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The surprising history of cheat codes

Written by Stakester
4 Mar, 2022

We’ve all used our fair share of cheat codes: One question we might not know the answer to, though, is why are cheat codes a thing? Whether you were an OG using cheat codes on an 8-bit computer, or if your first experience of cheats was on an international best-seller like Red Dead 2, we’ve all had loads of fun in god mode. But, who started the trend and what were they for? Well, prepare yourself for History of Cheat Codes 101, because we have the backstory!

Cheat Test Codes

Almost throughout the whole of digital gaming history, cheat codes have existed. The only thing is, these codes weren’t originally intended to be used by gamers to cheat the game. Instead, they were deliberately inserted into the original games by their developers. This wasn’t so they could enjoy playing in God mode when they’d clocked off at 5pm – it was to make sure they could pass through levels quickly to check for bugs and glitches without the game being too difficult!

Okay, that makes sense, but why were they left in after the game was completed? To put it simply, many developers couldn’t be bothered to remove them – after all, the code was hidden and why would anyone in their right mind waste time inputting random codes or button combinations (yeah, that turned out well). 

Besides that, the cheat codes were often personal to the developer who put it in the game. For example in Manic Miner, if you enter the developer Matthew Smith’s driving licence number “6031769”, the cheat mode will be activated. So in the same way that a middle ages mason might leave his mark on a cathedral’s wall, a game developer would leave their own piece of history within a game’s code.

How did gamers discover cheat codes?

Originally, cheat codes were known as POKE statements – this would be a way for the most technically gifted gamers to access and then change a game’s code. One example would be to go into a game’s code, find the line responsible for the number of lives and then edit that to give yourself more, allowing the player to breeze carefree through the game.

As consoles changed and game’s code was locked behind the hard plastic casing of a cartridge, POKEs went out of fashion. They were soon replaced by flicks of analogue sticks and the ‘left right left’ tapping of buttons – in the beginning, these cheat codes would slowly leak around the gaming community, probably thanks to insider information that made its way into the hands of an excitable friend. 

Over time, some codes became synonymous with gaming and cemented themselves in popular culture. Even to this day, most people have at least heard of the Konami code, even if they can’t recall the exact sequence, and Mortal Kombat’s ‘Blood Mode’ is still one of the most iconic extras to be added to a game!

It wasn’t long before the games industry realised the value of cheat codes though – if an upcoming game was said to have some exciting hidden codes, gaming magazines of the time such as C&VG and Hyper would be much more willing to give the game coverage in return for the inside scoop on the hottest cheat codes in the game.

Soon after this period, widespread access to the internet took over the scene! Now people didn’t need to wait to hear what the newest codes were in their favourite game – instead, there’d be whole communities on forums discussing the best way to cheat your way through the latest releases.

The downfall of cheating

Cheats do still exist in a number of games to this day and let’s be honest, they’re always the most fun games. But in comparison to the roaring 90s, the opportunity to cheat in-game has dwindled. Originally, this was thanks to the introduction of achievements – this was a way for gamers to showcase their skills and prove they were a cut above their friends (it used to be a pretty big deal to get 100% achievement completion). 

But developers understood that it wasn’t fair for a player to reach achievement milestones with the use of cheats. So, cheats would either be left out of the game, or included with the warning that any progress made alongside the use of cheat codes would not count towards achievements. And so the decline of cheating began. 

This fall was only compounded with the arrival of opinion-splitting microtransactions. Since players were now actively spending money to unlock extra in-game content, any appeal to include free access via cheat codes was all but lost. What we started to see instead was the inclusion of more and more Easter Eggs – we all agree these are cool, but they’re nothing in comparison to the classic cheat code.

Cheat codes in modern day

We salute every game that keeps the cheat dream living on! Some developers, like Rockstar, are quite literally synonymous with cheat codes; back in the PS2 days of San Andreas you could do anything from spawning jet packs to making all pedestrians Elvis – and even in the company’s latest new release RDR2 they have still packed the game full of codes.

Elsewhere, even the LEGO games are still jumping on board with cheat codes – the 2016 The Force Awakens had cheat codes to unlock all characters and we think the upcoming 2022 game will be no different!

The future of cheat codes

The future of cheat codes probably looks similar to what we have today – game developers paying their respects to the past and providing us with some truly cool ways to enjoy their games.

It’s unlikely that there will be a revival of mainstream cheating and the sad truth is it’s likely because the developers have better things to spend their time on that can make their game more profitable.

With that said, cheat codes are always going to hold a special part in gamers’ hearts and they’ll certainly live on in popular culture and maybe even beyond.

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