A Brief History of Video Game Cheats

If at first you don’t succeed, cheat! For as long as video games have been around, there’s been a way to cheat the system; to give you infinite lives, unlimited energy, more weapons, full ammo and even the ability to fly around the game world. 

We’re going to have a look at the history of video gaming cheating, from the early days of the coin-op to the latest God mode enabled PC games. So if you’ve ever cheated at a video game, which most of us have, let’s face it, then read on.

The first ever cheat?

Apparently, the first ever example of a cheat found in a video game was on the coin-operated arcade game, Computer Space, in 1971. According to popular video game law, if you powered the machine up whilst holding down the two buttons on the left, you could start the game with a top score of 14. Unfortunately this appeared to only work a number of units, perhaps the first batch? Who knows? Since there were only one thousand units were ever produced, it’s a little difficult to definitively confirm this.

Things have moved on a bit since then, not just in terms of the actual creation of the video game but the methods and means in which to cheat an advantage over the game design; you could say that there has always been a kind of symbiotic evolution between games development and cheat development.

Crack the codes

Cheating, however, wasn’t just for the pleasure of the end user, it started life during the vital debug development process of the game. For testers, and those lucky few who had access to a game long before it was ever released to Joe Public, the ability to cheat was essential. After all, how could they ever test the gap between the platforms on level 12, if they could only get as far as level 10?

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t quite a black and white as that, but the testing process was made significantly easier by introducing cheat codes and considering these backdoors used fixed memory locations, which meant their removal could cause unexpected bugs, this made the whole process too costly and problematic, hence they were left in.

Cheat codes, such as the one above, could be a phrase, the measurement of one of the developers’ beards in millimetres or a sequence of key presses. One of the first and more popular examples of a personalised cheat code can be found in Manic Miner. When on the title screen press Enter followed by the number 6031769, which was supposedly either developer Matt Smith’s phone number, or a part of his driving license. Once the number was typed in, a boot would appear where the lives are normally displayed, then pressing the number 6 and combination of numbers 1 to 6, you could select which level you wanted to start the game from.

Type-in cheat entries kicked off a slew of imaginative and seriously bizarre codes that ranged from the famous ‘XYZZY’ that appeared in the original Colossal Cave, to the quite unprintable ‘Engage Ridley Mother ……’ of Metroid and the similarly extremely unprintable Carmageddon cheat code. However, there is one cheat code that stands out from the crowd as being the most famous of all time: The Konami Code.

The Konami Code

Not a Dan Brown offering, but a cheat code that first appeared in the 1986 game, Gradius for the NES. Unfortunately, it didn’t hit the popularity that it enjoys nowadays until the release of that nigh on impossible run and gun game, Contra.

The code would allow you, when entered at the title screen, to gain thirty lives which also made the Konami Code known as the ‘Contra Code’, or the ‘30 Lives Code’, but it didn’t stop there, the code proved to be so successful and receive so much world-wide fame that Kazuhisa Hashimoto, the creator of the code, insisted and added the code to pretty much every Konami video game ever created. Not only that, but the code has also been used on modern Playstation games, Wii games, it even put the Palm WebOS into developer mode and has been used and activated on a number of websites as an Easter Egg, of which Facebook, Marvel and Google are credited with. There’s even a reference to it in the Disney Animated Movie, Wreck it Ralph.

What is the Konami Code? It is:

up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A and Start.

POKE it a few times

Cheat codes were all fine and well, but what if a game didn’t come programmed with a cheat code? Or the code was somehow removed prior to public release? That being the case, the clever gamer would have to POKE around the game code. This meant, during those heady days of 8-bit computing, in amongst the many lines of code that would make up a game, that there are segments, or variables, that state the amount of lives the game character has, how much energy they have and so on.

During the course of the game, those variables that contain the amount of lives, et cetera will change depending on how badly you’re playing. Therefore, to alter those settings you would need to alter the variables in the game code. Historically, the way to do this was to PEEK a section of the code in memory, then POKE it with an alternate value before loading the game.

