Cheat Codes: A Retrospective


When I was a kid, the first thing I’d do every time I rented a new Nintendo 64 game from Blockbuster was look up cheat codes on the internet. Say what you will, I was terrible at most games, and wanted to progress as much as possible in the five days I had the rental. But I do have to wonder, what ever happened to cheat codes?

Back in the day, most cheat codes were button prompts you entered into the game somewhere, usually the title screen or a pause screen. We all know one of the oldest cheats in gaming history, the Konami code. Up up, down down, left right, left right, B, A, Start. 30 extra lives in Contra on the NES. Lots of old games had password systems used in lieu saving, but for some of them, those passwords doubled as cheat codes to unlock neat junk. One of my favorite cheat codes of this nature was in Banjo-Tooie on the N64. To use cheats in that game, you had to find the cheat chamber in the first level and punch the letters in on a big pad. You found cheats in game by collecting Cheato pages, but you could still use them even if you didn’t have the pages. My favorite was CHEATOJIGGYWIGGYSPECIAL, which opened up all the worlds without having to do the Jiggy puzzle challenges. Aside from just being convenient, it’s amusing because if you check the Jiggy monolith outside a world opened by this cheat, Jiggywiggy will pop up and be all like “wait, why is this door open, you didn’t do my challenge”. I love it when designers put in little touches like that.

Sometimes putting in cheats were an undertaking in themselves, with designers going out of their way to make them as obtuse as possible. Best example I can think of is activating debug mode in Sonic the Hedgehog 2 on the Genesis. This was a multi-step endeavor, and every time I wanted to do it as a kid (which was often), I had to pull out a crinkly old piece of paper with the instructions written down. First you had to go to the options menu and use the sound test thing to enter in a series of five specific sounds. Once you do that, you go back to the title screen, hold A and up and press start, and that takes you to the level select menu. Then, on the level select menu is ANOTHER sound test, which you have to use to enter in eight more sounds in sequence, then you hold A and pick a stage, and then you’re in debug mode. It was a shlep to be sure, but it was worth it for the entertainment value of utterly breaking the game, doubly so if you took the effort to put in the Super Sonic code in the sound test beforehand.

Cheat devices like Game Genie or Gameshark were a kind of forbidden fruit when I was a kid. I only knew maybe two kids who had one, and they were too scared to use them due to all the rumors of permanently erased save data flying around. I didn’t really like Gamesharks myself, partially because it seemed a little silly to buy an extra piece of hardware to do what you could with button presses, but mostly because I had a Gameshark erase my Pokemon Red save once, and I forever held a grudge. I do admit, however, to using a Brainboy colorizer to hack another Pokemon game that I had already beaten. It was honestly pretty amusing to have a party of six Mews who all knew Hydro Pump; not for playing against other people, of course, just for curbstomping the Elite Four for laughs.

Cheating still exists in games these days, but title screen inputs and such aren’t usually built-in anymore. You gotta know a thing or twelve about computers to even try to cook something up in the form of a hack or a mod, depending on the kind of game you’re playing. Closest approximation to the old form of cheating now is unlocking or, god forbid, purchasing cheats, and then just toggling them on, which kind of takes the fun out of it. To paraphrase a smart person, I can’t derive joy from breaking the rules if the game is actively encouraging me to do so, either as a means of showing progress, which I was trying to subvert in the first place, or as a means of turning a profit.

I’m not saying I encourage people to cheat (especially since the rental industry is a shambling corpse, so there’s not nearly as much reason to), but I wouldn’t mind a return to the old days of cheating, at least in terms of granting amusing effects or unlocking certain special things with a title screen input or a password. In video games, cheating doesn’t always have to mean completely breaking the game, just… modifying it a little. Molding to your tastes. You ever try low gravity and friction on Rocket: Robot on Wheels on the N64? You should, it’s fun.

A long-time nerd with far too much time on his hands. Enjoys playing video games and watching anime, among other media-related hobbies.