Tag Archives: Pac-Man

Life has no cheat codes

A life lesson in pixel form.
A life lesson in pixel form.

Up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-A-B-start.  If you’re a gamer of any kind, you’ve probably entered that or similar combinations of buttons into your controller, seeking to enable invincibility, infinite ammo, all power-ups or what-have-you.  In today’s video games, cheat codes are everywhere – originating as secret backdoors for programmers to enable them to jump to specific points in the game to test for bugs, cheat codes are in the mainstream now, with the option to enter them usually front and center on most games’ main menus.  Some are pretty harmless, like sticking a mustache on your character or changing his outfit.  But others turn you into an omnipotent juggernaut mowing down hapless bots as you stroll brazenly through bloody bullet-strewn battlefield after bloody bullet-strewn battlefield, with no need to strategize about your approach, or, you know, duck.  If you’re an adult and that’s the gaming experience you want, bully for you.  But for kids, being able to quickly button-mash their way out of the effort required to finish a game legitimately with its puzzles and dangers intact is one of the worst life lessons they can learn in their formative years.  Just a few short years ago I swore I’d never give a “kids these days” speech, but here I am, as inevitably as the tides.

I grew up in the era of the quarter-sucking arcade and the first home video game console systems – when the kid on the block whose dad got him the Atari for Christmas was the epicenter of the neighbourhood social scene.  In those days, you started with three lives, and no matter how far you got in the game, if you died three times you’d have to start again from the beginning.  The game might be magnanimous enough to offer you an extra life or two when you reached a certain point threshold, but if you were an amateur gamer like myself, struggling to elude those damned multicolored ghosts as you wheeled Pac-Man wildly through his maze of blinking dots, that was a rare prize indeed.  There was no such thing as “leveling up” – the aliens descended progressively faster while your skill set remained constant, limited to the extent of your hand-eye coordination.  No armor upgrades, invincibility potions or uber-mega-cannons to be found.  Mario was forever a lone soldier with nothing more than his ability to jump to a finite height pitted against the merciless barrel throwing of Donkey Kong.  And even though the frustration factor was enough to make us want to punch through the screen as we watched our Galaga fighter explode into pixel shards, the challenge, and the fun, kept us coming back.  If we’d all hated the experience that much, Wreck-It Ralph never would have been made.

In today’s games, along with increasingly sophisticated graphics and cinematic behind-the-scenes talent has come checkpoints, save points, official strategy guides and enough in-game cheats both hidden and obvious to let you plow through to the end in a few meager hours of play.  You never die in a game anymore; it merely pauses for a few seconds before you respawn in the same place (maybe back a few hundred in-game meters) with little to no penalty.  And almost every single in-game danger or problem can be mitigated by a cheat code.  Running out of ammo?  There’s a cheat for that.  Missing a crucial key to unlock the next door?  There’s a cheat for that too.  Instead of putting in the mental exertion or the time commitment to try and solve the puzzle, a kid’s first recourse is to go online for a code.  Getting to the end as quickly as possible, enjoying the spoils without the effort and without the experience of the journey, is the primary goal.  But the game is the journey – that’s the whole point.  SimCity remains a magnificent video game recreation of the trials of urban planning and municipal management, where success depends on learning how to allocate scarce resources and resolve the political consequences of important decisions.  Without a landfill, garbage will pile up on your streets, but residents will complain and move away if you put it too close to them, and so on.  But even SimCity has a cheat that gifts you with infinite cash and reduces the cost of all city improvements to zero.  I’m sure plenty of mayors and planners would love to have access to that!

Funnily enough, the reward for reaching the end absent any risk or need to think about what you’re doing is usually just a brief cut-scene followed by developer credits.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not that interested in who the second graphics assistant coordinator is for Halo.  I also know that giving in to the temptation of cheat codes is the quickest way to lose interest in a game.  I remember racing through the Facility level on GoldenEye 64 time and again, dodging bullet hits left and right from digital Soviet soldiers to complete the mission in under two minutes and five seconds and unlock the invincibility achievement.  Sure, there were times I wanted to chuck the controller against the wall, but I kept playing, kept trying to shave off crucial seconds.  Then I discovered that you could actually unlock invincibility with a few button pushes instead.  Once I did that, the challenge of beating the game was gone, and so was my joy in playing it.  I played it perhaps a half-dozen times after that before it was consigned to a basement box.

