Your Princess is in Another Game: The 2011 MIT Mystery Hunt

Editor’s Note: Alex Calhoun shares his experience participating in the 2011 MIT Mystery Hunt in this guest post. Calhoun’s team, Codex Alimentarius, was the first to finish this year’s Hunt, earning the privilege to design the 2012 Hunt.

The time is 12:17pm on Friday, January 14th, 2011. A string quartet is playing in Lobby 7 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA. Hundreds of guests are present for the wedding of Mario and Peach, now in motion. But as any video gamer might expect, just as the couple begins to recite their vows, Bowser sweeps in and kidnaps Peach: I’m sorry Mario, but your wedding is in another Chapel!

Attendees to the opening ceremonies for the 2011 MIT Mystery Hunt were greeted with this disrupted ceremony, kicking off an annual competition that pits teams ranging in size from five people to over a hundred as they attempt to solve more than a hundred puzzles in a race around the clock to find “The Coin,” the amorphous victory trophy that signals the end of the year’s Mystery Hunt. Every competition is guided by an overarching theme. For the 2011 hunt, teams were tasked with assisting Mario rescue his bride-to-be. “Mario is great at jumping on mutant mushrooms but lousy at solving puzzles,” we were told by the representative from team Metaphysical Plant, the 2010 Hunt winners.

Puzzles in Mystery Hunt are structured in rounds. As teams solve puzzles, they unlock additional puzzles and additional rounds. Each round has one or more meta puzzles, formed from the answers from each regular puzzle. Mario World had three rounds and the first was “World 1-1”, with seven regular puzzles. The answers to those puzzles were all types of mushrooms or other fungus (Oyster, Orange peel, Charcoal Burner, Panther, Cannonball, Jack O’ Lantern, Fried Chicken). By looking up the genus names of each of these species and reading the first letters down vertically, the following word appears:

OYSTER: Pleurotus ostreatus
ORANGE PEEL: Aleuria aurantia
CHARCOAL BURNER: Russula cyanoxantha
PANTHER: Amanita pantherina
CANNONBALL: Sphaerobolus stellatus
JACK O’ LANTERN: Omphalotus illudens
FRIED CHICKEN: Lyophyllum decastes

“PARASOL” is another species of mushroom, and the first meta-puzzle solution. My team, Codex Alimentarius, eagerly attacked the twenty or so puzzles in “Mario World,” unlocking the World One castle in a few hours. In doing so, we learned the Hunt ranged far beyond the domain of the Mushroom Kingdom.

After completing three rounds and solving a Super-meta puzzle (comprised of the answers from the three meta-puzzle answers), Codex discovered a blue oval warp zone that transported us to the Mega Man round and new puzzles . . . it turned out Bowser  had been working for Dr. Wily all along.

Individual puzzles in each Mystery Hunt are as creative as the imagination runs. This year hunters explored Google Maps of Paris to find Space Invaders street art, examined small packets of unknown powders, estimated the mass of all the popes, and picked their brains for knowledge in languages, sciences, and pop culture. Puzzles are as likely to take the form of crosswords, cryptograms, and anagrams as they are to take the form of a traditional scavenger hunt, and might even require teams to build a robot for competitive live events with other teams. The variety makes the Hunt exciting each year, but it also means that every team member is valuable regardless of their puzzle solving experience. You never know when someone’s detailed knowledge of fashion designers, Joss Whedon, or bizarre celebrity child names will be important. Did you know that Nicholas Cage named his son Kal-El?

The introduction of the Mega Man World taught us that the theme was a broader video game concept. In true Mega Man fashion, there were six Robot Masters, each representing a round of puzzles. Each Robot Master possessed a “weapon” that could be used to defeat a different Robot Master. The meta puzzle answers provided us with those weapons. For example, the meta answer provided for finishing the “Bebop Man” round was “Blue Shift.” Considering the color spectrum as represented by “ROYGBIV”, we shifted the letters from the “Bio” of “Bio Man”:

B → I
I → V
O → Y

The answer was “IVY.” Codex defeated the different Robot Masters and chased Dr. Wily, who fled to Hyrule (Dr. Wily was working for Ganon all along).

