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An Ode to Cheat Codes

Remembering the golden days of making your video games go absolutely batshit with just a few button presses.

by Julie Muncy
May 6 2015, 5:20pm

Image via Mental Floss.

In the halcyon days of the original PlayStation, I was obsessed with a game called, simply, Spider-Man, a brawly platforming game made by Neversoft (the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater guys). In hindsight, it wasn't anything terribly remarkable, but it was a game with a superhero in it that didn't suck, and those of us who cared about such things were very happy. It was a game I beat over and over, practically memorizing every blocky inch of Spidey's CG NYC.

The secret that I would never have told my friends at time, however, is that I never beat it fair and square. I was, uh, pretty terrible at it, actually. The last boss in particular, where Monster Ock, the betentacled Doctor Octopus fused with a symbiote (a Marvel monstrosity somewhere between the X-Files' black goo and a xenomorph), chases you through the vents of his lab, was nigh impossible for me. I could not manage it.

I didn't have to, though. I knew the secret. I had the cheat codes. All I had to do was go to the password screen, type in "RUSTCRST," and suddenly, I was invincible. An army of symbiote supervillains couldn't have stopped me, and I could race on to the ending with no problem. (Spoilers: Spider-Man saves the day. J. Jonah Jameson is skeptical. Laugh track.)

Such was the power of cheat codes, and as a young, untalented game player, I loved them. And now, as a fully grown, untalented man who gets paid to play games sometimes, I miss them dearly. Cheat codes have largely gone extinct. A decade ago, they existed for almost every game, a set of secret tricks you could use to unlock all the levels, find secret characters, and make everyone's head comically oversized. Now, the only games that feature cheats are either deliberate throwbacks like Shovel Knight or permanently stuck in 2004 a la Grand Theft Auto V.

There are some good reasons cheat codes have died out. Part of the original purpose of cheat codes was to benefit the developers during playtesting, creating sets of tools to mitigate the difficulty of games developed by small teams for obtuse platforms. But now, with better tech and bigger studios, developers don't need to resort to such specialized tools to do that job. And without that impetus, and with the rise of a few other factors, such as PC modding and shared online experiences that would be legitimately hampered by someone suddenly having infinite ammo, cheats have quietly faded out of development in most circles. In exchange, we've gotten silliness like Mortal Kombat X's pay-for-easier-fatalities DLC. There used to be codes for that kind of thing.

Want easier fatalities in 'MKX'? You gotta pay.

For a lot of players, this may not seem to be that significant of a loss. The purpose of games is to challenge you, isn't it? Besides, games are easy nowadays. Git gud, scrub. But I don't really buy it. Games aren't about challenge. They're about experience. And for a lot of people, myself included, challenge can be an impediment to experiencing everything a game has to offer. There's been an uptick in the past couple of years in games that sell themselves on being hard, largely inspired, I think, by the Souls games and by a resurgence in nostalgia for 8- and 16-bit things, when games were hard as a means of padding out experiences limited in length by their hardware. Some of these are brilliant games, but the emphasis on high difficulty forms a barrier to those of us who, well, suck.

Cheat codes didn't care how good you were. Cheat codes short-circuited the straight-line connection between skill and play, opening up new dimensions of game worlds and morphing the experience fundamentally. With the proper codes, anyone could play, and they could do so in unexpected ways. Inputting the Konami Code (pictured, main) into Contra gave a player 30 lives with which to experiment and learn and struggle, creating breathing room and the freedom to fail, neither of which existed in the original experience. An invincibility code could turn the hardest game into something like a walking simulator, re-contextualizing the game's world and letting players see things they might otherwise never notice.

Related: VICE's documentary on competitive gaming, eSports

God Mode turned DOOM from a brutal power fantasy into an absurdist romp through a hell where no cyberdemon could so much as annoy you. Some codes even let you access debug modes and other aspects of a game's code that you could get at in no other fashion. Calling it God Mode wasn't just a bit of rhetorical flair—cheats elevated players to the level of minor digital deities, given access to the same tools the developers had, breaking games just to see what they look like when they fall apart.

Games are systems, and part of the fun of systems is just that—being able to break them. I remember playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas with my friends, some of them video game people and some of them not, and the best time we could have was when we turned on all the weirdest cheats. We'd spawn in tanks, make them fly, and go to war with the jets over Area 69. (Yes, that's really what it was called.) We'd put in cheat after cheat after cheat, breaking rule after rule until the game inevitably crashed. It gave an insight into the way the game worked on the most basic level, what rules were most important to the system's continued function. As Carolyn Petit mentioned in her VICE piece onAxiom Verge, breaking a game is a way of "interacting directly with the ghost in the machine," digging deep down into the fiery center of the thing and watching its flickering light burn.

And all you needed was an issue of Nintendo Power, or an internet connection, or a savvy friend. Anyone could do it with a bit of patience. Cheat codes were populistic, playful and generous. I'm not typically one to get all caught up in nostalgia. But the halcyon days of the cheat codes are worth missing.

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