Skip to main content

A History of Video Game Cheats

Nigel has been playing video games ever since he first picked up a Master System controller in his diapers. Nintendo fanboy.

The Debug Mode in "Sonic Mania" has a lot of interesting and fun things to do.

The Debug Mode in "Sonic Mania" has a lot of interesting and fun things to do.

It's time to talk about cheating in video games. There was a time when cheating in games was not just acceptable, but something bragged about on the schoolyard. Nowadays, it's highly frowned upon, mostly because of the online nature of games and trying to ensure that the game is balanced. Also because the effects of cheats can be sold as DLC packages for extra money. Pay to win and all that.

Yes, there was a time where cheating in video games was commonplace and even a marketing point on the box, so let's take a look at the history of cheat codes in video games.

The Early Years

Video games were extremely simple back in the early days of gaming. Simple, but not easy. Because of simple graphics and limited memory, a high difficulty level was used to increase playtime, or to swallow up quarters at the arcade. Many games required the use of cheat codes to allow playtesters to progress further in the game or skip early progression. One example of this is the 'xyzzy' cheat first found in the 1977 text adventure Colossal Cave Adventure. A very simple text adventure, this could be thought of as the precursor to the later Konami Code. It became an inside meme among game designers and was used in many other games for a period of time. In Colossal Cave Adventure for the PDP-10 Mainframe, a player could find the code written on a wall and when entered, it would allow them to skip large sections of the game. The command had gone on to be implemented as a command in numerous operating systems, applications, and games right up until the 90s.

Cheats programmed directly into the game were still rare as many playtesters used console commands—something we'll get to later—to pass difficult areas. As long as home computers were the primary platform for gaming, developers and testers could use sections of the code to adjust the game. That doesn't mean there weren't any cheats still though. Manic Miner on the ZX Spectrum actually used the designer's driver's license number to enter what was known as "cheat mode." Cheat mode on these devices were also similar to console commands in that they allowed playtesters to select which features they needed to complete the games, but instead, have these set so the game adjusted the programming itself. This made it easier on the business side as testers didn't need to have as much programming knowledge or training anymore.

The chat screen in "Minecraft" also allows players to enter console commands, such as this list of teleport commands.

The chat screen in "Minecraft" also allows players to enter console commands, such as this list of teleport commands.

Console Mode, Commands, and Early Hacking and Modding

Another early form of video game cheats—one that's still in use today in many games—is the previously mentioned console command. Console commands allow a user to open up a part of the program called a "shell" to type in commands similar to code. These can modify aspects of the game including changing the game's physics, adding lives, making characters or enemies more powerful or weaker, and more. This was also a frequent form of cheating primarily for playtesters, but was often accessible for players as well, so long as the console had a keyboard.

The console is essentially a Command Line Interface, or CLI for short. More well-known forms of CLI would be MS-DOS, or PowerShell. Some games would have a separate CLI programmed in that could only accept very specific commands, and that is in fact how most console commands work today. In other games, a user had to be a bit more "hacky" and required accessing the game's launcher or source code.

This actually became popular as many manufacturers intentionally made games unbeatable because they couldn't actually finish making the game, so console commands and software editing became ways players would get past obstacles put in place. The game would then eventually crash of course because there was no ending or next level or anything to progress to.

In other cases, there were just honest bugs in the game that got missed because of crunch—every bit of a problem in the early days as it is now—and it was up to players to patch these bugs themselves to make the game playable. There was no first-day patch in those days. Video Games were still very niche, mostly enjoyed by hackers, so most of the players were able to put in workaround themselves. This way of cheating also led to the start of the video game modding scene.

These more "hacky" cheats often came in the form of POKE commands on 8-bit computers. POKE was a command in most forms of the BASIC programming language that allows users to insert code into a specific part of the file, similar to how Game Genie and Action Replay operated. The sequel to the previously mentioned Manic Miner for the ZX Spectrum, Jet Set Willy, had a game-breaking bug that made the game impossible to complete. This was embarrassing for the developers as they had promised a prize to the first person who could send in photographic proof that they beat the game. Instead, the bug made it so arrows would spawn on the main character's head as soon as he entered a room. Not only that, but rebooting the game wouldn't fix it as the bug affected all subsequent playthroughs. The developers claimed that it was a feature and not a bug, citing it was to make the game "a bit more difficult." That is until a duo claimed they did beat the game after recognizing the bug and fixing it with a POKE. This POKE was immediately published in magazines everywhere, as magazines full of POKE commands were published pretty heavily, similar to the cheat magazines of the 90s.

