What choice did I have? I had to cheat.
I had just entered college on a hefty scholarship stipulating the maintenance of a perfect 4.0 GPA. I also had a part-time job as a tutor that surprisingly brought in some phat cash. The job combined with the scholarship meant that, for the first time in my life, I could buy all the games and consoles I wanted. But it left me with the most important thing I couldn’t buy: time, or at least time enough to play all my beloved games. Between the classes, the work and the study sessions, gaming became a hot commodity; euphoria in its limited timeslot.
With all this time spent doing “serious” stuff, I had games piling up. Good games, nearly a dozen or so, untouched since they were purchased. Begging to be played, goading me to pick up the controller, starving for attention like a girl whose feelings are hurt because I promised I’d call her and take her out on the weekend only to leave her waiting for the phone to ring. Fellow scholars might feel the same mixture of joy and trepidation that comes with the fall semester, when so many games hit for the holiday season and so much money is spent on so many titles with so little time to actually play them. It’s never fun to buy a game and not finish it, but the constant barrage of midterms, final exams and term papers make this all too common.
This is when I became a cheat device junkie. The GameShark, Action Replay and Code Breaker were my way of cheating time. They liberated me from mindlessly grinding levels in RPGs, backtracking for hours to gain missed items and aimlessly scouring game worlds for various artifacts through tedious fetch quests. Take Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, an otherwise fun game that made collecting map sections, heart pieces and bomb expansions a time consuming chore. These tasks were like being made to write out 20 pages from a textbook. Would it make me more familiar with the material (i.e. the game world)? Sure. Would it be fun? Not for me, especially when I could take a minute to punch in a random code through a cheat device and save myself hours of time. I couldn’t deny the appeal of such convenience.
I Never Did Know How to Play Fair
This penchant for cheating was hardly a newfound personal phenomenon. I had been cheating for years, albeit for a considerably different reason.
Unlike my hectic years at college, as a young gamer in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras there was no rush to finish games. Heck, I might only have a handful of games to last me an entire year. No, there was an entirely different impulse that brought about cheating. Take, for instance, my sixth grade fall term, where the first two levels of Battletoads would be my constant after school preoccupation. Literally, levels one and two, every afternoon, the entire fall. I’d see level three once in a while if I was lucky, but getting past that was seemingly impossible.
There was no denying that some games simply required a superhuman effort to finish. Take, for instance, the wicked enemy placement and numerous pits that litter most levels of the Ninja Gaiden series. How about the relentless onslaught of enemies that bombard players in literally every level of Ghosts ‘n Goblins, where death means you have to restart the entire level? Or consider the seventh level of Castlevania III that combines all of the aforementioned perils into one smorgasbord of self-esteem-crushing peril. Then there is Kid Icarus‘ killer level design, Mega Man‘s instant spike death and the one-hit-death syndrome in every old school shmup.
One device forever changed the way I would play games (and save me from having to replace smashed controllers): the Game Genie. In the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, when game difficulty was brutal and cheap, the Game Genie was the ultimate ace in the hole. With it, I could tap every last bit of gameplay out of any game.
Scoff All You Want, Everyone Cheats
Of course, there are always hardcore gamers who despise cheat devices. They stand firm in the notion that it’s a gamer’s responsibility to hunker down, roll up his sleeves and attack punishing games with resolute determination. The critique from hardcore types is codes like invincibility and unlimited lives take away from a game by removing the need for skill, timing and effort, thus eliminating the elements of fear and suspense.
But even the most hardcore can’t deny using codes for games. I’m convinced most people played Contra using the Konami code, a code so pervasive that it has become an industry and pop culture icon adorning T-shirts and coffee mugs. What the code did was enable gamers to approach and play a wonderful game through to the end, whereas only the most dedicated hardcore gamers with lots of time and patience could beat it with the standard three lives. Stage select codes and secret passwords like the infamous “JUSTIN BAILEY” password in Metroid were other common ways of extending the gameplay experience, adding perks to already beloved games.
The Glory Days of Cheating Have Come and Gone
While the days of cheating as a kid and as a college student are all in the past now, it’s not like I felt bad about cheating and gave it up.
Truth be told, I’ve not faced a maddening, throw-your-controller-and-punch-a-hole-in-the-wall game in years. Software developers, by and large, are now effectively balancing difficulty, or at least providing multiple difficulty levels. Games for current-gen consoles are also getting shorter as budgets reach astronomical levels. As a result, console games get straight to the point and deliver gameplay and narrative in a succinct package. Take a modern game like Gears of War where, in addition to offering three difficulty levels, players can die dozens of times and restart from the most recent checkpoint (of which there are plenty). Gears of War also doesn’t require players to find all the optional COG Tags in order to progress through the game, so there is a considerable cut down on tedium.
Furthermore, the actual hardware of current-gen consoles doesn’t seem to be as cheat-device friendly as those of years past. Try as you might, you won’t find a genuine cheat device for a PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 or Nintendo Wii. And this is a good thing if for one main reason: online gaming.
The Internet Has Changed the World!
Just as the proliferation of online multiplayer has drastically changed console gaming, it has also changed the way gamers can (and can’t) cheat.
Sure, in-game codes and passwords for unlocking various extra features and abilities are still somewhat common, but anything that could provide an unfair competitive edge online is considered outright heresy. Indeed, the gaming community often equates cheating in online multiplayer games to criminal activity. It’s one thing to cheat to overcome what one personally considers a tedious design flaw or unfair gameplay; the opponent is an artificial CPU. Cheating online is like putting your name on another man’s doctoral thesis on the same weekend you steal his car and have sex with his girlfriend. Maybe even worse.
Does this mean the days of cheating have come to an end? Hardly. Tech savvy gamers will always find a way to exploit games, if only just for kicks. Then there are always the MacGyver hackers whose ultimate goal is not so much finishing a game, but debugging it and discovering all its little hidden secrets. Besides, it’s all about game saves these days. Thanks to the standardization of hard drives and high-capacity storage memory on current-gen consoles, downloading a save file that contains unlocked, hard earned content is a snap. Fortunately, game saves won’t let a player go online in Call of Duty 4 or Halo 3 with unlimited ammo and invincibility, so the sanctity of social gaming is safe for the time being.
Even if cheating has seen its time come and go, gaming itself might just be better off. When game developers manage to consistently find the sweet spot in balancing difficulty, game content and overall gameplay, gamers will consequently find themselves in a pure state of Zen. Cheating will become obsolete.
If only in a perfect world.
Zorin Iovanovici is a fr4eelance contributor to The Escapist.