstar designs some pretty spectacular missions, but I’ll likely never remember any of the exciting or riveting ones as well as I’ll remember the colossal practical joke that is Epsilon.
There you have it, 10 of our absolute favorite side quests in video game history. What are some of your favorites? Let us know, and if you liked this feature, check out our favorite secret bosses in games.