In terms of the ZX Spectrum, a POKE for infinite lives for the game ‘Commando’ would look something like this:

10 CLEAR 40000: LET T=0
30 FOR N=65030 TO 65052
70 POKE 65441,172: POKE 65442,84: RANDOMIZE USR 65485
80 DATA 49,0,98,175,33,4,108,119,35,119,35,35,119,35,119,35,119,

The above would be typed in then executed. Once the memory POKE was in place you could start the tape and load up the game without fear of dying; think of a POKE as a reverse engineering of the game code.

POKEing and cheating at a game became as much of an integral part of video gaming than actually playing the game, with magazines at the time dedicating pages upon pages of content purely aimed at POKEs, cheats, maps. If it gave you a cheat-based advantage for a game, it would grace the pages of your favourite mag; some even had more cheat sections that reviews for games.

Because of the intricate and cumbersome method of entering a POKE, this way was soon overshadowed by a new wave of innovation, the hardware cheat.

Cheating devices

Using a technique similar to a POKE, these devices, usually a cartridge that slotted into the rear of the gaming unit, would allow you to load up the game as normal, then freeze the contents of the memory and directly POKE the targeted variables.

These devices have the advantage of being able to view and edit the contents of the memory, take screen-shots, eliminate the possible instability caused by a typed-in POKE and, much to the annoyance of the copyright holders, they gave you the ability to copy a game by creating a backup from the point the device activated.

Using the ZX Spectrum as an example again, one of the first hardware devices for editing the game memory was the Multiface. Originally developed by Romantic Robot, the Multiface would connect to the expansion port on the back of a Spectrum and at the press of a button, the big red one on the top of the device, it would freeze the contents of the memory, in other words the game, and allow you manipulate whatever you liked by using the built-in 8KB of RAM it had available.

The Multiface was great and it wasn’t long before it was developed further into the Multiface 2, the 128 and the Multiface 3 versions, each offering a slight improvement over the previous or a redesign for the newer Spectrum’s that were coming onto the market.

The other systems that were available at the time all had their own versions of a Multiface. The Commodore had the ‘Freezer’ cartridges, and the Atari 2600 had the ‘Darth Vader’ unit, that utilised a PROM chip inside a blank cartridge.

Although, it has to be said that not every hardware cheat involved gaining infinite lives or unlimited wealth, there were examples of normal hardware manufacturers adding an little extra to their products in order to give the gamer an advantage.

One of these was the mighty Spectravideo Quickshot II joystick, the holy grail of essential peripherals on the school yard This monster of a stick gave you a trigger button, a button on the top and the secret weapon – the auto-fire.

The auto-fire was a switch that jammed the fire button, in its most basic form, it was completely useless for most games at the time as the units the joystick worked on could only handle something like two bullets on screen at once, but the real beauty of this feature was in games like the joystick killing Daley Thompson’s Decathlon; were by you could hack the auto-fire to one of the directional switches and move the stick in the opposite direction, then watch as old Daley breaks the land speed record.

Another example of this extra joystick curriculum was one that was fondly remembered by many, who recall vividly hooking up a normal stick to a special joystick that had an axillary port, then by moving the sticks in opposite directions would again make the character in Hyper Sports move across the screen like the Flash.

Game Genie

The Game Genie, developed by Codemasters, came roughly next in the timeline, although that’s debatable. Game Genie gave the owners of NES, SNES, Game Boy and the SEGA Mega Drive the opportunity to enter game enhancing codes.

It acted as a pass-through device between the cartridge and system. The player was then presented with a menu that they could use to alter the game’s variables – thus giving them the cheat code advantage.

The original Game Genie didn’t go down too well with the legal power that is Nintendo, and as such the big N sued Galoob – one of the companies that sold the Game Genie – claiming that the device violated copyright laws.

Eventually Nintendo lost its legal battle, and started to include checksums in later games to bypass the Game Genie’s affect on the title. These had some success, but could be circumvented easily if the gamer knew how to include more codes.

Sega, on the other hand, fully endorsed the Game Genie and even went so far as giving it an official seal of approval.

Action Replay

The hardware cheat, although mostly despised by the industry, grew from strength to strength with the next generation of gamers and their consoles.

The Datel Action Replay was the next gamer cheating champion to step into the ring. They offered the same kind of functionality as the Multiface, except for the Action Replay PowerSaves, that contained game saves created by Datel so gamers didn’t have to modify the game code.

