Difficulty and Video Games

Whether a game is hard or not could depend on the person playing said game. Some would argue that games from the retro era (Atari, NES, Genesis) are way harder than video games of today. Could this be because as kids we would play those retro games over and over again? After a while it would become second nature since a lot of those games were based on memory and skill? If this were true than a kid from today shouldn’t have any issues with a retro game like Super Mario Bros 2: The Lost Levels, if they play it over and over again, right?

I asked around on my twitter feed and a message board that I frequent, Jul, on what they thought about hard video games, which games they thought were the hardest and if games are harder today than yesterday.

@SonyaWinz – To be honest games are not that bad as far as difficulty goes. Remember on the Sega Genesis & NES , Atari u had no save. Put a young kid in front of a T.V with an old school game system they will lose their mind!!

Higsby: Game were much harder in the past, something that I truly miss. The fact that most games today are pieces of cake almost turns me away from buying modern video games unless I know that they’re going to be challenging. I find no fun in playing a game where I don’t get any game overs and I just keep progressing forward until I reach the end. Super Mario Galaxy (1 & 2) are probably two of the games that anger me the most, they’re way more linear than 64 and Sunshine and you don’t even have to look for secret stars/shines as there’s pretty much a yellow brick road that leads you right to every one.

1943: The Battle of Midway for the NES was a game that completely crushed me as a kid and I wasn’t able to beat it until just a few years ago. If you don’t have a perfect strategy you won’t be able to beat the final mission, everything needs to be timed and played out exactly right.

I remember as a kid I would play games like Mario, Sonic and Vector-Man. With Mario, I really didn’t care if I left my system on overnight or not but with Vector-Man, I did. I remember leaving my Sega Genesis on for days just so I could beat that game. Did I think those games were hard as a kid, not really. With Sonic (starting from Sonic 1 to Sonic R), I would play those games almost everyday. I knew all the secrets and how to get all the emeralds before the end of the game. As the years went on I stopped playing classic Sonic games less and less. Then they were released on XBLA, Wii Ware and PsN. I picked up Sonic 1 – 3 for XBLA and I found myself a bit rusty as in I was having trouble getting the emeralds early on. Sonic the Hedgehog games were so easy for me when I was younger but then as I got older and played them less, I started to have some trouble with them. I’m not saying that Sonic games are hard but it could be that they were easier to play back then since I played them almost everyday.

Peardian: I believe that I am in no position to judge on the difficulty of current games, as everything seems harder when you’re younger. I can breeze through games like Yoshi’s Island now, when before I would die many times on certain levels and miss all kinds of secrets. In some respects, games back then were more challenging because of limitations, namely the lack of save features or very little of it. Games like original SMB required you to play all the way through it in one sitting if you wanted to beat it, where even the SNES version at least let you save your progress and thus made it easier to some degree. An overabundance of saving in some modern games probably does take away a bit of challenge, since you don’t have to worry about failing. I’m sure there are modern games that have some difficult parts in them.

For me, it turned out to be the opposite, as I mentioned with the classic Sonic series. I found it to be easier when I played them as a kid than when I play them today. I’m sure if I took more time out to play only a handful of retro games, that I would be able to fall back into habit and they would become easier for me.

Video games from the retro age didn’t have the luxury to be able to save progress in a game. If you wanted to beat a game you had to either sit or play it all the way through or pause the game over night until the game was beaten. Not only were retro games tricky but it was a test of endurance as well.

HyperHacker: Modern games sadden me somewhat with their save points. It’s like every two minutes, auto-save. Some just let you save anywhere you want without even interrupting the game. Built-in save states, basically. Kills a lot of the difficulty when death means redoing the last five seconds. Back in my day death meant at best redoing half the level.

Certainly, I hate redoing the same s*** over and over again and once it stops being fun I’ll start using save states or even cheating to skip past the annoying parts (especially as I don’t usually have time to spend hours on one level like I did as a kid), but I at least give it a chance and try to keep that sort of thing to a minimum. Today’s games pretty much hit the load state button for you every time you f*** up. Not so much a game as an interactive movie.

I love the ability to save whenever I want in a game, especially today. I try to play a game for as long as I can before going to work. If I know I can save minutes before I have to leave I will do just that, knowing that I can just save when I need to go. However if I know that I can’t save when I need to, I might end up stopping the game thirty minutes before I have to leave so I won’t end up turning the system off before I had saved.

@PeterSkerritt: I think it’s a case-by-case basis. Ninja Gaiden (NES) is hard, but so is the Ninja Gaiden reboot for Xbox.

