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How Cheat Codes Vanished from Video Games

Once upon a time, cheat codes let players unlock the headiest secrets from their games.

In September 1993, Dan Amrich raced home from Electronics Boutique and jammed his shiny new Mortal Kombat cartridge into his Sega Genesis. After the SEGA logo flashed on his screen, Amrich's speakers pumped out heavy percussion as text describing three types of codes—ethical, honorable, and secret—engraved itself across a stony background. The last line caught his attention: Mortal Kombat adheres to many codes, but does it contain one?

As a matter of fact, it did, and Amrich was one of a select few who knew about it.

Shortly after he began playing, his friend Carl called to tell him about a code he'd found on Usenet, an online bulletin board. Carl didn't have a copy of the game, so he asked Amrich to try the code. At first, Amrich thought he was referring to ABACABB, a sequence of button presses in the Genesis version of Mortal Kombat that unlocked all the gory fatalities from the arcade version that had invoked the ire of U.S. politicians. Carl's find was way better.

"Down, Up, Left, Left, A, Right, Down," Amrich recited. "DULLARD opened a developer debug menu that let you not only toggle the blood on and off, but several other dev-test things, like making Reptile appear."

There was a catch. Other than a few obvious labels like Cheat and Blood, all the options in the debug menu were cryptically labeled as Flag. Amrich grew curious. He spent that weekend enabling one flag at a time, playing to see what changed, and writing down his discoveries.

Header and Mortal Kombat screens courtesy of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

When Amrich finished, he revised his scribbles into a professional document and asked his dad to fax it to GamePro magazine. "A few days later I got a phone call from one of their editors, Lawrence [Neves]—'Scary Larry'—asking me how I got the code and if I was using this on a retail copy of the game. They had the EPROM [semi-finalized game] for review, but they hadn't gotten final retail versions yet. I assured them that it was legit and told them how I'd figured out all the flags."

In June 1997, Amrich landed his dream job as an editor at GamePro, and learned how and why codes like DULLARD came to exist in the first place.

"I added cheat codes to help me develop games," said Scott Miller, founder of Apogee Software (later rebranded 3D Realms). Baking in cheats let Miller test later parts of the game without first playing through the whole story. "In Supernova I remember there was a road very early in the game, and if you walked along that road 20 steps, then typed in 'ENTER,' it'd take you to the final third of the game, and your inventory would be updated to include all the needed items to finish the game."

To the uninitiated, the logical thing for developers to do would be to remove cheats before releasing their game, thereby preventing players from exploiting it. However, developers tend to treat almost-but-not-quite-finished games like a house of cards. "You don't want to take [cheats] out during the final days of testing because you still might need them," Miller said. "And once you think you have a final gold master of the game, you don't want to open up the code and remove them because that could break the game in some unexpected way."

"The process was very different back then," added David Brevik, co-founder of Blizzard North. Before paving the road to hell with 1996's  Diablo, Blizzard North paid the bills by taking contracts to write games for Sega Genesis and Game Boy. "You couldn't patch games. You sent the code off to get approved and it was rejected or approved by the console manufacturer, and that was it. During those last builds, sometimes people just plain forgot to take codes out."

Diablo II's secret cow level. Screenshot courtesy of Blizzard

One developer's oversight was another player's salvation. While converting Konami's arcade shoot-em-up Gradius to the NES in 1986, programmer Kazuhisa Hashimoto found the game too difficult and programmed a cheat to give himself power-ups: Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, and Start at the main menu.

Hashimoto's cheat remained in the final version of the game, and got a buzz going among players and magazines that discovered it. When Konami learned of the code's growing popularity, their programmers baked it into other games, offering different effects—most famously bequeathing 30 lives in Contra—depending on the game.

"Most developers would add a cheat code into their game and then create a new code for their next game," said Tristan Donovan, author of Replay: The History of Video Games. "The Konami code was the same in game after game, so once you learned it you could use it in the next Konami game you brought, so it became a lot more familiar to players than the one-off codes seen in most games."

"Cheat codes were the currency of cool," agreed Dan Amrich, whose purview at GamePro included answering letters from readers begging for new codes. After all, the first player to access Sonic the Hedgehog 2's debug menu or trigger God Mode in Doom rocketed to the top of the playground's food chain. "Being a magazine that had the latest information and was one option of many, cheats were as important as the newest reviews or previews—to some readers, more important, because it was tangible and something they could use to prove themselves."

