Code Red: The history of the cheat

We speak to veteran developers about the rise and fall of the legendary cheat code.

Code Red: The history of the cheat
© Stefano Tinti / Shutterstock.com / Nintendo

Modern games developers do everything in their power to prevent players from gaining an unfair advantage in the titles they create. Xbox One first-person shooter Titanfall punishes cheaters by forcing them to face off exclusively in matches against other rule-breakers for instance, while Valve's famed "Anti-Cheat" system spots and removes hackers who spoil everyone's online game on its Steam platform.

These moves are totally understandable in a period when fair play is paramount and online multiplayer comes as standard, but not so long ago such devious tips and tricks were valued by gamers all over the globe. In the pre-internet age, gaming magazines devoted reams of pages to cheat codes which allowed players to break their games wide open, earning everything from infinite lives or fly to the ability to play any level in the game at will. Where did they all go?

The accidental cause of cheats

It's easy to appreciate why cheat codes have gone down in video game folklore; using special inputs to access stuff that should really remain out of reach has a certain glamour to it, as the success of recent next-gen hacking-sim Watch Dogs illustrates. The famous "Konami Code" – created by programmer Kazuhisa Hashimoto because his NES port of Gradius proved too difficult to play during the all-important debug phase – is so well known that it is often referenced in comics and TV shows. However, while such codes were once a gamer's deadliest weapon, they've fallen out of favour in recent years. To understand why this is the case, you really need to grasp why codes were inserted into games in the first place.

"A lot of the time they were put in for testing," says veteran coder Ste Pickford, one half of the Pickford Brothers – the duo behind such classics as Solar Jetman, Plok and Equinox. "We tended to have fairly simple user interfaces in games back in the 8-bit days – no pages of menu screens where we could add a cheat list – so a cheat code on the front end was often used as an easy way for testers to get to different parts of the game quickly, or try out different features. Some were left in release versions by accident."

Chris Sorrell – the man behind titles such as James Pond, Robocod and Medievil – concurs that such codes were primarily there to aid developers rather than benefit the player. "Cheat codes were first and foremost a tool to aid in development," explains Sorrell, who now run indie studio SpoonSized Entertainment. "When you’re working on a game, you do so in a very piecemeal manner, developing one small aspect of the game at a time. You work on something then need to test it, work, test, work, test – hundreds of times a day. Consequently you need to be able to jump to any area or feature in the game as quickly as possible. You can’t keep fighting the boss just to check if he correctly drops the special key as he dies, so you add a weapon super-power feature to kill him in one hit. Spending just a little time hooking up powerful cheats means that you save yourself – and everyone else working on a project – hundreds of hours of productivity time."

However, not all cheats are a result of developers trying to make their lives easier during production. "I personally have always been a fan of codes, Easter eggs, little secrets and the like," says Christopher Seavor, who found fame at esteemed UK studio Rare with Conker's Bad Fur Day on the N64, and now makes his own titles at Gory Detail. "It can add a degree of mystery which in some cases can extend beyond the life of the actual game." In fact, Seavor believes that the desire to crack games wide open is what inspired many gamers to take up coding seriously. "I grew up with the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 in days when computer games were very much a niche hobby in the playground," he recalls. "The best way to learn how to use them was to try and break and change what we had – which was other people's games."

In the days of home computers like the Spectrum and C64, this meant employing 'pokes' to tinker with a game's code. The game would be loaded into the computer's memory from the data tape, and before launching it, players with the right amount of programming skill could modify specific memory addresses to gain unlimited number of lives or invincibility. "Random 'pokes' here and there could have interesting effects and once a game was completed it seemed perfectly logical to try and see how it worked," continues Seavor, who feels that this tinkering gave many young players a tantalising taste of the wild world of development. "A lot of the UK industry stemmed, in my opinion, from this curiosity. Either that or I – and others like me – just liked to break things to see how they worked."

© GameWreck

In an era when scores were arguably more important than storyline, cheat codes allowed players to gain an unfair advantage over titles which often pushed them to their limits. "We always wanted to beat games back in the 8-bit days, when they were less about story and the experience but more about challenge," explains Pickford, who continues to work with his brother John at their studio Zee-3. Studios soon picked up on this – and turned those debug tools into features of the game proper.

"Beating the game without playing by the rules is extra-appealing. Games are like complicated machines that we tinker with during play. We try different strategies and approaches to see what works, how to beat an enemy, how to find a secret area and so on. Poking and prodding at a game is a natural part of how we play, so looking for cheats or exploits is a perfectly normal part of playing a game. By the 16-bit days putting cheat codes in was almost a normal part of development, with the release of the code later a deliberately planned marketing exercise."

