A Modest Theory of Hard Video Games

Before I begin, please note that as it turns out, my advice article on Mega Man III is littered with inaccuracies. Many of these are minor; forgetting the correct names of certain special weapons (it’s Atomic Fire, not Atomic Heat), failing to list secondary weapon weaknesses (Magnet Man is also weak against Shadow Blade, to name but one example), etc. However, some of these inaccuracies are major. Most of the given information pertaining to the boss’s attack patterns is bunk; almost all of the bosses have a broader range of behaviors than I described. The primary weakness info is mostly sound, however the article is mostly terrible and should be regarded as such. I apologize for these errors.

There are three ways in which hard video games can be hard. The first way is that they are difficult. Most video games are meant to be challenging – you are meant to die and/or fail every so often, and occasionally struggle with certain sections. That is perfectly normal. Most Super Mario games have some tricky sections, particularly in later levels, but none of them are truly difficult in this sense (save for The Lost Levels, of course, but The Lost Levels is the exception that proves the rule, here).

Therefore, in order for a game to be truly difficult, it must be common for players to die or fail routinely, even after several attempts, and preferably beginning at a relatively early point in the game. If you get to the second stage and find yourself dying a lot all of a sudden, that’s a good sign that the game is truly difficult. Note that this ramping up does not need to occur immediately; on the contrary, some of the hardest games I’ve ever played feature exceedingly pedestrian warm-ups for a first stage, with no indication of what is to come. (Ninja Gaiden is a great example of this.)

Naturally, almost any game with an adjustable difficulty is capable of being ‘cranked up’ to this threshold, especially given the proliferation of ‘Harder Than Hard‘ settings. Also, some games with adjustable difficulties are nonetheless brutally hard, even on lower settings; since many of those games fall into the third category, I’ll discuss them later.

Examples of Difficult Games: Any Ninja Gaiden game; Castlevanias I & III; Super Meat Boy; several (but not all) Mega Man games, most notably I, III, IV, and IX; and of course, each and every single ROM hack explicitly designed to be as difficult as possible, such as Kaizo Mario World and its many descendants.

Video games can also be unforgiving. An unforgiving game is hard not because it is purely difficult in the sense described above, but because when you do die and/or fail, the consequences are severe. Common punishments for dying include complete (or near complete) loss of items and powerups, scarcity (or nonexistence) of extra lives, and limited (or nonexistent) continues upon Game Over. Many games that feature one-hit deaths also fall into this class. Returning to the Super Mario series, the original Super Mario Bros. is not the most difficult game ever. Especially once you get practice with certain levels, it is more than possible to get through the whole game – but, you only have three lives to get you through the whole game. It is a relatively pure example of an unforgiving game.

Unforgiving video games have, in many ways, gone the way of the dinosaur. Since almost every game these days – even those that are designed to be extremely hard in order to attract gamers who are into that sort of thing – has some sort of Save feature, the scope of punishments has narrowed considerably. Limiting lives and stripping powerups is pretty pointless when you can just boot up your most recent save file. Limiting continues is just as pointless, and hasn’t been common since the 16-bit era (and arguably wasn’t all that common then, either. As an aside, I will defend many of the no longer fashionable game design choices of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras as products of a different time, but limited continues are awful. Did game developers back then really think kids wanted to recreate the experience of running out of quarters at the arcade in the privacy of their own home?). I can think of one modern game series that serves as a glaring exception, but this also falls under the third type so again, I’m getting there.

Examples of Unforgiving Games: Mega Man II; Super Mario Bros. I-III; Sonic the Hedgehog I-III. Also, a special shoutout to The Adventures of Batman & Robin for SNES, which isn’t that difficult really, but has limited continues and a password system that preserves the amount of continues you’ve used. Jeeeeezus.

Finally, some games are both difficult and unforgiving. This is a simple enough concept, so instead of rehashing what each type means individually, I’m going to circle back to a couple of points.

Some games have adjustable difficulty settings, but in some of those games, particularly during the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, the differences between those settings are negligible. Within that subset of games, it was also common for the one true setting to be “Hard as a Motherfucker”, and for continues to be limited. The Super Star Wars trilogy for SNES is notorious for this. There are three difficulty settings that effectively start at Hard and only get harder. If you die, you lose any and all weapon powerups, and you need those guys. Continues are limited, and in the first game you don’t even have a password system. The games are fun enough and worth checking out, but good fucking luck to you if you choose to do so.

While it is true that most modern games aren’t likely to be unforgiving in the old-school sense, the modern XCOM series (starting with 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown) has a little thing called Classic Mode. Any XCOM game is difficult enough on any setting – minor tactical errors are severely punished in the form of the permanent death(s) of hard-to-replace squad members – but Classic Mode is truly vile in its draconian punishment measures. There is no save spamming allowed. You can only save between missions. Lose your best squad member? Fail the mission? Rage quit in a fit of, uhm…rage? Tough shit. Any attempts to back out of a mission you have started result in mission failure, and in XCOM, you can straight up lose the game entirely. Any mistakes can snowball out of control in a hurry, and no degree of success is guaranteed. It’s glorious and awful and a marvel of terror in game design.

(Other) Examples of Games that are Difficult and Unforgiving: Every single game in the Contra series, no exceptions; just about every game in the shoot-em-up genre, whether top-down or side-scrolling (special shoutout to both Gradius and R-Type); and almost every arcade game, all of which are designed solely to take your quarters.

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