Geek Trivia: The cheat goes on

What was the first video game to recognize the famous "Contra Code"?

If you're writing a book on the evolution of video games, you need to devote at least one chapter to the various incarnations of Adventure, the cave-crawling action game that appeared on platforms ranging from the Atari 2600 to the PDP-10 to any IBM PC running MS-DOS 1.0, because the game came bundled with the OS. Widely considered the first action-adventure game, Adventure—or Colossal Cave Adventure, the original name of its earliest versions—also served to inaugurate or popularize a number of core video game elements we now take for granted, such as Easter eggs and cheat codes.

Will Crowther created the original Adventure in 1975 while he was working as an ARPANET developer. It was a text-based game that required players to type in specific commands when prompted. Crowther's Fortran-based version of the game has been lost to antiquity, but it proved popular enough with his fellow coders that they quickly ported and tweaked it to work with various other systems.

Along the way, the porting developers inserted new, often humorous uses for the game's existing commands and magic words—including the still-in-use xyzzy and plugh. By some accounts, these novel command outcomes are among the earliest game Easter eggs and/or cheat codes ever developed.

However, the most blatant Easter egg in any version of Adventure belongs to the Atari 2600 edition. At the time, Atari programmers didn't receive credit for the games they developed, so coder Warren Robinett inserted a graphic into the game that read: "Created by Warren Robinett." The image would only appear if a player moved an "invisible" pixel (it was the same color as the background) to a specific location.

All of these hidden nuances of Adventure may serve as antecedents to modern Easter eggs and cheats, but they don't exactly bear a strong resemblance to modern cheat codes. Perhaps the most famous "modern" cheat is the fondly remembered Contra Code.

For players of the popular game Contra using the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) console, the famous up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-B-A-Start sequence gave them 30 lives—a surefire way to beat the game. The code proved so popular that developers incorporated it into more than 100 video games, each providing a unique cheat.

Yet, for all its notoriety, the Contra Code didn't originate with Contra. In fact, it previously appeared in another NES game developed by Konami.


What was the first video game to recognize the famous Contra Code—a cheat code implemented in more than 100 video games?

The game in question is Gradius, the side-scrolling spaceflight shooter that made the catch phrase "Shoot the core!" famous. When Konami ported this arcade classic to the NES in 1986, entering up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-B-A-Start gave the player a full complement of power-ups to start the game.

Entering the code backward—A-B-right-left-right-left-down-down-up-up-Start—gave the player 30 extra lives at the beginning of the game. As soon as this code became well-known, Gradius' ease of gameplay skyrocketed, making an already popular game a surefire hit.

That's pretty cool for a programming shortcut. Konami developer Kazuhisa Hashimoto created the original code when working on the NES/Nintendo Famicom port of Gradius to make testing easier, and he simply didn't remove it from the programming code before the game went into production. (This is actually how most cheat codes originate—though their presence in release versions is often only ostensibly accidental.)

In 1988, the code popped up again in the NES version of Contra, which remains one of the most popular console video games ever made. In Contra, the cheat combo allowed the player to start with 30 extra lives, just like the inverse code in Gradius.

The code and the game became synonymous, even though more than 60 other Konami-developed video games recognize the code. As such, in subsequent years, many know the Contra Code as the Konami Code. But that isn't an entirely accurate description either—more than 30 non-Konami games also recognize the button sequence as a cheat code.

Today, the Contra Code has become an icon of gamer culture, available on a host of T-shirts and swag. But perhaps this Dueling Analogs comic says it best. (Check out the Apostles' gestures.) That's not just bringing the funny—that's God mode Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the February 28 edition of Geek Trivia, "Editorial oversight." TechRepublic member Kerens found some subtle humor in the article's final paragraph.

"'Instead, it lives on in various lexicographical texts as an example of the necessity of editing, the nebulous nature of language—and, or course, word-worthy Geek Trivia.' Or course? Was this intended to be funny? Or is this a lack of editing? LOL."

Let's call it an editorial Easter egg (which we've since corrected—so don't go looking for it). Congratulations on finding it, and keep those quibbles coming.

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.