Cheating. It’s a practice looked down on in almost every profession, sport, and activity on the planet. Videogames used to be the exception, and gamers far and wide once enjoyed built-in secrets that let them act like the hand of God. Those fortunate enough to have enjoyed the 8- and 16-bit eras will fondly remember typing cryptic codes and complex button combinations into title screens to get a leg up, while onlookers sat slack-jawed in amazement.
Cheating, as we once knew it, is dead – and we have Achievements to blame.
Friends traded these top-secret tricks at school lunch tables and comic book stores, and gamers grabbed every magazine they could find, immediately flipping to the last 5 or 6 pages to see if their favorite game had yet been exploited. We sat in the glow of our CRT televisions hoping that we’d eventually hit all the correct buttons at just the right time to unlock a new character, map, or mode.
It was a time of innocence. Games were meant to be bested at all costs, even if that meant resorting to unlimited ammo and infinite lives. We didn’t feel bad about it, and the games didn’t punish us for learning their secrets.
Sadly, those days are gone. We live in a time where a cheat is no longer a secret coded into the game by fun-loving developers, or an exploit unlocked using a popular, store-bought accessory. Cheating, as we once knew it, is dead – and we have Achievements to blame.
But before we get into how our newest gaming obsession left the concept of cheat codes for dead in a dark alley, let’s take a trip back in time to Feb. 2, 1988. An NES title graced store shelves on that fateful day that would become the poster child for videogame cheat codes. The game was Contra, and the code (up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, start) has since been chiseled into the minds of dedicated gamers the world over.
The cheat, which is commonly known as either the “Contra Code” or “Konami Code,” first debuted in the classic NES shooter Gradius, but most gamers fell in love with it thanks to Contra. When entered at the title screen, the code provided the player with a bounty of 30 lives, but its impact reached much further than the edges of the screen. It wasn’t the first cheat code, but its massive popularity introduced an entire generation of gamers to the idea that videogame rules were meant to be broken.
In the years that followed Contra‘s release, the world of cheat codes exploded. We learned that developers had been hiding secrets in our games for a while, and they were ready to be found. NES games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 and Shinobi were made infinitely more playable thanks to codes that allowed us to skip levels, while Captain Skyhawk and Rambo let us feel like untouchable badasses by using invincibility cheats.
Cheating was such an accepted and enjoyable way to experience games both new and old that gamers demanded a way to cheat at games that didn’t sport built-in secrets. Enter the Game Genie, an accessory designed by Codemasters that allowed gamers to modify aspects of their favorite titles by entering special codes. Reduced damage, unlimited lives, and abilities like super jumping helped breathe new life into old and unforgivingly difficult titles.
A similar cheating device called Action Replay also made its home console debut around this time in Europe, and boasted a “Trainer” feature that allowed us to discover new exploits in just about any game we owned. It seemed like cheat codes were here to stay, and for the next few console generations, cheaters thrived. And though Nintendo did its best to thwart the plans of cheat accessory makers, developers didn’t seem to mind, and continued to include their own cheats as well.
Goldeneye, a milestone in the first-person shooter genre, featured intricate button combinations that unlocked everything from extra multiplayer characters to a fully-stocked arsenal of high-powered firearms.
The 16-bit era brought with it better graphics and more complex and vivid adventures, but cheats largely stayed the same. The Lost Vikings still didn’t mind if you skipped levels and Vectorman let you boost health with a simple button combination. Both the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis received the Game Genie and Action Replay treatment as well, and cheat codes flourished. We became comfortable with the fact that a game could be played with the rules turned off, and we wouldn’t have had it any other way.
By this point, videogame magazines were regularly devoting massive sections to cheat codes. Standalone books published thousands of codes at a time, and new editions were hitting shelves on a regular basis. It wasn’t odd to see kids reading cheat guides in school, and gamers relished the fact that they had complete control over their beloved virtual worlds.
The next console generation brought with it Sony’s debut into the home gaming market, the Sega Saturn struggled to keep pace, and the Nintendo 64 did its best to fight off the disc-based gaming revolution. This time is seen by many to be the heyday of cheat codes. Developers now had the power to create massive worlds and were seemingly impatient to help gamers along.
