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1.It Started With Developers
The earliest “cheat codes” weren’t really intended to help gamers cheat. Instead, they were designed as special tools for developers.
When developers would beta test games, they wanted to build shortcuts to access certain sections of the game more easily. Thus, cheat codes were born. But why did they stay around? Simply put, many developers didn’t want to go through the hassle of removing their additional coding!
2.POKEs and PEEKs
Nowadays, cheats are usually a matter of controller movements or keyboard passwords. The earliest cheats, however, were far more basic.
Computer-savvy gamers could use POKE statements to reverse-engineer portions of the game’s existing code. They could PEEK at a memory section and then POKE to change the values of things like character lives.
This was definitely cheating, but only a few gamers knew how to do it. Cheating arguably wouldn’t go mainstream until the advent of the Konami Code.
3.Enter the Konami Code
For old-school gamers, the Konami Code is something we speak of with reverence. It helped define a generation and still serves as “Exhibit A” for when you need to describe a cheat code to someone.
Hilariously enough, the Konami Code only exists because Gradius developer Kazuhisa Hashimoto wanted an easy way to make it through the game during testing. And since this was a Nintendo game, he made the code something easy to enter via the controller.
He left the code in the final game and it quickly popped up in other Konami titles like Contra and Castlevania. But the influence extended far beyond those titles as gamers started demanding more cheats for other games.
4.Cheats Powered Gaming Magazines
Ever wonder what made video game magazines so popular back in the day? The secret ingredient was cheat codes!
In the pre-internet era, it was downright difficult to discover cheats for your favorite games. Popular magazines like Nintendo Power and Electronic Gaming Monthly sold countless issues on the promise of sweet cheat codes inside the cover.
Now, the ability to instantly discover cheats with a simple Google search or Youtube video is just one more reason most game magazines are a thing of the past.
5.No Cheat Secrets From Nintendo
What’s even better than a cheat code? Cheating to get the cheat codes. And that’s exactly what Nintendo did!
A stipulation of NES game development was that developers had to tell Nintendo about any cheat codes. Because of this and another agreement, Nintendo Power had first access to games, the magazine quickly became the premier destination for Nintendo cheat codes.
6.Game Genie? Game Changer
Sometimes, we can see the history of cheat codes come full circle. And the best example of this is the Game Genie.
Originally, cheat codes involved gamers tracking down part of the game’s coding and changing certain values. This eventually gave way to controller-based cheats. However, the Game Genie made it easy for even the most casual player to change game code values by entering in a few letters and numbers.
The Game Genie made some of the hardest games easy to beat. But it also gave adventurous players a chance to experiment with different codes and ways of playing without harming their cartridges.
7.Cheats and Passwords
When is a cheat not a cheat? When it’s also a password!
In the early days of cartridge gaming, the ability to save your progress was pretty rare. Instead, developers would add password systems to help you return to the game exactly where you left it.
That was the intent, of course. But popping in someone else’s password allowed players to skip levels and save a ton of time.
8.Cheating Gets Bloody
The Konami Code helped cheating go mainstream in a positive way. But Mortal Kombat helped cheating go mainstream in a way that caught the attention of parents and lawmakers everywhere.
Mortal Kombat’s whole claim to fame was plenty of blood and over-the-top fatalities. The SNES and Genesis versions, however, remove the blood and tame the fatalities. But Genesis players could put in an easy code to restore the gore.
Players really enjoyed this feature. But Mortal Kombat would soon be at the center of a controversy over violence in video games led by one of gaming’s biggest villains: Senator Joe Lieberman.
9.Doom and the Cheating Renaissance
Cheats like the Konami Code were often a crutch for hard games. For example, if you couldn’t beat Contra with 3 lives, you could probably beat it with 30 lives after putting in the code.
But when Doom came out, developers gave players ultimate power. With just a few keyboard presses, you could give yourself all of the keys and weapons, make yourself invincible, and even clip right through the walls.
This created a brief renaissance for cheat codes because the makers of the game clearly wanted players to share the codes with each other. And this, combined with the easy ability to download and play custom maps, made Doom one of the most player-friendly games ever created.
10.Cheats You Have to Earn
Eventually, video game cheats faded away almost entirely. But before that happened, developers started getting creative.
The best example of this is Goldeneye on the Nintendo 64. That game had cheats that could make you invisible, replace bullets with paintballs, and even give characters giant heads. But these cheats didn’t come from codes: instead, players had to earn the cheats by beating certain levels under the time limit.
In many ways, this was a perfect compromise. You could cheat your heart out, but only after proving you had mastered the game.
11.Everything Blurs Together
When you look at the history of cheat codes, things aren’t broken up into clean dividing lines. In fact, there is usually quite a bit of overlap between developments.
For example, Goldeneye’s “cheats you can earn” were a kind of early video game achievement. They showcased extreme skill with that particular game. This eventually led to achievement and trophy systems that helped drive a nail in the coffin of the traditional cheat codes.
12.The End of an Era
Cheat codes did not go gently into that good night. In fact, gamers everywhere felt the repercussions of developers shifting away from cheat codes and focusing on achievements instead.
Most gaming magazines went away in large part because dishing about cheat codes helped sell issues. And game shows focused on cheat codes (like G4’s Cheat!) went away entirely. This was sad, but in an era when cheat codes became increasingly rare, there was little left to say about the subject.
13.Rise of the Micotransactions
It would be one thing if cheat codes could have had a dignified death. But greedy developers eventually saw this as an opportunity to make money.
You guessed it: this is where the microtransactions come in. Things that might have once been unlocked via cheat codes (such as new outfits and weapons) could now be unlocked for an additional fee. This led to an industry-wide mania for microtransactions that culminated in an absolutely disastrous launch for Star Wars: Battlefront II.
In many ways, microtransactions performed a fatality on our fond memories of cheat codes. And if they had trouble with that fatality, they could simply pay a little extra money and do it with one button.
14.Problematic Multiplayer Cheating
The cheat codes of yesteryear were, in retrospect, pretty harmless. But a more modern concern for many gamers is problematic multiplayer cheating.
For the last decade or so, it has been a constant fight for Steam, Epic, and others to detect and regulate cheating. And it’s not hard to see why: all it takes is widespread cheating to drive your core base of players away for good!
15.Hacks: The Last Honest Cheats?
So, do cheat codes have a happy ending in this story? The answer is both “yes” and “no.” Cheat codes as we know them remain relatively rare in video games. But all those players who enjoyed experimenting with Game Genie codes grew up to make ROM hacks for their favorite games.
This has led to amazing fan games that have breathed new life into old properties. Just be careful which company’s games you try to hack: there is no cheat code on the planet that will protect you from Nintendo’s lawyers!