Video games have always shipped with hidden features. Whether it's secret levels, sly Easter eggs, or ridiculous cheat codes, there's usually something extra waiting for players willing to dig. Surprisingly, the first video game cheat codes were less about giving the players invincible flying tanks and more about helping developers beat their own way too difficult games.
Over the years, cheats have evolved from a crutch for slow-reflexed developers to fun diversions for players to a burgeoning industry centered on killing virtual enemies in multiplayer arenas. As such, the debate around cheat codes has turned from "how can I buff my Fallout character's charisma stats?" to "is cheating in video games morally wrong?"
As modern enthusiasts debate the implications of cheating in video games and the effect it has on the games industry, it's important to look back at the history of cheat codes and why they exist in the first place.
When cheat codes first hit the scene in the early 1980s, they were meant to help developers test their own games. As is the case today, '80s devs needed to put games through their paces and make sure everything worked properly, but sometimes they weren't good enough to defeat their own creations. As such, they'd include little workarounds that'd give them extra lives or stronger tools so they could progress through the games quickly without several restarts or years of intense training.
In other cases, the codes were meant to help testers replay the same portion of a game multiple times in search of elusive bugs. If a tester was looking for a bug midway through a game, cheat codes could help them reach the problem area quickly so they could repeatedly try to trigger the issue.
Since they were strictly meant for internal use, several early cheat codes - like the ones found in Manic Miner - were highly personal to the developers. The code to unlock a directory of every level in Bug-Byte's version of Manic Miner is "6031769" from developer Matthew Smith's drivers license, according to an interview in Retro Gaming Magazine.
While developing a Gradius port for the NES in 1986, creator Kazuhisa Hashimoto encountered a problem: the game was just too difficult to play. Rather than tweaking the difficulty so gamers could beat it more easily, Hashimoto added a code that allowed players to gain 30 extra lives. The code (up, up, down,down, left, right, left, right, B, A) was added solely so Hashimoto could play the game more easily and test its features for bugs and glitches. He's quoted as saying, "The arcade version of Gradius is really difficult, right? I never played it that much, and there was no way I could finish the game, so I inserted the so-called Konami code."
Unlike today's highly sophisticated computers and consoles, the 8-bit processors of the 1980s were pretty easy to manipulate. Naturally, many gamers took advantage of these computers' weakness by developing POKEs.
A POKE involves digging into the memory of a game or program before booting it up and swapping around some of the values. If done correctly, players can boost certain stats and scores. Of course, there wasn't any easy way to tell what you were messing with, so players were just as likely to beef up their enemies as themselves. As players began to experiment, they'd often share their findings with others, developing a new form of cheats organically.
As games got bigger, they began requiring a lot more memory. While games like Pac Man or Donkey Kong were meant to be restarted countless times, larger games with multiple worlds and overarching narratives were much more difficult to beat in a single sitting, but there wasn't enough leftover memory to create in-game saves. As such, gamers were either forced to purchase a memory card, or they could use cheats to bookmark their progress.
Before the internet, games like Mega Man II gave players unique codes every time they beat a level. When they turned the game off, all their progress reset, but typing in a code brought them right back to where they left off.