Hard Mode: The Joy of Bitterly Difficult Video Games

Recently, a close friend, one of several that I had round at my house at the time, asked me why my Xbox controller had teeth marks in it. When I looked a little abashed and muttered “Sekiro” everyone else in the room either looked at me like I’d lost my mind (those who hadn’t played it) or nodded sagely (those who had).

Starting with Dark Souls, there has been a recent resurgence in the popularity of games that don’t so much hold your hand as rip off your arm and beat you to death with it.

Suffice it to say, your chances of getting through Cuphead on your first run are about the same as becoming one of the 1,475 additional billionaires there will be by 2020. Not impossible, just highly improbable.

The Souls franchise might have been the first to bring the deliberately hard game into the sunlight, but they aren’t the only games that offer a grinding difficulty curve that modern gamers are realizing is something that they want more games to offer.

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Games like Cuphead, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Demon’s Souls/Dark Souls and even Zelda: Breath of the Wild have significantly upped the stakes when it comes to the challenges that the players have to overcome. But why has that extra difficulty added to their popularity and well-deserved plaudits?

Nintendo Entertainment System

A History of Being Difficult

Games being difficult is hardly a new thing. The NES (Nintendo Entertainment System), the savior of the console industry as we know it, wasn’t afraid to push out games that were hugely challenging.

Ghosts ‘n Goblins is an excellent example of this. You are only ever two hits from being dead at any one time, the powerups you needed to survive were sometimes traps that killed you, and if you didn’t bring the burning cross with you to the end, enjoy playing those last two levels all over again.

If you did bring the cross, boom! You’ve fallen for “a trap devised by Satan” and have to play through the whole game again on a higher difficulty level.

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Hard games didn’t die with the NES, they lived on as a sub-genre as the wider industry resorted to ever greater level of hand-holding to pull in new players and keep them playing a massively over-saturated market.

Games like Ninja Gaiden II, God Hand, UFO: Enemy Unknown, Mushihimesama, and Super Meat Boy attracted rabid fan bases, despite ostensibly punishing their players, and Dark Souls eventually injected that infectious difficulty back into the mainstream.

Xbox Controller

Difficult, Not Frustrating

What set these games apart, and now makes games like Sekiro so enjoyable, despite it occasionally causing you to gnaw on expensive peripherals like a madman, is that they provide the player with all the tools they need to overcome the challenges they set and then get out of the player’s way.

When you fail, it is because, for the most part, you messed up. It’s irritating, but it drives you to pick up the freshly-bitten controller and try again.

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Superman 64, which was a hugely difficult game, was difficult because of sloppy controls, bad camera movement, bad writing, bad everything in fact, and was obnoxiously frustrating and has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the worst games ever made.

A good hard game makes you hate yourself, not the game, driving you to get back up like you are auditioning for Captain Marvel and try again.

Making the Future Difficult

Games like Sekiro and Cuphead have reintroduced the joy of the hard-to-beat game to an industry that is sliding dangerously down a path of pay-to-win monetization, where buying your way to endgame content is removing the need to game from your games.

Their success highlights the fact that players still want a challenge, still want to feel like they beat a good hard game using only their own skill, dedication, resourcefulness and occasional bouts of screaming rage.

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