On Difficulty in Video Games

Game design has changed radically through the years. From level design, sound design, to the topic of today’s post, difficulty. Now, I did write a blog about game difficulty before, but that was from a long time ago, and frankly, I’m not exactly happy about my older blog posts (I kinda hate past me). So, now that a while has passed, let’s talk about difficulty in video games again!

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I’m so happy to talk about a controversial topic in the gaming industry! …Okay, not really! (Gif from Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood)

These thoughts came up last year, where people were accusing a few games (Cuphead and the Crash Bandicoot trilogy remake in particular) of being too difficult, comparing them to… Anyone should know this… Dark Souls (and by extension, its sister-game, Bloodborne). A game series radically different in gameplay and tone compared to those games.

the dark souls of crash bandicoot

One reason I’m never joining the gaming journalist industry is because I’d end up associated with one of those people… Because a game being difficult is a “horrible shame”, apparently.(Image source: https://imgur.com/D4wh0QL)

For those who aren’t as familiar with gaming, Dark Souls is an action-adventure game series (in)famous in the game community for its dark tone, a universe influenced from Norse mythology (like many other games), challenging gameplay, and being brutally-hard for newcomers. …It looks a bit slow for my tastes, so I was never interested in the series, difficulty aside. Of course, this caught the attention of many people, so they would often make a video raging at it, then quitting for good just because the “like” counter didn’t hit 1,000,000,000 in time.

So, Dark Souls is difficult. Better compare every game in the universe that’s difficult to it, then! Because the world’s first difficult game was Dark Souls, right!? …Nope. Not at all. As I said before, game design has changed a lot. When I played through some older games (such as Megaman X), they were a lot harder than the people playing them made them look. But this is because those people playing them are older than me, and played these games in their childhood. Meanwhile, I’m just a gal who decided to go on some journeys to the past of gaming. Of course I don’t have the same experience that other people have.

But why are games from a long time ago so difficult today? Simple: they’re old games. They’re not supposed to be easy. They are generally meant to be a time sink, a way to spend free time. Back then, they were basically home-arcade cabinets, but without all the “pay to continue” things going on. It’s a similar reason why fighting game bosses tend to be (annoyingly) hard. They were meant to get more money- In the arcades, anyway. Ports of old fighting games never really fix that problem regarding bosses.

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Parace L’sia, a lesser-known cheap fighting game boss from Arcana Heart.

The difficulty of a game can impact the relationship one has with it. Some bosses resonate with players because of when they beat them, and some players hate the same bosses because of how long it took to beat them. Some people love the old days of gaming, while some would rather keep gaming the way it is for now. And there are those in-between on this, like me. Yes, challenging games are satisfying, yet frustrating at times for me. Especially if they are old RPGs. Like EarthBound.

An unpopular opinion I have about EarthBound is that I think it hasn’t aged all that well in regards to gameplay. The game’s sense of humor and writing is brilliant, I can’t deny, but I wouldn’t call it the “best game there ever was”. To me, the inventory system is quite outdated, being annoying and slow to manage, and the combat system, while I can praise the scrolling health mechanic, is frustrating due to the spikes in difficulty (looking at YOU, Peaceful Rest Valley) in regards to enemies (especially early-game. Again, looking at YOU, Peaceful Rest Valley) And the game sometimes is impossible to clear without a guide, with how cryptic it can get in regards to certain tasks. I’m impatient at times, but still, isn’t waiting three real-life minutes just to enter one dungeon a bit crazy?

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Difficulty spikes… This is how Touhou feels sometimes… (Image from TVTropes.org)

There are many things that impact the difficulty of a game. Controls, strengths of the characters, etc. For example, Megaman 2 has the original gamebreaker, the Metal Blades. The game is quite difficult, unless you go off and get the Metal Blades first. And this is Megaman, so you can tackle the bosses in any order you can. So you could easily take on Metal Man first, and cheese the rest of the game just because of how powerful that weapon is. Maybe that’s why it’s the fan-favorite of the main series games? …Definitely not. People have loads of memories with the game, and that’s why it’s remembered so fondly, even if the game design and balancing isn’t on par with today’s standards. It’s okay to like a game despite its flaws, even if it doesn’t live up to the hype.

The large issue nowadays in regards to difficulty is the “challenge vs newcomer-friendly” debate. For those who speak in memes, it would be “anti-scrub vs pro-scrub”. To explain the issue in simple terms, games as of late have been trying to appeal to newcomers of video games. If you look at companies like Nintendo, it’s noticeable that their older games were way more difficult than their games now. This is because they want to make it enjoyable for everyone, not just a stereotypical niche audience.

