Gaming Literacy: Cracking the Konami Code

If there was ever a piece of gaming culture that crossed over the line into mainstream pop consciousness, then the Konami Code is it. ↑↑↓↓←→←→BA is something that most gamers remember while having vehement debates about whether or not the code ended with start, select, select then start, or nothing at all. Yet you can find this same code plastered on t-shirts, mugs, backpacks, and other random items you might find in any Hot Topic. 

But where did the code come from? Why was it made? And why do we remember it so fondly? It all starts where most notable cheat codes started: programming kludge.

A wild code appears!

If you asked most people where the Konami Code first appeared they would probably say Contra, which is a common misconception. The code actually first showed up in the 1986 release of Gradius for the Nintendo Famicom, and was the result of porting efforts.

Gradius was originally developed by Hiroyasu Machiguchi for arcade platforms in 1985. However, he had less to do with its NES port. Porting duties became the responsibility of Kazuhisa Hashimoto, a skilled programmer and designer with one major problem. He wasn’t very good at Gradius. Though the arcade game was able to be ported to the NES largely intact, he found the game far too tough to play during testing. This made it impossible to tell if the port was stable. To give himself an edge, he programmed in a code that would give him a full set of power-ups whenever he wanted, as long as he entered it when the game was paused.

The code was chosen because it was a series of inputs that was unlikely to be entered by accident during normal play and yet was easy for testers to remember.  As was the case with most cheat codes at the time, Hashimoto simply forgot to remove it in the final port. The chances of any one stumbling upon it were low, and even if they did, it wouldn’t necessarily harm their enjoyment of the game in the first place. Not to mention, removing the code after testing was done ran the risk of introducing new bugs into a fully tested game. It was simply better for everyone if it remained in.

Of course, gamers eventually found the code and it spread via word of mouth. It wouldn’t become common knowledge until the release of Contra on the NES in 1988.

The Contra Code

By the time Contra released in the arcades, the Konami Code had already become something of a tradition in Konami development. Hashimoto’s co-workers had begun including his code into their games for testing purposes. It was just a very useful QA tool. Keeping the code standard meant that any Konami employee would know exactly what they needed to do if they needed assistance during bug testing. 

Contra would end up being a game whose development shared a lot in common with Gradius. While the original was designed by Koji Hiroshita, the NES port was designed by Shigeharu Umezaki and Shinji Kitamoto. To deal with the game’s quarter sucking arcade difficulty, the Konami Code was used to give testers an edge, increasing their lives from a mere three to a massive thirty.

The code would, oddly enough, come to compensate for a design oversight in the NES version. As an arcade game, the amount of lives you had to complete Contra was only limited by the amount of quarters in your pocket. If each quarter granted you three lives, then you would only need to spend $2.50 to get the effect of the Konami Code. However, the NES version offered no way to increase your lives outside of earning them via points. To beat it, you had to play what would be considered in the arcades to be a “perfect game.”

Contra was not an easy game and thirty lives was a much more reasonable amount of lives to complete the game with, especially if you were a more casual player. This is where everyone gets to sound off in the comments about how easy the game is and how they beat it without the Konami Code no problem. Regardless, the code quickly became common knowledge for any Contra fan.

The code didn’t just spread by word of mouth. Nintendo Power had a huge hand in spreading the code around. It published its inaugural issue in the summer of 1988. In their very first “Classified Information” section (a section devoted to cheat codes, exploits, and secrets), the very first code they featured was the Konami Code, specifically in its thirty lives incarnation in Contra for the NES. The very first paragraph listed the code as ↑↑↓↓←→←→BA START. This is why so many fans remember a final START input as being an integral part of the code. Its original incarnation in Gradius only required a final START input to unpause the game and future versions of the code wouldn’t utilize the START button at all.

If you have a friend that swears SELECT is part of the Konami Code, Contra is still to blame. If two player mode was selected, pressing the SELECT button along with the code gave both players thirty lives. However, the SELECT button could be pressed before or after entering the code. It was basically just a toggle. Nothing required users to input the code in the familiar ↑↑↓↓←→←→BA SELECT START order. It was just the easiest form to remember. This is also further proof that both SELECT and START aren’t part of the code. SELECT was a toggle and START was just the command you needed to begin the game.

The Contra version of the Konami Code was so popular that it became synonymous with the code itself. Gamers started calling it the “The Contra Code”, and many still do to this day. In addition, the effect of giving the player thirty lives would be passed down from game to game. For example, Gradius II included a version of the code that gave you thirty lives if you input it on the title screen, and gave you full power-ups if you input it on the pause screen, just as it did in the original Gradius.

And the Rest is History

After Nintendo Power reported on the Konami Code, it became a piece of video game pop culture. It only made sense for the code to survive several console generations later. The code, to this day, has been inserted into over 100 Konami games. Perhaps more surprising, other developers adopted the code as well. Over 150 non-Konami games feature the code, and the code can be found in over 30 pieces of software, web-design, TV shows, and multi-media that aren’t games at all!

Of course, the effects of the code are many and varied across platforms and publishers. It was very commonly used as a stage select code in many titles, as that became the preferred method of QA testing rather than giving testers power-ups or extra lives. As time went on, the code stopped being used for testing purposes and started being inserted just for the sake of reference. Using it would unlock extra difficulties or gallery modes, and sometimes would address the player with hidden messages. The code is now a hidden Easter Egg on Google Hangouts, Reddit, and even the Bank of Canada’s official website. A version of the code was even used to reset the Netflix app on certain consoles and Blu-Ray players.

And what of Konami? Well, after the code became common knowledge, Konami started using it to troll their fans.

In Gradius III, entering the code would give you a full set of power-ups… and then instantly kill you. Players would have to substitute L and R for left and right in order to get the set of power-ups without dying.

In the Japanese version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project, entering the code would simply display a message saying “Thank You for Purchasing This Game”.  Entering it with directions reversed, however, would unlock a hidden stage select and options mode.

Several Konami video games would simply chastise you for attempting to use the code. Using the code in Metal Gear Solid 2 would get Snake to tell you to “Stop foolin’ around!” though entering it in later Metal Gear games would reveal the location of certain bosses that utilized stealth.

And what of the code’s future? It’s hard to say. Konami’s game development has slowed down tremendously. Many of their key franchises haven’t seen a new entry in years. Gradius, Castlevania, and of course, Contra, are all dormant. Modern Konami games, like Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, oddly omitted the code all together. So while the code is still being included in non-Konami games to this day, it’s ceased to be a mark of Konami’s brand and started to be a cultural icon of gaming in general.

So who knows where we will see the code turn up next. An AAA release? An indie game? Maybe on a new website? In fact, have you ever tried to input the Konami code on this website?

Yeah, it doesn't do anything. We need to get on that.