The Life and Death of the Video Game Cheat Code

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Left, Down, A, B, A, B, Right, Left, R2+R3, enter... Oh! You startled me. What was I doing? Well, I was plugging in a cheat code. Not only did I just unlock Air Bud, Ashton Kutcher, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. as writers for, but you should probably check your bank account. Holy cow, that's a lot of zeros!*

My point, albeit lost, is that you should be wondering something, in between your uber-serious playthroughs of The Last of Us and whatever God of War we're on: what the hell happened to cheat codes? If you gamed in the '90s and early '00s, you know what I'm talking about. Press a comically long series of buttons into the main screen of a game like NBA Jam Tournament Edition and Bill Clinton would suddenly appear as a playable character. If you were serious about it, you'd buy a literal book of codes, so that any game, any ridiculous feature, would be there at your heart's desire. Famed Marvel heroes skateboarding? Sure. Invincibility? Why not! Playable fighting race cars? You know it. Somewhere along the way, cheat codes fell by the wayside to make way for DLC and in-game currencies. Now, consider yours truly here to call on everyone, every game—even you, Fortnite—to bring them back.

First, let's stroll through cheat codes' past. You have the classics: unlimited lives, ammo, money—the stuff that games like Grand Theft Auto and The Sims are unplayable without.The most famous combination of all time is "Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start," which appears in a swath of Konami games; it's to cheat codes what Coke is to cola. Don't forget Doom's classic "IDDQD" code, which gives players godlike powers to rip and tear through Cyberdemons with ease. Of course, there's the original Sonic the Hedgehog's Blue Blurs level select: Up, Down, Left, Right, Start. That's not even to mention my favorite type of hidden treasure: secret characters. Back in the day, games used to be a collectathon of wacky and zany characters. NBA Jam really kicked it off with President Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Funk Legend George P. “Funk” Clinton. Then there's Tony Hawk and all of his madcap Pro Skaters. We’ve seen the likes of Jack Black as Officer Dick, Darth Maul, Spider-Man and Wolverine shredding rails and doing kickflips.

nba jam
Only a cheat code would make hooping as Bill Clinton in NBA Jam possible.teh2Dgamer / YouTube

At this point in our time together, I have three words for you: Big. Head. Mode. Bet you’ll never guess what that does. From Madden, to Tony Hawk, to NBA Jam, Big Head Mode is a founding father in the storied history of the cheat code. Starting as a goofy variant in sports titles, it quickly became a quintessential tool in a video game's cheat code arsenal. Confetti headshots! Blood in Mortal Kombat! Funny attack sounds! Big weapons! Big Head Mode waddled so they could run. We didn't care any of these busted the game—in fact, that's what made them so damn funny.

As DLC, crossovers, and currencies took over video games in the 2010s—I’m looking at you, Goku and LeBron in Fortnite—developers stopped sprinkling cheat codes as easter eggs for gamers. Now, if I want a secret character, it's going to be a not-so-secret $20 charge on my mom's credit card. Which, don't get me wrong, I’m doing. I have no self control and need to play as Kratos, the God of War, clapping noobs and hitting the gritty in Fortnite. The main problem here is lack of mystery. No more chasing a thrill. I have to enter the code my buddy told me about. I've gotta nail a perfect score to unlock this goofy-ass character. As a reward The air of mystery—of surprise!—is gone. Nowadays, you get what you pay for.

<p><a href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Remember Cheat Code Books?</p><p></p>

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Remember Cheat Code Books?

Hope isn't all dead, though. There are still plenty of stellar examples in modern titles. Cheat code-wise, my game of the year in 2022 was LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga. LEGO Star Wars—and LEGO games in general—have always had an array of goofy cheats, both unlockable in the game with collectibles, and through codes. The perfect balance of immediate gratification and goofy things to work for. Said things: money multipliers, baguette lightsabers, pew-pew gun sound effects, and even a galaxy rave where everyone is jamming out. These goodies not only made me nostalgic and incredibly happy, but they had me playing through the game entirely. Without those benchmarks, I may have given up on the adventure much sooner. So yes—cheat codes can be a reward, an incentive to keep players playing, or just plain fun.

Now, I have news for you younglings. What If i told you this whole screed goes much deeper than a few goofy easter eggs and basketball-playing presidents? What if I told you cheat codes are a representation of what makes gaming truly special? Whether it's an unlockable character, ginormous noggins, or unlimited lives and ammo, cheat codes— gaming secrets!—are the special touches that fueled our playground talks, Reddit threads, and chat rooms. The promise of a hidden series of buttons hidden somewhere made everything seem possible. Plus, cheat codes make for a beautiful interplay between developers and their fans, the former stashing treats for the latter. It's a thank you.

Feast your eyes on GoldenEye 007’s Big Head Mode. Boxer JJ/YouTube

One more bit of sentimentality for you before we go, if you'll indulge it. Console gaming was fueled by a niche group of garage-dwelling nerds, who saw the neverending possibilities of a few buttons and a screen. Cheat codes remind us that at the end of the day, we’re all here to have fun. It’s a love letter to players—and a way to expand what the game itself can do. At the very least, they're a goofy, silly, laugh-inducing way to play a gam. At best? They can open doors for players, no matter their skill level or accessibility needs. But for the most part, they're just a hell of a lot of fun.

Now, before I give you another 7,000 words on how video games need to return to good ol' fashioned, unbridled joy, I'll leave you with this. Riot, become ungovernable, force change, and do it all kickflipping into Big Head Mode, space cowboy.

*My editor told me that I am not allowed to access the bank accounts of Esquire readers. Your phone on the other hand...

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