From the darkest corners of gaming history, here are the shooters, platformers and beat-’em-ups that took no prisoners
Games used to be harder. That’s the lament veteran players now mutter whenever encountering some modern shoot-’em-up or action adventure. It sounds like the same sort of nostalgic elitism that music snobs indulge in, criticising current bands for lacking the legendary quality of yesterday’s heroes. But with games, it’s kind of true.
As the industry has grown, the big titles have moved towards toning down the difficulty, in order to give a smooth experience to as wide a range of players as possible. Nowadays, if you want a real challenge, you have to select “hard” mode, which usually just means more enemies and less ammo. But difficulty is at its best when it’s an intrinsic part of the design: players have to think about the game in another way – and earn their progress.
That is certainly true for the titles in this list. They’re not all classics, but even the plainly unfair ones have unforgettable qualities that made us persevere. That’s the thing with difficulty: it only really hurts when you want to see what’s next.
Demon’s Souls/Dark Souls (Fromsoft, 2009/2011)
When Fromsoft’s Hidetaka Miyazaki set out to rethink the action RPG genre, one of the new foundations was serious challenge. His thinking was: how can a player feel accomplishment without overcoming real odds? In these games, even the most basic enemies murder players again and again, so that the screen message “YOU DIED” is imprinted on the brain. The only consolation is that death is a staple part of how these worlds work. In other games, dying is failure, but here dying is how you learn, how you get better. In Souls, death is just part of the journey.
Ghosts ‘n Goblins (Capcom, 1985)
Capcom’s side-scrolling platformer used the ever-present threat of death to create a uniquely intense adventure. One hit reduces protagonist knight Arthur to his heart-patterned boxers, and the second kills. Unpredictable enemies spawn everywhere, power-ups can be traps, and most players never see past the first stage. Those that reach the end find out that they’ve either failed to bring the holy cross, which means replaying the last two levels, or that in bringing it they’ve fallen for “a trap devised by Satan”, and have to do the whole thing over again. On an even higher difficulty setting. Capcom, you rascal.
Ninja Gaiden II (Tecmo Koei, 2008)
Challenge was always part of the Ninja Gaiden series, but 2008’s Ninja Gaiden II hit a new peak of demanding insanity. These enemies rough-house the player on even “normal” difficulty but, once the setting is at Master Ninja, they attack relentlessly with brutal health-chewing grabs and projectiles. In later levels, foes have cannons for arms that are fire with unerring precision and regularity. It’s impossible to survive at times, nevermind kill anything. Naturally, the internet means someone has done the whole thing in four hours without being hit once.
God Hand (Capcom, 2006)
God Hand’s commercial failure means many of the best ideas are yet to be stolen, one being the on-screen difficulty meter that responds to a player’s skill. There are four gradations, from level one to level DIE, and if you’re getting smacked around it stays low. Once you get good at this (already tough) game however, it amps up how enemies attack, where they’ll attack from, how much damage they do, and increases the rewards for defeating them. Few games make the demands that God Hand does, and none tie difficulty and performance together with such elegance.
UFO: Enemy Unknown (Mythos Games, 1994)
This is where the XCOM series began, a deep strategy game with an unforgiving attitude towards lax play. The designer, Julian Gollop, had made many great turn-based titles in 2D but XCOM’s isometric perspective and implementation of fog-of-war added a terrifying strategic dimension – so many soldiers lost to a dark corner you never checked. The aliens exploit mistakes, cut down your soldiers ruthlessly, and back at base force you into hard choices in the desperate scramble to keep humanity safe. If this is anything to go by, we’re screwed.
Fade to Black (Delphine Software, 1995)
Flashback’s sequel was an early attempt to bring a successful 2D design into 3D – and underestimated just how important precision controls are. Though a forward-thinking third-person design in some respects, Fade to Black was undone by many enemies that could kill in a single hit – one terrifying example being a tiny hard-to-target blob that flips towards the player character before dissolving all their flesh on contact. The lavish cutscenes created by the developer for each possible death make you wonder whether the tail was wagging the dog.
NARC (Williams Electronics, 1988)
Perhaps Eugene Jarvis is better represented by Robotron 2084, an impossible challenge and a much better game, but that low-fi sci-fi shooter lacks NARC’s crude impact. A two-player arcade game starring Max Force and Hit Man, out to take down Mr Big, NARC was one of the first games to truly glory in gibs and ultraviolence – the various junkies, punks and thugs explode into gory gobbets as the guns of justice blaze. Jarvis’s games are always difficult but, with NARC,they reached a whole new level of cruel theatre.
Smash T.V. (Williams Electronics, 1990)
Smash T.V. is an arcade classic and exemplifies a school of design that’s now largely dead: to make people desperate to see the next screen. The setup is perfect, a future gameshow where contestants move through rooms filled with death-dealing nasties and gain more prizes the longer they stay alive. Even the first room won’t hesitate to kill unwary players and, from then on, the gloves come off as Jarvis (again) and co-designer Mark Turmell squeeze as much colour, shrapnel, and explosive ordnance on-screen as possible. “Total carnage,” shouts the announcer. “IIIIIII love it!”
