Codes and Genies: A History of Video Game Cheating

From the Konami Code to the Game Genie, how engineers looking for practical solutions spawned an entire phenomenon in video gaming.
(Image source: Adobe Stock)

For a certain generation there is no series of button commands more iconic than

“up,up,down,down, left, right, left, right, B, A, start.” Whether it was extra lives, invincibility, or any of a myriad of other possibilities, the famous “Konami code” has become synonymous with video game cheat codes and Easter eggs.

If you grew up in the days of the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), or even in the earlier Commodore 64 or Atari days, there's one thing that can be said for certain. You played a lot of hard games – very hard games. Gamers have even adopted the phrase “Nintendo hard” to refer to modern games whose extreme difficulty hearkens back to the days before walkthrough videos on Youtube, websites and message boards, and even the ability to save your progress in your game.

Cheat codes became a way to not only ease up some of the most punishingly difficult games to ever exist, but to also breath new life into games that had been forgotten in your collection. There was even a booming market of hardware products dedicated to cheating and modifying games (and game consoles).

But cheating in video games hasn't always been about marketing or getting a leg up on the competition (or an arguably malicious game developer). The history of cheats goes back to something very practical – a need for engineers and programmers to do their jobs more easily.

Unlocking the Konami Code

The history of the software side of cheat codes begins with a man named Kazuhisa Hashimoto, who spent his career working as a programmer and developer for video game giant Konami. Konami is known for producing some all-time classic game series including Contra, Castlevania, Metal Gear, and Dance Dance Revolution.

Hashimoto joined Konami in 1981 as a circuit board designer. After the release of the NES in North America in 1985, his role shifted to porting Konami's popular arcade titles to the home console. It was painstaking work that was usually done by a single programmer on each game, rather than an entire team as is the case today. It was also work that actually required you to be good at the games to some degree in order to play through and debug them.

In 1986 Hashimoto was adapting the arcade space shooter game Gradius to the NES. Remember those “Nintendo hard” games we just mentioned? Gradius was undisputedly one of them. Hashimoto was having trouble playing through the game to debug it so he decided to add a bit of extra code to the game – a series of buttons that when pressed would give his ship a full complement of power ups and abilities, allowing him to easily play through the game. He reportedly chose the sequence ( up,up,down,down, left, right, left, right, B, A, start) because it was easy to remember.

Playtesting on Gradius completed and the game shipped, but there was one hitch – Hashimoto's code wasn't removed from the game.

There are varying theories as to why this happened. Some say that Konami thought the code made for a cool hidden feature for players and decided to leave it in. Others say the developers simply just plain forgot to take it out once they'd finished with testing. What's more likely though is the code was left in simply because it was easier than taking it back out.

Cartridge-based games like the ones for the NES were notoriously difficult to program. NES games were written in assembly language – which most programmers will tell you makes even a language like C feel like a luxury by comparison. Going back into remove Hashimoto's code could have had unintended ripple effects elsewhere in the game's code that could lead to more debugging and setbacks.

Though cheat codes would later become more of a marketing tool later on, Konami probably left the original code in because it was just cheaper and easier that way.

Contra. You got three lives and taking a single hit killed you... Good luck with that.

Maybe Konami was hoping players wouldn't even notice Hashimoto's code was there. But they did. And once word spread and Konami saw players' excitement, the company realized it might be on to something. The code was included in the 1988 game Contra (arguably the most Nintendo hard game of all-time) to give player extra lives. For a vast number of players the code was the only way it was possible to beat Contra. Once that happened the Konami code was officially a phenomenon. In 1998 the inaugural issue of Nintendo Power magazine printed the Konami code and created an entire niche where players would begin to seek out cheat codes in publications, and later online via message boards and websites.

Hashimoto spent his entire career at Konami, working on numerous games. He passed away on February 26, 2020 at the age of 61. He lived long enough to see his code become a staple of pop culture – appearing in numerous games as well as on websites, in music, movies, and even accessories and apparel. In a 2003 interview he said through his career looked back most fondly on his time working on NES games.

“I’d have to say that the NES era was the most interesting to me as well. I think I was really happy back then, compared to the young people these days who are making games for current-gen systems such as the PS2. With today’s games being on such a huge scale, you have one person dedicated to making menu screens and another relegated to working on the interface. The days when the programming, planning, and design was done by one person were limited to the Nintendo era. I feel a little bit sorry for people today when I think back to how I was able to influence all the aspects of game design.”

