Game On: Why I miss cheat codes and unlockables

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From God-mode in Doom to seemingly endless secrets in the Final Fantasy series, gaming used to be far richer in exciting and entertaining hidden extras. Mark Butler explores his disappointment at the lack of widespread cheat codes and secrets today.

Doom

When I was 12, I got myself a rocket launcher.

It was a remarkable coup to be sure, but securing the thing was no mean feat. It required supreme concentration, a keen memory, an extraordinary degree of planning and preparation, and – above all – nerves of steel.

I’m talking, of course, about the explosive reward for completing the original Resident Evil in less than three hours, with a coveted ‘A’ rating. Given the complexity of the Umbrella Mansion and its surrounding locales, not to mention the many monstrosities prowling its landings, hallways and assorted rooms, such a feat seemed nigh-on impossible at first. But eventually, thanks to an unwavering sense of determination, I cracked it.

Today, however, such secret unlockables and associated challenges are a far rarer commodity. If Resident Evil were released nowadays, completing the game in an absurdly short time, with few saves and deaths, would probably just be met by the hollow ‘ping’ of an achievement or trophy being unlocked.

Indeed, it seems criminal to me how conspicuously absent unlockables are in modern-day mainstream games. In my youth, I spent countless hours working to acquire a Gold Chocobo in Final Fantasy VII, or attain the much sought-after ‘White Angel’ in Ridge Racer.

Hell, FFVII even had whole storyline characters that were tricky to unlock during your standard playthrough. Yuffie and Vincent – who came with their own backstories, side-quests, limit-breaks, weapons and distinct personalities – were pretty much impossible to find unless you had prior knowledge of how to get them, got extremely lucky, or absolutely combed the game for every last scrap of content.

And comb I did. You see, the wonderful thing about having unlockable content or bonuses that are available only if you work extremely hard to master or explore a game, is that it leads to a kind of supreme psychological reward and affirmation that simply cannot be matched by achievement points or cosmetic extras. It shows that you are damn dedicated to the cause, earns you fun, entertaining extras, and also encourages you to milk every last bit of money’s worth from your hard-earned purchases.

In an age where largely superficial rewards are unlocked either by completing signposted campaign objectives and side-quests, or – God forbid – actually paying for DLC packages, the shame of this shift is all too real. In days gone by, the Prothean character in Mass Effect 3 would have been your just reward for fully exploring the game and discovering some dramatic, exciting secret: not an optional extra that required you to shell out extra cash for the privilege.

On the flip-side of the nostalgia coin, I also find myself pining for the long-lost charm of cheat codes.

When I were a boy, kids in the playground would speak in hushed whispers of fabled strings of convoluted control pad commands that, when pushed in exactly the right order, would grant you amazing bonuses or extras. In those mostly pre-internet days, my favourite gaming magazine would publish these sought-after codes salaciously in the back pages, and we would all look forward to trying them out in our favourite titles.

The joy was often to turn a game completely on its head. The fearful Doom, which I found incredibly tough and unnerving at times, would be transformed from an edgy action-horror into a gory, empowering romp once I switched on ‘God-mode’ – particularly if I supplemented this new-found invincibility by granting myself all the weapons in the game, plus full ammo.

Take that, Cyberdemon!

Of course, many cheats were contrastingly pointless and silly, and available simply for entertainment value. Hence, one of the Tekken games allowed you to give all the characters giant ‘bobble-heads’ and squeaky, high-pitched voices (an absolute riot when playing as Jack or Heihachi), and I recall the original Grand Theft Auto having some hilarious cheats too. 

These days, console gamers have been all but robbed of this delicious mayhem. Instead, we have ‘Easter Eggs’ – which are mostly situational and self-indulgent, and raise a wry smile at best - while the PC community can rely on the never-ending possibilities of mods.

Modding is an amazing thing. But the difference, as I see it, is that it is a generally deliberate, fan-driven enterprise that requires the gamers themselves to do all the work. The beauty of cheat codes was that you could see that the developers had spent precious time and energy putting ridiculous secrets into the game just for the sheer, silly, shit-and-giggles of it. It was wonderful to see, and that kind of thing forged a fun, tongue-in-cheek bond between creator and consumer.

There was a sense of giddy abandon in both cheat codes and unlockable secrets – and it’s something that modern mainstream gaming seems to have generally lost. I’ve discussed recently how po-faced and serious the industry has generally become, and I think the shifting nature of these elements, and their relative absence, is another unfortunate symptom of that.

The ubiquity of secret unlockables and cheat codes in games gave rise to pervasive urban myths and rumours. Remember the widespread belief that Aeris could actually be brought back in Final Fantasy VII? It persisted precisely because so many games had amazing hidden depths and unusual things to discover.

Now it all seems so much more obvious and direct. Today we’d know there was no possibility of Aeris coming back. Because if there were, there’d be an achievement for it – or an optional, paid-for DLC.

Unlockable content and bonuses in games have simply become yet another commodity or gimmick, and are devoid of the heady sense of excitement, intrigue and entertainment they once wrought.

When I was 12, I got myself a rocket launcher. I just wish more games these days would give me that chance.

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Mark is the content manager for WOW247 in Leeds. When he isn't waxing lyrical about Ben Wheatley and Caravan Palace, he's landing news, assembling guides and penning movie features.

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