The Simpsons (Konami, 1991)
There could be any number of arcade beat-em-ups in this spot – TMNT, X-Men, even Final Fight – but in terms of efficiently guzzling coins through gorgeous presentation and artificial difficulty, it’s hard to top The Simpsons arcade game. The visuals, animations, enemies and scenarios are exceptional and clearly a labour of love (unlike the script) but the game beneath them is a brutal slugfest that especially enjoys stunlocking players – where one hit leads to many more.
Takeshi’s Challenge (Taito Corporation, 1986)
Originally planned as an 8bit version of his TV show Takeshi’s Castle, Japanese actor and director Takeshi Kitano instead got hands-on with Takeshi no Chōsenjō and created a game unlike any other – one whose packaging warned that “conventional gaming skills do not apply”. Loosely following a salaryman who dreams of finding treasure, Takeshi’s Challenge serves up a Game Over for innocuous “mistakes” like not quitting the character’s job, failing to divorce his wife, or not hitting the right people. You can get a Game Over on the password screen. Another challenge requires you leave the controller untouched for an hour. All games are arbitrary: only Takeshi’s Challenge glorifies in the fact.
Rogue (Michael Toy / Glenn Wichman, 1980)
So original it spawned a genre, Rogue is a procedurally generated dungeon crawler where the difficulty – in the sense of what it chooses to throw at you – is a huge part of the appeal. Not only will each fresh adventure bring new environmental challenges and fights, but potions and weapons are random too – meaning just taking a glug is dicing with death. Players have to be adaptive rather than memorising specific challenges, and eking out a long adventure when the odds are stacked against you becomes part of the fun.
Dwarf Fortress (Bay 12 Games, 2006)
The motto of this game’s community says it all: “losing is fun!” Dwarf Fortress is a game that has inspired whole prose epics on the travails of players’ ill-fated settlements, most of which start off meagre and then quickly fall prey to the thousands of things that can go wrong. Wolves, cave-ins, famine, cabin-fever, flooding, burrowing down to a demon god … Failure is inevitable, and not only do your dwarves go mad in adversity – they often create works of art to reflect what’s happened. There are plenty of tough games, but generating psychological scars for fictional characters suggests Dwarf Fortress is something special.
The Adventure of Little Ralph (New Corporation, 1999)
Doomed to curio status by a modest Japan-only release, The Adventure of Little Ralph plays like it was forged in the fires of arcade game design, but it is in fact exclusive to the original PlayStation and PSN. Scoring focused, hard as hell and shrouded in cult mystique, the traditional platformer today courts three-figure sums on the collector market, further denying it the broad audience it deserves. It’s “saving the damsel in distress” narrative may be hackneyed, but fiercely demanding boss fights that reinvent TAoLR as a beat-‘em-up serve to make it mechanically distinct, and cement its reputation as one of the most testing platformers yet developed.
The Bizarre Adventures of Woodruff and the Schnibble (Coktel Vision)
Difficulty in games is often a matter of testing the player’s ability to control with precision and react at speed. Coktel Vision’s narratively dark adventure game, however, is instead a test of semiotic nous. Its post-apocalyptic tale is told with an abundance of made up words, many of which pass without definition, while its knack for conversation without context make it thoroughly confusing. Even Clockwork Orange had a glossary. And if you’re tempted to use trial and error to crack its puzzles, be warned that the sheer number of inventory items and illogical quirks make it a protracted, painstaking process.
Mushihimesama (Cave, 2004)
If any game genre is most synonymous with difficulty, it is the arcade 2D shoot-‘em-up, known today as the shmup. And it is developer Cave that pushes devotees of the form like no other. Which Cave game is the hardest is highly subjective, but in terms of undiluted difficulty, the insect-themed Mushihimesama’s infamous Ultra mode might take it. There’s less of the mechanical intricacy that makes other releases by the studio perhaps as demanding, but through the sheer number of bullets that fill the screen, Mushi Ultra delivers an onslaught that is as bewildering to watch as it is demeaning to play.
In The Groove (Roxor, 2004)
Any arcade music game has the capacity for towering difficulty. Take on some high-BPM electronica on a demanding difficulty setting, and whether you’re pounding your feet on a Dance Dance Revolution machine or standing over the decks of an oddity like EZ2DJ, the challenge will be immense. Few compare, however, to the standard set by the Single modes of In The Groove, the debut of a short-lived series from Austin-based studio Roxor. Some of the tracks, when played on the game’s X setting, seem to want movement from the player’s body that is in no way catered for by human evolution.