Into the Freezer

While developers like Hashimoto were using cheat codes in software to make their lives easier, something similar was happening on the hardware front.

When the Commodore 64 was introduced in 1982 it quickly became a dominant force in the home computing market. There are generations of engineers, scientists, and artists who credit the Commodore 64 for sparking their interest in STEM, video games, and the possibilities of computing technology.

But the Commodore 64 was not a prefect machine on its own. There was a significant market for Commodore peripherals ranging from keyboards, mice, and printers to modems, emulators, and music synthesizers.

One such peripheral was the so-called “freezer cartridge,” devices that allowed users to dump the contents of their computer's memory onto external storage like a floppy disc or tape. The Commodore 64 was not know for its lightening fast load times, and freezer cartridges were embraced by users who wanted to load programs onto the machines more quickly.

Freezer cartridges also served a handy function for software developers because they wrestled control away from the computer's microprocessor – allowing programmers to take “snapshots” of the machine's memory in any state to quickly go back and test later.

The earliest of the freezer cartridges was the ISEPIC (“ice pick,” get it?) introduced in 1985 by US-based Starpoint Software. Though not well-known today, the ISEPIC was popular enough at the time to spawn a number of similar products, including the Snapshot64 by Canada-based LMS Technologies.

An old ad, circa 1988, for the Action Replay for the Commodore 64.
(Image source: @Al82_Retro on Twitter)

There was also another consequence to freezer cartridges. By making copies of the computer's memory, they also effectively bypassed any copy protection on any software – allowing users to make pirate copies of programs, including games. It also meant players could save games at any point in order to pick up where they left off. While it would be downright heretical for a console or computer game to have no save feature today, it was a pretty novel concept in the 1980s.

LMS would later partner with a UK-based company, Datel, to implement the technology behind its Snapshot64 into a new device called the Action Replay. The Action Replay (which was also released for PCs and Amiga computers) took things a step farther by allowing savvy users to actually modify portions of a saved game's code – creating things like extra lives, more ammunition, and other creative changes.

While programmers, hackers, and gamers might have loved the Action Replay, it wasn't long until companies and legislators took notice. Game developers didn't take kindly to a device that allowed potential customers to make free copies of their software. When the UK government adopted the Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act of 1988, the act included specific provisions addressing software copying devices like the Action Replay.

A World of Genies and Sharks

But even if home computers were off limits, there was a new market for hardware cheat devices to enter – home video game consoles.

A console version of the Action Replay for the NES was released in the UK in 1991, but it was a year behind a name and product that still illicits waves of nostalgia with gamers – the Game Genie.

Introduced in 1990 by UK-based company Codemasters, the Game Genie was distributed in the US by Galoob, the same toy company that brought us Micro Machines, as well as some toys from a tiny brand called Star Wars.

The Game Genie was a cartridge-like device that plugged into the NES's cartridge slot. Any NES game would then go into the Game Genie itself. By entering a code into the Game Genie's interface players could do all sorts of things such as getting extra lives, becoming invulnerable, skipping levels, having special power-ups, or even running the game in slow motion. In a bit of a twist that would portend the achievement system used by most consoles today there were also codes that would make games harder (or just outright stranger) for the player.

The Game Genie took brilliant advantage of the NES's core functionality. Since the NES did not have a dedicated hard drive, whenever a cartridge was plugged into the NES, there was a communication with the system as the cartridge stored various bits of information on the NES's RAM. This information was hexadecimal code that pertained to various states in the game such as how many lives you had left, what level you were on, or how much ammunition you had. Each bit of code was stored at a specific address. If you could find the address for a specific state you could modify it, and hence the game.

The Game Genie acted as an intermediary between the NES and the cartridge. If you put in the Game Genie code for say, more lives, the Game Genie would intercept the communication between the console and cartridge, replacing what the cartridge would have written with its own code – effectively tricking the NES's CPU into running that code instead. There are deep technical dives into the Game Genie for those interested in the real nitty gritty of it all.

A commercial for the Game Genie – 90s video game advertising at its finest.

When you think back to the hundreds of codes that were included in the Game Genie's handbook (more would be released as new games came out) you have to appreciate the dedication of the Game Genie's developers. It must have been quite a task to sort through each game's hex code to find out what sort of interesting modifications could be made.

