Where Has the Challenge Gone? – A Look at the Difficulty of Video Games

by on March 5, 2012

Where Has the Challenge Gone? - A Look at the Difficulty of Video GamesI was about 8 when I owned my first system, which was an NES. It was the one that came with a combination cartridge of Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt. I dabbled a bit in duck hunt but the real attraction was definitely the vast (this is 1988, the term vast does fit!!) worlds of Super Mario Bros. I loved timing every jump perfectly. Stomping on multiple goombas and Koopa troopas, annihilating Bowser after Bowser only to be slapped with the now iconic “your princess is in another castle” retort. Finally getting the trick for 99 lives correct on world 3-1.

Trial and error is what it was all about and what kept me coming back was the challenge. The triumphant feeling of defeating a level I could not the day before and the satisfaction of finally completing an entire game I actually put hard work into. The next day I would brag to my friends that I didn’t use a warp pipe to get through it. It was sheer will and determination; two characteristics I feel are not needed in our more recent games.

Super Mario Bros - Screenshot

I’ve been a gamer for most of my life. I remember picking up an Atari 2600 controller when I was about 4 as a matter of fact. When I was finally able to have my own system, an NES, in the early 90’s and one of the first games I had was Battletoads. Back then Battletoads was trying to bank off the success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, by offering a similar concept, large green animals that fight enemies. Being the huge Ninja Turtles fan I was, I begged my mother to buy me this game; but I had no idea what I was in for. Anyone who has ever played this game will tell you how hard it is.  Waves of enemies, hover car levels that were punishing, zip line levels, and few continues. There wasn’t even an adjustable difficulty, there was just one, punishing, but I was up for the challenge. Honestly, I have never beat this game, but I was able to make it pretty far based on memory alone. I actually don’t know anyone who has beaten Battletoads, but we all agreed the fun was in the attempt.

Nowadays most games have adjustable difficulty levels with the default being “normal” mode. Personally I set most games to hard from the beginning. I feel as if normal is the new easy mode. On the other hand I understand why this is done. When it comes down to it, Video games are a business and the more accessible to the general public your product is, the more money you are likely to make. I also understand a casual gamer may not care for an overly difficult game. They may be in it for a quick romp or to enjoy the story, not necessarily to be challenged. They are gamers that exist that do want the challenge though and the games that I do begin on the hard level, I still find to be relatively easy. I normally beat them without losing a life.

Battletoads - Screenshot

Another aspect of today’s games that has been put in to “help” are tutorial levels. The first level of most games will normally have narration or pop ups that offer explanation of the ins and outs of the game. In ways I commend this turn of events in gaming as it is much better than reading through a thick instruction manual, but the hand holding needs to stop at a point. Some games have these prompts throughout the entire game. Large arrows pointing me in the correct direction, a voice over letting me know that I can use a certain special move. It’s helpful but on the 13th level of the game I think its OK to assume that I understand the game mechanics by now. I can remember the days of Final Fantasy 3 (6 in Japan) where there was virtually no help at all. You had to put in time, travel to different towns, talk to townsfolk, and piece together information to find the next significant story point. Now you get huge arrow indicators or even magic that lets you know the path to take. What happened to the exploring?

I’m generalizing quite a bit, but I do know there are some difficult releases in the recent years, some have been quite unforgiving but not to the extent of being unplayable. The reboot of Ninja Gaiden took tons of trial and error, and cursing, and broken controls. The second one veered into unfair territory due to its bad camera angles. Released in the past year, Dark Souls is one of the hardest games out now, anyone who says they did not die too much while playing that game is lying. This game gives you a huge feeling of accomplishment if you are able to make past the area you are currently in. Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls predecessor, is no slouch either.

Ninja Gaiden - Screenshot

By reading my rants I know some of you may see me as the equivalent of the old guy who just can’t accept that times have changed. In retrospect, challenge or no challenge, I am a gamer at heart and I do love the experience in and of itself. I’ll play any type of game but if I am going to shell out $60 a pop, I want the game to last a bit. I do want the game to push back as I push at it. I just get more entertainment when I can’t complete on my first try, without dying; this may not be the general consensus of today’s gamers but some may understand.

I have a brother in law, Ryan, who is about 15 years of age and is a huge gamer. He played mostly Sonic (his favorite character) and Mario type platformers. I recently introduced him to some of the classic games of the Nintendo and Super Nintendo era, mainly the Final Fantasy series, Ninja Gaiden, Contra, Castlevania, and Megaman; I know, maybe I should have gone easier on the kid.  To my surprise he completed most of these games, even games in the Megaman series I did not finish.  None of the ones after Megaman 3 were that good in my opinion and Megaman 2 is one of the greatest games of all time.  He didn’t finish the Ninja Gaiden Series though. Like me he could not beat the final form of Jaquio. After a couple of weeks he admitted that these games were much harder than some of his favorites from today.  He did admit to looking up a couple of parts in the Final Fantasy game on YoutTube because he was stuck at certain points. YouTube, another tool I did not have when I was a young gamer, the wonders of today’s technology never cease to amaze me. Ryan Recently asked me if I had any other games to recommend him. I told him I’d give him $50 if he could beat Battletoads.