@glamgeekgirl: Haven’t thought about whether they got harder since then! Definitely like 2B able 2 set the difficulty & change it during the game

Games of today also give us the option to choose what level of difficulty to play on. Personally, I love this feature. When I start a game for the first time, I will always start off on the normal setting. After I’ve beaten the game and if I feel like it has replay value, I will play it again on the harder or hardest difficulty setting. This allows me to enjoy the game for what it is without having the stress that sometimes comes with playing on a harder setting.

@Rydain: I love setting my own difficulty. I want a fun overall experience with enjoyable challenge, not a second job.

@kasumiastra: I dislike difficulty settings, I prefer a finely-crafted learning curve for all, with “insanity” modes for replay potential.

@MarcinKawa: I think most are easier, but if insane difficulty is available then they are pretty hard. And I like games without that setting.. ..better cause then u dont have an easy out. But I think it’s more achievement related cause some can only be done on insane

Certain games award players with achievements if played on a harder setting. With Alan Wake, if you play on the nightmare setting, you are able to pick up manuscript pages that you wouldn’t be able to obtain on an easier setting.

Higsby: I don’t like difficulty levels, just like in the days of the NES if something was too hard you kept trying until you beat it, you didn’t retreat and play the game on an easier difficulty (I immediately break out into rage whenever I see anyone choose the normal difficulty for Mega Man II 😡 ). I can’t stand people who give up on a game when it gets too hard as that’s the best part for me. I want to crash and burn, it’s much more fun than just playing through the game and not having to worry about dying (pretty much why games today have become more like video story books than video games, if you never have to go back and do something again then it’s no different than a book, it just keeps going forward until you reach the end…)

With an RPG game, like Mass Effect, I have to choose normal when I first play the game and even with Mega Man. I want to get familiar with the game and its story before I tackle it on a more harder setting.

HyperHacker: Choice is always nice, but a lot of games implement it poorly. They make the easy mode easy by giving you stupidly powerful abilities or making the AI retarded, and make the hard mode hard by weighing you down with bullcrap and making the AI basically a cheap bastard god – not really smart, but all-knowing, with impossible reaction times, and just spamming the same move over and over again (even more times than is normally allowed, or with moves they can’t normally have). Basically they make the game harder to play, or make the opponents more powerful, rather than actually giving you a better but still fair opponent/goal/etc.

There are also some games that just have huge spikes in their otherwise nice difficulty curve. Pokémon Puzzle League is my favourite example. I played through it all in one day. Easy mode, didn’t lose once. Normal mode, didn’t lose once. Hard mode, SEVENTY-EIGHT TIMES. Several of those on the first level. The level of difficulty between the last level of Normal and the first level of Hard somewhat resembles the Grand Canyon. More generally, there are a ton of games that gradually ramp up the difficulty as you go on – except for one level in the middle that’s significantly harder than anything else in the game.

Why do we push ourselves to play a game on a harder level? With achievements and trophies in this gaming era we can prove to friends and fellow gamers of what we have done in a game. Currently I am trying to beat Mass Effect 2 on the insanity difficulty level. For one, I want the achievement but also I want to prove and challenge myself that I can do this.

Same went for Rock Band 2. Not too long ago I decided to play the Endless Set List #2 which is 84 songs in a row. I was able to take a break if I needed to but I didn’t want to. I wanted the achievement for beating the set list and for not failing or pausing it. This was hard for me to do as my voice was starting to hurt but I pushed through it and finished it. I did it for the achievements and the right to say that I did it. It was a challenge that I set for myself that I wanted to complete.

Which game is the hardest though? Is there any way to really figure this out? With so many different types of gamers that span over four generations I think it boils down to personal peferenece and that we may never have a soild answer. I asked this question and I got replies from all across the board. From bullet-hell shooters to Baulder’s Gate but the main game that everyone agreed on was the Mega Man series.

@rydain: Ikari Warriors (NES) w/o the continue cheat. I Wanna Be the Guy, impossible mode. Some bullet hell shoot ’em up, probably.

@kasumiastra: Ikaruga, without a doubt.

@GameCouch: Probably one of those bullet hell games.

@blindsoul916: ninja gaiden games were pretty difficult

@RPGmaniac05 : Breath of Fire 4 Dragon Quarter, SMT: Nocturne, Digital Devil Saga 1 and 2, Pikmin series, Trauma Center series

@MarcinKawa: I remember prince of persia was so hard (nes) Megaman games were stupid hard too in NES games

@ZueriHB: Battle Toads, NES, US-Version. 2 Player even more.