In an era when everyone is a beautiful snowflake and no one is allowed to fail lest their precious feelings be hurt, cheat codes are another message to children that they don’t really need to try, that they will be carried along to the next level regardless of how mediocre their performance is.  There is no point in trying, because there’s always a way to cheat yourself out of a tight spot.  The nobility of effort is a lost concept, and the video games we give our kids to play are emblematic of this problem.  Getting crushed by Donkey Kong’s barrels or caught by Inky, Blinky, Pinky or Sue were in their strange way, important rites of passage.  They taught us that we had to consider different approaches and to try harder if we wanted to get ahead.  One shudders at the thought of a generation of adults raised to believe that they need only to touch the right combination of buttons in order to be granted whatever they desire.  (That worked really well the last time I wanted a new car, and infinite ammo for my bazooka.)  Or worse – rushing through life to get to the disappointing cut-scene at the end.

Life has no cheat codes.  Video games shouldn’t either.

Hail, ye olde Commodore

Hello, old friend.

Ready.  That’s what my Commodore VIC-20 told me every time I flipped it on.  No “Press Ctrl+Alt+Del” or any other series of commands to get things moving.  Just Ready.  Ready for what seemed like the limitless possibility of high-tech adventure waiting at the first keystroke.  A basic calculator purchased at the Dollar Store today likely has more computing power than my old Vic, the chunky pillow-sized box you had to plug into your television.  Commodore has faded from the scene, its late founder Jack Tramiel, who passed away Sunday at the age of 83, hardly a household name with the recognition factor of Jobs or Gates.  But for many of us who have grown up never knowing a world without computers as a part of regular life, the Commodore line was our gleaming key to the front door, an inexpensive welcome into the virtual world of ones and zeroes that has come to redefine history.  It was ready, and so were we.

Pitched on television by none other than William Shatner, the VIC-20, introduced in 1980, was already obsolete when I unwrapped it one fateful Christmas morning three decades ago, but it cost half as much as its successor the 64.  It came with a pair of game cartridges – a thinly disguised Pac-Man clone called “Cosmic Cruncher” and the frustrating “Jupiter Lander,” where the goal was to guide a collection of pixels roughly resembling the Apollo 11 lunar module across the uneven green blob of an alien world.  I like many other youngsters of the era was more interested in the instruction booklet, because it included a tutorial on basic programming language, a rudimentary guide to getting your Vic to do anything.  A handful of sample programs were included, my personal favourite being one that showed you how to animate a stick figure doing jumping jacks.  10 PRINT “\O/” was the first line and you can guess where it went from there.  If you were really ambitious, you could get the jumping man to change colors too.

The most complicated program in the guide created a menu from which you could select one of three different dishes, the recipes for each you had painstakingly typed into the Vic’s memory, and these were the days when you couldn’t save anything.  Unless you had the add-on cassette drive, which used audio tapes you hadn’t already turned into bootleg recordings of Thriller to store dozens of primitive games and anything else you could dream up to impress your friends.  Can’t-miss cartoons of the day were swiftly forgotten, replaced by hours inputting commands to make the Vic do anything from drawing a happy face to calculating baseball statistics to asking trivia questions.  You didn’t need a degree in coding to get the Vic to perform for you; a quick study through the manual was enough to get you going.  In many ways its simplicity helped demystify and deprogram – pardon the pun – the idea of the cold, impenetrable, malevolent silicon intelligence of HAL 9000 and his cinematic siblings from the public consciousness.  Now, anyone could figure these things out and make them dance.  It made us feel in charge of our machines again.

Looking back the entire package was not much of a step up from punch cards and the telegraph, but that didn’t matter.  What differentiated the Vic from its competitors was that with the Vic, you weren’t just playing in somebody else’s pre-designed sandbox, limited to discovering new ways to guide a frog across a highway or save a princess from an angry barrel-throwing monkey.  The Vic was your sandbox – you were learning and creating.  You were computing.  You were laying the foundations of the next great evolution in human communication to come, even with the brown buttons and the beige box.  The Vic, and its more successful cousin, the Commodore 64, gave you the ability to exercise the most important muscle of all – your imagination.  All it asked was that you be ready, and at the appropriate time, type in RUN.