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Veteran Member - Level 13
I started thinking recently about how I can't remember virtually anything taught to me in college, but I have the blood codes for the Genesis versions of Mortal Kombat and Mortal Kombat II permanently etched into my brain (Down up left left A right down and A B A C A B B, in case you were wondering). My entire gaming experience throughout childhood and adolescence involved cheat codes. If my mom was going to the grocery store, I'd bring a spiral notebook and sit down on the floor of the magazine section, jotting down every secret I could find for Vectorman or whatever game I was playing at the time.
In sixth grade, our teacher made a huge deal about this new thing called the "internet" that our computers had access to. I sat down at the PC as he explained what a search engine was, and my first thought wasn't about the internet's possible implications for social purposes, instant news access, shopping, etc. It was "I am typing in 'Earthworm Jim 2 codes' into this box and if it works, this is the greatest invention ever." It worked, and it was the best thing ever. It also meant that calling a 900 line to unlock Smoke in Mortal Kombat 3 was a thing of the past.
Games were awesome on their own merits back then, but it was still fun to punch the Skywalker and Infinite Hammer Bros. Costume codes into Super Mario Bros. 3's Game Genie menu and go nuts. Some were funny (turning Command & Conquer's ore into people by typing in "SOYLENTGREEN"), some were helpful (the Contra code), some were cosmetic (blood in Mortal Kombat), and some were non-existent (the nude code in Tomb Raider). In almost all cases, they extended the replay value of your games and gave you a new way to play them.
At some point the interest in codes dropped off. I don't think it's just me, as you rarely hear people asking about codes or starting websites dedicated to them anymore. One possibility is that the rewards that were previously accessed via a code are now typically unlocked by performing in-game tasks. The first game that I remember doing this well was Goldeneye. Instead of punching in a 16-button sequence to become invisible, you'd have to perform some insane in-game task like beating the Archives on 00 Agent in a little over a minute. Goofier cheats like DK Mode were easier to access, but you'd have to really know the game if you wanted to get to the good stuff. Metal Gear Solid was also from this era, and you wouldn't be getting that infinite-ammo bandanna or stealth camo without first beating the game as it was intended.
The only traditional codes I remember after the 32/64-bit era were those in the PS2 Grand Theft Auto games. Codes for health or decreasing your wanted level were pretty much cheating, but the ones for dropping tanks out of the sky were a ton of fun. Putting in one code that armed every civilian and following it with the code that makes all civilians hate you had hilarious results, and it offered a fun distraction when you were ready for a break.
In the current generation of consoles, codes are a rarity. I loved all the funny cheats Rockstar put into GTA III back in 2001, but it's ten years later and I honestly don't even know if Red Dead Redemption has any. It might be indicative of a shift in how games are made in recent years, with more focus on narrative experiences and balanced online multiplayer than "try to get to the end without dying." I have fond memories of discovering new codes when I was a kid, but I can't say I really miss them in 2011. Like level passwords, 900 hint lines, "notes" sections in instruction manuals, and VHS hype tapes for upcoming games, they're just another element that we don't have any need for anymore.