In many video games of the 8 and 16-bit eras, after a level was beaten and/or when all continues were used, the game would display a password, that when entered in the game would allow the player to return back to this part in the game. This way, nothing needed to be written on the cartridge, as the password itself contained all the information needed to continue the game. The password was used in cartridge based systems generally to lower costs, since the memory card was built in to the cartridge, often doubling the manufacturing cost. Passwords helped to keep production costs down on low volume titles by smaller third-party developers. With the advent of optical based media, even larger companies now could not store data directly to the game media, requiring the introduction of non-volatile memory to the console either in the form of internal memory or memory cards (both of which were introduced with the Sega CD) which stored game data once the system was powered off. Some modern video games still use passwords as a homage to the early days of gaming, or to conserve memory blocks due to the lack of data being saved, and the commodity status placed upon the small number of memory blocks on original PlayStation memory cards. Platform and puzzle games are famous for this, as often the only data required is the level achieved, thus not needing to waste 1/15th of a memory card (the size of one "block").
Complexity of passwords
The complexity of passwords depends mostly on the number of variables stored. In games that only require the stage variable to be stored, a single word, with or without meaning, is sufficient. More complex games often base their passwords on several characters combined by an algorithm. While it is possible to translate saves into passwords even from the most complex titles, the practical use of them is very questionable. In games such as RPGs, where dozens of stats have to be stored, passwords would be hundreds of characters long.
In other languages with more characters, passwords can be shorter.
For example, Japanese has many characters:
- numerals ... 10
- hiragana and katakana ... 46 to 83 each
- 46 normal characters (or 48 with rarely used ゐ and ゑ)
- 9 or 10 small characters ... "ぁぃぅぇぉっゃゅょ" and the rarely used "ゎ"
- 25 voiced characters ... such as "が" and "ぱ"
- alphabet ... 26 (or 52 with lower case)
Japanese passwords can have more variables. For example, Japanese versions of Dragon Quest prior to the American NES version used passwords with many variables, while the North American version used a battery backup.
Usually, the size and complexity of the password does not make "guessing" a valid password practical. However, particularly in the case of algorithmic passwords, a password can be found by pure chance (such as the famous JUSTIN BAILEY code from Metroid).
Advantages and disadvantages
Although passwords are seen as archaic by modern standards, they still carry a number of advantages over memory saving, including:
- Portability of passwords: they can be carried over any medium without requiring extra accessories such as memory cards or similar memory transfer media. In the cartridge-based games, it's also possible to continue playing in different cartridges, without losing progress changing between them.
- Always work: while saved media is prone to corruption, passwords (as long as the media is kept safe) will always work. Some cartridges with built-in backup batteries manufactured in the golden age of 16-bit consoles (between 1990 and 1995) also have their batteries worn by now due to overuse, and more recently, users of Memory Cards could lose progress in a game if the card was physically damaged or had some kind of interference that corrupted data while operating.
- Resume anytime: in console games (until the hard drive-based Xbox appeared), there was a limited space that could be used to store games, which could become a problem, particularly in sports games: if a player wants to keep a list of final matches, he needs to acquire a new memory card for each handful of finals. With passwords, although no other statistics are saved, this problem does not exist.
- Independent of version: While in some games installing a patch can render all previously saved games unusable, passwords will always work unless the algorithm behind the password generation is changed.
There are, however, several disadvantages:
- Separate media: the medium used by the player to store passwords acquired—usually a piece of paper, a corner or a blank page of the manual—if not kept properly, is susceptible to loss or damage: ink can fade away, pages can be lost, etc.
- Complexity and necessity of human input: some passwords, even for older games, can be over 20 characters long. Not only are they hard and take time to input, but a single error transcribing the password from the screen to the paper could mean a useless password. There can also be interpretation errors, such as confusing 0 (the number zero) and O (the letter "O"), although these code confusions are easily tested and fixed. Some of the later games only had non-ambiguous characters to overcome this problem.
- Fewer variables stored: considering the complexity limit, passwords can't hold more than a few variables, which means that they are not practical for variable-oriented games such as RPGs and racing games; sports games are stripped of statistics and, since saving mid-level usually requires an impractical amount of data, strategy games have to be organized into levels to be completed in one sitting.
- No records: it is also completely impractical to save records of the game, such as "fastest run in a level", "highest score", user statistics, "fastest lap", "total time played", etc.
In recent games, the use of passwords for saving progress has been replaced by saves, while passwords have taken on the slightly different role of adding in extra characters, vehicles, or weapons; in this context they are usually referred to as cheat codes. For example, in Animal Crossing, passwords are used for giving items to friends; players could trade in an item for a password, and their friend could enter in the password to receive that same item.The PC-Engine version of Ys I & II contained a password feature in addition to the conventional game save to allow players to transfer their games between consoles, possibly the first game to do this.
Today, many arcade games, such as the Initial D arcade game
, use hashes to allow people to submit their fastest lap times to online score tables (though Initial D uses a proprietary magnetic card to save user data). The hash is used to stop people forging lap times. The password can then be entered on a website to have the time added online.