Sometimes editors were lucky enough to stumble upon a code. Other times readers would scour Usenet and send them into magazines, as Amrich and his friend Carl had done for Mortal Kombat.

Above: Mortal Kombat Fatalities

Usually, 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," said Scott Miller.

Many developers had no problem with players appropriating their one-time tools. Codes empowered players when they got stuck, gave them something fun to share with (or hold over the heads of) friends, and let them explore every nook and cranny.

"Cheat codes let you see what you can't access yourself and enable you to draw a line under your time with that game," said Donovan. "For me it felt more about closure. I rarely returned to a game after a cheat code had let me see it all."

Powering up with limitless lives and ammo is only part of the cheat code's appeal—the epilogue in a longer process. First comes the rumor. To players who grew up in the 1980s and '90s, hearing whisper of a second quest in The Legend of Zelda or playing as Akuma in Super Street Fighter II Turbo was a siren's call.

If a code existed, someone eventually found and published it. Next came the test, pressing buttons over and over until, finally, some visual or aural cue proclaims victory: a telltale chime, a sparkle of color, Scorpion's grating voice bellowing "GET OVER HERE."

For some, cheats were a shortcut. For others, they were a mystery to solve, or a crutch when the going got tough. Developers knew that, and accommodated their fans. "We learned that players used the codes to explore the game, and extend the game's life, but for the most part they still played the game in the non-cheat mode to enjoy the game as it was meant to be played," Miller said.

Diablo II

"People would put codes in the game to get coverage and release them on purpose. They started out as something fun and secret and became a marketing tool eventually," said Brevik. Diablo's co-creator speaks from experience. After rumors of a level filled with demonic cows caught fire on Diablo's Battle.net multiplayer service, Blizzard North buried the secret level deep in Diablo II. "It is really fun to find hidden secrets in a game. It was important to add that to any product and it's still true today. It may not have to be a cheat, but having some sort of secrets, social references, jokes, or hidden content remains as exciting today as it was back then."

A Secret Code Genie

Built-in cheats weren't the limit to bending and breaking the rules of a game, though. Devices like Game Genie went above and beyond by offering cheats that developers never intended to pack into their game. Game Genie acts as a sort of bridge. Players attach a cartridge into the device, then insert it into a console where, in the case of the NES, it sticks out like a plastic tongue.

Powering on the console deposits players at a menu where they enter three cheat codes for the Game Genie to carry out, like its mythical namesake granting three wishes. Once players leave the menu, Game Genie hands control back to the game and begins scanning its memory while it runs, looking for a change that corresponds to the player's three codes, such as a lost life or a decrease in health or power-ups.

Determining what a Game Genie could or could not do was the responsibility of engineers like Allen Anderson and Graham Rigby. "He would usually start by finding the easy things, such as lives, and then go on to more esoteric stuff like jumping through walls," said Aplin, referring to Rigby.

Sitting in a room filled with thousands of cartridges, Rigby or Allen came up with cheats by plugging a prototype Game Genie into a cartridge and console, then using a scope—a homemade instrument with a screen and wave-sign indicator—to scan the game's memory as it runs. The wave indicator slows down or speeds up as the game's memory makes changes that near or match their search parameters. Once Rigby or Anderson pinpointed the memory address that changes when a particular action occurs, they converted its hexadecimal location to a string of letters that players punch in at the Game Genie's menu.

"When the console requests the data for the specified [memory] address, the Game Genie chip momentarily disables the cartridge and instead provides its own value on the data bus," explained Richard Aplin, one of the engineers responsible for a number of Game Genie devices including the never-released Game Genie 2 for Super NES.

Above: The Game Genie NES commercial

The data bus is the collection of pins inside a cartridge, connected to the Game Genie's silicon teeth. That connection allows the device to override the game's processes with its own instructions. "Things such as lives and health were almost always stored in fixed locations," said Allen Anderson, a contract programmer hired to engineer Game Genie for Super NES. "All the Game Genie did was constantly replace those values with the new values over and over."

