Difficulty in video games of old


About a month ago I posted a video on YouTube that addresses difficulty in video games and what I think of it. While I don’t necessarily want to retread the same paths I’ve taken in the video, I want to elaborate on the instance of older games. 

To no surprise to anyone, I’m referring specifically to the games on the NES and games during that time in general. The NES came out at a time when arcades pretty much ruled the landscape when it came to video games. Games in arcades are obviously built to make money, not unlike a slot machine. When you lose your token you’re required to put in another coin, if you intend to keep on playing. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out, that if you were to make the game hard, chances are the player will keep losing their tokens and will have to add new ones to keep on playing. In the grand scheme of things, this is a bit more intricate than it might seem at first, as it can only really work if the game is actually fun and enticing to play. If the player gets too frustrated too early on, that person is most likely just going to abandon the machine and is no longer going to put any money into it. Looking back at the NES during that time, it was merely emulating what the arcade was doing already.

If you’ve watched Egoraptor’s Sequilitis video on Castlevania, you already know about the rather debilitating jumping and whipping mechanics. Ninja Gaiden on the other hand had a much faster pace, your katana slash was instant, as was your jump and your jump arc was freely adjustable in mid-air. The one thing that was almost the same in Castlevania and just as frustrating persisted throughout most platformers though, even to this day! I am talking about “damage boosting”. If you’re unfamiliar with the term; Damage boosting doesn’t mean to increase your damage output, but it actually stands for receiving damage and being flung backwards by the impact. In fact, it’s quite frequently used as a Speedrun technique throughout the Metroid franchise for example. The intention by the designers was of course to make life just that little… that much more difficult for you. You get hit, get flung backwards and in most cases, there would be some type of a hole behind you. Falling into that hole would usually result in instant death. It’s annoying for sure, but it’s annoying by design! The damage you receive could have been negligible, but if you’re in a tight platforming section, your health is the least of your worries, it’s the impending doom lurking below the edge of the screen that was truly terrifying. To me this was always the most treacherous… pitfall… one could fall into (sorry, couldn’t help myself). This resulted in being forced to learn level layouts, enemy placement and being adept with the tools your characters had at their disposal. While I could go on and on about this, the point to be taken away here is that, what’s currently perceived as “unsurmountable odds” we just accepted as “Ok, I have to learn it/memorise it/git gud at it/not get hit by it”.

These games weren’t designed to be unbeatable, they were designed to kill time, and a lot of it. The fact that these games are still played today is a testament to the fact that they’re fun to play. If the games were just hard and that’s all there was to it, no one would care about them. While they were unfair in a lot of situations, it wasn’t impossible. Your creativity and ingenuity as a player was challenged here. You got a huge rush, when you beat a ridiculously hard section of a stage or a boss that you were stuck at for the past 5 days. It’s what kept us playing these games, a sense of accomplishment that was otherwise unattainable for a 5 – 8 year old kid. I don’t really know about kids today, but I didn’t like being a victim to the CPU when I was that age, in fact I got really… Really pissed off. I didn’t quit though, as that would have meant two things: A) I would be the loser in this scenario and B) I’d have had nothing to do, until my mother would be willing to spend another ~€100 for another game (based on the inflation example stated in the video at the top).

To close this out, even unfair games are beatable with enough dedication. My stance is still that there needs be a line drawn between a challenging and a difficult game, as difficult usually means unfair. Even with that, as long as the game is fun, you can learn and acquire the knowledge, dexterity and overall skill that is necessary to beat it. Calling a game too hard without ever having seen the end, is really nothing more than saying “I suck at this, so I gave up”. Which is fine, but if you actually liked the game, don’t you think it’s a bit of waste to just give up on it?


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I play games and stuff!

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