By: Chris Hodges, editor-in-chief
Unfortunately, what passes for a “cheat device” on a modern gaming system is typically just a system for downloading fully-stocked game saves. On top of that, online connectivity and patching mean that publishers and console manufacturers are able to both seek out and punish individual cheaters as well as patch out the effects of cheat exploits on a widespread scale. But there was a time when a cheat device actually let you literally hack a game’s code, either to give yourself infinite lives and ammo, or to swap assets around and reveal content hidden deep within a game’s code that was never meant to be seen by consumers. And you didn’t need to be Zero Cool or The Plague in order to have the skills to do it [editor’s note: those looking for pop culture references from this millennium are at the wrong website).
Here is a list of the video game cheat devices commercially released over the years, back when they were still actual cheat/hacking devices and not just a way to download souped-up save files.
Action Replay / Pro Action Replay / Equalizer
U.K.-based Datel Electronics released what is widely considered to be the first commercially-available cheat device in 1986 in the form of the Action Replay for the Commodore 64, and later, the Amiga. The device’s primary advertised function was its ability to save the entire contents of the system’s memory to floppy disk or cassette, letting users reload the data very quickly. This could be used to cut down the sometimes 20+ minutes of loading time from a tape. Of course, it didn’t take people long to realize that this method could also allow for the copying of games. Eventually, the Action Replay’s ability of the device to change a game’s code in order to alter its parameters to players’ advantages became a popular feature as well, leading to it doubling as a cheat device as well as a way to streamline loading times and storage issues.
However, it wasn’t until the Pro Action Replay was released for the NES and Master System that the product line’s place as a straight-up cheat device was solidified. Action and Pro Action Replay devices–also occasionally released under the name “Equalizer”–were also released for the SNES, Mega Drive/Genesis, PlayStation, Saturn, Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, Wii, Game Boy, Game Gear, Nintendo DS, PlayStation Portable, and Nintendo 3DS, making it the longest-running cheat device of all time and then one that has appeared on the largest number of different platforms. Although it should be noted that it is merely a system for downloading saves–not the inputting of actual hacking codes–for many of the more recent systems and handhelds, and often come loaded onto a memory stick or other form of external storage for game saves, requiring players to connect the device to a PC in order to actually download saves from designated websites.
Konami Game Master
While Codemasters–creators of the Game Genie–were a game publisher as well as a cheat device creator, Konami is the only game company to ever release a cheat device specifically designed to work only with its own games. In this way, 1986’s Game Master is actually the most “official” cheat device ever created. In fact, its full Japanese title translates to: “The Cartridge That Allows Konami Games To Be Enjoyed Ten Times More.” Both the Game Master and its successor–the Game Master II–were only released for use with the MSX and MSX2 computers, respectively. Among the perks of using a Game Master are increased lives, level skipping, the ability to save in games that don’t normally have that feature, play in slow motion, take and print out a screen shot, and more. Interestingly (and sneakily), some of Konami’s games were developed specifically with Game Master cheats built into the games themselves, but wouldn’t activate unless a Game Master was detected. Beyond that, all of the cheating was actually being done natively within the game itself. For those who are enthusiast enough to try and seek out one of these devices, the Game Masters automatically display their menus in English if they are inserted into an MSX or MSX2 released outside of Japan.
While the Action Replay is the most prolific line of cheat devices ever made, Game Genie is proportionally the most successful. In just the three years between the 1990 launch of the original Game Genie for the NES through the subsequent versions for SNES, Genesis/Mega Drive, Game Boy, and Game Gear, the entire line sold over five million units and earned Codemasters and Galoob nearly $150 million. What became the Game Genie began life as a physical knob attached to the outside of the Codemasters NES game Treasure Island Dizzy that would’ve let you adjust the number of lives you had, harkening back to the days of hardware-based settings adjustments on consoles like the Atari 2600. Codemasters is famous for this type of thing, of course, perhaps most famously with its J-Cart technology that put extra controller ports directly onto Genesis/Mega Drive cartridges to increase the maximum number of players in games like Micro Machines 96 and Pete Sampras Tennis. The knob for Dizzy ended up being nixed for the retail release, but it gave Codemasters the idea to create a device that would let players tinker with options in other games. Nintendo, not surprisingly, was opposed to the Game Genie, and tried–unsuccessfully–to legally prohibit the device from being sold. Sega decided to take the opposite approach, and not only fully endorsed the Genesis Game Genie but even stamped it as an officially licensed Sega product.
In 1993, following the blockbuster success of the first batch of devices, Codemasters was hard at work on the Game Genie 2. One of the main features of the new version was to have hard buttons on the device itself that would allow players to make game adjustments in real time, and without the need for cumbersome code entering. However, corporate changes at manufacturer Galoob around that time would eventually force the product to be shelved, as Galoob’s new management was less video game friendly and didn’t really “get” the device or why it was worth their time and money. Codemasters decided not to proceed with it on their own, instead focusing on their business as a game developer and publisher. The copyright on the name “Game Genie” would eventually expire, and without being renewed by Codemasters or Galoob, Hyperkin stepped in and snatched up the trademark. They’ve since had versions of a Game Genie for PS3 and Nintendo DS and are currently working on one for PS4. As with modern incarnations of Action Replay, however, the new generation of Game Genie is more of a save game data editor than a traditional cheat device as it was in its early-90s heyday.
GameShark / GameShark Pro
Besides the Action Replay which had never–and still hasn’t–gone away, following the fading away of the Game Genie, one dedicated cheat code device line rose to take its place: the GameShark. Its reach that went from a Game Boy device all the way to PSP and NDS, with versions in between for the PS1, PS2, N64, Saturn, Dreamcast, Xbox, and GameCube. It ran on a code-input system similar to the Game Genie, and the “Pro” versions of the device were designed to let people to find their own codes rather than relying entirely on existing codes found online. Theoretically, this could be done with any code-based cheat device, but the GameShark Pro was the first one (for consoles anyway) that actually implemented an in-game method for finding codes and variables. The N64 GameShark earned a lot of notoriety when it was discovered that using the device allowed players to explore the unfinished and otherwise inaccessible “dam” area of Goldeneye. GameShark was also notable for having its devices come pre-loaded with codes for large numbers of games, as well as letting codes be stored on the device so that they only had to be entered once. GameShark struggled to stay relevant during the sixth console generation, failing to adapt to the “downloadable saves” model that other devices were using to keep with changes in technology. The last GameShark device releases was the one for the GameCube. Still, GameShark was the defacto cheat device for both the PS1 and N64, all the more impressive given the myriad options available for the latter.
GB Hunter and N64 Passport
Holding onto the cartridge format made the Nintendo 64 an especially inviting target for cheat device manufacturers, and the system got two exclusive devices all its own. There was the GB Hunter, which primarily served as a Game Boy player for the N64 that let you plug Game Boy and Game Boy Color games into a pass-through device and play them through the N64. It also had built-in Action Replay support, doubling as a cheat device as well as a straight game adapter. The other–from the same company, EMS–was the N64 Passport, which let players play N64 games from other regions and also throw in Action Replay support for good measure, because why wouldn’t it? It should be noted that other cheat devices also doubled as a way to play imported and pirated games on other systems, so it’s interesting that a device would be marketed as a way to play import games with the side effect of being a cheat device rather than a cheat device that counts the ability to pla import games among its list of features. Whatever the case, N64 owners had a lot of options when picking a cheat device for their system.