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With Great Difficulty

What happened to "Nintendo Hard?"

I broke two controllers while playing Mega Man II as a kid. Specifically, I broke two NES controllers playing Heat Man’s level in Mega Man II. Even more specifically, I broke two NES controllers while doing the “Hell Blocks” portion of Heat Man’s level in Mega Man II. That particular stage summed up perfectly what the words Nintendo Hard really meant to me. You needed patience, quickness and the ability to predict the future. It also didn’t hurt to have a couple of extra controllers lying around the house, you know, just in case.

Mega Man was hardly the only game that gave me fits as a child. The underwater bomb defusing level in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stumped me on many occasions and is the chief reason I never finished that game. Contra, as a whole, was just ridiculous. To this day, I don’t personally know a single soul who legitimately beat the game without using the now famous Konami Code.

When I first played these games, I was a child. I’ve now been playing games for over a quarter century and I had assumed that my general skill level had increased. When I went back to these games to give them another whirl not only did I discover that I was not any better at them, but in some cases I was actually worse. This experiment resulted in two conclusions: Hell Blocks really are the devil and games back in the day really were just harder.

Older gamers will be familiar with the term “Nintendo Hard.” Nintendo Hard refers to a game that is frustratingly difficult – harking back to just how hard games were on the original NES. The kind of games that made you smash your controller(s) in fits of rage. You could say that the video game industry was young and there were a slew of games that were hard simply due to bad design. I’ll concede that this argument does have some merit and that as developers grew into their craft they created more balanced gaming experiences. But you’d be hard pressed to find gamers that would say that the original Metal Gear, Castlevania III, and The Empire Strikes Back -- some of the hardest NES games -- were hard because they were poorly designed.

There was a definite lowering of the bar after the NES: Super Nintendo and Genesis games were easier and it could be debated that PlayStation, Saturn, and N64 games were easier still. What happened? Why did games get “dumbed down?” The reasons, as you will see, are actually legitimate.

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Esteban Cuevas Staff Alumnus

09/19/2011 at 04:02 PM

I've tried to play Mega Man 6 for the past few months. Can't get past no more than two stages. Man that game is hard. Also, I recently tried playing TimeSplitters for the PS2. I wanted to write a review for it but oh my god that game is so hard! I'm not sure I should review it because I can't complete all the mission on EASY! I'm stuck on level 7.

Oh and I've also broken controllers in frustration. Usually they were Nintendo or Sony controllers. Sega and Microsoft controls can withstand my rage!

Our Take

Nick DiMola Director

09/20/2011 at 09:46 AM

I think we're in an usual time right now where we don't really understand how tough we should actually make a game. As stated, back on the NES, games were as tough as they were due to hardware constraints, plain bad design, or as a means of artificially extending the length of the game.

Today, it has become very easy to just give the player whatever they need to progress. If it's altering the difficulty of AI on the fly, providing more health or ammo, or just offering infinite retries - the game understands how to help you past where you're stuck. On face value, this is quite nice and can allow players to see the entire game, but on the other, it's done so subversively, you never know if you are taking on the game at the right difficulty level and being properly challenged. This is no good.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have games like Demon's Souls. That game is punishingly hard and built on the old school ideals of pure repetition to figure out the set of moves required to progress. Even after figuring out the intricate ballet, you're required to execute it perfectly in order to actually move forward. It's quite akin to something like the hell blocks in MM2. Clearly this design isn't going to engage most players.

If we consider Demon's Souls a reaction to the pathetically low difficulty of most games, it's clear that we need to at least shift slightly back to something a bit more challenging. Death should have consequences and games shouldn't pander to poor performance - they need to produce difficulties that players should have to work through. I think most games today would be much more memorable if they didn't handhold the player to the finish line.

Eventually game designers will figure out how to strike a better balance, but right now, I believe we're in a generation of completely forgettable games, primarily due to how devoid of challenge they are.

Kathrine Theidy Staff Alumnus

09/20/2011 at 07:41 PM

I can't believe you not only called the game Master Blaster, but no one corrected it to Blaster Master. :P

Anyways, there's a lot of good insight here and I agree with most of it. One more thing I would have added is that most NES developers were coming off the arcade era, and they still had that mindset of treating the player like an enemy who needs to be destroyed so they will slide more quarters into the machine.

However, I would argue that Metal Gear, Castlevania III, and Star Wars are poorly designed. Instant kill traps that you can't see coming are not good game design any way you slice it.

The simple answer here is to just offer difficulty settings in every game for the player to choose. Though with the way games are designed these days, that isn't always so simple as altering the health and damage of enemies, so it can sometimes be a complex feature to add.

Nick, I'd have to disagree with you there. The only memories I have of challenge are all bad ones. The good memories I have in gaming involve playing multiplayer with friends or family, a game's soundtrack, endearing characters or stories, or clever and creative ideas; all things completely unrelated to difficulty. As far as I'm concerned, the NES can stay gone.


09/24/2011 at 03:23 AM

Come now, no good memories of challenge? None at all? What about when you first beat special cup in Super Mario Kart? You can't tell me that wasn't magical for you. (It was a magical night for me. I'll never forget it)

Kathrine Theidy Staff Alumnus

09/24/2011 at 08:09 PM

I don't like Super Mario Kart, I'm afraid. Whenever I talk about how poorly the game has aged, the Special Cup is one of the things I mention. The game was simply no fun to me.


09/26/2011 at 12:14 PM

Hmm I do tend to think that most games today are less challenging then games of the past. There is only a few games that I can think of today that is challenging. Most of those however are based off the highest difficulty. Things like Metroid Prime 3 and Sin and Punishment 2 come to mind as being pretty challenging on the highest difficulty. .

Angelo Grant Staff Writer

12/03/2011 at 12:37 PM


Device 2

Seriously, unless I cheat and use an emulator with save states, that's the ONLY way to do the hell blocks part.

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