Last week, on February 25th 2020 the inventor of the Konami Code, Kazuhisa Hashimoto, has passed away. The button pressing sequence up up down down left right left right B A, which is also known as the Contra Code, has been famously used in video games since its first appearance in 1986. Why have cheat codes been necessary in the past and what has changed?
The Konami Code first appeared in the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) release of the scrolling shooter Gradius. The arcade version of Gradius was very difficult to beat, so Hashimoto included the code in the port to make in-house testing easier. Pressing the buttons in the correct order immediately unlocked multiple power-ups. Hashimoto had originally planned to remove the code after finishing development, but eventually left it included in the release version. Though there was no reason for them to press the buttons in this very order, players still discovered the cheat code soon after.
Konami included the code in further titles, like in the NES port of Contra of 1988. Entering the code in this difficult shoot’em-up gave the player 30 extra lives. This made the Konami Code widely popular and also known as the Contra Code. By including a secret button combination, the developers were able to save time, without removing the challenge for us players, unless we really wanted to make the games easier.
Other games use secret codes as a substitute for a save feature. Instead of saving the progress of the player, the game displays a password every time, the player beats a level. Players can then write down that password for another game session. Next time, they can start the new level, without playing the game from the beginning.
I still remember playing the 1998 action shooter Star Wars: Rogue Squadron. The Nintendo 64 version even included a code for a secret level! I loved flying the different ships from the Star Wars universe. My favorite has been the Naboo N-1 starfighter. To unlock this, players needed to enter two consecutive codes. The developers kept these secret until the release of the movie Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. However, the code I entered the most often was CHICKEN. Entering this password in the code menu started a special level, in which you control a two-legged AT-ST combat walker. I loved playing this level over and over again! (Nowadays, such a level would be sold seperately for $5 instead. But I will talk about the monetization of additional content in a later post.)
Talking to my gamer friends, there is one game series, for which everyone of us enjoy looking up a list of cheat codes: Grand Theft Auto (GTA). In a game centered around wreaking havoc on an open world, it is fun to unlock unlimited ammunition and a rocket launcher, a flamethrower, or a straight up tank! Of course, it is possible to cheat your way through difficult levels and beat a game quickly. But cheat codes can just as much enable you to play the same game again in different ways or skip through boring parts and concentrate on the aspects you like the most.
Unfortunately, many developers have abandoned cheat codes. Since debugging has become easier in professional development environments, there is no need to include cheats to make testing easier anymore. Instead of using cheat codes to unlock items, some developers even charge real money! (And I will also talk about such microtransactions in a seperate post.) Others fear that cheats might negatively affect multiplayer modes.
Fortunately, many developers of retro-like games still include cheats to capture the feeling of old times. Mod friendly developers and those of games that do not rely on story, e.g. strategy games, also often offer console commands to customize their games. I do not think, that I would still play Age of Empires II now and then, if cheat codes would not have helped me enjoy the game as a kid. Sure, it was unfair of me to have practically infinite resources and a car with a machine gun, but it was fun! To help less skilled players past difficult levels, Nintendo has recently even included power-ups, that appear after dying at the same spot multiple times. (I will examine this positive development in a later post.)
Cheat codes are still alive! Do not fear to include them in your games! In a single player game, the most important thing for us players is having fun and enjoying our pastime. Your players are just as creative as you are and can extend your games beyond your initial vision. If they look up cheats for your game on the internet, it means that they want to play it more. Especially young players might get stuck at a difficult challenge. This can make them drop your game right there. So lend them a hand and maybe include a fun Easter egg or two!
What are your favorite cheat codes? Share your experience in the comments below! I am looking forward to them! In the meantime, I will fly in a car through Liberty City.