Pokemon Red and Blue were released for the Gameboy in 1996, stretching the limits of what the console was capable of with its vast world map, 151 pokemon, countless NPCs, elemental battle system and more to make a hit RPG. This expansive digital world was an achievement in assembly programming, but came with the downside of exploitable glitches: Warping to the Elite Four from a random doorway, catching Mew by using Fly at exactly the right place and time, Entire maps of scrambled pixels, a whole cast of glitch pokemon; among the most infamous is the strange polygon of pixels named Missingno.
Missingno’s existence wasn’t confirmed officially until several years after release, in a 1999 issue of Nintendo Power. But in those days the internet was in its infancy, and spread of information was mostly limited to word of mouth. Missingno took on an urban legend status in those early years, with official information being spread in such a scattershot way across the fandom. Missingno was, for years, an entity with an air of mystery that exists outside of the proper bounds of the game. Its singularly mythic position among Pokemon leads us, logically, to ask: is Missingno a cryptid?
The Lore of Missingno
Missingno is attainable by some very specific sets of circumstances. The most simple is speaking to a certain NPC in Viridian City then Surfing on the east coast of Cinnabar Island until you encounter Missingno, its most famous form being a reverse-L shape of corrupted pixels. It can have the beneficial effect of giving you 128 of an item you currently have, but can also corrupt parts or even the entirety of your save file, even up to the point of rendering the cartridge permanently unplayable. It’s also a powerful Pokemon in its own right due to having absurdly skewed stats (assuming it can be used at all, that is). Catching Missingno is like a Faustian bargain with an eldritch horror: an unfathomable being that can grant you great power as it harms you.
Catching Missingno is a rather unique feeling in Pokemon: Finding something that shouldn’t exist, something that doesn’t make sense, and catching it like it’s just another Tentacool. It feels like peeking behind the curtain of the game’s reality, breaking the contract of suspension of disbelief. Missingno is a chaotic creature that you encounter and subsequently have the very concept of a game disrupted. But does this make it a cryptid?
What Is a Cryptid?
The most basic definition of a cryptid is an animal that is alleged to exist but has not been confirmed by scientific evidence. Missingno fails this definition- it can be reliably found in any Gen I game cartridge, and its existence is confirmed by Nintendo. However, cryptids have a far more exotic set of connotations than just mysterious animals.
Cryptozoology tends to be lumped in with other more explicitly supernatural pseudosciences like Ufology and Parapsychology (study of psychic phenomena and ghosts). You can find books on aliens and Nessie side by side in libraries and bookstores. These fields easily bleed together- there’s theories on the nature of Bigfoot and Mothman that correlate them with UFO activity, for example. So taking the paranormal connotations into account, we can take “cryptid” to mean not just an unproven animal- but an animal that has some hint of the mystical, a creature who exists in the space between the natural world and the supernatural.
Missingno puts Ghost-types to shame with how supernatural it is. It reaches out of the established boundaries of what a Pokemon can do, into your items, into your very save file, warping the world around it in a way that makes Mewtwo jealous. Its entry in the Pokedex, Pokemon’s canon of established zoological knowledge, is a nonsensical mess of glitches. In the game’s universe, it is truly unknowable.
Unsolved Mysteries: Cinnabar Island Edition
Another common trait of cryptids is the abundance of theories explaining their sightings, ranging from the mundane to the probably impossible, from misidentified barn owls to interdimensional envoys. Missingno also has a vast array of rumors, myths, legends, and tales surrounding it that were created by the fandom, which make varying degrees of sense. The real explanation, put very simply, is that the data that determines wild Pokemon encounters is disrupted in an extremely specific way that the game wasn’t equipped to handle (Documented succinctly at Bulbapedia, and in much more detail on this in-depth Gamefaqs page).
However, in the days before this was made known, theories and stories proliferated among the fandom. Some included the belief that Missingno was intentional rather than a programming error: it was a pokemon that was left in its pokeball for too long and became mutated and warped, or that Missingno’s item-increasing effect was a reward for curious players. Another fan explanation for the glitch is that it resulted from the evolution of Kangashkan being removed, tying into a popular fan theory involving Kangashkan’s pouch baby evolving into Cubone- not unlike cryptozoological theories taking inspiration from other pseudosciences and folklore. The endless speculation about Missingno is a construction of a mythology around a creature who exists outside of established knowledge, creating fragmented, barely-substantiated stories from the 8-bit mystery, tantalizing because of their uncertainty and mystery, like the half-remembered folktales of hairy humanoids in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.
A cryptid is a creature of folklore, an entity that exists somewhere between fact and fiction. One might think that a human-made thing like a massively popular video game should be excluded from this. But unlike other Pokemon, Missingno lives in folktales of Millennial youth as a mystery-shrouded phantom, an anomalous entity of bizarre origin; a digital urban legend, a cryptid in a cartridge.