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The Konami Code: How a string of button presses unleashed a tidal wave of cheat codes

The Konami Code:  How a string of button presses unleashed a tidal wave of cheat codes

At Bitmap Books, we like to think we are cataloguing the very best of video games history. This is why we have produced titles like the NES/Famicom: a visual compendium which showcases the very best of this trailblazing console.

It’s astonishing to think that history can turn on the smallest of decisions. For instance, when the late and great Kazuhisa Hashimoto first joined games company Konami in 1981, he probably had no idea that one day he was going to change the course of video games forever.

In a 2003 interview with Game Staff List Association Japan he confessed that when he first arrived, the company was still manufacturing circuit boards for coin-operated roulette and slot machines. Konami quickly put Hashimoto-san to work making coin games but it wasn’t until a few years later that they realised the amazing potential of the Famicom (or ‘NES’ as it was known outside Japan) and started developing games for the new console.

These were the early days of video game development, so everyone pitched in helping to build arcade machines, devise interesting plots and do the programming. There was also no dedicated video games “quality testers”, so it fell to Hashimoto-san and his 3-man team to port the coin-operated game Gradius to Nintendo’s console.

“I had one guy under me, and he played through the coin-op version. That one’s really tough. I hadn’t played that much and obviously couldn’t beat it myself, so I put in the Konami Code. Because I was the one who was going to be using it, I made sure it was easy to remember.”

The code Hashimoto-San inserted into the game was a simple sequence of button presses that would give the player a full set of power ups to make testing easier. To use it, all he or his testers had to do was pause the game and enter the sequence:

 ↑↑↓↓←→←→B + A

This code was never designed for general use and Hashimoto’s team always planned to take it out before the game was released but never actually got round to doing so and this was long before it was possible to issue video game patches via the Internet. The button sequence was then rediscovered by other players and shared through early gaming circles.

Entering the Konami Code on the pause screen of Gradius provided the player with all power-ups. This made is easier for the developers to test the game for bugs.

Realising its growing popularity, Konami then began porting their code to other games. One of the earliest and most popular implementations was in the 1988 “run and gun” game Contra, also developed for Nintendo. The game was extremely tough to beat but entering the Konami code on the title screen gives players a colossal 30 extra lives, giving them a chance of beating the game.

This is the point in gaming history where the Konami code’s popularity skyrocketed, as Nintendo Power magazine decided to reveal its existence in Contra in the “Classified Information” section of their very first issue in July 1998. This no doubt explains why its sometimes known as the “30 lives code” or even the “Contra Code” is this is how many gamers first encountered it.

Entering the Konami Code into Contra’s title screen gives the player 30 extra lives. A very useful cheat for such a fiendishly difficult game.

This was in an age where there was no extra downloadable content for games, so developers would often make them fiendishly difficult to complete, extending their replayability. Gamers were left with the choice of spending hours replaying levels to become an expert or give up altogether. Built-in button press cheats like the Konami code provided a third way: less-skilled players now stood a chance of finishing the game quickly.

Understanding this, Konami introduced their code into a number of games including Gradius sequels and spin-offs, perhaps most controversially in Gradius III (1989) for SNES where inputting the Konami code would indeed give you all the power-ups, then promptly blow up your ship!

Certain games also riffed on the Konami code theme but made certain tweaks. For instance the 1992 NES title known as Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles III outside Japan required you to enter the B + A in reverse order (A + B) to access a special options screen, from where you could change the starting stage and difficulty level.

The Konami Code in the US-version of TMNTIII pulls up an options screen that lets you change the starting stage and difficulty level. Interestingly, Japanese version of the game enabled this screen by default.

Konami also ensured that entering the code didn’t always just make playing the game easier. For example, inputting it into the 1994 SEGA Mega Drive/Genesis game Castlevania: Bloodlines unlocks a harder ‘Expert’ mode, though you can also use it to change the background music, which will give you 9 lives.

As the Konami Code became a gaming staple, other non-Konami games started including it too. Entering the code into Irrational Games’ 2013 epic Bioshock Infinite, will unlock ‘1999 mode’, a much harder version of the game. Usually you need to have completed the game at least once in order to do this.

In 2020 retro gamers waiting in the black hole lobby of Fortnite’s Battle Royale also found that by entering the Konami code, they could play a number of arcade classics including a game that looked very similar to Space Invaders.

The Konami code also had its very own cameo in the 2012 Disney animated film Wreck it Ralph where the evil King Candy has it written down as the combination for his safe where he keeps the source code for the fictional arcade game Sugar Rush

Enter the Konami Code on Gradius III (1989) and your ship will explode! You can avoid this by using the SNES’ shoulder buttons for L + R instead of the D-Pad.

As kid gamers grew into adult web developers, the Konami Code became even more firmly embedded in popular culture as a form of an unlockable Easter Egg on various web pages. In April 2009 the ESPN website displayed animations of dancing unicorns for anyone who entered the code. Anyone who enters the code into the website of business cloud provider Megaport is treated to a basic Snake-style game, which delivers helpful messages at the end of each game.

Enter the Konami code on Megaport for a highly enjoyable game of Snake. Now get back to work. 

Kazuhisa Hashimoto sadly died in 2020 but his legacy still lives on in the form of the Konami Code and the games which he helped to develop. If you want to relive the glory days of the NES/Famicom, take this time to read through Bitmap Books own NES/Famicom: a visual compendium which focuses on a number of the very best Konami titles. If you came to gaming in the 90’s, don’t forget to check out our SNES/Super Famicom: a visual compendium too.

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