Cheat codes may not be as prominent in video games as they once were, but there was a time when entire magazines, TV shows, and websites were dedicated to sharing these commands, codes, and tactics that would change the way you played your favorite games.
The thing about cheat codes is that they’re rarely just about the “cheat.” Yes, there’s a certain joy to becoming invincible, unlocking new items, or just skipping a few levels, but the thing that separates the best cheat codes from an endless selection of similar cheats is the way they would often go on to define the games they were in to such a degree that it almost feels stranger to think of playing those games without cheats enabled.
From tanks that appear out of thin air to secrets that made you the most popular kid in the neighborhood, these are the absolute best cheats in video game history.
15. Grand Theft Auto 3 – Spawn a Rhino Tank
The Grand Theft Auto series belongs in the Hall of Fame of video game cheat codes, but if I have to pick one cheat from this series to highlight, it has to be the “tank” code from GTA 3.
By entering CIRCLE, CIRCLE, CIRCLE, CIRCLE, CIRCLE, CIRCLE, R1, L2, L1, TRIANGLE, CIRCLE, TRIANGLE (in the PS2 version of the game), GTA 3 players could spawn an invincible Rhino tank that could destroy any other vehicle with one cannon shot. It was the cheat you relied on when you were about to quit playing or were feeling especially frustrated/destructive. Sure, it sometimes broke the game and slowed the framerate to a crawl, but those drawbacks honestly just highlight how insane and delightful this cheat was.
14. NBA Jam – Unlockable Character Cheats
Long before Fortnite let John Wick shoot Superman, NBA Jam was the undisputed king of bizarre character cameos that led to truly wild competitive matchups.
Depending on which version of the game you were playing, NBA Jam let you take the court as Bill Clinton, Reptile, Warren Moon, “Air Dog,” Prince Charles, Will Smith, and so many more truly bizarre characters that we used to impress our friends before we refused to tell them the cheat code we used to unlock them.
13. Star Wars Jedi Knight 2: Jedi Outcast – Dismemberment Debug Code
For years, Star Wars fans asked the question, “Wait, wouldn’t a lightsaber just instantly cut through anyone it touched?” While most of us knew the reasons that we never got to see that effect in the movies, many of us secretly hoped that we would one day get to see what a lightsaber could really do.
That day came the first time you realized that Jedi Outcast contained one of the best cheat codes ever. By opening this PC classic’s debug menu and using the “helpusobi 1” code, Jedi Outcast players could unlock the “realistic” lightsaber combat option that allowed you to chop off enemy limbs and heads or even just give them the old Darth Maul special.
12. Metroid – The Mysterious Justin Bailey Code
While Metroid’s “Justin Bailey” password/cheat code is certainly memorable for what it unlocks (Samus’ bodysuit design and a collection of gear, weapons, and items), the enduring legacy of this code is its mysterious origins and the many myths it inspired.
For years, fans argued about the meaning and origin of “Justin Bailey.” Some speculated that Justin Bailey was the name of a Metroid developer (or their child) or that it refers to Samus being “just in” her bathing suit. Years later, though, we learned that it’s actually kind of a coincidence that this specific password works at all and that it may have been discovered by someone named Justin who entered their own name and found something incredible.
11. Sonic the Hedgehog – The Debug Cheat
“Debug” modes are pretty common in PC games, but it’s always been wild that Sonic the Hedgehog featured a cheat code that essentially enabled a kind of debug mode that not only let you spawn items but manipulate certain elements of existing levels.
The extent of this cheat’s functionality helps it stand out from the comparatively simpler codes of this era, but the thing that really impresses me all these years later is how this cheat showcases just how much on-screen chaos the Sega Genesis could handle without catching on fire.
10. The Sims – “Rosebud” Money Cheat
In theory, the ability to earn unlimited money in The Sims by using the “Rosebud” command should ruin a game built around the idea of growing your character and improving their life over time. In practice, though, this cheat just gave us a different way to experience one of the most influential PC games ever.
Unlimited money let us build the house of our dreams, engineer truly wild scenarios, or even just focus on elements of The Sims we wouldn’t otherwise get to enjoy. This cheat proved just how robust The Sims’ core mechanics and endgame options really were.
9. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater – “The End” Time Travel Skip
Ok, this isn’t actually a “cheat code” in the strictest sense of the phrase, but it’s impossible to talk about the best video game workarounds and exploits ever without mentioning this brilliant piece of game design.
The battle against elderly sniper “The End” in Metal Gear Solid 3 is arguably one of the franchise’s best boss fights, but if you just don’t have the time for all that, it is possible to skip this fight entirely. You just needed to set your PS2’s internal clock a couple of years into the future before starting this encounter. If done correctly, you’ll trigger a special cutscene that shows The End has died of old age and makes you feel bad about your tactics.
