Cheating Death: The Rise and Fall of Video Game Cheats

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Credit: geek-reply/Konami

There were three things I knew in my youth. The life and times of Isambard Kingdom Brunel all thanks to a torturous project in the 5th grade, the lyrics to the entire album of ‘Hotter than July’ by Stevie Wonder, but most importantly, the level select code to Sonic the Hedgehog on the SEGA Mega Drive. A cheat code that is still burned into my minds eye like a subconscious tramp stamp tattoo: up, down, left, right, A+B+C, start.

If you grew up in the early 1980s through to the early 2000s, I am willing to bet my collection of empty Jagermeister bottles of various sizes that you remember at least one cheat code from your youth. Whether it was the Mortal Kombat blood code or the infamous Konami code, video game cheats were a big business, from the printed pages to the playground.

Cheat codes worked for a variety of reasons. Yes, they could be used for extra lives, continues or even invincibility, but they also worked as a makeshift save system before the advent of memory cards and cloud systems. They allowed you to play as extra characters or would give you the keys to the game’s debug mode, a series of options for the player to tinker around with to make the game more challenging, fun or pants-wettingly bizzare. As video games have evolved however, the video game cheat has become like a forgotten relic of a bygone age. So why did we have video game cheats to begin with? Do we really miss video game cheats and is there room in this day and age of video gaming to accept them back into our collective loving bosoms like a long lost friend?

To start answering these questions, let’s talk about the origin of video game cheats themselves. Cheating and video games always went hand in hand during the early years, but the reason for their inclusion was more for the developer than the consumer. As most of us will know, during a game’s development cycle, developers will hire playtesters who are required to sit down and play a couple of hours of a certain section of game and help iron out the kinks. They’re responsible for finding any game breaking bugs, texture pop-ins or anything along those lines.

Back in the younger days of the medium, when there wasn’t anything in the way of save systems or memory cards, time, money and deadlines were far too precious for playtesters to keep playing the same scenarios over and over again until they get to the level they were supposed to test in the first place, so codes were handed out to help speed the process along. A logical conclusion would have been for developers to take out the code near the game’s release date. Or so you would assume, but when talking to Waypoint in 2016, 3D Realms founder Scott Miller argued that particular solution couldn’t really be the case:

“You don’t want to take [cheats] out during the final days of testing because you still might need them, and once you think you have a final gold master of the game, you don’t want to open up the code and remove them because that could break the game in some unexpected way.”

Cheats were the foundation to the overall structure of a video game and without that structure, games would crumble into a buggy, glitchy silicone hell. While some developers and publishers may have expressed their concern over this as gamers could complete their sacrifice of blood, sweat and tears in mere minutes, what was arguably unexpected was actually how cheats were used as a form of crypto-currency in the school yards. This was where video game cheats came into their own: 8-year-olds across the world, frustrated with that one level on Aladdin, were saved by messianic figures, armed with subscriptions of Nintendo Power or Sonic the Comics and their comprehensive walkthroughs and/or cheat codes. You were made from zero to hero if you were lucky to have such subscriptions.

If you were particularly flash, you also may have had the Game Genie, or a subsequent version of said technology like Xploder for the PlayStation, which had you entering codes into the game for invincibility, unlimited energy or starting Final Fantasy VIII at level 99, which I unashamedly will admit was the only way I could get through that game as a 12-year-old. As gamers grew up, so did the cheat code. Developers would purposely put codes in to make games more fun or to keep up the longevity of the game. It was alien for video games to not have big head modes, spawning tanks or sports cars and overpowered weapons. However, as we approached the heady heights of the Xbox 360 and PS3, something changed. It was something we barely noticed but when we did, it became a burning question for the mature gamer: where did the video game cheats go?

The obvious reason could be that thanks to games being able to be saved on hard drives and cloud storage, there’s simply no need for cheats for the modern gamer but this is too simplistic. Even if developers did include cheats, day one patches have slowly become the norm and with that codes could easily be extracted, with new code being added in place so that the foundations could stay intact.

For a more cynical reason, you could also suggest that DLC became the long slow pillow smothering of video game cheat codes. There are still ways of making your game more interesting, from different character skins to shooting rainbows out of a unicorn’s arse, ways of keeping developers and play-testers morale high during the painstaking process of creating a video game, but why hide them as fun easter eggs for the player to discover and discuss them on Reddit, when you can throw in a couple of online player maps or extra 5 minute missions and charge the customer an extra £10 – £20 for the pleasure? Or better yet, hold onto that stuff as a pre-order bonus? While not every AAA developer does that, enough have done in the past for one to feel that it’s all too convenient.

The death of video game cheats could also be that consumer attitudes have changed in our video game diet. As gaming has evolved, so has online multiplayer and the advent of gamer trophies and achievements. Though the seventh generation of consoles had cheats, they were seen as something to be ashamed of; achievements would pop up and brand you a cheater for you and your friends to see. Hardcore gamers didn’t want their friends to see that, so it deterred them from doing so. It is much more rewarding spending hours, sometimes days, putting in your effort to get that platinum trophy, a badge of honour that told your friends “don’t fuck with me on this game, I know what I am doing”.

Online gaming has also become competitive and depending on who you are asking, maybe a little too competitive, but that can be for another article. It’s a certainty that on top of hating you, your dead goldfish and your mum, online gamers hate any form of cheater with a passion. We are probably the only community that likes to argue about opponent snipers that shouldn’t camp on a particular patch of map. As hilarious as those arguments can be, the sentiment is at least there: why should gamers who have clearly worked hard and passionately to “git gud” have to endure gamers who have managed to cheat their way to the top? Some developers have also gone as far as to troll gamers who cheat. What was once the coolest form of playground currency is now indeed as popular as catching chlamydia and blaming it on the family dog.

So one question does remain: do we miss the humble video game cheat and we would love to see them make a huge comeback? By the looks of general consensus, the answer is a blunt no. Technology has moved on and in 10 short years, we have ushered in a new generation of gamers that may have been gleams in the milkman’s eye to play retro graphic games that has inspired such titles as Undertale, but are still drawn to a simpler way of playing video games, without necessarily entering a Konami code for extra health.

You could also argue that an unfortunate side effect of the fall of the cheat code is the gradual decline of print media. There was a time when gaming magazines were adorned with free cheat booklets, demo disks that came with complete game saves, walkthroughs and more. Unfortunately, other platforms such as YouTube became popular during the seventh generation of video game consoles.

The allure of the magazine incentives washed away with the advent of digital media. What was the point in spending precious disposable income on magazines or guide books, when you could just go on YouTube and look up “Hitman – Marrakesh – Honeycomb” and be presented with enough videos to help pick a more suitable strategy, with visual cues and audio commentary for help?

Gamers these days relish the challenge of trophies, achievements and the thrill of online communities that video game cheats are not really thought of anymore and are more seen as a dirty mark than a level of cool. Video game cheats may have become a relic of the past but just like limited save systems, that is not a bad thing. Video games are now being played the way developers and publishers intended them to be played during the early years of gaming. It may have taken them a while, but they got there in the end.

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