Friday, 20 August 2010

Some Like It Hard

You might not have heard of Demon’s Souls before and I would understand if you hadn’t. Released in Japan in early 2009 and the US in late 2009, it quickly gained a cult following and was heavily imported into Europe until a European version was released on June 25 2010.

Demon’s Souls is a fantasy action-RPG set in a Medieval European-esque world called Boleteria and the player is tasked with slaying a variety of demons in order to buy equipment, improve stats etc. So far, so familiar.

Aside from some fairly innovative online content (one example is that players can leave notes on the ground for other players to warn them of dangers ahead), one of the most reported upon aspects of the game is its difficulty.

Demon’s Souls takes an old school approach to gaming where you learn through trial and error and, ultimately, repeated deaths. And it is unforgiving in this approach, removing such staples as mid-level save points and the ability to pause the game. If you sit down to play, you are going to complete an entire section and you are not going to move until it is done.

This approach flies in the face of what modern gamers have come to expect, and Demon’s Souls makes no apologies for it. Indeed, the challenge appears to be what has endeared it to gamers, with many reviewers commenting on the satisfaction one feels when one completes a particularly tricky level.

Difficulty in computer games is a delicate thing. Sure you can make a fiendishly hard game, but if it isn’t well designed, it will be an exercise in frustration. There are a few games I have switched off in anger because the difficulty was too great and success seemed to be based purely on luck, or other arbitrary factors.

One example that comes loosely to mind is a level in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, where you have to get to and then protect the ‘Warpig’ tank. On the harder difficulties, I would die repeatedly, sometimes at the start of the section, at times towards the end. I tried a variety of different approaches and still couldn’t manage it. When I finally did complete the section, it was with a method I had tried a few times and luck seemed to be the main factor in my success. This, in my opinion, was poor design. A well designed level should encompass both player ability AND a measure of luck, something which Demon’s Souls seemingly hits perfectly.

Which got me thinking on some of the hardest games that have been released, in terms of both good and bad design.

Mike Tyson’s Punchout

Before he developed a taste for human ears and sexual assault (though not necessarily in that order), Mike had his name attached to a NES boxing game called Punch Out. Punch Out wasn’t horrendously difficult; in fact its difficulty was moderate and the game was fun. Up until you came to the last boss, Mr Tyson himself. The fighters you had met previously could not prepare you for the Biter from the Bronx. He had these very oddly timed uppercuts that could knock you out in one hit, plus a bucket load of health making him very difficult to down. These factors made defeating Tyson nearly impossible. However, with hours of practice, it was doable. So, while being the first (but not last) game where the final boss is jarringly difficult compared to what came before, I’m going to mark this one down as well designed, only extremely difficult. Also, the quote below is attributed to Mr. Tyson, and its awesomeness is enough to balance out any complaints:

"One morning I woke up and found my favorite pigeon, Julius, had died. I was devastated and was gonna use his crate as my stickball bat to honor him. I left the crate on my stoop and went in to get something and I returned to see the sanitation man put the crate into the crusher. I rushed him and caught him flush on the temple with a titanic right hand. He was out cold, convulsing on the floor like an infantile retard."

Bayou Billy

I never played Bayou Billy, and I’m glad I didn’t because it looks fucking shit. A prime example of difficulty by bad design, Bayou Billy’s controls were apparently as fluid as a swimming pool filled with glass, the levels were overlong and the enemies had as much health as you did. Check out this video. Look at those fuckers! They don’t stop getting up. Stay down, you Australian bastards! The bayou is in Australia, right? Yeah, course it is. Not only that, but after watching the intro, I wonder what Godfather Gordon wanted with Annabelle? With that moustache, I think we can safely assume he has no sexual interest in her. Later on, the game branched out and featured driving sections that were even more overlong and difficult that the side-scrolling stuff. Sounds fucking A. Really. The one positive that stands out from that video is the soundtrack. It’s funky!! It’s funky like George Clinton took a dump on a sound chip. That’s the soundtrack to my life and it’s playing in my head ALL THE TIME.

