The cheat code

Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, start (or ‘… select, start,’ for two players)…

That’s the cheat code for “Contra” — a multiplayer action/adventure video game, and one of the original “shoot ‘em ups,” harking back to its Nintendo release, in 1988. If you executed that key sequence to perfection, voila! You’d receive 100 lives. “Life and death,” in the context of “Contra,” thus became less crucial, and more an example of starting over.

Starting over is fairly normal for almost all video games. Your avatar “dies” and you have to begin again, at the last checkpoint.

In “Contra’s” case, dying was easy. A barrage of projectiles could fly your way at any given moment. You could burn through 20 lives or so in the first level alone.

Contra – Level 1

An escape

In the real world, we only get one life (that we know of!). So the “Contra” cheat code somewhat liberated players, who vicariously guided their burly avatars through the murky alien landscapes of “Contra’s” many levels. Removing the threat of death freed us, as players, to take chances, try new things (that we might not otherwise entertain if it meant certain doom). As in most contemporary Nintendo games, each Contra” level ended with a boss you had to beat. A particularly difficult boss became less intimidating, with the safety net of 100 lives to cushion any anxiety of defeat. We could go out on a limb, take risks, and learn from our mistakes with little to no consequences. Needless to say, most bosses fell to our near immortal avatars.

Beat the Contra boss to complete the level.

No consequences

“No consequences,” however, created a consequence itself. Vastly minimizing the threat of death removed all the drama. The no-risk aspect suddenly turned a fairly difficult game into some kind of sandbox environment where players could try new things in order to move onto the next level. And once the cheat code hit the mainstream, “Contra” became notorious as one of the easiest games to beat.

Extrapolating ‘Contra’

I beat the game (with the cheat code). Soon, I lost interest in playing, but the concept of unlimited lives stuck with me. What if this were true in real life (IRL)?

We could try new things. If our gambles didn’t work out, no worries! Let’s reset and try a new approach. A vivid imagination soon rendered me jaded to this concept, as well. No consequence IRL, or in a video game instantly felt boring, like drifting aimlessly through blank space.

It’s at that point that I discovered a newfound respect for death. I had always feared it, but now I actually respected it. Death is necessary for life. It adds the key ingredient of consequence so that we measure our decisions before executing. It forces us to be better humans.

It’ll always be sad to see loved ones go. But heed the fact that this aspect of life is necessary for everyone. Our mortal brains can’t completely comprehend the role death plays in all of our lives, but we can at least acknowledge its necessity. Not only is it a passage into the unknown; it provides the special sauce of intrigue that makes all of our lives more interesting.

Think about it.

Daredevils would be obsolete. Perhaps war would go away (since weapons would no longer pose a threat), but that doesn’t mean violence would subside. It just wouldn’t carry any sort of impactful effect.

What would we do with our days?

Immortality may certainly be within human reach at some point in the future (or if we finally realize time is an illusion!). But microcosms like “Contra” indicate that the current human consciousness may not be ready for such lofty responsibility — what would we do with unlimited time?


Simulated realities far more advanced than the 8-bit Nintendo “Contra” have certainly emerged since the ‘80s. And it’s expected that virtual reality (VR) could soon surpass the brain’s ability to distinguish “reality” from illusion. VR and augmented reality (AR) also beg the question, ‘What actually is reality?’ Some scientific theories have even entertained the idea that the “real world,” is itself a simulation.

(He knows Kung Fu)

That latter scenario is exciting. Death truly becomes just a passage into the next shell. We might actually be avatars in a video game that’s influenced from a dimension above this world!

Life, in the metaphysical sense, now becomes a journey that transcends death. Surely there are still consequences. Choose poorly in one life, and you might wake up in the next as a Dung beetle.

Starting over also takes on a whole new meaning. It’s not some finite, ultimate end we must all dread (mortal death); in fact, it becomes an opportunity at every waking moment. And, just like some infinities are bigger than others, (yes, that’s true; ask a mathematician!) some “start overs” are more significant than others. You could start over midday, if you woke up on the wrong side of the bed. You can restart your professional life, with a career shift. And, yes, the most ultimate start over that we know of is the death of this earthly existence, into the unknown. But if this life truly is a simulation, then the “ultimate” start over breeds hope of new beginnings into a world entirely out of our current experience.

And perhaps the ability to start over in one’s mind is a quality that’s uniquely human. Starting over or reassessing a concept is the process by which we learn. Today, and every day after that can be the first day of the rest of your life. The latter depends on how good you’ve become at adapting, at starting over again and again, evolving ever closer to the person you’re meant to be.