Grand Theft Auto: Vice City's Tommy Vercetti with a big head, courtesy of a cheat code.

Remember when gaming cheats weren’t a dirty word?

With the advent of trophies – and online gaming – we’ve also seen the decline of cheats. Sam Brooks remembers a time in gaming when cheats were seen as nothing more than a bit of fun, and why that’s changed.

Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A.

Even if you’ve never played a video game, or played a video game where this code actually did something, you know the Konami Code. It’s a cheat, the most famous one of them all.

The Konami Code famously did something in every game that Konami released throughout the 80s and 90s. Sometimes it might be as benign as changing the colour of the opening menu screen, sometimes it would give you invincibility and sometimes it would give you extra lives. It was iconic, as much a part of Konami’s brand as Solid Snake.

I am here to make a confession: I have used cheats in video games. I have beaten games using cheats all the way through. I am not ashamed of this.

Now, this is not going to be me playing devil’s advocate for cheaters. Cheating in an online game is a different thing entirely, and it usually involves the use of bots or some other kind of Swordfish-esque hackery. It’s cheating for the express purpose of getting one over on another human being, making yourself look bigger and better as a player as a result. It’s a fake dick-measuring contest, and people who do it are rightfully banned.

Just this past month, Battleye had to ban one million cheaters in popular (to heavily understate) online shooter Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds. That’s a lot. That’s most of the population of Auckland, if they decided to cheat at an online video game.

This is what it looks like when you cheat in PUBG.

I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about good ol’ fashioned push-seemingly-random-button cheat codes.

I’m bad at video games. I’ve been very vocal and proud of this. I probably shouldn’t be – someone who plays as many video games as I do should not still be this bad at them. When it comes to games, I’m still riding with the training wheels on 20 years in. If there’s an easy mode, I’m playing it.

And as someone who is bad at video games I look at something like one million players being banned from PUBG with equal parts self-righteousness and solemn understanding. I have a very Catholic need to see people get punished for wrongdoings and a similar need to do well.

But also? And this might shock people: I play games to have fun. Some people find fun in getting beaten down over and over again, working out patterns and strategies in order to beat a game. That’s why games like CupheadNioh, and Dark Souls are so goddamned popular. People get joy from figuring their way through a game’s difficulties and surpassing them, and even the badge of honour from beating it. (Remember that badge of honour: I’ll come back to it soon.)

That kind of game? Not fun for me.

I remember playing Grand Theft Auto 3 as a child who illegally obtained it (by convincing his mother he was mature enough for it, and letting her pay real people money for it). I remember being excited – it had gotten rave reviews from all the magazines, because game reviews were still in magazines in those days, and I wanted to play and beat this epic open-world game, the likes of which the world had never seen before. Remember when open world games weren’t everywhere? That’s the world we’re talking.

And I couldn’t beat it. I got to a certain sniper mission and I kept dying. I kept not being able to aim properly, because third person shooters were really not at their finest back in 2003, and I kept being terrible at driving, because my co-ordination also wasn’t quite there in 2003. The game was completely inaccessible to me.

So I booted up the old dial-up modem, asked my mum to not use the phone, and looked up some cheats. At the touch of my fingers, I could restore my health, give myself the best weapons in the game, and even spawn a tank. I could beat the game ten times over – and I did. Suddenly this game that was inaccessible (though admittedly through no fault of the game or its makers) was playable to me. I could enjoy it, I could have fun.

Using cheat codes in Grand Theft Auto 3, your tank can FLY.

At their best, that’s what cheat codes let you do. They let someone who was unable to play the game play the game: enjoy the narrative, mess around in the big sandbox the developers have given players. There are other varieties of cheats, like the purely aesthetic big head mode or the practical time-saving level select, but at their core most cheats end up giving the player a helping hand. It puts the training wheels on and sends them trundling down a gentle slope.

So why have cheats become so much less prevalent? It’s an easy answer: The socialisation of gaming. What used to be bragging on the playground that you beat Sephiroth without him landing a single hit on you is now something that’s made official through trophies and achievement. You can’t just say shit like that, because there’s proof on your account – be it your Steam account, your XBox gamertag or your PSN account – that you didn’t do it.

That’s a big deal for a lot of gamers. People want people to know what games they’ve played, what they’ve done in games and exactly how good they are. Some games get around that – I’ve played about 50 hours of Grand Theft Auto 5 and never gotten a single trophy because of Rockstar’s Morpheus-esque offer: you use cheats or you get trophies. You can’t have both.

And as games move further and further online, we’ll see these kinds of cheats become an increasingly nostalgic relic. Some developers make up for the lack of cheats by literally making their games easier, like BioWare’s narrative option for their games which essentially lets the game play itself. Others include the sillier brand of cheats – the ever eternal big head mode – deep in the game’s system, as a reward for doing well in the game itself.

There’s always going to be a stigma and a shame around cheats, and maybe quite rightfully so, given this recent spray of PUBG bans. But I, for one, hold a soft place in my heart for those little button mashes that let me escape away for a weekend into a game, a game that wasn’t punishing me for playing it. One that was actually holding my hand a little along the way.

R2, R2, L1, R2, Left, Down, Right, Up, Left, Down, Right, Up.


This post, like all our gaming content, comes to your peepers only with the support of Bigpipe Broadband


The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.

Related:


The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.