In fact the Action Replay was so successful that it’s still going today, although the name has been changed to Xploder, covering a large range of titles for the PS4.

One of the highlights, if you can call it that, of the Action Replay’s life was access to the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’ minigame, ‘Hot Coffee’, which allowed the gamer to play the sexually explicit segment of the game that the designers decided to leave in the code; enough said about that though.

Enter the trainer

During the last decade or two, we have seen a significant rise in PC gaming, and whilst there is still the odd hardware cheat available for the PC (the Action Replay offered a PC ISA card) the emphasis is on software hacks to cheat on the games, nowadays known as Trainers.

So what’s the difference between the POKE of the eighties and the Trainers of today? Well, do be honest, nothing much really, but a POKE will alter and reserve a particular memory address by editing the contents before the loader has setup the addresses. And the Trainer runs as a kind of special memory editor that constantly updates the runtime memory after the loader has set it up, so whilst they are essentially the same, they’re not.

One of the biggest differences between the Poke and the Trainer is that while a POKE will offer the user to control the input of the modified code via their own methods, the Trainer is often run as an external program developed by a cracking group. More often than not, these cracks contain a multitude of viruses, Trojans and other unpleasant nasties that can infect your system.

One of the ancestors of the trainer, and one that’s still effective today (for some games) is the Hex Editor. Providing you know what to look for when using a Hex Editor, you are able to ‘see’ the game code and on-the-fly alter the state of the game’s variables. This means you can find the memory locations where your current amount of gold is stored, or the power level of a weapon, for example, and modify the result to have more. They’re somewhat in the background now, however, mainly due to the rise of the Cheat Engine.

Cheat Engines

The Cheat Engine, or CE as it’s commonly known, is a memory scanner that runs the same way as a trainer. In fact, a lot of trainers are created from the searches run within the many Cheat Engines that are available.

The granddaddy of the Cheat Engines is none other than the cunningly named, Cheat Engine. An open source memory hacking app developed by Eric Heijnen, Cheat Engine works by disassembling the runtime memory of the game and giving the gamer the ability to, as with POKE’s, inject their own manipulated code. This also works on the saved game and can display the variables that contain lives, cash and whatnot.

Cheat Engine is available for both Windows and Mac, and is widely regarded as the modern PC gamers cheating companion. One of the alluring elements to Cheat Engine are the continuous updates throughout the community. The CE community is a thing of beauty, where game hackers the world over freely share their saved cheats that can be imported into other gamer’s CE. These saved cheats, or Tables, can then be easily applied to the game in question. And when the game has seen an update, you can bet that within an hour or so, some clever hacker has found the new address values for the game, and uploaded the Tables.

Online Cheats

All these functions have enabled the gamer to have the upper hand in their single player experience, mostly. But these days the gamer will not be playing on their own, they usually play online, connected to a server with other likeminded gamers from around the globe. So what about online video game cheats?

They are there, lurking in the background, using macro scripts and modifying the game software to activate raised sights, aimbot, twinking, artificial lag, wall hacking and stat-padding. Thankfully, from the point of view of the other gamers, due to the constant updating of the servers and clients, any modifications to the original game code are quickly removed, but as history has shown us so many times before, where there’s a game the game cheats will always be one step away from infinite lives.

Penalties for cheating

Activating a cheat may be a perfectly innocent occupation in your eyes, after all that bit with the fiery ball of lava chasing you can become rather tedious after the umpteenth kill scene, but a lot of game developers take exception to those who cheat, so they have cleverly inserted a routine that although activates the cheat will penalise you in another respect. Here are a notable few examples of such penalties:

Wolfenstein 3D – Enter the max lives, weapons and ammo but the game resets your score nil.

Heretic – Enter the same codes you used in Doom and they’ll have the opposite effect here.

Torchlight – Enter the cheat code and you’ll forever be known as ‘… The CHEATER!!’, nice.

Spellbound – Type in Load “”:REM Spellbound and you get a ‘Fancy meeting you here, hacker.’

Portal – If you use any of the cheats, when you complete a challenge mode the game will display ‘ CHEATED!’

GTA:Vice City – Enter some cheats too many times will activate the ‘pedestrians carry weapons’ and ‘pedestrians hate you’ routines. Not good for you.

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