The famous Konami Code. Variations of this have been used and are still used in video games and other pop culture references since inception.

The famous Konami Code. Variations of this have been used and are still used in video games and other pop culture references since inception.

The TV Era

As home computing and video games moved away from computer consoles such as the Commodore 64 and towards modern video game consoles, cheating in games quieted down. With no keyboard, most cheats were really just bugs and glitches could exploit on the ColecoVision and Atari series. There were strategy guides for some of the more difficult games, such as the infamous E.T. for the 2600—a game I maintain could have been good if the objective was made clear—as well as the rise in popularity of magazines with tips and tricks. Video gaming pre-crash was becoming mainstream and people wanted to be good at them, and aside from the occasional exploit, the only way to get good at them was to practice and "get gud."

This all changed post-crash. After the Nintendo Entertainment System broke into the North American market there was a huge move towards quality control. Nintendo had seen what caused the video game crash of the early 80s and put strict limits on those who would publish for their platform. Some of these limits would get challenged in court for antitrust and anticompetitive practices, but one thing that was important was Nintendo's focus on quality. Of course there were still some duds, but by and large quality of games improved.

This of course meant more rigorous playtesting. Much like earlier games, difficulty was being used to ensure a decent amount of playtime and the term "Nintendo hard" was born. Since you couldn't exactly open up a console screen or type in programming commands on an eight-button controller, programmers and playtesters had to put in their own way of making progression easier into games. Then, in 1986 when a Konami developer named Kazuhisa Hashimoto was testing the port of Gradius to the Nintendo Famicom, he created history by developing a button-input cheat code that would change gaming forever. Hashimoto invented the infamous "Konami Code," which would grant the player all of the possible upgrades to their ship.

No one knows if the code was left in the game after testing was completed on purpose, or if it was supposed to be removed, or even if because of the complexity of the Assembly language used on the NES and Famicon that removing the code might have unintended consequences. Regardless though, the game was released to the public with the famous code and became a hit. Almost every gamer is familiar with the input: "up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, A, B."

How the code was discovered is also debated. It's believed that in an interview with a magazine the developer mentioned the code, and spread from there, but others argue that players discovered it and actually contacted Konami to inquire about it. Since then, the code has been used in hundreds of video games, not just Konami games, and even unlocks easter eggs on many websites. Konami even would periodically poke fun at players by slightly changing the code and when players would try to input the classic code, it would instead punish them, usually through instantly killing the player.

The screen where you are given your password to recall your save data.

The screen where you are given your password to recall your save data.

The Rise of Password Systems Alongside Button Inputs

Button inputs became more popular throughout the years, and with a new console generation, continued. Sonic the Hedgehog included a hidden level select menu using an input code. Mortal Kombat for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and the Genesis had a debug menu that allowed a multiple of features to be unlocked, and of course, there's the infamous "blood code" in the Genesis port, that returned the violence the arcade games were famous for into the households. The code, input as A, B, A, C, A, B, B was a reference to the album Abacab from the band Genesis. For the Sony PlayStation, the Grand Theft Auto series began using button inputs to unlock weapons, cash, change your wanted rating, spawn vehicles, and change the game's physics. Fun fact: several demo games exist where the demo contains the full game but only lets you play the first level. Because the demo contains the full game, you know what else was in these demos? Level select cheats. That's right, you could bypass the demo and access the full game by using the button input to start on the second level.

Another popular method of in-game cheats though was the password system. While not exclusive to North America and Europe, they were popularized in the region due to cartridges having no battery to store memory with and the disk drive for the Famicon not being released outside of Japan. Many games for the Famicon Disk Drive were downgraded and ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System using a password system to save games. Some of these passwords were pretty simple, such as the ones used in Punch Out!! Others were significantly more complicated, such as those in Metroid and Kid Icarus which used 24 character cheats that included capital letters, lower case letters, and symbols to recall everything from progression to inventory, to how much of a map has been unlocked.

