You’ve Unlocked the Cheat Codes Article

Cheat Code Article Image - Final

It’s a classic cheat code. I know it, you know it, everyone knows it. I’ve entered it so many times, I can recall it by heart. Say it with me: Up, Down, Left, Right, then hold A and Start.

What? Oh, you thought I was talking about that cheat code. The cheat code present in all those games by that one company. The cheat code that became a cultural icon that shows up in songs, websites, and sometimes games from other developers.

No, I’m talking about the Level Select cheat code in Sonic the Hedgehog. I keep telling you, I’m a Sega-Kid, baby (Link to Mario article)!

Misdirections aside, it blew my mind that a sequence of button inputs could hold so much power. No longer would progress be stifled by impossible levels (I’m looking at you, Labyrinth Zone). It was a Brave New Zone.

Cheat Codes Sonic
Sonic gazes at you with his weirdly-shaped judgmental eyes

Cheat Codes became an essential part of my gaming life.

Suddenly, every game opened up with new possibilities. Level too tough? Skip it. Dying too fast? Infinite health. Head too normal of a size? Big Head Mode. There was no end to the amount of fun to be had with cheat codes.

Part of the fun of cheating was hunting down codes. Every issue of GamePro featured a section called the Code Vault that listed multiple cheat codes for popular games. I loved having the excuse to go back and play old games.

Naturally, the internet was a fruitful source for cheat codes. We’d peruse websites dedicated to the art of cheating. A favorite of ours was CheatCC. We’d print out pages of cheat codes and spend hours playing. Stay away from Cheat.com though (it’s a gaming site now, but let me tell you, it was not back then).

When talking about discovering new cheat codes, I cannot forget one of the main sources: the playground. Friends would pass around cheat codes, swearing up and down it really happened to them. These were of course a bit of a crapshoot, but they were fun to try, and even more fun if they actually worked. I cannot tell you how many bogus cheat codes I learned about on those old jungle gyms (Dude! Tapping A+B will increase your chance of catching a Pokémon).

Cheat Codes Pokeball
Twenty years later, I still do this

In all those years, it never once crossed my mind why cheat codes were a thing. Surely it wasn’t all about the fun factor. Turns out, fun was merely a byproduct.

The original intention of a cheat code was to streamline playtesting for developers. Imagine you’re working on Sonic the Hedgehog, and you have to make sure Labyrinth Zone is hard enough to keep some poor child from getting too far. It’s not feasible to play through the first half of the game every time, so you add some code (as in programming code) that allows you to pick any level after a sequence of inputs.

Let’s unpack that previous statement about writing code. I know not everyone is familiar with programming. Games are written using specific programming languages (sure, be condescending. Great way to keep readers, idiot).A block of code could be responsible for movement, attacking, or tracking the health of the player. Developers would include lines of code that were intended for playtesting. While the lines of code are part of the game, they are essentially dormant unless certain conditions are met, e.g. a button sequence.

Not only could these lines of code be accessed, gamers soon realized they could alter other lines of code for their benefit. In early PC games, POKE commands, a function that accesses memory storage in the code, let gamers manipulate the games memory to achieve things such as invincibility.

POKE was most prevalent in the 8-bit era of PC gaming, but altering code remained a staple of cheating. I can remember the first time I played Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis on the PC. I loved the game, but I wanted more. I wanted more dinosaurs, more exhibits, and more money (call me the John Hammond of my time). I found a guide that detailed how to open the code and alter lines that removed any limits. It gave the game a ton of replayability.

Cheat Codes Jurassic Park
And really, what’s the point of playing if you don’t have a bunch of dinosaurs that can “escape”

It did not take long for cheat codes to become part of gaming culture. Cheat codes were featured in books and magazines. Developers began to put cheat codes into games with the player in mind. They included cheat codes that enhanced gameplay, unlocked areas or items, and codes that were just plain silly.

Konami, a famous pachinko machine developer, used to be famous for the Konami Code. There, I’m talking about it. Are you happy? The history of the Konami Code encapsulates the trajectory of cheat codes as a whole.

The Konami Code’s first appearance was in the NES release of Gradius as a means for playtesting. Developers kept the code for sequels, then began implementing it in other games. The Konami Code became less about playtesting, and more about fun easter eggs.

With such a rich history, why aren’t cheat codes still a staple of gaming?

A large factor is the introduction of online gaming. Yes, players can exploit and hack games to their benefit, but it’s not the developers doing it. Cheat codes in an online game would add too many variables and possibly turn gamers away from playing.

To a lesser extent, Achievements/Trophies likely affected the inclusion of cheating in games. Developers work hard on including unique opportunities to attain these rewards and the ability to use cheat codes messes with that. Some developers will take extra measures to notify players that they may use cheat codes and sacrifice these points, but it seems like that happens less and less.

Cheat Codes Achievement Unolocked
You beat the game without changing head sizes

I also suspect that the development process has something to do with the fall of cheat codes. Games cost tons of money to make and I doubt developers want to give them a means to bypass major chunks of their babies. God knows I skipped through a great many games using various cheat codes.

I can’t say I miss cheat codes. Even when the option is available, I rarely utilize them. It’s tough to find time to play a game and the last thing I want to do is cheat myself out of the full experience. Honestly, how did we find it fun to have super speed in NCAA 98 and strictly score touchdowns off kickoff returns?

Did you use a cheat code to skip this article? Share it in the comments!