In the ‘80s and ‘90s, video game cheat codes were a hot schoolyard commodity. They were the baseball cards of an increasingly digital generation. The sounds of players trading digital secrets might’ve sounded incomprehensible to the uninitiated—“I’ll give you this Doom cheat code for your NBA Jam big-head code!”—but it was the language of the early gamer.
These encoded secrets formed whole communities and helped turn some of the most devilishly difficult video games—often ported from arcade games thirsty for quarters—into something actually beatable.
From MS-DOS to PlayStation 5, the story of cheat codes is the story of video games.
Creating the Code
Early cheat codes weren’t really cheat codes at all—they were developer tools.
In the early years of the gaming industry, developers baked cheat codes into games as a way to jump from level to level while beta-testing, Dustin Hansen, author of Game On!, told Popular Mechanics. But once a game was finished, it was easier for developers to just leave in their little hacks instead of manually pulling them out of the source code.
“Cheat codes help with testing and iterating a game until it’s just right,” Renne Gittins, indie game developer and executive director of the International Game Developers Association, told Popular Mechanics. “Also, maybe unintentionally, they can make games more accessible to inexperienced gamers.”
These first cheat codes were known as POKE statements, a technique to reverse-engineer game code. Among the many lines of code in a game, there are variables that indicate the amount of lives the game character has, how much energy is available, and hundreds of other attributes. During gameplay, those variables will change depending on how well—or how poorly—you’re playing. So to alter those settings, a player needed to change the variables in the game code. Historically, the way to do this was to “PEEK” into a section of the code in memory, then “POKE” it with an alternate value before loading the game.
For many 8-bit computers, early POKErs could load games into memory and, before launching them, modify specific memory addresses in order to cheat. For example, with POKE 47196,201 in Knight Lore for 1982’s ZX Spectrum, the player gains complete immunity.
These POKEs were mostly reserved for the most technically minded gamer willing to dig into a game’s code for a leg up. But cheats would slowly evolve into more consumer-friendly workarounds due to the booming popularity of home consoles like the Atari 2600 and Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). On these consoles, gamers couldn’t easily alter a game’s code—often packed away inside a plastic cartridge. Instead, a game’s secrets would be locked behind a few well-choreographed taps of the controller.
In the early 80s, a video game called Gradius was in the process of being ported to ultra-popular NES, and the game’s developer, Kazuhisa Hashimoto, realized the game was too difficult during its debugging phase—so difficult that Hashimoto couldn’t even beat the levels himself. So he created a code that was easy to remember so he could breeze through the tough spots.
And the Konami Code was born.
This seemingly small piece of code would become seared into the minds of early gamers: up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, start. Tapping in this code after pressing start (one-player mode only) would give the player’s ship all the power-ups, making the game immensely easier.
The Konami Code, named after the game’s publisher, lived on far beyond just Gradius. This finger-tapped formula also powered up Castlevania (50 lives), enhanced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (giving characters silly noises as they walk), and famously altered Contra (30 lives).
“That’s the game and code that really stands out to me,” says Hansen. “It even worked in the arcade version of Contra, so you could really be that cool gamer who had people watching you play with 30 lives.”
Because of the Konami Code, gamers now had a thirst for hacks—and the world of cheat codes was about to explode.
All The Cheats Fit To Print
Before the rise of message boards, gaming websites, and extremely detailed subreddits, a gamer’s No. 1 source for cheats were found in the pages of magazines like Nintendo Power and Tips and Tricks.
“Those were a gold mine!” Hansen says, “and to get the cheat code to a game like Sonic the Hedgehog, allowing you to level-jump, only a month after the game came out, that was so exciting.”
Nintendo Power reached a paid subscriber base of over a 1.5 million people five months after its first issue in 1988. The magazine regularly featured interviews with game creators, sneak peeks at upcoming releases, and a close relationship with Nintendo that gave the magazine unparalleled access to cheat codes.
“Every game had to come to Nintendo to be reviewed and bug tested – whether it was a licensee’s game or Nintendo’s game—and one of the agreements was that Nintendo Power would have first access, from the time the game came through the door,” says the founding Editor-in-Chief of Nintendo Power Gail Tilden in an 2013 interview with Complex. “If there were going to be codes and secret unlocks, the developers had to provide that when the game was submitted for approval.”
Scott Miller, founder of Apogee Software (later rebranded 3D Realms), told reporters in 2016 about an unwritten rule between game manufacturers and magazine editors during the boom era of cheats:
“Publishers handed secrets over with review copies so editors could use them to get out of tough spots, provided they followed one stipulation. We’d always have an understanding that they not print the codes in the same issue as they reviewed the game, but to wait one or two issues later to give the game another cycle in the press.”
Listing all the cheats to a game may have taken the thrill out of discovering those secrets on your own, but for many casual gamers, these cheat codes opened doors—sometimes literally—that would remain otherwise hidden.
“Games back in the day were unable to store as much content, particularly text, so tutorials were often limited if they existed at all,” says Gittins. “If a player was confused or became stuck in a game, they had to turn to their friends, official guides, or even Nintendo’s own hotline.”
