Cheating to Win? A History of Video Game Secrets

Since the beginning of video gaming, titles have shipped with secrets. These can be secret levels, Easter eggs or ridiculous codes which have dramatic effects on the game.

The first cheat codes were often created not to add extra levels or cause airplanes to drop from the sky but to help developers play through, their often difficult games.

Over the years, game codes have evolved from this to becoming fun diversions for bored players attempting to beat a title for the 40th time. So journey with me as I look through the history of cheating at video games and how it has evolved over the decades.

Helping out the Game Testers

When cheat codes hit the gaming scene in the early 1980’s they were meant to help out developers test their own games. Like today, game devs have to put their new title through their paces and ensure that everything worked correctly. Most of time, however, they weren’t good enough to get through their own game. It was here that they implemented little codes or workarounds to endow them with extra lives or abilities to enable them to progress through the games quickly.

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In other cases, these codes were meant to help code testers replay the same level in a game multiple times in search of any bugs. If a tester happened to be looking for a bug part way through a game, a cheat code could help them reach the area quicker after a game over or restart condition. This was useful when then needed to repeatedly trigger an issue.

The Konami Code

In 1986 Kazuhisa Hashimoto was developing a Gradius port for the NES. While playtesting he noticed that the game was just too difficult. Worried that this might frustrate gamers he decided to create an in-game cheat which would allow players to gain 30 extra lives. The code ( up, up, down,down, left, right, left, right, B, A) would live on in infamy.

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What began as a way for a game developer to beat his own creation became an industry trope and featured in several Konami classics such as Contra and other developer classics such as Half Life 2 and Bioshock: Infinite as a form of homage.

Poke to Win

Many Microprocessors in the 1980’s were significantly easier to manipulate than their modern day counterparts. It was this weakness that gamers took advantage of and created POKE’s. A POKE is a method of digging into the memory of the game and changing some of its values. If done correctly, it could enable extra lives or invincibility for the player. One problem with this method was that it wasn’t easy for players to know exactly what they were messing with and they could end up with game breaking bugs or increased enemy difficulties. It was through gaming magazines that hackers would spread their discovers and decades before the popularisation of the internet, these organic cheats would be socially shared.

Save Game Progress

In the early 90’s it became noticeable that game sizes were increasing. Genres such as the action adventure titles began to interweave multiple worlds and narratives and RPG / Strategy titles began to rise in popularity. Codes were needed in order to allow gamers to return to the point in the game that they had last played. This was an alternative to gamers purchasing memory cards and titles such as Mega Man II employed this system to great effect.

In The Early '90s, Cheats Beca... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list History of Video Game Cheats

So with video game development there has been a rich and ingenious methodology to hack games for various reasons. This has mostly been eliminated in modern games due to their reliance on Multiplayer modes. But the moments when we switched GodMode on in Doom and blasted our way through a tough level will live on in gamers consciousness.

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