Super Monkey Ball

A more recent release, Monkey Ball likely deserves to be recognised as a rather difficult game.

Let’s start off by saying that the title of the game is misleading. First of all, the monkey has nothing to do with it, other than being inside the ball. So the game should be called Super Ball. But there is nothing particularly ‘super’ about the ball. So the game should be called Ball. But then, when you play it, you realise that you don’t actually move the ball with the controller, you move the level.

So the game should really be called Level.

With that out of the way, the reason this is on the list is that due to the physics, various collectables and obstacles, the task of staying on the level in Level is quite a challenge. Furthermore the difficulty increases with the player. The levels can be stressful, and that stress only serves to make the game harder, with the player needing absolute focus and care to complete some of the later stages. It is telling that many players never graduated beyond the easy levels due to the ‘easy’ levels being very difficult.

Not my friends though. They stayed in at weekends and made Level their bitch.

Ninja Gaiden

True story: A guy in an old guild of mine in World of Warcraft thought this game was called Ninja Garden. Ninja Garden sounds like a fucking amazing game. I’d love to grow my own organic ninjas.

Ninja Gaiden was a revolutionary game and also its place on a list such as this is considered controversial by some.

It was revolutionary in that it introduced cutscenes and narrative to drive the gameplay, a cornerstone of modern gaming as well as sharp, extremely responsive controls.

Controversial because it was possible to beat the game by memorising routines.

Either way, the boss fights in Ninja Gaiden were very tough, with the player often dying upwards of 20 times in order to beat them. And if you died during the boss fight, you would be ported right back to the beginning of the level to try again. As well, environmental challenges were ever present, with the jumps and leaps becoming larger and more complex as the levels progressed. However, it was possible to beat this game simply by playing it a lot and memorising level patterns and boss sequences, even if it took you many nights alone in your bedroom.

Ninja Gaiden sequels have followed and they have remained notable for their difficulty, but few games can bring gamers out in a cold sweat the way the original can.


Another one that I haven’t played unfortunately, and considered by many to be the hardest game produced in 20 years.

Right, so there are these toads that fight evil, the Battletoads. What? They hit and punch evil, that’s how. Amphibian? I dunno, they spray themselves with water or something. It isn’t explicitly stated. Shut up, that’s not the point.

A standard 2D beat ‘em up affair, it also featured horrifically excessive obstacle course sections, an example of which is here. You would need to have the reflexes of a Jedi Mr. Miyagi catching a fly with chopsticks made from a single strand of human hair in order to successfully navigate these shitters.

Throw into the mix an underwater section (which should have been pretty easy because, let’s face it, you’re a fucking toad), a climbing section plus only three continues and no saves, and you have yourself a game that is harder than Gandalf’s staff.

The reprieve Battletoads gets is because of its co-op play, during which friendly fire cannot be turned off. So if your little brother accidentally killed you, you could at least vent some frustration by smashing his face off with your controller.

The interesting observation here is that it is difficult to source more recent games that would be on par in terms of difficulty with the likes of Battletoads etc. Whilst many old fart gamers would point to this as being a sign of modern games being made for idiots, this isn’t entirely true. Most of the above games would have seen an arcade release before being released onto home consoles. The onus was on ensuring customers would keep pumping their change into the machine to get their name on the high score board. If the player could complete the game on only 25 cents it wasn’t fulfilling its purpose. The only way of ensuring this was to make the games a lot more difficult than they need to be nowadays. I, for one, am glad, because I’m fucking shit at video games.

So, yeah, that was a fun stroll down Difficulty Lane. If you’ve got anything to add, please do so in the comments. I’ve overlooked a bunch of games, Contra, Ghosts and Goblins, blah blah but then I don’t get paid for this shit, I do it out of the goodness of my black, dead heart.

In other news, Xbuttonkill will hopefully be moving to a new, hosted site in the next month or so, so keep your eyes open. There is now also an xbuttonkill twitter feed, so feel free to follow me like a rapist on a dark night.