Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A Start

I realize now that if I had grown up playing Sonic the Hedgehog, Gradius, and Castlevania instead of Mario, Mega Man, and Metroid, I wouldn't be such a terrible cheater. Or, conversely, I'd be more of a cheater.

When I was younger, cheating was the only way to survive. I've explained how I got into gaming, but I didn't go into much depth about the role Game Genie played during my formative years. I was a cheatyfaced little kid, and all the first games I owned or remember playing were conquered with the assistance of Game Genie, including the likes of Super Mario Bros., Crystalis, Gradius, and The Bugs Bunny Birthday Blowout. I'm not sure I ever would have learned how to play games honestly if the Game Genie codebook didn't only contain cheat codes for Mega Man 1-3: it wasn't until Mega Man 4 kicked my butt that I learned what it meant to earn your victories.

It's easy enough to believe that winning = fun, especially at a young age. If you're winning, you're having fun; if you're not winning, you're not having fun. Game Genie, therefore, was guaranteed fun! Never mind the fun moonwalking and moon jumping codes (all fun emanates from the moon, apparently); with infinite lives, energy, magic points, etc., there was no way you couldn't eventually prevail, unless your immortality proved to be your undoing--infinite health but finite weapon energy is hardly a point of concern until you fight the wall turret boss in Mega Man 2. That's when winning turns to whining.

Since I started on my Konami kick, I've found myself doing a whole lot of losing. It's been a hoot. Most of my Castlevania Game Overs were from hilariously bad tactics, and I smashed my ship into so many of Gradius II's clever traps that I began to look beyond simple shooting and dodging and started to find enjoyment in strategizing a way out of the difficulty. Whether I won or lost, I was still having fun...to a point.

Inevitably, I got to a level of the space shooter du jour that I could not beat. Gradius II, Gradius III, and the NES spinoff Life Force allowed me to play around for two, three, or even four stages before cutting me off and reminding me that I just wasn't good enough to keep up. I didn't put in the time growing up to get good at these games, and I hadn't earned the right to see their endings. I was faced with a decision every time: keep practicing, or give up?

Having no intention of leaving these games to rot on my Backloggery, I went back to my roots: I cheated. The satisfaction of winning would still be there, but more importantly, I'd get to experience these games more fully with 30 extra lives and multiple continues to propel me to the end. Skill and effort were still required to beat each game, but I didn't have to continually replay an entire half of a game just to practice the one part where I keep getting a Game Over.

Cheating worked well for Gradius II and III, but it somehow ruined the fun of Life Force. The difference is that Life Force immediately brings you back into the game after you die, rather than restarting you at a checkpoint and forcing you to retry the section where you died. When you can't slow down to practice a trouble spot, the entire game becomes a matter of throwing enough disposable ships at a level until you've made it to the boss, who takes forever to defeat because you haven't been able to catch your breath long enough to power up your ship before exploding again.

Upon grumpily completing Life Force, it seemed my Konami kick was at an end (though I recently picked up Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow; so much for that). Reluctant to start any longer games before my impending wedding, I sifted through my catalog to see what else could be a short diversion. I found Sonic the Hedgehog.

I had played the first few games before, but I had never beaten them. I sat down to beat them. They beat me. So I cheated. I used a level select code to put me back at the stage where I got my most recent Game Over. This worked for Sonic 1. This almost worked for Sonic 2...until I got to the final boss.

Previously, I had reached the final boss of each game the honest way. Between luck, practice, and a friend who's better at Sonic than I am, I had earned my right (or so I told myself) to skip these levels I'd already beaten. No sense wasting time replaying the first few levels that I've got under control. However, no amount of level skipping makes the final boss of Sonic 2 any easier.

My primary difficulty was that I could never stay alive long enough to identify where or when the final boss was vulnerable to damage. The first boss of the final level had a clear pattern that I memorized, and I could take him down quickly...but I still needed to re-beat him every time I wanted a shot at the final boss. So I cheated again. I transformed myself into a ring, and scattered rings all around the battlefield so that I wouldn't die instantly when I got hit. I never learned a pattern; I just kept hurling Sonic at the boss until he fell, scrambling to collect the rings I was losing as I got hit every three seconds.

It just wasn't fun. And I don't see how it would have been fun if I'd taken the time to practice enough to not need to cheat.

Game Genie served as my training wheels when I was younger--sure, I cheated my way through Crystalis the first time, but it prepared me enough that I knew what I was doing when I attempted to beat the game honestly, saving me a lot of frustrating and needless retries. Games like Sonic and Gradius and Castlevania that have built-in cheat codes, though? How much longer would I have cheated if the cheats were a legitimate part of the game?

As I continually smacked my ships against the rocks and pillars in the later levels of Life Force, I couldn't help but think that I was intruding on someone's fandom. I didn't belong here any more than someone who never beat a robot master before Mega Man 10's Easy Mode; I had no business saying I had beaten Life Force. Because, really, all I did was smash ships into walls until there were no more walls to smash into.

I want to find some real-world parallel reinforcing that cheating is bad, and that cheaters never prosper, but I'm surprisingly at ease with my underhanded tactics. I got to play some games through to completion that I otherwise might never have found the skill or desire to finish. That might make a pariah among the true fans, but does it make me a bad gamer?


JoeReviewer said...

I actually faced a similar dillema once. When I first played through Mega Man 5, I could not for the life of me get past the final Dark Man Robot. I didn't have an e- or m-tank to assist me, and repeated game overs weren't helping at all. So I hit the - button once or twice on the emulator and was able to dodge with ease and get to the last castle levels. However, for a while time I felt bad about the fact that I hadn't really legitamently beaten my favorite Mega Man game.

I've since gone through the game legitamently (no game over run actually), so I don't feel as bad about it. Sometimes I say if you eventually go back and do it without cheats, there's definatly no harm in doing a run to familiarize yourself with the game a bit.

Flashman85 said...

Well, glad to hear you were able to eventually beat MM5 the honest way--and with no Game Overs, at that!

I'm now at a point in my gaming career where I'm looking more at breadth over depth--play it, move on, and don't look back. There are certainly new games I've enjoyed enough to go back to again, but Sonic is one particular series that I'm simply not that good at. I've enjoyed what I've played so far, but there's always a certain point where the amount of skill and effort required to succeed is SO great that it's no longer worth the time and practice required, when I have all these other games to play that might be more suited to my gameplay style.

I agree--there's no harm in cheating if you're planning on playing through the legit way later...but right now I'm just playing to check some things off my list!