Today’s games are many things. Immersive. Epic. Entertaining. But as the quality and presentation of games has gone up, difficulty has gone down. Gaming simply isn’t as punishing as they were in the 8-bit or 16-bit eras.
There’s a reason the Konami code exists. Contra was considered a standard classic as far as shooters are concerned. But the game was difficult and brutal as far as punishments were concerned. This was a time before hard drives, memory cards and battery back ups. If you die, game over.
Granted, gaming used to use arcades as the benchmark for how to create a title. Titles were designed to be addictingly difficult, so that while players may get frustrated at yet another death in Ms. Pac-Man, they can’t help themselves but to donate another quarter to that power pellet hungry face with a bow.
In a market filled with unlimited respawns, regenerating health, auto-save checkpoints and strategy guides, there are very few games that require the same level of pattern memorization and fast twitch reflexes that hearken back to the days of the arcade. Sure there are the assortment of quality bullet hell shooters with games like the (now) Treasure classic Ikaruga and the recent DeathSmiles, but SHMUPs are considered a niche genre with a very dedicated following.
One game in particular has managed to evolve from the ranks of cult hit to popular title based on word of mouth regarding its difficulty. 2009’s Demon’s Souls was a slow moving action oriented RPG. But this wasn’t the typical hack & slash type of RPG, rather it was an RPG that took a great deal of strategy and patience, a combination not often found in the modern gamer. The game was so challenging that it is set up such that your first encounter will kill you outright. Essentially saying, “You’re dead. Get used to it.”
As you tediously traverse each dungeon earning souls to improve your character, caution is the word. Any wrong step or poorly timed sword swing could end in your demise and a loss of any unspent souls. As a sort of second chance, the player restarts at the beginning of the same dungeon at a handicap of lower health and must make that same climb to return to the bloodstained stone where they originally perished, regaining health and lost souls. But if the player dies before reaching their bloodstain, the souls are lost permanently.
Demon’s souls was popular enough and its difficulty renowned enough to garner a spiritual sequel in Dark Souls, a game that the developers have promised will be even harder than it’s predecessor.
There are difficult games out there. Games like Ninja Gaiden Black, Devil May Cry 3 and Etrian Odyssey are fine examples of games that require skill and patience, not to mention the fortitude required to withstand frustration caused by repeat deaths. So what types of games do you like, a game where you can breeze through, unopposed? Or a game that truly pushes you to the brink?