A brief history of cheats

An overview of the oft-overlooked insider lore that helped fuel the growth of the games industry

But despite the massive popularity of the phenomenon, cheats are rarely talked about by the likes of silly-game-feature-writers like us, unless, of course, they involve breasts. But cheats don’t have to involve breasts to be interesting (well, they do a little), they have an important and colorful history! And here’s the abridged version of that history, as well as some breasts (not abridged).


Early in the history of videogames, cheating was really cheating. It was achieved by loading games into memory and modifying useful values before launching them. These memory hacks were called POKEs, named for the BASIC function used to overwrite memory. A typical POKE looked absolutely nothing like this:

It looked much more like this: POKE 31211, 134

The first number is the address of the memory cell, and the second number is the new value. Assuming you had found (using “PEEK,” naturally) the location of some hypothetical “lives” variable, you were set. But it wasn’t easy to find the right bits of memory to mess with, so publications began running lists of POKEs – the birth of the cheats industry! Modern games are mostly immune to the tactic, as memory is significantly more protected than it was in the 8-bit days.

The concept of intentionally created cheats also appeared early in the evolution of games, at about the point when cheats became necessary for testing. Without some sort of debug mode or life-extending cheat to make games easier, testing the absurdly difficult games of yore would have been absurdly difficult.

One particularly early example is in the 1983 ZX Spectrum game Manic Miner, which contains a cheat mode activated by entering “6031769,” a number rumored to be the developer’s phone number, and sometimes his driver’s license number, but is probably neither. Manic Miner was hugely popular and ridiculously hard, which is why the code is burnt into the brains of Spectrum owners with more force than “867-5309.”


Associate Editor, Digital at PC Gamer
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