So if players, say, request invulnerability, the Game Genie waits for them to take damage then tops off their health by overwriting that value in memory with a higher number—so fast that, to players, it looks as if they never even got hit. Possible codes range from standard—immunity to damage, unlimited power-ups, skipping to the final boss—to borderline glitches such as "moonwalking," jumping higher and higher until players soar past the screen's boundaries, or granting characters a power-up every time they fall into a pit instead of subtracting a life.

The fact that developers like Nintendo did not bake in codes to give players endless lives or unlimited power-ups didn't matter: By manipulating a game's values directly, cheat devices like Game Genie were limited only by its engineers' imaginations.

By the early 2000s, industry-wide changes hobbled the air of mystery surrounding secrets. Switching from cartridges to CD-ROM rendered cheat devices like Game Genie, which depended on connecting to a cartridge's pins, obsolete. Manufacturers pivoted to hardware that had to be soldered directly onto a system's electronic guts, limiting their audiences to tech-savvy consumers who felt comfortable opening their consoles and working with dangerous tools.

Once consoles could connect to the Internet, neutering cheat devices was as easy as pushing out system updates or game patches. "You can't really release a serious commercial product that exploits bugs that are so readily patched by the manufacturer," Aplin said.

All Good Things... Go To The Internet

Affordable broadband made the Internet ubiquitous; the first person to find a code could publish it to any number of popular websites. At any given moment, cheat codes were a quick Google search away. Magazine subscribers went from being the first to know, to the last.

Out-and-out cheats like God Mode and unlimited power-ups fell by the wayside in favor of changes that altered a game's rules. Goldeneye 007's Big-Head and Tiny Bond codes make players easier or more difficult to hit, offering new challenges to overcome. In the same vein, paid downloads like gun skins for Call of Duty alter a weapon's look but not its damage, keeping players on even footing.

A significant factor in the decline of cheat codes lies in the fickle nature of trends. "Achievements wound up taking their place," explained Amrich, whose career took him from GamePro to senior editor of GamesRadar.com and then Official Xbox Magazine. Microsoft rolled out Achievements on Xbox 360 as a way to reward players for completing in-game challenges. Earned Achievements count toward a player's Gamerscore, a publicly viewable tally that elevated bragging rights from local playgrounds to a global stage.

Trophies, PlayStation's corollary to Xbox Achievements, take the concept even further. Every Trophy shows how many players have earned it, imbuing the rarest trophies with even greater allure. Microsoft put another nail in the coffin of codes by branding players found guilty of using external tools with a CHEATER label, a scarlet letter that taints their Gamerscore. "Cheat codes were no longer the currency of hardcore gamers once Achievements appeared," said Amrich. "They were another creative outlet for dev teams and they were required by Microsoft, so the effort that would go into cheats went into Achievements instead."

Above: GoldenEye 007's DK (Big Head) Mode

Almost overnight, players in possession of cheats went from the coolest kids on the block to frauds panned by those who took pride in securing Trophies and Achievements through blood, sweat, and tears. "A game people had anticipated for a year would finally ship, and the next day we'd get an email asking for cheat codes for that game," recalled Amrich of his days at GamePro. "I had issues with that approach: 'I can't wait to play this game so I can not play the game.'"

"Ironically, I wasn't a fan of the Game Genie," admitted Anderson. "I remember finishing the original Lemmings and seeing the four lines of text that said I did a great job. It wasn't much, but I knew how hard I had worked to do it. With the Game Genie you could get to the end of a game without actually spending the effort."

Despite having so many strikes against them, cheat codes will never die, and actually shine in games where they augment rather than circumvent gameplay. Players looking to cause mischief on one of Grand Theft Auto V's virtual highways can punch in a code to receive a full arsenal of weapons, expediting pandemonium.

Moreover, a cheat code can establish a connection between player and developer in a way microtransactions like gun skins cannot. "I think when you love a game, it is really fun to know as much about it as possible. To have a fun game and then find a secret inside of the product is always like opening a small door into the developer's mind and finding more out about how the developers think and their process," said Brevik.

"I didn't miss them until doing this interview," admitted Amrich. "I see them differently now; I understand the role they played in making that player/developer connection. Gaming culture has properly elevated the past and respects retro gaming at a level I did not expect to see, so I would like to see them reappear from time to time. There could be no greater tribute than to make a thoroughly modern game with an old-school wink and smile."