The Genie and the Shark
In 1990, the Game Genie completely changed the meaning of cheating. Using external hardware, the Game Genie acted like a cheating go-between between the NES—and subsequently SNES, Game Boy, Sega Genesis, and Game Gear—and the player. Six years later, the Game Shark would provide similar cheating services but for a whole new generation of consoles. Here’s how they worked.
As cheat codes grew in popularity, Nintendo Power became an invaluable resource.
“If you were the kid in the neighborhood with a subscription to NP, you were officially the king of class the day after that glossy bad boy appeared in your mailbox,” Hansen says.
But Nintendo Power wasn’t the only purveyor in digital secrets—the world wide web was beginning to take shape. “Gamers shared codes with each other on newsgroups, bulletin board systems, social portions of AOL, Prodigy, and Compuserve, and other services,” says Gittins.
But it would be one cheat code in particular that would cause a major controversy
Kheat Kode Kombat
In the early 1990s, few games ruled the arcade like Mortal Kombat, thanks in no small part to the spike-impaling, bone-crunching, head-ripping finishing moves called “Fatalities.”
In 1993, Midway Games tried to clean up the violence in order to port the game to more family-friendly home consoles. But on the Sega Genesis, the version contained the Blood Code—a quick tap of ABACABB—that restored the game to its original gory glory.
It would take only a few months for congressional hearings to begin investigating the video game industry’s use of violence in video games, and Mortal Kombat featured prominently as one of the most egregious offenders.
“Like The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, these violent video games threaten to rob this particular holiday season of a spirit of good will. Instead of enriching a child’s mind, these games teach a kid to enjoy inflicting torture,” said Senator Joe Lieberman at the time.
Bill White, vice president of Sega of America, countered Lieberman by attesting that his company is not solely in the business of making games for children. He laid out several stats: “Many Sega titles are purchased by and intended for adults for their personal entertainment and education. The average Sega Genesis user is almost 19 years old and fewer than 30 percent are under 13.”
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At one point, Lieberman said that while he’d “like to ban all the violent video games,” and later recognized this would conflict with the First Amendment, and instead sought to seek a solution involving a content ratings system.
The hearings would ultimately give birth to the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), an organization devoted to applying and enforcing age ratings on video games. But it wouldn’t be the end of cheat codes. In fact, the very next day after Lieberman’s congressional hearing, a new game from id Software would take cheats to the next level.
God Mode and Noclipping
The first-person shooter Doom, heralded as grandfather of the first-person shooter genre of games, led to its own acronym related to modifying the game: Each of the original Doom games has a WAD (Where’s the Data) file. These archive files contain vital game data such as enemies, sounds, levels and textures, which are vital for mods to work.
Thousands of WADs are available for Doom, whether they focus on single custom levels to full original games. Also, most of these can be freely downloaded over the internet. But what is best known about the game is how developers snuck in two cheat codes that were soon known to every Doom fan on the planet.
When Doom was first released for MS-DOS, typing codes on keyboards was the norm, and the most used Doom code back then was “IDDQD.” That code enabled “God mode” so you couldn’t be harmed at all by invading monsters as your 100% health meter didn’t waver for the entire game.
“That was exhilarating,” says Jesper Juul, an associate professor at the Danish Design School and author of Handmade Pixels: Independent Video Games and the Quest for Authenticity. “These Doom cheats were special because it felt like they had also been designed to be shared and distributed.”
But the Doom cheat he leaned towards let players careen through the game’s maps by walking through walls and objects. This code, enabled by tying “IDCLIP,”allowed gamers to harness “no clipping,” which turned off collision detection so players could literally walk through walls.
“The cheats meant that there was an official game, which was hard and punishing, but there was one that we could also choose to engage with, a much more playful version of the game, with unlimited weapons, walking through walls, and so on,” Juul says. “It made the game more like a playground.”
Other first-person shooters of that era, such as Duke Nukem 3D (1996), and even modern games like Skyrim would go on to have noclipping exploits.
Folded In at the Edges
As games evolved from simple pixelated sidescrollers to more engaging 3D worlds, cheat codes evolved with them. And no game embraced cheat codes quite like Rare’s GoldenEye 007.
In the history of gaming, GoldenEye holds a hallowed spot. The game is often regarded as one of the best first-person shooters of its time. It was also filled with cheats. But unlike game-breaking cheats of the past, GoldenEye used cheats as a measure of skill. If you had the gaming chops to navigate James Bond through GoldenEye’s bullet-ridden levels (sometimes under a certain amount of time), then the game’s cheats were yours for the taking.
“We designed a cheat system where, first of all, you had to earn the cheats, and second of all, once you were using a cheat, you could not use it to win progress or unlock further cheats,” Martin Hollis, the game’s designer, told Popular Mechanics. “It was as if the cheats were outside the game world, just like ordinary cheats in most games, but at the same time they were folded into the game world a little at the edges.”
