Today, while going through my mail I noticed that the latest issue of GameInformer had arrived to distract me from my other bills. Opening it up, I took a look at the editor’s note and was immediately reminded of an art that has long since been brushed under the rug. Cheat Codes in video games. I won’t go back and forth between the editor’s note and this analysis, but basically Andy McNamara talks about how he misses the kind of cheating that doesn’t hurt other players but rather, boosts the experience, such as the Konami code in Contra and how the code helped enhance his experience in a game he otherwise would not have played. Admittedly, there are a lot of reason for Cheat Codes not being as relevant as they were back in the day–what with the internet and all but, I believe that one of the major shifts in soul with game development came with the phasing out of cheat codes.
Now you may be thinking that cheat codes are an archaic concept. That, by getting more lives through a mechanic outside of the game rules, you are not only destroying the potential experience to be had with the game but are also, kind of just…bad at video games. And you would be mostly right! If every game was as hard as Contra and perceived as something that could only be completed with cheat codes, then what would be the point of playing video games? It’d be the same thing as playing through the game with a walk-through. No one would care if you beat Sephiroth in Kingdom Hearts on your first try and they certainly wouldn’t care about how well you did in your last round of Call of Duty because there would be no balance! Though it does make me think of a good twist on cookie clicker where you get points for every tea bag–but that’s a different topic.
What cheat codes are supposed to do is give you a deeper appreciation for the game as a whole while a walk-through just tears out the innards of the game for you to pick through. With a walk-through, you’re given the exact steps of completing the game’s objective in a concise and specific manner that is within the games rules. Sure, you’ll live through the moments of the game shown on the commercial, but other than that there won’t be much substance to the game, or at least, substance that compliments its medium. With a cheat code though, you’ll usually go through walls or get a weapon that kills everything instantly so that, sure, you CAN use them to beat the game but that’s not really the point. If anything its more used for seeing behind the scenes of the game you paid for. Things like, seeing where the sky box cuts off or finding secrets that even the developers didn’t want you to find. A good example of this would be the game Mercenaries for the Playstation 2. A game that is pretty average at everything it tries to do, but, is more highly regarded in my book because its the only game I know of where you can play as Han Solo in a sports car and shoot down a helicopter with an RPG.
But its not limited to just being a cosmetic change. Another good example would be Kirby’s Dreamland for the original Gameboy which actually gave you the cheat when you beat the game to try out the game’s harder difficulty. And I feel like I don’t even need to bring up Grand Theft Auto which is renown for its cheat codes but, the one that makes cars fly has a special place in my heart because when you activated it, there was even a little pop up that told you how to make the car fly. It was like the game developers WANTED you to have fun. What a concept.
There’s just a kind of romanticism that cheat codes provide for video games that I think is missing in today’s market. Maybe it was the shift in developers concern to make video games more like art, or maybe it was a concern that that the codes were being abused, I can’t really say what made them go away. I know that I’ll always remember when the Xbox 360 achievement system became a thing, and I noticed more and more games begin to say things like “using this cheat will block you from this achievement.” It made it very clear to me that developers were done with cheat codes and an age of gaming was over. It seems that, in an effort to make the medium be taken more seriously, we lost the charm that came from older video games and instead are getting scripted experiences to take their place.
And of course, I don’t mean to imply that we should just go back to adding cheat codes to every game, or that cheat codes are even really viable with all the time-constraints developers already face. However, with how popular the modding scene is for modern video gaming, its clear that this kind of Easter egg type aesthetic is something that players still want. Cheat codes are a good way of showing a deeper appreciation for the gamer who gets the chance to make sense out of what goes on during the game development process. Its the cherry on top to make a game, just that much more special.