Lunaria: I find that very ironic though, as what is hard and difficult is defined by the gamers, not the game. I’m very good at platform games as well as RPGs and solving interesting puzzles within games. Yet I’m horrible at space shooters and fighting games. Yet I know is not that I don’t try hard enough, I have tried very hard at getting good at space shooters. Yet, for some reason I just can’t get get good at it. Would that make games such as gradius 3 hard? Of course not, it’s just me that suck at it, but that does not change the fact that it is indeed hard for me. I can speed run and sequence break the hell out of super metroid and metroid prime, but that does not change the fact that I have meet and talked to people who think both titles are hard as f***.

Sure, some people might say that freaking pokemon mystery dungeon is not as hard as, say, dungeon crawl stone soup. I would reply right away and say that they don’t know what they are talking about. The first title might have a story mode with easier dungeons earlier on to apply more the, you know, “pokemon” in the title. But that does not change the fact that some later dungeons are just as brutal, if not more, then stone soup. Though, MD titles are a bit more simplified when it comes to dungeon design, but that’s a design choice that they wanted to keep running in the series.

Another example is the zelda series. I have beaten every single game in the series beside four, actually, make that three as I did just recently beat zelda 1. The titles are as following: Zelda 2, phantom hourglass and spirit tracks. PH, I picked up and start playing, then I threw in the trash can. A few months later I picked it up again and played some more only to throw it in the trash can again, I just hated the content of that game. Spirit tracks is a great game that I would have been done with a long time ago if it where not for the save file corruption I had. HAVE FUN BEATING ABOUT 80% OF THE GAME ALL OVER AGAIN IF YOU WANT TO SEE THE ENDING! Yeah, no thanks. (I will do it some time though.) Then there is the infamous zelda 2. It’s extremely hard (even for a platforming game) but, I think I could deal with that. The issue for me is that it just don’t feel like a zelda game for me. (Keep in mind that alttp was my first zelda game)

Now a common complain I keep hearing is that the series keeps getting easier and easier. Frankly, I think that’s quite a bit from the truth. The combat of the games have been easier and easier it felt like for me. But even since I learned how to use the targeting system in OoT (then mastered in MM) I have had no issues dealing with most enemies. (Beside those pesky ice kees) Yet, the combat have been upgraded more and more. In WW we learned the roll back slice as well as the head attack. In TP we get to use them freely on any enemy that can take more then one hit. I find it quite fun to be able to utilize more then basic attacks, yet even without I would have no issues dealing with anything in TP as I’m already so used to the basic system the game uses. I don’t think it’s the combat that got easier, it’s more like I’m so experienced at it that it’s easy for me.

They also keep adding new items and such to make new puzzles for the series. I feel it’s good that they try and keep things fresh, but if you have once learned how they do puzzles in the zelda series, you won’t have any issues dealing with any new ones, even if you have to use new items.

I’m not quite sure what I wanted to say with this whole type up, but my point kinda is that games today are not necessarily harder then those of the past, you just have more options on what you want to play. There are some things that I would say is not real difficulty though. Sure some new games have this too, but it’s more relevant for older games, from what I know.

After getting some great feedback from people of different ages and from different places (thanks everyone!) it seems that it does boil down to personal preference and skill. While the majority did say that the Mega Man series is the hardest game(s) out there, I’m sure that there are several people who will disagree with that. Gamers who only play RPG games will say that FPS games are the hardest type of game out there while someone who plays them all the time would differ. It’s really about practice and if you have enough time with a game, of course you’re going to get better at it than someone who’s only played said game one or two times before.

The ability to save a game whenever we choose is a huge sigh of relief for some. Systems back then were able to handle being left on all night long and days at a time while today we have to worry about RRoD and our systems overheating if left on for too long. At least we’re able to save what we’ve done in a game without the headache of starting a game from the beginning after putting eight hours into it.

Setting the game’s difficulty helps many to simply enjoy the game without having to worry about dying at every corner. It allows gamers to choose how they want to play and they can decide if and when they want to try on a harder setting.

Personally I love setting my own difficulty setting and having the ability to save when I want to. As for if games are harder today than yesterday; that’s a bit tricky for me to answer. I truly think that it’s the person and not the game. Play the game enough and it will seem easy.

Once again I would love to thank everyone for their feedback for this article and I hope to hear from others on what they think, so please leave a comment below.

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