If you were anything like me growing up, going on GameFAQs.com was a natural response to getting a new game. You popped the game disc or cartridge in, messed around in the world for a little, and then you ran from your room to the computer room to get online and find what surprises the game developers left you in the form of cheat codes.
This concept may sound very familiar to you, but it’s likely you haven’t really thought about cheat codes in years. Why is that? What happened to cheat codes? And where did they even come from? In this series, I’m going to walk you through the history of cheat codes–beginning with the first known cheat code, the Konami Code–and we’ll explore together their development, rise, and fall through the years.
Where did they come from, where did they go?
For those unaware, a cheat code is a sequence input via a controller or keyboard during a game in order to unlock special abilities or perks. These abilities are usually found later on in the game, but when a player is impatient or eager, cheat codes help them get some gear early. It’s right there in the name–it helps them cheat.
These codes aren’t accidentally placed in the game, nor are they mistakes on the developers part. Cheat codes are purposefully put into the game’s code for the express reason to give players a boost early on. This trend began with the first known cheat code, colloquially known as the Konami Code. One of the developers decided the game his team was working on was too difficult. He snuck in a sequence that, when entered while the player was in the game’s pause menu, would give them a full set of power-ups. It wasn’t discovered until after the game hit the shelves. At that point, there was nothing the other developers could do about it, as removing it from the game could cause other bugs and issues.
Since then, variations of the Konami Code as well as other unique cheat codes have appeared in games across numerous platforms. If you’ve played the Sims, for example, you’ve probably overused the MOTHERLODE cheat code in order to get your Sims the biggest and best house there is. From aesthetic changes to power-ups to weapon improvements, cheat codes have been there for gamers to get them where they wanted to go, fast.
So what happened to them?
Let’s get into the theories
Buying game guides or looking at online forums used to go along with playing video games like bread and butter. Guides have mostly adapted to the rise of the Internet, with some physical exceptions still kicking. For the most part, these and online gaming communities are flourishing. Why haven’t they brought cheat codes with them?
There are a few possible reasons I’ve come up with for the recent lack of cheat codes and their decline in popularity and publicity over the years.
A large portion of popular video games are now massive multiplayer online role playing games, or MMORPGs. Games like Destiny force players to work with each other to reach certain goals, so cheating isn’t encouraged. Players need to be on the same level (literally) in order to progress, and they need to get there fairly. One person can’t cheat their way to the top and expect to work well with those that got there with time and effort.
Alternatively, battle royale games like Fortnite encourage players to work against each other, and while it’s more tempting here to want to use cheat codes in order to beat other players, there is still an unspoken rule in regards to the fairness of the game. Everyone is working toward that coveted first place standing. Using cheat codes to get better equipment fast and subsequently destroy the other players completely is simply no fun, and it’s not the way players or developers want the game to be played. Developers don’t even want to give players the opportunity to cheat, so they leave out any hidden cheat codes entirely. The reward in winning games like this is the work put into finding the best loot and the best hiding spots and learning to use those things to your advantage. It’s what the developers intended, and therefore how they expect players to play, and they’re not going to give them the means to defy the entire point and satisfaction of winning a game.
Another fairly recent game element that may discourage players from using cheat codes is the introduction and popularity of loot boxes. Developers give players the chance to get better equipment quickly by paying for it. It’s more randomized and, for some, a major investment, but players may find it easier to pay a few bucks for an immediate reward rather than searching for the right buttons to press at the right time to unlock the items they need.
Story-heavy games are also on the rise. Game companies are investing more time and effort into games that have an important and well-crafted narrative. This encourages players to follow the game in a linear fashion, in order to fully absorb and experience the story. Using cheat codes would cause players to potentially miss out on impactful or highly emotional story moments, and therefore they would not experience the game itself fully.
For computer games specifically, game modifications (otherwise known more simply as “mods”) allow players to flex their own programming skills and directly influence the game code themselves. Developers don’t need to add in cheat codes to the original programming when players can and will develop their own codes and additions to break games and give themselves what they’re after.
I know what you’re thinking–if cheat codes have been phased out by all this cool, new stuff, then why should you care about them? Why am I writing this series?
Like I mentioned at the beginning, cheat codes are a huge part of my childhood gaming memories. Maybe I shouldn’t brag about how often I used them, but for someone who has only finished two video games in their entire life (Celeste and Super Mario Odyssey, in case you were wondering), cheat codes were a godsend, a miraculous invention that let me experience later parts of the game without actually having to push the limits of my short attention span. So, when I had the realization that I hadn’t heard the term “cheat code” used in a really long time, I got curious. What happened to these once treasured pieces of knowledge?
Ultimately, I’m not here to prove anything or say for sure what led to the demise of cheat codes. I simply want to lead you through a journey about the Konami Code and what came after. I hope you’ll join me next time as we dive deeper into what cheat codes are and how they developed.