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With Great Difficulty

What happened to "Nintendo Hard?"

Fast forward to today and you’ll be surprised to see a game that doesn’t have a difficulty setting. Most people plow through a game on normal or the newly coined “casual” setting, but some of us who were raised on the Nintendo Hard games go straight for the more difficult settings, most of which do not even compare to the NES default setting in terms of difficulty.

Like any growing market the goal of the video game industry was to grow and convert non-users to users. In order to get people to play games that otherwise wouldn’t, you have to make it more accessible. We’ve all witnessed what happens when someone who has never played a game like Street Fighter is broken in by the local master. In this scenario the new player nearly always gets frustrated and quits. Since their first experience was so negative they’ll likely never play that particular title again. The lesson here is that if an individual’s experience is largely negative they won't give it another try. Likewise, if games remained Nintendo Hard it would be just as difficult to penetrate the non-gaming community as it would be to get to the end of Blaster Master.

Games became easier in order to make the gaming experience more accessible and satisfying for a larger audience: learning curves were made more gradual, in-game tutorials became standard and the average difficulty of titles was lowered. The self proclaimed ‘hardcore’ gamers will refer to this as the dumbing down of the game industry, but in reality this was a smart move by the industry that helped to propel it into the mainstream of pop culture.

This culminated in Nintendo’s “Blue Ocean” strategy with the DS and Wii – a system with games that targeted a much broader spectrum of demographics with concepts like tennis and bowling that could easily be picked up and played in groups. This strategy has helped to make the Wii the best selling console of this generation and has led to Microsoft’s development and push of the Kinect, which has also been seen as quite successful.

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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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