8. Age of Empires 2 – The Shelby Cobra Cheat
Age of Empires 2 features so many memorable cheats that you could honestly argue they helped define the legacy of this classic RTS. However, there is one cheat code that stands above the rest.
By using the cheat command “how do you turn this on,” you can spawn a Shelby Cobra in AoE 2 that happens to function as one of the better siege weapons in the game. Nothing beats turning this strategy game into a Fury Road simulator by assaulting a desert stronghold with a small army of sports cars.
7. Super Street Fighter II: Turbo – Play as Akuma
Some of my favorite cheat codes ever are the ones you could use against unsuspecting friends to blow their minds and possibly ruin their day. So far as that goes, there are few cheat codes more memorable than unlocking Akuma in the arcade version of Super Street Fighter II: Turbo.
Actually, the only thing more memorable than playing as Akuma was actually managing to input this cheat code correctly. The series of steps required to unlock Akuma is so precise that it’s honestly harder to pull off than most combos in other fighting games. In fact, this cheat code (which required you to navigate the character select screen in a very specific way) was so tough to properly input that even some of those who knew the method suspected it was fake.
6. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 – Moon Physics
The only thing better than cheats that break a game are cheats that break a game and present an entirely new way to experience it in the process.
That’s why I’ve always loved Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2’s “Moon Physics” cheat. Does it make it possible to pull off record combos from a standing jump? Yes, but navigating these physics proves to be a challenge in and of itself, as anyone who has ever ruined a million-point combo by seriously misjudging a jump will tell you.
5. The Legend of Zelda – The Second Quest Secret
Sure, you can unlock Zelda’s “Second Quest” (a remix of the original adventure) by actually beating the game, but many of us discovered that feature by entering “Zelda” as our character name.
It’s impressive enough that Nintendo managed to pack this much content into an NES cartridge, but the best thing about this cheat is how easy it was to unlock it. More than a few kids accidentally played the Second Quest by assuming that their character was supposed to be named Zelda.
4. Doom – The “God Mode” Cheat
Doom’s invincibility cheat command (IDDQD) deserves some love for becoming a video game meme before memes were really a thing, but what stands out to me all these years later is how this code kind of changed the conversation about Doom for many.
As the first first-person shooter many of us played when we were young, Doom could be incredibly intimidating in terms of its mechanics, concept, difficulty, and even tone. However, when someone put in this code and made you invincible, it really made it easier to appreciate just what a joy this classic was and how that whole FPS thing was probably going to stick around for a while.
3. The Konami Code – Gradius
It’s the code you knew was going to be on the list the moment you saw it, but the slight twist here is that I’m specifically highlighting the use of the Konami code in Gradius: the game that started the most famous cheat code in video game history.
The story goes that Kazuhisa Hashimoto was working on the NES port of Gradius but found it difficult to properly test the game due to how punishing it was. His solution was to create a cheat command that would give him the power-ups he needed to progress. The game was accidentally shipped with the cheat code still enabled, players discovered it, and the rest is history. There’s just something great about a “work smarter, not harder” game developer/tester pretty much pioneering video game cheat codes as we know them today.
2. Mortal Kombat (Sega Genesis) – The Blood Code
Early arguments between Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo fans usually ended in a standstill. Gamers on both sides typically refused to concede any ground to their “rivals” in the debate over who owned the better video game console.
That’s what makes this cheat code so special. The moment that Sega Genesis owners showed their Super Nintendo friends that it was possible to unlock blood in their version of Mortal Kombat, there wasn’t a single SNES fan in the world that could pretend to be anything less than impressed. You had no playground rep if you didn’t know the Mortal Kombat blood code (A, B, A, C, A, B, B) by heart.
1. GoldenEye 007 – The Facility Invincibility Run
There are a few cheats from GoldenEye 007 that belong on this list (DK Mode and Paintball certainly stand out), but if we’re talking about the best of the best, then we’ve got to talk about unlocking GoldenEye 007’s “Invincible” cheat.
In order to unlock the ability to become invincible in GoldenEye 007, you had to beat the Facility level in 2:05 or less on 00 Agent setting. At first, you think it’s impossible. Then, after about a dozen runs or so, you start to see how you might be able to pull this off if absolutely everything goes perfectly. What follows is something that defined many N64’s owners childhoods. To this day, few moments in gaming match the feeling of finally completing that one perfect Facility run and wiping out the heartache of the dozens (maybe hundreds) of failed attempts that came before.
Years later, we learned you could just unlock this cheat by entering a series of control commands. Of course, it’s the process that matters so much more than the cheat itself.