As the storage space on a game cartridge grew, and games grew in size and complexity, save points became necessary and cheat codes became a way of loading up a level without requiring a memory card. Codes also evolved into a crude method of anti-piracy DRM too, by requiring you to type in a set word from the manual that came in the box. Of course, crafty gamers would photocopy the manual too – but developers soon conjured up a new tactic to turn them to their advantage.

Enter the magazine

As videogame magazines grew in popularity (with stalwarts like Nintendo Power and CVG) a relentless hunt for cheats began – and developers were clearly aware of this. "The temptation was always there for developers to leave in those cheat codes, to have that secret ‘back door’ that only they knew about, making them more able to show-off their games to family and friends," says Sorrell. "Of course, with an enthusiastic games press always looking for ways to expand upon and add value to the gaming experience, it was only natural that news of those secret codes would spread like wildfire."

This of course leads us to the issue of cheats removing the challenge and potentially ruining what at the time could have been a very expensive investment. "Whether the cheats would spoil or enhance a game were probably down to each player’s use of them," says Sorrell. "Some players might only ever use the cheat, breeze through a game and miss out on all elements of challenge and progression – without which many older games can certainly feel flat. Many more people probably used cheats to mitigate their frustration at some difficulty spike. I think for other kinds of players, cheats – especially those that 'lifted the hood’ to reveal hidden options, menus, even otherwise locked content – brought them closer to the world of the developer and added an extra layer to their enjoyment of a game."

Mortal Kombat Gore
Mortal Kombat© Midway/Warner Bros. Games

Some codes are so memorable that they stick in your mind for the rest of your life – the level select cheat for Sonic the Hedgehog (Hold A then press Up, Down, Left, Right. When you hear the chime, press Start) is another that springs instantly to mind. One of gaming's most famous codes relates to the port of the first Mortal Kombat for the Sega Genesis. The mainstream media had reacted badly to the levels of violence displayed in the arcade original, so the developers of the Sega version hid the blood and core behind a special code – ABACABB – a nod to the British rock band Genesis, who shared their name with Sega's 16-bit console.

Unsurprisingly, the developers we spoke to have codes which remain lodged in their respective memories, too. "We did a nice one in Ken Griffey presents Major League Baseball on the SNES," explains Pickford. "We had a code to cut straight from the title screen to the end-of-game credits sequence, which was not only a nice sequence but also a nice way for all of us on the dev team to be able to instantly prove we worked on the game, back when getting credit was quite rare. The code was, I think, 'BADBUBBA'. This came from 'Bubba' being the childhood nickname of the producer and designer of the game."

For Sorrell, it's perhaps his most critically acclaimed title – the humorous platformer James Pond 2: Robocod – which springs to mind. "The James Pond games all featured cheats – standard stuff like infinite health, infinite lives, level skipping and so on. In James Pond 2, the way the player could trigger cheats was quite distinctive and became pretty well known. Hiding in plain sight – basically visible in the game’s ‘hub’ from the moment you start the game and every time you return there – are a seemingly random bunch of bonus items. If you think about what these items are, considering the first letter of each, they represent an anagram of the word ‘CHEAT’ – Cake, Hammer, Earth, Apple, Tap. Collect them in the right order and you’ve got ten minutes of invulnerability. Elsewhere in the game there’s another group of items spelling out ‘LIVES’. Even to this day I hear people reminisce about finding those items!"

© Millennium Interactive

Not every developer was as keen on inserting codes into their games. Respected programmer Jon Ritman produced some of the finest 8-bit games of the '80s, but never saw the point in deliberately inserting cheats which effectively made the game easier to beat. "For me much of the satisfaction playing video games comes from learning the problems and solving them," he says. "As a games designer I always tried to keep this in mind and create solvable problems. When people started putting cheat codes into games it confused the hell out of me – why go to all the trouble of creating the puzzles and then publishing a code in a magazine that permitted the players to totally bypass the problems? Were the puzzles too hard? If so, why not adjust the gameplay?"

Enter the cheat cartridge

When looking at the past life of the cheat code, one can't help but notice a significant event taking place in the early '90s: the release of Codemasters' Game Genie cartridge, which was closely followed by Datel's Action Replay device. These carts were wildly popular and functioned in very much the same fashion as the 'pokes' of the Spectrum and C64 era, allowing players to create their own cheats by altering elements of the game data. While many have pointed to such products as the reason for the death of the cheat code, the developers we spoke to aren't so sure.