Technically these weren't cheats, but rather a way to tell the game's code certain things, similar to console and POKE commands. Entering a random string in some games would just mess up the game, make it buggy, or even allow you to skip large chunks of the game. Of course, certain "cheats" would be published, such as a way to skip to the final boss with a perfect record in Punch Out!! or to start Metroid with Samus not wearing her armor suit and having full inventory, something usually only possible when playing the game a second time.

Later on, games included a cheat input menu where you could use preprogrammed commands to input words or phrases to unlock items, levels, moon physics, and more, such as the Tony Hawk series or Banjo Kazooie. The sequel Banjo-Tooie parodied this by including a part of the game where you could input cheat codes, but would punish you for entering in three codes.

Earning Your Fun

Another cheat option games began using was an unlockable cheat menu. Unlockables in games are nothing new, as unlocking characters to play as, new levels, or even a chance to replay the game with new items have been around for a while. But games started adding cheats to the unlockables list. This was most famous in games like Goldeneye 64. Similar to achievements or trophy's in today's games, they were a reward for completing specific tasks, from defeating levels on specific difficulties, to finding all the collectibles. The Tony Hawk series also used this (as well as passcodes), and is still sometimes used in games today, such as Resident Evil 3 Remake where beating the game opens a shop where you can purchase bonuses for your next playthrough, limited by objections you achieved in-game.

Interestingly, it was also around this time that cheating was used for more than making games easier. While unlocking all the items, having infinite health, and skipping levels was useful, cheats were also being used to make things more fun. "Big Head" or "Paintball Mode" in Goldeneye were revolutionary, even if the NBA JAM series had already popularized "Big Head Mode." Cheats were now ways for the players to find new ways to have fun with an existing product and squeeze some extra replay value out of their product.

Unlockables started to decline in the early 2000s—along with cheats in general—with the invention of the home console modem. As online play became a possibility, and eventually more popular, cheating became something that started to become frowned upon. As preprogrammed cheats began to be less used or less useful when included, two things eventually came to fill in their place. One had been around for a while, while the other was a brand new business paradigm.

Three different versions of the GameShark for N64, with the GameShark 3.3 version having a connect port for computers to edit cheats and allegedly dump roms.

Three different versions of the GameShark for N64, with the GameShark 3.3 version having a connect port for computers to edit cheats and allegedly dump roms.

The Sketchy Side of Cheating

Of course, there were ways of manually inputting cheats into games that developers didn't intend to happen. Of course, we're talking about cheat devices. Cheat devices worked similar to the POKE commands mentioned earlier, whereby entering a few lines of characters before loading the game the device would directly edit the game's code. The earliest of these cheat devices was the Action Replay for the Commodore 64, with later models being released for the Commodore Amiga and finally for DOS and Windows 95 where home computers were concerned.

Of course, home computers weren't alone when it came to cheat devices. Though Action Replay didn't become as popular on home consoles for a few more generations yet, there were other options, and in most homes that option was the Game Genie. The Game Genie, despite being—mostly—harmless was one of the most popular cheat devices in North America, with Action Replay dominating the market in Europe. Game Genie was so popular that its distributors were unsuccessfully sued by Nintendo.

You see, with the market crash having been so recent in those days, Nintendo liked to have full control over what would or would not work on their systems. It wasn't like the days of the early 80s where anyone could publish anything on the Atari. If you wanted your game to work on the NES, Nintendo had to approve it. Game Genie was not approved by Nintendo. Nintendo took distributor Galoob to court arguing that their code was the intellectual property of Nintendo and that modifying that code infringed on their copyright. In Lewis Galoob Inc V. Nintendo of America it was deemed that since the Game Genie does not make any derivative works and requires the player to purchase the games in order for the Game Genie to be of use, it did not violate intellectual property law or copyrights. Essentially, it was akin to someone buying a book and changing the spelling in their copy that they own.

Nintendo did not challenge the ruling, and they dropped a similar lawsuit in Canada.

Sega hesitantly embraced the Game Genie. They had initially waited for the Nintendo ruling before taking a stand and found that embracing the Game Genie was another way they could market the Genesis as being cooler than Nintendo. After all, "Genesis does what Nintendon't" and what Nintendo didn't do was put their Seal of Quality on the Game Genie. Sega did, under the condition no codebook licensed by Galoob would have any cheats for games that were capable of in-game saves, including Phantasy Star.

