Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A. It’s called the Konami Code, and it often meant the difference between life and death in a video game back in the 1980s.
Perform those button presses in the right sequence, and you’ll unlock cheats that help you win. But recently, the code has grown into a wider pop-culture reference, and you might be curious about how it got started. Let’s take a look.
Contra Made It Famous
The Konami Code originated as a cheat code—a sequence of button presses that unlocks secret features in a video game, usually making it easier to play.
The first-ever game to feature the Konami Code was Gradius for the NES, published by Japanese third-party developer Konami in 1986. If you pause the game and enter the code, it activates several helpful power-ups.
Gradius is a difficult game, and the inventor of the Konami code, Kazuhisa Hashimoto, said in a 2003 interview that he created the code to make play-testing the game easier for him. (Sadly, Hashimoto passed away in February 2020.)
The Konami Code became legendary thanks to another Konami game called Contra, released for the NES in 1988. This run-and-gun shooter features great graphics and satisfying co-op play, but it’s punishingly difficult. Entering the Konami Code at Contra’s title screen just before starting the game gives the player 30 extra lives, which helps non-experts live long enough to at least play past the first stage.
Cheat codes that let you get more enjoyment out of a game were a big deal in the late 1980s, at a time when each NES game retailed for around $40 apiece (about $87 today, adjusted for inflation). Many kids received only a handful of new games per year; if you got stuck with a game that was too difficult to play, it could be a frustrating situation.
Luckily, hint books and magazines often came to the rescue. Nintendo Power, a widely-distributed video game magazine owned by Nintendo itself, introduced Contra’s Konami Code to a large American audience as part of its “Classified Information” column in its first issue in 1988, and gamers never forgot it.
Examples of the Konami Code in Gaming
The Konami Code isn’t just limited to NES games. Dozens of titles have supported the Konami code (or references to it) over the past three decades.
As a general rule, games that use the code on non-Nintendo systems (such as Sony PlayStation) need a minor modification to the Konami Code. Substitute that system’s cancel or confirm buttons for B or A. For example, in the U.S. on the PlayStation, O is commonly cancel, and X is commonly confirm. So the PlayStation-style Konami Code would be Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, O, X.
To give you an idea of the breadth of Konami Code support in games over the decades, let’s take a look at a few examples.
- Gradius (NES): During gameplay, pause the game and enter Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A. Your ship will get all power-ups except for Laser, Double, and Speed Up.
- Contra (NES): Enter Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A then Start (or Select, Start for two players) on the title screen, and you’ll get 30 extra lives.
- Gyruss (NES): If you enter the Konami Code in reverse order at the title screen (A, B, Right, Left, Right, Left, Down, Down, Up, Up), you’ll get 30 extra lives.
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan (GB): Pause the game and enter Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A. Your health will fully replenish, but you can use it only once per game.
- Gradius III (SNES): In this game, you need to substitute the Left and Right directions for the shoulder buttons. Pause the game and enter Up, Up, Down, Down, Left Shoulder, Right Shoulder, Left Shoulder, Right Shoulder, B, A, and your ship will power up.
- Mario Party (N64): During player 1’s turn, pause the game with controller 2. Then, with controller 1, input Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A and you’ll hear Toad’s shout. Then Press C-Left, and a debug menu will pop up.
- Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance (GBA): When the Konami logo appears, enter Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, and then choose Boss Rush mode. You’ll be able to play as Simon Belmont from the NES version of Castlevania.
- Bioshock Infinite (PS3): At the main menu, enter Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, O, X. You’ll unlock the challenging “1999 Mode.”
Wikipedia’s Konami Code page includes a comprehensive list of games that support variations of the Konami Code if you’d like to explore further.
The Konami Code in Popular Culture and Beyond
Because a generation of gamers grew up with the Konami Code memorized, it makes sense that the code has become a wider pop culture reference in recent years. It has been printed on t-shirts and merchandise and referenced in films like Wreck-It Ralph. A recent Fisher-Price baby toy called the Game & Learn Controller also supports the code: When input, the lights flash, and a voice says, “You Win!”
Around 2013, a version of the Netflix website allowed users to access a hidden settings screen by inputting a modified version of the Konami Code on their remote controls. And on several prominent websites (hint, hint), entering the code can activate an Easter egg.
It’s obvious the Konami Code has unlocked a secret place in our hearts, and I suspect it will keep finding its way into various forms of media for years to come.