This installment’s question comes from longtime commenter Unexpected Dave: What game can you only enjoy when cheating?
Anthony John Agnello
This question appeared in a comment thread about Final Fantasy VIII, a game I have never managed to finish without cheating. The Final Fantasy series isn’t a stranger to tedium that’s better off subverted than dealt with normally. Just look at Final Fantasy II where you have to literally hit yourself with a sword to grow your defense stats, or Final Fantasy X and its never-ending battles. I’ve finished most of the frustrating Final Fantasies without cheating at least once, with the exception of VIII and X, but there is one entry in the series that flat-out requires cheating: Final Fantasy Tactics. Yasumi Matsuno’s strategy game is delightful; I love its prolonged fights, raising its characters, the absurd melodrama of its anime-tinged indictment of Catholicism. Its boss fight with Velius, however, is unreasonable. Everyone who’s played Tactics knows Velius. One of the first major bosses in the game, he’s roughly one billion times harder than any other enemy up to that point, and it’s all too easy to get locked into a single save file before him. Whether it was using a GameShark back on PS1 or spamming a special move to increase Ramza’s speed exponentially, I’ve never beaten Velius in a straight fight, and I never will.
I’m vaguely aware it’s possible to play Konami’s classic side-scroller Contra with the “official” number of lives and continues the game hands out (a paltry three and three, respectively). But why would I subject myself to that kind of frustration, when the mother of all cheat codes is sitting right there, waiting for me to punch it in? The proper way to play Contra is as a two-man Zerg rush, each player packing 30 lives with Old Man Konami Code footing the bill. It’s not like the game’s suddenly easy—you still die in one hit, taking away your flamethrower, your laser, or, god forbid, your spread gun—but it’s at least completable. Just for comparison’s sake, I recently tried to get through a game of Contra without the code, and barely made it to the second-level boss when my virtual quarters ran out. If saving humanity requires cheating, then I don’t want to be right.
I never go into an Elder Scrolls game with the intention of cheating, but they’re so big and I want to see it all so badly that eventually I start fudging with the rules. Sometimes it’s a soft cheat. In Oblivion, you can improve your acrobatics skill—useful for jumping high enough to reach otherwise-inaccessible locations—through constant use. Every jump incrementally improves your ability, so you game the system a little by hopping everywhere like a violent, ironclad bunny rabbit. Eventually you become a Siegel and Schuster-era Superman: not quite flying, but leaping to ridiculous, giddy heights. Sometimes it’s a hard cheat. In Skyrim, manipulating the skill system to upgrade my smithing ability would still mean forging, selling, and re-forging iron daggers for hours. Since that’s time better spent doing practically anything else, I just straight-up plug in a skill-improving cheat code. Despite both methods being fairly innocuous examples of rule-breaking, I feel a small twinge of guilt with every transgression. But given that I’m playing a game where I can steal everything a shopkeeper owns, beat them to the ground with my bare fists, and walk out the door only to enter again and kindly ask after their family, perhaps I shouldn’t fuss about it.
As someone who really only plays games on a console and can’t do the hacking and modding that PC people can, I feel like it’s been years since I properly cheated in a video game. Instead, I’ve had to find new ways to give myself an unfair advantage, which usually involves looking up strategy guides online. Now, I don’t want to alarm any FromSoftware purists, but I play Dark Souls by pausing every few minutes and looking up one of the many wikis dedicated to the series so I know exactly what to expect around each turn. It’s not that I’m afraid of some jackass skeleton leaping out of the wall, it’s that I don’t really want to march through something like the Tomb Of Giants—a mostly pitch-black area with tons of deadly pits—more than a few times. I know it’s not the “right” way to play Dark Souls, but I still have to fight all of the skeletons myself. I just have the slight advantage of knowing when and where they’re going to jump out at me.
This is a bit embarrassing, but the only Resident Evil game I ever finished was Resident Evil 5. I beat it without cheats (this is not that impressive an accomplishment), and it was okay, but I only really started having fun when I was able to unlock the special bonus stuff after the game. Things like unlimited ammo, better guns, invulnerability—all things that make it so you’re not playing the game anymore so much as mocking it, repeatedly and thoroughly. And you know what? That’s a lot more fun. Other RE games I’ve played were clearly better (and lacked RE5’s baffling racial politics), but the ability to plow through level after level without having to worry about anything more complicated than pointing my gun and pulling the trigger was the closest I’ve ever come to that whole “power-fantasy trip” games are often dismissed as. Most games start off easy and punish you as you go—a masochist’s fantasy at best. But with all the switches turned up to 11, RE5 felt like the inconsequential playground I needed it to be.