Codex solved a number of meta-puzzles without first solving all of the regular puzzles in the given round. This is a common tactic for the MIT Puzzle Hunt, and provides the opportunity for teams to back-solve the solutions for regular puzzles when they get stuck. This year, the hunt used a point mechanism to measure each team’s progress, and each puzzle solved added to a team’s total points. Additional puzzles were unlocked after a set number of points, so even though back-solving those puzzles wasn’t needed for the meta-puzzle, it would help teams unlock new puzzles.

For instance, in the Legend of Zelda World, we had learned that one set of nine puzzle answers “formed a fellowship.” There were nine members of the Fellowship of the Ring, and puzzle answers would anagram to the name of a member of the fellowship, with one letter replaced. “FLOOD” became “FRODO”, “DIORAMIC” became “MERIADOC”, etc. By taking the list of nine letters that changed, we had our next meta answer. Codex solved this meta-puzzle after solving seven puzzles in the set. We knew that the two missing answers were anagrams using the names of the unused fellowship members, with one letter replaced, and were able to use that hint to solve the puzzle.

After completing the Legend of Zelda World, we learned that Ganon had been “working for Stalin all along” in the Civilization world. At the end of that World, Stalin completed the starship Wonder. Codex built our own starship to chase him, which was “certified” by Metaphysical Plant team members as worthy of taking Mario to the stars. Sadly, once in space we discovered that the King of the Cosmos from Katamari Damacy destroyed all the stars while drunk, and we had to re-create them with rounds of puzzle katamari. Our success kicked off the final “run-around.”

“The Run Around” is the name used to denote each year the final puzzles of Mystery Hunt, which traditionally involves physically navigating the MIT campus. The first puzzle was a live phone call with Mario, where we played a text-adventure version of the game Portal. When he found Peach, we left our puzzle solving headquarters to meet up with both Mario and Peach in person at the Aperture Science Testing Facility. But, unexpectedly, we also met up with GLaDoS.

The Metaphysical Plant team had a room set up with animated GLaDoS images running, and used a voice synth to re-create GLaDoS’ voice from the game. GLaDoS told Team Codex how she created all the puzzles for this year’s hunt. She enlisted the aid of Bowser, Dr. Wily, Ganon and Stalin to create trouble in order to gather test subjects to solve the puzzles. GLaDoS agreed to let Codex go, on the condition that we would create more puzzles for the next year’s hunt. We accepted, but Peach wouldn’t leave without the “friend” she made while being held captive. We ran around the empty campus decoding the final puzzle directions to help reunite Peach with her companion. At 6am Sunday morning we found “the Coin”, a special Portal Companion Cube commemorating the different puzzle Worlds, making us the official victors of the 2011 MIT Mystery Hunt.

Following tradition since the Mystery Hunt’s inception in 1980, as the winners Team Codex now has the responsibility of planning the Mystery Hunt for 2012. It is a significant undertaking that will continue all year, but we are excited to swap out our puzzle-solving hats in exchange for writing/organizing/planning hats. We shared dinner with the Metaphysical Plant team to thank them for their hard work in running the Hunt, and as an opportunity to learn as much as we could about their creative process. We hope to live up to the high bar they have set, and look forward to seeing all the Hunters in January 2012!

All puzzles and their solutions are available online. Credits for the creation of the hunt and its puzzles are posted, as well. MIT maintains a record of Mystery Hunts dating back to 1981.


  1. labfly

    great pc, Alex! sounds like so much fun 🙂 and congrats on the coin!

  2. Distilled

    Grats man, that sounds like an amazing adventure! I like how varied the puzzles were, currently its hard to get into games which don’t just stick to the morse/binary/hex puzzle format. It would be so refreshing to try to solve a new type of puzzle once in a while!