Why cheat codes have disappeared in gaming

The other night I was asked an interesting question, “What cheat codes do you remember?”

At first my brain chimed in, “Psh, that’s an easy one. Let’s see…” My mind blanked out. In recent years I’ve never had to learn any or go to GameFAQs to find anything more than a walkthrough.

How many games today offer all-empowering cheats? Regenerating health basically makes us invincible, stage/chapter select allows us to bypass hours of play, and difficulty levels have gone way down in the mainstream.

Cheat codes have been relegated to the role of unlocking stuff or just Easter Eggs left in there by the developer. They still exist, but the magic in them has been drained. Good thing we have long memories.

Cheats are an almost arcane forms of knowledge. Think about it they operate on a level we’re not typically meant to understand. I understand that the button inputs on most old games correlate a certain set of instructions to the game software. Those button presses make something happen or unlock a debug mode in the game.

The most famous of these is the Konami Code:


The code made its first appearance in Gradius on the Nintendo Entertainment System to give players a few much needed lives in the schmup. It was also pivotal feature in Contra… mostly because I suck at video games.

I levelled the playing field for players, but they weren’t meant to be found. Only through studying the game’s coding could they be deciphered like translating ancient runes.

In a way these esoteric command entries are like magic spells.

Action Replay

Owning a device like an Action Replay was an arcane exercise. Using codes made up of tens of words and letters somehow interacted with the game to make something happen. It meant sitting down at a computer studying and copying the codes down in order to enter them into the device’s library.

I used the device to conjure up certain Pokémon in the wild. Any of these creature were suddenly at my disposal and if I wanted they could become part of my team far ahead of schedule. Why not have a Mewtwo right before the first gym?

It was a magical incantation I didn’t understand and yet it worked. Somehow these magic cheats code was able to bring the world’s most powerful items, spells, and characters right to me.

While cheat codes might be looked at as devices to give the player an advantage, but really they let you to take control of the game itself. It’s something that developers and maybe even players have turned away from in recent years.

Video games are about building a consistent world. Clipping errors and like spelling errors in novels they take the audience right out of the experience. Back in the 90’s developers made their games with the ability to be modded through developer tools.

The earliest memories I have using game development codes was in Half Life.

Using sv_cheats allowed players to do everything from turning on God Mode, adding ammo to your guns, or allowing the player to clip right through walls. As the Valve Development Forum notes about the codes:

This boolean ConVar enables/disables cheats on the server.
It also gives you access to commmands that would normally be abused or misused by players. When building maps, you may want this as a startup command.
Note: Command parameters are described inside the characters.
Syntax: sv_cheat

Using sv_cheats is a way for developers and players to explore levels they have created. It’s like the flying debug mode in Sonic 2. Players are able to clip through the level to get a first-person view of any inconsistencies in the world. On the whole, players aren’t supposed to know about these codes hence the esoteric methods for entering them into the game.

In Sonic 2, the debug mode is only unlocked by using an extremely specific method. It involved going into the sound select screen and entering in about six or seven different tracks in order. As you can see in the video below, it’s almost impossible to think of any normal person learning this code alone.

You can just imagine that some developed at Sega Japan probably had the code written on a piece of paper beside his desk. It was only through trade publications and the Internet that these cheat codes were even revealed to the public allowing the frustrated masses to finally beat the Death Egg.

Cheat codes allow players to take control of the experience and expose the faults in a game. Finding them is even a kind of hunt, but as someone who has only used and not found it’s an arcane science. But do they take out the fun out of a video game?

To this day there are at least twenty games that I’ve never managed to beat due to difficulty or time. Using codes would be an easy way out of it, but the catharsis at the end of the experience just wouldn’t be the same. It has to do with the law of diminishing returns in video games. The harder you play a game, the better it feels when you win, but it only goes so far.

Sisyphus knows what I'm talking about.

Sisyphus knows what I’m talking about.

There are games today that still have cheat codes. Right now I’m playing through XCOM Enemy Unknown and by changing some you can make your soldiers into Hero units.

Cheat codes have a legacy, but you have to think, why would a game like The Last of Us wrest a no clipping mode away from players? Of course, they don’t want you breaking the immersion by going out of the bounding box. That would break the game itself.

Yet could it be that the player doesn’t want to have his or her immersion broken? Have we moved away from cheat codes because they break our games and the catharsis that comes from beating them?

They still exist, but you have to admit they’ve changed since the early days of gaming.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s