Goldeneye, a milestone in the first-person shooter genre, featured intricate button combinations that unlocked everything from extra multiplayer characters to a fully-stocked arsenal of high-powered firearms. Jet Moto 2 housed a notoriously lengthy set of codes that unlocked every track in the game, and granted access to the “Enigma” racer, whose speed and agility were unmatched.
The Action Replay accessory also graced all three major game consoles, and it was during this generation that the Game Genie finally bowed out. Not content to let the American cheat add-on market remain bare, InterAct scooped up the rights to sell Action Replay accessories stateside under a new brand name, GameShark. GameShark devices included thousands of built-in codes, and later models even included tutorials on how to create our own from scratch.
A new era in code sharing dawned, and cheaters took to the internet to share their knowledge with each other, and create massive databases of cheat codes. Early videogame websites hosted huge archives of cheats and encouraged readers to submit their own. Heading to the web for cheats became so popular that some sites catered to cheat hunters alone.
The following generation brought Microsoft into the home console market, but Sony’s PlayStation 2 bested both the Xbox and Nintendo’s GameCube. Sega attempted to beat all three companies to the punch by releasing the Dreamcast much earlier than the competing consoles, but its demise was inevitable due to Sega’s waning support from gamers.
Games were getting bigger and bigger, and cheat codes stayed with them every step of the way. If we knew the right button patterns, the Grand Theft Auto titles would reward us with infinite lives, mounds of cash, and more guns than one man should legally be able to own. But if we didn’t know the code, the Action Replay devices were still there to help us out, regardless of what console we owned. Cheaters remained satisfied.
Developers gave up on adding fun cheats to their games, instead focusing on ensuring we play the adventures the way they were “meant” to be played.
Then everything changed. In 2005, the Xbox 360 introduced a new concept to home gaming that would forever alter how we played videogames. Whether you call them Achievements or Trophies, these meta-rewards are a cheater’s worst nightmare. Developers gave up on adding fun cheats to their games, instead focusing on ensuring we play the adventures the way they were “meant” to be played. This made total sense of course, since an Achievement isn’t really an Achievement unless you earn it, and loopholes would undermine the entire system.
Handing out a reward for making it to Level 2 doesn’t make much sense if the game includes a handy level skip code. And even beating a game – which often carries a hefty helping of Achievement points or a gold Trophy – isn’t much of a challenge when you can use an invincibility code and breeze to the end with little trouble. This revolution has led the vast majority of games to skip cheat codes entirely. In the rare instance that a code or two makes it into a retail release, using them typically disables the ability to earn Achievements and Trophies entirely, even if the code in question has no bearing on the Achievement you’re after.
And where are the accessories that once helped us cheat the night away? Microsoft took the bold step of prohibiting cheat devices on its system, and since MadCatz now owns the GameShark name – and holds a Microsoft license for accessories – the brand has been reduced to media management tools and movie players on both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Action Replay devices took a similar dive, rendering dedicated cheat code accessories officially dead.
Where is the game magazine cheat section? Gone. And dedicated websites specializing in the latest codes? Extinct. A simple Google Trends query clearly shows the decline of cheat code searches, while achievement and trophy tips have already spawned countless websites that specialize in beefing up your various gamer meta-scores. Now, the Nintendo Wii stands alone. Its lack of an overarching Achievement or Trophy structure should serve as a last bastion for cheaters. Unfortunately, game philosophy has already shifted, and secret codes are nearly as scarce on the Wii as they are on its two competing consoles.
So where do we go from here? Can cheat codes ever dominate the gaming landscape as they once did? Sadly, it’s doubtful. Achievements and Trophies are a huge hit, and we seem just as addicted to scoring those sweet, sweet meta-points as we were to besting our favorite games with the help of a code or two. There’s no question that as long as developers and console makers remain dedicated to letting you show off your hard-earned points and badges, cheat codes will remain little more than relics of a bygone era.
Mike Wehner has been a gamer since the Atari 2600 days, and holds a somewhat unhealthy adoration for Mega Man. He is the Senior News Editor for Tecca, which specializes in consumer technology.