As the mid-90s rolled around the original developers for the Game Genie, the UK-based company CodeMasters began to shift focus away from the device to expand their game development division, but a new cheat device rose to replace the discontinued Game Genie. The GameShark, which was owned by MadCatz until they went bankrupt because they kept making fourth-rate knockoffs of video game products that nobody wanted.

The game shark was finally succeeded by the Action Replay, a product that we opened the chapter on cheating devices with as we come full circle. Like the GameShark, the Action Replay device came with thousands of popular codes for games pre-installed, and also allowed users to enter their own cheats in a hexadecimal string. The other advantage of these devices is that you could run several more cheats at once than the Game Genie ever could, and also have significantly more specific cheats and more possibilities because you could have a single cheat take up several lines of code.

The Action Replay also had a few other advantages: You could back up save files, and some cheats were also being developed that could bypass antipiracy features. By this point, Action Replay was being used primarily with Nintendo systems and when systems went online it was a simple matter of Nintendo updating their firmware to block such devices.

Today save editing is the more popular way to cheat in games, usually through using homebrew channels to hack your device, though Datel still makes devices to help back up game saves most consoles keep save game data on the devices now.

Pay to Win

I genuinely believe that if Nintendo had their lawsuit over Game Genie nowadays, they actually could have won. The era of games as a product are over and we have entered the era of games as a service. You no longer are buying a disc or cartridge. You are buying a digital permit that grants you permission to play a game if you follow some legal mumbo-jumbo. Cheats built into games are very rare nowadays, and there are two reasons for that: games have moved online, and many games use a pay-to-win model.

Even single-player games have taken a lesson or two from the mobile world. First: Increase the difficulty curb, then you sell experience, stronger characters, stat boosts, or DLC only weapons to the player, and finally you make a profit. Developers used to put cheats in games because they could sell you guidebooks or make money off of a licensing agreement for a magazine exclusive article about cheats, etc. Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony, and Sega owned all their own versions of physical magazines at one point. Cheats not only helped games sell by expanding the player base, but they also helped sell magazines or positive reviews in exchange for first access. Video magazine ethics have always been a bit questionable, that's not new to the industry. But with the decline of the magazine industry and cheats becoming available online to all within seconds of publication, companies have found that players are willing to part with their money to make the game easier.

This is by no means a defense of any company nor a condemnation of cheaters, but as games moved online and the internet was entering more households, it was a really easy thing to do. Fewer people were getting tips and guides on a magazine rack, and now getting them from their computers. And as consoles moved online it became easier for developers and publishers to sell the content that used to be accessed through cheats.

We promise you that loot boxes aren't gambling. Now here's a slot machine, and we have pachinko too!

We promise you that loot boxes aren't gambling. Now here's a slot machine, and we have pachinko too!

Modern Era

Cheats aren't entirely a thing of the past. Steam has a console built into their platform that allows for console commands and gameplay modifications, Minecraft allows people to use the chat function to input cheat commands. Some games still have unlockable cheats, and of course Grand Theft Auto is famous for it's cheat inputs and so far have kept them. Many games do still have cheat menus as well, but to preserve game balance will turn off achievements so you can't use cheats to improve your gamerscore.

On the morally ambiguous side, there's also the homebrew scene and save file modification. If you ever receive a system update for "stability" you know what it really means is "we've made it more difficult to run homebrew for the next 24 hours after this update was released." There's a bit of a battle between console manufacturers and homebrew developers. It's like a game of cat and mouse, with each side trying to thwart the other, or game developers trying to find new ways to catch people cheating, often involving kernel-level DRM on PC, but consoles have found creative ways to catch cheaters. When a company can sell you ways to win and be a better player and have better weapons in multiplayer online games, then why would they give it away for free?

The rise of online multiplayer and competitive gaming has also changed how the gaming community feels about cheating as well, though it's largely still acceptable in single-player games. The industry, the community, and even games themselves have evolved over the past several decades, and cheats are going to evolve too, even legitimate cheats that developers leave in. A lot of it is going to be up to what future platforms look like and the future of computing theory. VR really changed how we game, and it's going to change how cheats are used. Same with quantum computing, if we see that in our lifetime. We might even return to an era where including cheats in games is rather expected. But cheating has been a part of gaming for centuries before games were on computers. I would not place bets on that changing in the future.

Poll Time!