A decade ago, cheat devices were a veritable phenomenon. These peripherals let players use cheats that game developers hadn’t programmed in, bestowing players with anything from limitless health to the ability to walk through walls or jump from level to level. Despite an increasing fear of hacking and many attempts from console manufacturers to thwart these devices, they were legal and sat on the shelves of major electronics stores. What’s more, they often outsold the games next to them.
At the top of this phenomenon was GameShark, a brand of cheat devices from InterAct Accessories. InterAct was making around $200m worth of yearly sales, and a mighty chunk was coming from the millions of GameShark devices going at $50 a pop. Such was its success that GameShark became more than just a cheat device. It was a magazine that once collaborated with IGN, and a website that boasted a million monthly users. Forget cheat devices, GameShark was the phenomenon itself.
Today, cheat devices are niche. You won’t see them on store shelves, and you definitely won’t find GameSharks. Now “gameshark.com” redirects to MadCatz, where the name is used on the site’s storefront to sell unrelated peripherals. Ten years ago, such a development was unthinkable. So how did GameShark rise to the top only to be all but dead today?
A Brief History of Cheating
GameShark was by no means the first on the scene. In fact, games on early 1980s computers like the Commodore 64 could be reprogrammed using simple commands, with the right command producing something like unlimited money or infinite lives. Developers then began putting in their own cheat codes, often by accident as with the famous Konami code. Cheating quickly became a popular thing among gamers, even if some sniffed (and still sniff) at it. Some players got a kick out of seeing games shift out of normal parameters, while others simply appreciated having a helping hand.
By the late 80s, cheat devices had arrived, and none more so than the Game Genie. This device was the spiritual forerunner to GameShark, every bit as successful if not as durable. It was first released for the NES, and looked like a NES cartridge with a plastic hook attached. It was used by attaching it to a games cartridge (into the slot that would normally attach to the console), and then inserting the combined cartridge into the NES.
The Game Genie would literally separate the console and game, and that’s how it worked too. The Game Genie acted as the middle man, loaded up by the console to then handle the code within the game cartridge. The device sought specific locations in the programming, things that were always being checked (like button presses and health displays), and redirected that code through itself.
Then, via the cheat codes entered before starting the game, Game Genie temporarily altered the programming. It seemed like sorcery, but these codes were not unlike those simple commands on Commodore 64. A typical code for infinite health, for example, would find the bit of programming for the health amount and constantly replace the original value with 100 – quite simple.
That may not sound exciting, but using that principle cheat codes could do just about anything to a game, even unlock parts never meant to be found, and that was exciting.
The Rise of GameShark
Game Genie was enjoying great success in the early 90s, but a European manufacturer named Datel was also with its line of cheat devices, the Action Replay. Soon the two devices were in competition, with Datel slowly coming out on top. Once the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation had released, Datel had made crucial improvements to its devices, like a flick switch to turn cheat codes on and off and a backup battery able to store thousands of codes. Game Genie simply couldn’t compete. Besides, the company behind it, one by the name of Codemasters, had another line of work to pursue.
Exit the Genie and enter the Shark. In fact, GameShark was just the American rebranding for Action Replay units. With the demise of Game Genie and the improvements in GameShark, its popularity soared within months. Magazines like EGM and GamePro lavished praises on it, and with little in the way of competition the stars aligned perfectly for GameShark to ride gaming’s 90s boom.
InterAct, the company behind it, didn’t miss a beat.
Within a year of coming out, InterAct had set up GameShark with its own bimonthly newsletter, an eight-page spread called Dangerous Waters which delivered new codes regularly to over 10,000 subscribers. Books appeared on store shelves containing thousands of codes. InterAct even set up hotlines for players to ring up for codes, of course at inflated prices. GameShark was a gold mine.
Meanwhile, the GameShark Pro came out, most notably for the newly released N64 where it really enjoyed success. The GameShark Pro had a code generator able to search the programming and locate certain parts to be manipulated. This introduced game hacking to a greater audience, and soon everyone, from noobs to hacking experts, was finding GameShark codes on their own.
The 90s rolled on, with new and improved GameShark devices coming out for every major console on the market. By the end of the decade, nearly 3 million GameSharks had been bought, and codes generated for over 1300 games. However, just as GameShark rode the wave of gaming’s success, others were looking to ride GameShark’s. Competitors sprang up, as did sites with their own hackers regularly delivering cheat codes to a demanding audience. The impetus was on InterAct to retain GameShark as the premier source for cheat devices and codes.
In the summer of 2000, InterAct raised the stakes. The newsletter became a full glossy magazine that sat on store shelves. The website was redesigned into a bustling hub for gamers, with reviews, features, videos, a thriving forum, and tons of cheat codes. By 2001, the brand’s popularity was such that GameShark’s Holiday issue was combined with IGN’s buyers’ guide. And yet, within as little as two years, all that success would unravel.
Sinking to the Bottom
While InterAct soared high with GameShark, its parent company, Recoton, aggressively expanded its electronics business into the interactional market. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out for Recoton.
By 2002, Recoton had accumulated over $200m worth of debts. By 2003 the vultures were circling, and something had to give. Months before filing for bankruptcy, Recoton sold InterAct and the GameShark brand to peripheral manufacturer MadCatz for just $5m.
But this wasn’t a steal for MadCatz. The North American distribution rights for Datel’s Action Replay devices weren’t included, and Datel simply started distributing abroad themselves. Mad Catz tried to compete with things like GameSaves for Xbox, which contained completed save files, but consumers weren’t interested. Within months, Action Replay cheat devices were outselling MadCatz at 5 to 1.
As the years went on, Mad Catz stuck the GameShark name on things less and less to do with the original cheat device. Action Replay, meanwhile, continued to produce cheat devices, but console manufacturers upped their game and found ways to lock these devices out. This month Hyperkin have attached the Game Genie name to a device for PS3, but it’s only able to edit saved game files, making it little different from downloading someone else’s save. It just isn’t the same.
Cheat devices may be all but gone, but GameShark lives on in a community of gamers still enjoying using the device to experiment with classic games. Head to YouTube then type in “gameshark” and you’ll find a litany of videos with users creating some brilliantly wacky stuff with their GameSharks, everything from a Godzilla-like Princess Peach in Super Mario 64 to casting non-existent spells in Final Fantasy VII. The brand may be all but dead, but GameShark isn’t forgotten.