Suikoden is not a difficult game, but it is a demanding one. You play a character who goes from living in carefree decadence to being expected to recruit, equip, and lead a full-scale rebel army. The game famously boasts 108 recruitable characters, 78 of whom can join your battle party and will require armor, magic runes, and sharpened weapons. Not surprisingly, this quickly becomes a burden on your wallet. Mercifully, Suikoden has not one but two infinite-money cheats ripe for the exploiting. Within an hour of starting the game you can earn vast sums of money betting on a shell game, the results of which are predetermined and can be memorized. Later, you can recruit a gambler to set up a dice game right in your headquarters and rob him blind—the outcomes of his die rolls are not random but are influenced by your party’s cumulative luck stat, so much so that it’s practically impossible for you to lose with the right team. By repeatedly swindling these two for every penny they’ve got, you can play the game without having to grind for cash or make strategic decisions about who gets the only set of good gear you can afford. It undercuts the ragtag feel your army is supposed to have, but it also enables undistracted access to the game’s rich story and interesting world, so it’s more than worth the trade-off.
I’m gonna be perfectly honest: I never, ever cheat in games. Whether learning to survive through bullet hell or honing those jumping skills for pixel-perfect platform landings, gaming’s central joy is earning your progress. However, the problem with traditional point-’n’-click adventures was that the profoundly sadistic minds behind them were dead set on frustrating players’ efforts by adhering to an unspoken but strictly observed rule: at least one unsolvable puzzle per game. It could be hunting for an indistinguishable pixel at the corner of a nondescript wall, finding an absurd combination of seemingly unrelated items in your inventory, or, in the particularly despair-inducing case of Broken Sword: The Shadow Of The Templars, utilizing the split-second time window between a goat successively head-butting you to entangle the frenzied beast in some abandoned farming paraphernalia. Methods were numerous but their result consistent: I would be stumped, progress halted and narrative flow broken, until I either stumbled onto the solution by pure luck or managed to find a walkthrough to take a peek at (which, in the internet’s Paleolithic era, was often a puzzle in itself). Not so much “only enjoying it when cheating” then, but more of an “only being able to enjoy it after cheating” scenario. Thanks, Virgin Interactive!
I really enjoyed a great deal of Jonathan Blow’s The Witness. The presentation, the pacing, the puzzles—it was all just so pleasant. I found myself thinking about the game whenever I was away, and not just the puzzles that I, like apparently everyone playing, started seeing everywhere around me in the real world. Still, the game hit a point of diminishing returns as the obstacles became more obtuse. It was cute enough noticing that the side of a building resembled a puzzle when viewed from across the courtyard at a specific angle, but after staring at deserts and clouds and shipwrecks for hours to no avail, I finally started pulling up FAQs and walkthrough videos just to get the puzzles done and the game out of my system. There was no joy in starting a boat and then running halfway across the island to catch it as the boat lined up with some debris; or in hitting play on a video, starting the accompanying puzzle, walking away for an hour to have lunch, and coming back when the video ended to finish the puzzle. There was no pride, there was no sense of accomplishment; there was only the absence of the nagging voice in my head saying there were things still left to do. Cheating at The Witness was like using a Swiffer instead of a broom: I still had to do the chore, but I didn’t have to exert any effort for it.
In its earliest incarnations, I tended to get frustrated with Tomb Raider quite often. Whether it was the dumb butler following you around the grounds or simply some janky control problems, I remember getting irritated with the series’ first two installments more times than I care to admit. Which is why I became positively giddy when I heard about the all-weapons cheat in Tomb Raider 2. A simple series of side steps, back and forth, and spinning around—followed by a good old-fashioned backflip—netted you every possible gun in the arsenal, making Lara a hardcore murder machine. It was the best method for blowing off some steam when you found yourself stuck half-inside a boulder, or falling down a chasm time and again. Even if there weren’t anyone around to use one of those sweet guns on, just unloading into the side of an irksome puzzle would cheer me up. I know it’s wrong, but—actually, no, screw that, it was the absolute best, and I feel no shame for it. Although, to be honest, sometimes it was even more satisfying to perform the slightly altered series of movements, and blow Lara up.