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With Great Difficulty

What happened to "Nintendo Hard?"

The technology, while pretty impressive at the time, is nothing compared to the beastly machines of today. The original NES used an 8-bit microprocessor and contained a mere 2 KB of work RAM and 2 KB of video RAM. Needless to say, you couldn’t put any overly lengthy games on the system as it just couldn’t handle that much data. Also many carts didn’t contain battery backups, which meant you couldn’t save your progress. Some developers got around this by offering codes to help you skip to certain levels, but for the most part these technological restraints resulted in games that were designed to be completed in a couple of hours or less.

If you knew what you were doing, the original Metroid was a game that could be completed in about an hour, but I’m betting that few of you were able to complete it in that time frame, and if you were, it was only because you had hours and hours of practice – mastering moves and memorizing the convoluted map. Metroid II added a save feature that allowed the user to continue without having to input a special code, and Super Metroid added more features still such as the ability to shoot as you walk backwards. The later Prime games were much longer, but didn’t task the player with the difficult job of mastering the game by including a difficulty selector, a map and a hint system that would keep the player from getting frustrated; all features that were missing from the original.

The original Mega Man game only included six robots, but was a tough game by anyone’s standards. Mega Man 2, the best selling game in the franchise and a fan favorite, expanded on the original by adding two more robot masters and some additional features that eased the difficulty in the form of the energy tank, an item that allowed the player to refill Mega Man’s energy at any given time, and the password system which would generate a code so that the user could continue from any given point in the game after the system was turned off. These features may seem small, but were necessary for a longer game to work without frustrating the player.

As password systems and battery backups became more common, having the ability to save your game became a standard feature for even the most rudimentary of games. This allowed for longer games that didn’t have to be artificially padded – thus the difficulty level was lowered.

Difficulty selection in consoles was first introduced on the Atari 2600 and was actually a system feature rather than a software feature. A switch on the console could flip between two difficulty levels – O for original and B for beginner. Since difficulty selection was an optional feature at the time, many games that were released on the system didn’t make use of them and later consoles – such as the NES – would leave it up to developers to include this as a software feature instead.

While the concept of letting the user select the difficulty of their experience wasn’t necessarily a bad idea, developers had to deal with technology limitations in terms of programming hours and cartridge space. Adding a difficulty setting would take up precious space that could be used for another level or additional sound effects or music.

As games evolved and space became less of an issue, difficulty settings found their way into games on a more regular basis. Sure, the original, brutally hard Ninja Gaiden didn’t allow for you to play it on “easy” but the 2004 Xbox version did.

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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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