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Bring Back Cheat Codes

Published on Mar 3, 2024
Sonic 2 final boss

I was thinking about Sonic the Hedgehog 2 today. Not the movie sequel that I somehow still haven't seen, but the Sega Genesis game from 1992.

My experience of Sonic 2 was sort of stilted. I liked it enough, if not as much as the original Sonic the Hedgehog, and I was a capable enough player at the time to get through to Mystic Cave on a good run, but no further.

But I wanted to get further! I wanted to see what else the game had to offer, what final confrontation awaited Sonic and friends, and I didn't want to wait until I was more dextrous or just plain better at the game.

Yada yada yada, games were harder in my day, old man yells at cloud, I know. But whether or not that's actually true, home console games were still very much being influenced by their quarter-munching predecessors. They were still, on their face, unfeeling in a similar way.

Luckily, for as difficult and unforgiving as we tend to remember games of that era to be, there were cheat codes. If you knew the right combination of button presses and when to execute them, you had access to a whole host of ways to make a game easier.

It was thanks to the Level Select, Debug, and All Emeralds cheats that I eventually beat Sonic 2, and teared up watching a game's ending for the first time.

Whether the fact that cheats were so big at one time in gaming history lends credence to the idea that games back then actually were harder or less forgiving (and therefore made people feel the need to both create and use cheats), or whether they were just a fun addition at a time when games felt more free to be goofy, I don't know. I'm not here to deliberate that.

Cheats felt like a way to even the odds, tip the scales back in the player's favor. Or just to have some gosh darn fun for crying out loud!

Using the debug cheat in Sonic 2 to spawn in a million ring boxes or checkpoint lampposts was fun and silly and served no real purpose. Like a game! Like art! Who cares! Big head mode!

I started thinking about all this, ironically, because of Sonic Superstars, the latest entry in the Sonic franchise, and a supposed continuation of a supposedly ongoing renaissance of good 2D Sonic games (it's not).

This time around, I made it to the final boss just fine on my own (I'm almost 31 years old, and therefore a Big Boy), but the fight itself sucks.

Not only does the game require you to replay the entire level that leads up to the boss fight if you quit and come back later, but the fight is just tedious.

I don't like leaving games unfinished, especially when I'm so close to the end. I was thinking about how I just want to put a cap on this game and call it done, check it off the list, remove it from my brain already, and I realized, "I should be able to cheat my way to the end."

But I can't.

Cheat codes were a big part of video game culture for a while. They got passed around in rumors, published in magazines, catalogued online (long live gamefaqs), and even printed in a series of bespoke, cheat code-specific books at one point.

Eventually, gradually, cheats began to recede from video games. I don't really know enough about why to point to a reason for this, but I suspect it had to do with some unholy combination of a growing cult of purity around a game's "intended experience," some "are games art" discourse, and good old-fashioned difficulty gatekeeping.

"You're not a real gamer if you play on easy mode."

"You're only cheating yourself if you turn on assists."

Using cheats in a video game is stolen valor, actually.

Man, it's a game. If something isn't hitting for me and I want to move on, who cares?

Movies and TV shows have fast forward buttons. And Scene Select. And Wikipedia plot synopses. Get what you want and move on with your life.

Sometimes games are hard, or annoying, or poorly balanced, or just something you don't want to spend any more time beating your head against because you're going to die one day. And sometimes, you just want to be silly and goofy and have some fun!

Games these days just feel more rigid in what they will and won't allow a player to do.

We're finally starting to get some of this stuff back as Accessibility Options and Assist Modes, which is great. I was replaying Control recently, and I was reminded that if you're not gelling with the combat in that game, you can straight up turn on Invincibility and One-Hit Kills right from the menu at any time. That rules.

But it's still not terribly widespread. It shouldn't be a niche or "indie" thing to add these options to your game.

We should all feel more free to cheat our way through a game if we want. It doesn't matter. It's just a game.