"They would have done little to reduce a developer’s need to implement their own cheats in the first place – it’s way easier for us to hook up a cheat than to prod bytes in memory each time we run the game," says Sorrell. "Action Replay cheats were also very ‘bare-bones’, allowing for little more than increased life counts or unlimited energy, and never the kind of enhanced play mode or bonus content that the more fun developer cheat might." Pickford also didn't approve of such products. "Perhaps those kind of devices remove the incentive for devs to add cheat codes, but turning cheats into a kind of parasitic industry seemed a bit ugly to me."

© Codemasters

While the impact of cheat devices is debatable, there's no denying that in recent years the once-beloved cheat code has fallen from grace, with few developers bothering to include them in their titles. Pickford feels this is largely down to a change in what gamers expect from their interactive entertainment. "Games have become less and less about challenge and score, and more about consuming content and playing through a story without much difficulty," he says. "A cheat is kind of meaningless when you're playing through chapters in a story, and the more competitive side of mainstream video games tends to be online, where cheating is very bad for the game as you're ruining other people's experience if you cheat."

"I think there are a few reasons why cheats have fallen from favour, all directly or indirectly relating to the rising cost of game development and the broader audience that games began to attract," adds Sorrell. "The way games were developed changed as ever more powerful tools and development frameworks became available. Where once people would use their own ‘in-game’ level editors it has now become commonplace to develop a game within a dedicated PC version of the game that is both game, level editor and full-featured testing/debugging environment all in one. Invariably all of the juiciest quick-access cheats get stripped away in the final build."

Sorrell also thinks that the massive growth in the popularity and appeal of games since the 16-bit days has contributed to the demise of the cheat code, and that many of the bonuses such codes gave us have since become commonplace in games. "As games started to attract a larger audience – necessary to support greater costs – it became necessary to make them intrinsically more accessible and forgiving; when ‘infinite lives’ is the norm, who needs to cheat?" Indeed, some developers – such as Nintendo – have even resorted to putting in features which make the game easier on the fly. The company's famous 'Super Guide' – which made its debut in New Super Mario Bros. Wii and has since been used in Donkey Kong Country: Returns and Super Mario Galaxy 2 – effectively carries (or shows) you through a tough section of the game should you become stuck, and removes the need to insert any kind of difficulty-altering code. Games are becoming so smart now that they know when you need additional help.

Action Replay
Action Replay© Datel

That's not all, however – Sorrell believes that recent high-profile hacks have made publishers wary about leaving in hidden features for fear that the media outcry could cause issues further down the line. The infamous 'Hot Coffee' mod for Grand Theft Auto allowed players to indulge in rather explicit acts, and the fallout was dramatic. "Any responsible publisher is now super-cautious about letting any hidden, potentially unvetted feature from making it into a game lest that feature prove in some damaging or bad for PR," continues Sorrell. "A Quality Assurance department may even oppose inclusion of cheats because those cheats could present unforeseen ways to break the game, and therefore demand their their own QA attention."

Finally, there's the fact that publishers now see the supply of tips and tricks as a revenue stream, allowing them to monetise a game's challenge. "The rise of strategy guides has probably contributed too, with guide maker no doubt encouraging game publishers to withhold cheats to avoid lost strategy guide revenue," Sorrell says. "Of course, least positively of all, another angle for many publishers is in-app purchasing – why provide a feature as a hidden cheat when you can get people to pay money to unlock it?" Seavor has also noticed this trend. "Bigger publishers have now realised you can actually sell these things to players as DLC. Want that special gun? Think you can unlock it with a cheat code? Nope! You've got to give us some money first!"

While many will mourn the passing of the cheat code, Sorrell believes that the current state of games development means players no longer require them – the medium has matured and moved on, and the need to break games open has been removed.

"What gamers may have lost in cheats and bonus features added by happy-go-lucky developers, they have gained in the unparalleled diversity and accessibility of amazing gaming options available to them," he tells Red Bull.

"Structured modern development makes it practical for larger games to include modding features that give more technical enthusiasts as much freedom as they could ever hope for. There has been a big game design shift from 'games as challenge’ to a more pure ‘games as entertainment’ philosophy. Since this places the quality of a player’s experience at the core of a designer’s thinking, I think this is generally a good thing. While it could definitely be argued that this trend has gone too far – feeding into the popularity of ruthless games like Demon's Souls and Dark Souls – it’s probably for the best that we don’t need cheat codes to get the most from our expensive gaming investments."

For Seavor, the attraction of using cheat codes was tied to the amount of time he had to explore every nook and cranny of a game. "I guess there are so many games out there now for people to play that they have less time to go back and tinker with cheat codes that only have very minor effects," he says. "In my younger days I was an obsessive completionist. I had to do and get everything, but that's not the case now. I will continue to put codes in games though, for the few who still care about such things." It's heartwarming to know that codes can survive in some form, but for the next generation of players, they are likely to become a romantic throwback to the days when the games industry was a very different place.