In an interview with Mental Floss, Dain Anderson, founder of the now-defunct website NintendoAge.com, which was devoted to sharing old and new Game Genie codes, gave some insight into what the process must have been like:

"Creating codes would encompass an entire article, but the nuts and bolts of it is that you use a hex editor inside an emulator like FCEUX, and trace what aspects of the game change as you modify RAM locations. For example, if you take a RAM snapshot and you have three lives left, die, then take another RAM snapshot, you can determine through trial and error, on the changed locations, which affect the number of lives. By changing this memory location, you can create a code that alters the number of lives a player will receive."

The Game Genie wasn't without its own legal troubles. Nintendo tried to block the release of the product with a lawsuit alleging copyright infringement. However a judge ruled that since the product could not function on its own without the NES and since it did not create shareable copies of the games (like the old freezer cartridges did) that using a Game Genie fell under fair use and did not infringe Nintendo's copyrights by creating derivative works.

The original Game Genie for the NES (Image source: Evan-Amos / Public domain)

Nintendo would later try to combat the Game Genie by released new versions of the NES with different-shaped cartidge slots (the Game Genie was quite big) and performed software checks to detect and disable the Game Genie. But Galoob released adapters and newer versions of the Game Genie that could bypass Nintendo's checks.

Versions of the Game Genie were created for other video game consoles and its success created a market for “game enhancers,” the most popular of which was the GameShark. The GameShark worked in the same way as the Game Genie but also included some additional bells and whistles. The device had a good amount of onboard storage, meaning players now had more memory for saving games in general.

The GameShark also streamlined the trial and error process of creating new codes with built-in training and debugging features. There was even a serial port to connect the GameShark to a PC to make the process even easier. In some consoles the GameShark also bypassed region encoding, allowing players to play foreign games on their systems.

Cheating Isn't Easy

While some PC-based games enjoy a healthy mod community, “game enhancement” as it was once done has all but disappeared. Changes and advancements to the development process; new, more powerful, programming languages; and more dynamic developers tools have removed the practical necessity for codes like the ones Hashimoto created and inspired.

Today's game consoles are much more locked boxes than the ones of yesteryear as well. Save for some USB ports, there's simply no place for hardware peripherals like the Game Genie or GameShark to live. It is possible to jailbreak a console, similar to a smartphone, but this comes with legal issues and goes far deeper than anyone who simply wants a few extra lives in a game is likely willing to go.

Cartridges are a relic and games on optical disc are rapidly giving away to digital downloads. Companies like Google and Nvidia are experimenting with cloud-based gaming (to mixed results). Were it not for consumer demand for systems that can play Blu-ray movies, manufacturers might consider removing optical drives from next-generation consoles entirely.

Gaming today is also much more of a shared and online experience, making cheating much more frowned up. It's one thing to have an advantage on your own, but its much harder to justify it when playing against other humans. There are also factors such as the achievement systems seen on consoles like the Xbox and Playstation, which challenge players and award status based on their ability to complete a variety of specific tasks in any game. The very nature of the achievement system discourages cheating on moral grounds.

The reality, however, is that the death of cheat codes and devices has just as much to do with one of the critical factors that led to them in the first place – money. Even back to the Action Replay days, companies realized that their customers are willing to open their wallets to “enhance” their game experience.

Cheats have given way to the dubious business model of microtransactions and pay-to-win gameplay. Developers have realized that players (especially kids who don't know any better) will pay a premium for an advantage over other players – whether that be a special skill, item, or ability, or even a benign cosmetic like a rare character costume. More sinister games, particularly mobile phone games, actually work on a model that requires players to play to advance in the game at all.

Why simply give away cheats for free when you can charge for them?

The debate over these practices has been ongoing, with several countries enacting legislation against video game industry tactics like paid loot boxes (caches of random items that may or may not help the player) by classifying such practices as gambling.

While most cheat device brands have disappeared along with their products. The Game Genie lives on to some degree today as a part of emulation software used to install old NES and other console games on PCs or to make DIY game consoles out of a Raspberry Pi or similar single board computer. There are also large online communities still devoted to creating new cheat codes for old games.

Still, there may come a day when cheat devices and codes are just another forgotten footnote in electronics and video game history. Newer generations of players will never know the sheer joy of becoming a unstoppable with just a few secret button presses. For those that do remember, thinking about that day coming could be harder than any game has ever been.

Chris Wiltz is a Senior Editor at  Design News covering emerging technologies including AI, VR/AR, blockchain, and robotics.

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