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My actual feeling towards that manner. (Image from ProZD)

But does making a game easier really justify neglecting good level design? That is what I feel is the larger issue. You’d expect boss battles such as Bowser in Super Mario Galaxy 2 to put up a fair fight, but nope, you just have to ground-pound some stuff and you win. I call this “Anti-climatic challenge” syndrome, where one would expect a fair fight, but then then get an anti-climatic stage.

Then again, Bowser boss fights are never really that hard in the first place. A better example of this “Anti-climatic challenge” would be the final boss of Dragon Quest IX. In spite of being a powerful demon, if one is prepared, then the battle is quite effortless. Odd, considering that Dragon Quest IX is supposed to be one of the harder games in the series. Sorry, I love you Dragon Quest IX, but that reward of hardest Dragon Quest game is going to VIII.

Now, the main point of the post isn’t to call people out on trying to appeal to newcomers or veterans, but rather to express my personal thoughts on the manner. From my ramblings regarding the games earlier, it’s clear that I do prefer it when games take me on easy. A challenge isn’t bad for me every now and again (especially if it’s a RPG), but anyone who knows me knows that I’m pretty horrible at video games. Some hardcore kid would probably yell at me one day to tell me to “git gud”, but I don’t really care all that much about that.

Y’know, games are difficult to balance, and it’s difficult to allow it to be as enjoyable to a veteran and a newcomer. Good thing difficulty options exist in some games! Part of the reason difficulty levels are one of my favorite things in gaming is because it’s a good compromise for the beginners and the veterans. For example, Fire Emblem Awakening, while generally considered to be one of the easier games in the series, has three (later four) difficulties, along with two gameplay modes.

These difficulties are

  • Normal
  • Hard
  • Lunatic
  • Lunatic + (unlocked by beating the game on Lunatic. Ruthlessly cheap.)

and the game modes are divided into two:

  • Casual: Characters who die in battle aren’t gone for good.
  • Classic: Characters who die in battle are GONE FOREVER!

This is a great way to not isolate newcomers to the game, while still appealing to the people who want a good traditional challenge. …But then there’s the issue of fake difficulty.

Fake difficulty is a term basically meaning “never judge the game by it’s difficulty settings”. A good example would be the vanilla version of Persona 4. Yes, Easy mode is easier than normal, but you’re dealing with Atlus, and they still get off on your tears. Yes, Persona 4 Golden did add the Very Easy difficulty, but to me, it seems it makes the game a bit too easy.

A game should gradually expect the player to get better at it as they go along. So stagnating in difficulty can make a game a lot less engaging. Games that allow the player to change the difficulty any time they’d like are appreciated by a person like me. It’s always good to try out a new challenge when a game has started getting boring.

But without difficulty modes, can an otherwise easy game be difficult? …I’d say yes. A trend I’ve been noticing with Nintendo games now is that while the main campaign of their games are easy, the same couldn’t be said for the post game. For example, Super Mario Odyssey‘s main game is relatively easy, especially if you know the series well. But then there’s the fact that “oh wait, there’s like, 800 or so Moons to collect”. Yeah. Some of these are hidden in weird ways, but it allows for variety.

Another example would be Kirby: Planet Robobot‘s infamous True Arena. I don’t think it’s exactly a good boss rush mode, considering the fact that you have to fight an upgraded version of the final boss at the end (with new patterns, an extra phase, and no breaks in-between), but it does demand skill with the game to succeed. And when you see people do so well, it does kinda inspire one to try doing the same, even if it ends in failure.

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On second thought, maybe they shouldn’t have put those insta-kill lasers the bonus boss uses when self-destructing.

In conclusion, game difficulty modes are the best. Fight me.

Haha! I’m kidding. Yes, game difficulty modes are awesome, but there are other ways for developers to put in challenge in an otherwise easy game. As for difficult games, is it really needed to compare them to Dark Souls? Nah.

The thing about Crash Bandicoot‘s remake is that it’s a recreation of the first three games in that series. And if one played them, then they know they’re difficult. But the point of those remakes was to homage those hard days. It’s difficult, but not impossible.

And Cuphead wasn’t just created because the devs thought the old 1900’s cartoons looked pretty (those old cartoons are awesome, though). The developers also wanted to homage the old days of run-n’-gun games, with a fast-paced set of challenges for the player to survive through. The general impression I get is that yes, Cuphead is difficult, but it’s not impossible.

Bad difficulty is when it’s clear the odds are stacked too much against or in favor of the player. A difficult game can’t be a Kaizo hack, or act like someone’s first game. The player has control, after all. A difficult game must be possible, and an easy game can’t always be possible. Video Games can be beaten after all, even if it takes one a long time to get to the end credits.

…Oh, some games mock you for choosing the easier difficulties? That’s a bit underhanded. You want mockery to those guys, huh? Well too bad! You aren’t getting that mockery to those developers! That’s for another day entirely!