Some unlockable content included entirely new levels, but other cheat codes altered the game entirely. James Bond could be completely invisible, incredibly tiny, or brandish dual rocket launchers. Players could distort also all characters’ heads to have huge craniums (called DK mode after the developer’s earlier hit Donkey Kony Country) and thus easy targets for even the most unskilled sharpshooters. You could replace bullets with paintballs, decrease animation speed, or give Bond every gun in the game. The possibilities seemed endless.
“Many of the early cheats that I saw were invincibility or infinite lives. I found that these cheats sounded good to begin with but once you started using them they had a negative effect on your perception,” says Hollis. “All the features of the game you valued gradually and remorselessly lost their value in your own mind.”
Hollis had essentially created a kind of proto-achievement, using cheat codes to reward the most dedicated players with ways to alter the game as they saw fit. This idea of rewarding a gamer’s skill would only spread, and it would also spell the end of the cheat code era.
Cheats continued at a steady clip well into the new millennium with Grand Theft Auto. By typing “ROCKETMAN in the PC version of 2004’s GTA San Andreas, players can careen through the air with a jetpack. “KANGAROO” would let you jump three times higher than usual, and “AEZAKMI” would stop the police’s manhunt.
But despite a few notable exceptions, cheat codes were on a sharp decline. As affordable broadband connected more homes, cheat codes lost their elusive luster. Websites listed every cheat code imaginable for practically every game on every console. Nintendo Power and Tips and Tracks folded. Cheat!, the G4 network show solely focused on cheat codes, shuttered in 2009.
Achievements were now the new way to gain gamer cred. The introduction of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 also came with an achievement system that filled a gamer profile with trophies earned by accomplishing certain sections of a game’s mission or finding hidden levels or power-ups. In some gamer circles, players preferred unlocking these badges instead of completing the game’s storyline.
Since achievements were seen as a test of skill, cheating became an anathema to these kinds of virtual accolades. “Any time a game rewards a player for accomplishing something, those achievements shouldn’t be reduced by making it easier to gain through an alternative means like cheats,” Gittens says.
In 2008, Microsoft told gamers it meant business when the Xbox creator announced that anyone caught tampering with their Gamerscore using external tools would have their score reduced to zero and permanently labeling as a “cheater.”
With the introduction of eSports, publishers took even an harsher stance on cheating. If players tried to install third-party software to gain an edge—whether a hack that spots opponents even when they’re not in sight or locking on a target right away—they could be suspended or banned from playing the game entirely.
When Counter-Strike: Global Offensive shot up the gaming charts in 2012 to become the most-played FPS in the world, publisher Valve used an online system called VACnet, powered by 1,700 CPUs, to crack down on cheaters taking advantage of aimbots, which helped them automatically target opponents with ease. In August 2019, Fortnite publisher Epic banned more than 1,200 accounts for cheating during the first, online-only week of its World Cup tournament.
Cheats or additions are also no longer rewarded with dedication and skill, like GoldenEye. Instead gamers pay for downloadable content and loot crates to alter the game. Scanning online, reading Tips and Trick, or asking friends about the latest cheat had been replaced with a swipe of the credit card.
Even Mortal Kombat, a series responsible for one of the most infamous cheats in gaming history, let gamers buy “Easy Fatalities” in 2015’s Mortal Kombat X, which let them trigger those bloody finishing with the tap of two buttons.
From developer tools, to gamer currency, to even inspiring legislation, cheat codes had helped form the culture of gaming. Now, they were disappearing altogether.
Cheating for Good
Despite the name, cheat codes always had an altruistic side. They made it possible for gamers to play—and maybe even win—at some incredibly difficult games. Thirty-five years after the creation of the Konami Code, open source tools like Cheat Engine is keeping that idea alive by letting users create their own modding applications for PC games.
Modding feels like a reaction to the fall of cheat codes, a respectful nod to the foundation those early hacks gave to modern developers. But the technique is more playful than trying to beat the game: one mod can fill Doom with characters from The Simpsons while another will tinker with the game engine to add a capture-the-flag match in Battlefield. Want to replace the dragons in Skyrim with Thomas the Tank Engine? Yeah, you can do that, too.
“Modding is extremely popular as a form of entertainment tinkering,” says Gittins. “Some games directly support this to various degrees, such as Skyrim, ARMA 3, and Warcraft 3, and many of the most popular mods have given birth to entire new games and genres, like Defense of the Ancients (DotA) and the MOBA genre.”
But lying unseen below all these fun bells and whistles is how applications like Cheat Engine allow for an otherwise underserved segment of the gaming community to grow and flourish.
“I get emails from people with disabilities who say that they appreciate Cheat Engine so they can play games without getting frustrated,” Eric Heijnen, creator of Cheat Engine, told Popular Mechanics. “The most favorite feature seems to be the speedhack so they can slow down the game at key points so they have time to react.”
These type of modern mods return to what made cheat codes so appealing in the first place: you could play the game your way. Hacks like the Konami Code, ROCKETMAN, and ABACABB may not have the gaming cache they once did. But those classic games will always serve as a reminder of when cheat codes reigned.
After all, it’s buried within their very code.