Super Meat Boy (Team Meat, 2010)
If there’s a single moment that defines the experience of playing Super Meat Boy, it is quickly prodding the quick restart button. The platformer’s undersized stages brim with hazards, yet encourage you to play at furious speed. As a result, it’s a game of failing over and over again. However, by allowing for split-second restarts, there’s almost no drop in momentum as you ride the loop of trying and dying. As such, Super Meat Boy works its players into a frenzied trance state from which it can take hours to recover.
Trials Fusion (RedLynx, 2014)
For a good while, this side-scrolling motorcycling game feels like a meditative experience – and then the difficulty curve suddenly shoots straight for the heavens. It is then that the game reveals its true form; a nightmarish physics puzzler dressed as a driving game. Just how do you get over that vertical wall? How many degrees of rotation are needed to land on that upside-down ramp? The answer is intimacy with every nuance of a bike’s suspension and weight; an intimacy a handful of players globally are reported to have mastered enough to have aced the game’s closing stages.
Battle Garegga (8ing/Raizing, 1996)
At a glance, Battle Garegga appears to sport a difficulty comparable to your usual 2D shooter: intensely tough, but nothing absurdly so. However, it is the way the game makes you play that pushes it into the “hardest ever” field. Battle Garegga has remarkably complex rank, that is, difficulty, that adapts to the way you play. Managing rank to keep the game playable means avoiding some power ups and bonuses, and even “suiciding”, where lives are lost on purpose. Playing properly means playing on the edge, life stocks low and weapon power reserved, and it’s acutely exciting. The current world-record holder Kamui has held and bettered her leaderboard position through an estimated 18 years of devoted play, demonstrating the commitment Garegga demands.
Rick Dangerous (Core Design, 1989)
Core’s homage to Indiana Jones is a platformer played a few pixels at a time, edging forward to see what will kill you next. There are spikes, pits and boulders at every turn, and learning by failing is almost the only way to proceed. Your inventory is severely limited too, and there’s some tremendously demanding precision needed in a handful of particularly cruel and frustrating sections. Years later, Core would go on to craft another tomb raiding game, by which time the studio had apparently learned how to treat its fans a little more fairly.
Shadow of the Beast II (Psygnosis, 1990)
Mention the first Shadow of the Beast to the right crowd, and you’ll likely hear nostalgic musings on how its pioneering use of the parallax scrolling technique pushed game visuals into a new era. Ask about it’s sequel, and the response may be a little less rosy. The melee-focussed, multi-directional platform game would have been straight up demanding if it gave you any guidance. But it doesn’t, leaving you to work out everything for yourself. In a time before Youtube and walkthroughs, that alone was enough to make Shadow of the Beast II one of the toughest of its day.
Time Crisis (Namco, 1995)
Listing a familiar lightgun game might seem out of place on a list like this. After all, anybody who’s visited a dilapidated seaside arcade has likely thrown a handful of coins into the slot of Namco’s cop blaster, and felt nothing but delight. But try and complete the first Time Crisis properly – clearing it in a single credit – and it’s difficulty begins to become manifest. The lack of a hit indicator leaves a gaping hole in your ability to respond appropriately, and some punishingly curt timed sections serve to make it particularly easy to fast track to the game over screen.
I Wanna Be the Guy: The Movie: The Game (Michael O’Reilly, 2007)
Those who played this freeware platforming treasure that never officially left beta will likely find it hard to forget. Boiling its genre down to its founding elements, I Wanna Be The Guy was developed as a response to a then unfinished, brutally demanding Japanese flash game named Jinsei Owata. O’Reilly was convinced he could push Jinsei Owata’s difficulty a little further, and it appears he succeed. As a result, his game has become a reference point for the most testing indie titles. Super Meat Boy featured IWBTG’s protagonist, The Kid, who also starred as the final boss of the conclusive build of Jinsei Owata.
Weaponlord (Visual Concepts, 1995)
The greatest sin of this straight-to-console beat-‘em-up was that it tried to do things differently. It approached the control conventions of arcade fighters from the left field, using a range of weird button combos and d-pad swipes, but the result was a complex system too demanding for most ordinary players and utterly counterintuitive to committed beat-‘em-up competitors. The computer-controlled characters were also rather too good at their own game, and Weaponlord was ultimately consigned to its fate as a curio most renowned for being the first fighter designed with online play in mind. If you are tempted, the MegaDrive port is a little more forgiving than its SNES cousin.
Flywrench (Messhoff, 2015)
While Nidhogg is Messhoff’s most famous game, Flywrench must be its hardest. The set-up is deceptively simple; guide an abstract spaceship through minimal mazes that look altogether innocent, changing colour as you pass. The reality is very different, where constantly dying and restarting is the standard. Flywrench is perhaps the most difficult game of the past year, or the past nine years, if you were one of the few who played the 2007 original, which saw an understated online release and inspired Braid creator Jonathan Blow to craft a playfully easy version named Nicewrench.
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