The first video game was created by a physicist named William Higinbotham in October of 1958. It was a very simple tennis-style game called Tennis for Two, and was similar to Pong, which came about in the 1970s. It took about two weeks to design and build.
28 years after Tennis for Two debuted, 14 years after Pong came out, and after decades of improvement to the software and hardware of video games and their consoles, the first cheat code was invented. Years of hard work were spent on making video games enticing and exciting, finding the perfect balance between challenging but feasible. It took one developer to decide that they had gone too far, and gave players a powerful tool that would change the way video games were played.
In the 34 years of cheat codes’ existence, they’ve developed alongside consoles and computers, but where exactly did it all begin, and how do cheat codes end up in games in the first place?
The Konami Code
The first cheat code was the now famous Konami Code – “up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, select, start”. The code was first used in the 1986 release of Gradius for the NES and popularized in America in the NES version of Contra.
The code was created by Kazuhisa Hashimoto, who developed the home port of Gradius. He found the game too difficult during testing, so he programmed the code to give the player a full set of power ups, normally obtained gradually throughout the game. The code was entered during the pause menu.
It wasn’t until after the game’s release that the code was discovered, and there’s no information about who found it first or how. At that point, the other developers couldn’t do anything about it. If they tried to remove the Konami Code, it could cause bugs or glitches in the game. Since then, cheat codes of all forms have come to exist on almost every console ever created.
What are cheat codes, and how are they found?
Just so we’re all on the same page, a reminder that a cheat code is “…a code, method, or device used by gamers to advance levels, or to get other special powers and benefits in a video game.” These codes are input at specific points during the game via a keyboard or controller, and consist of a specific series of alphanumeric sequences or controller button presses. Players use these in order to create an advantage or disadvantage beyond normal gameplay.
Cheat codes are not, by design, meant to be advertised publicly. Their original use was to aid in the development and testing of game modules and therefore, they were kept hidden from the general public. These could then be passed on to reviewers or playtesters who got early access to the game in order to allow them to advance faster. However, there are some commenters who think that cheat codes were then implemented in order to “make a game more accessible and appealing to a casual gamer.” Others say that they’re meant to expand the number of ways people can play a game. Purposeful or not, cheat codes became more than hidden gems buried deep in a game’s code.
According to a paper by an Associate Professor of Telecommunications at Ohio University, Mia Consalvo, as more codes became known to the general public, a “cheat industry emerged” and flourished, and “Cheat-enablers such as cheat books [and] game guides… cemented cheating as part of gaming culture”. Guides usually served as walkthroughs, but codes were included as a kind of “bonus content.” The guides allowed players to see how the developers wanted the game to be played and how they were supposed to advance, but they were also given the option to cheat a little and jump ahead. Cheat books and later magazines and other serial publications were more straightforward – they featured full lists of different cheat codes for computer and console games. Soon, as the internet became more of a household staple, forums and websites (like my beloved GameFAQs) were the cheat code information hubs.
At this point, players began to speculate that the developers themselves were leaking codes to websites. If they were to be used beyond playtesting and make for a more easily accessible game, then it tracks that developers would want to share cheat codes eventually. Anonymously leaking them onto forums added to the mysterious nature of the codes, but personally hunting for cheat codes was more rewarding for some. Tech-savvy players could easily exploit cheats by modifying the game’s data directly and finding hidden cheat codes that way. They were able to visually see where the code was, translate into the necessary button combinations, and then subsequently share them online on forums or with friends.
How have cheat codes developed since the Konami Code?
The Konami Code itself stuck around as a cheat code, appearing in almost 115 games since its first appearance in Gradius, and as a reference in countless songs, toys, and websites. When the Bank of Canada first announced its $10 note, if you entered the code on the bank’s website, a chiptune version of the national anthem played and the screen was filled with $10 banknotes and fireworks (unfortunately, this no longer works). You can enter a slight variation of the code on Sony devices to log out of Netflix. The code can also be used in games such as the Castlevania series, Dance Dance Revolution, and the Metal Gear Solid series. Each iteration of the code makes something different happen in each game.
Newer cheat codes served as spiritual successors to the Konami Code, and so their purpose was to make games easier and more fun for players. Cheat codes grew in popularity, and as such they also grew in complexity, making the video game cheat industry more lucrative than ever.
In the next part of the series, I’ll discuss the many different cheat codes, along with some other methods players have used to get ahead in video games, as we continue to explore the Konami Code and what came after.