What the Hell Happened to Tough Video Games?

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When I was a kid, I kept a list on a sheet of notebook paper of every Nintendo game I had beaten.  The list grew from one column to two, and soon enough I had to flip the sheet of paper over to account for all my triumphs.  The paper was, in a sense, my video game trophy case.  There was an exhilarating feeling of accomplishment when I beat a Nintendo game, especially when the game was notorious for being difficult.  After all, a grizzly bear’s head looks a lot more impressive on a hunter’s wall than, say, a deer.  Back in my glory days, beating a game was far from a given, though, and many games were considered unbeatable.

The point of this isn’t to brag about how good I was (and, I think, still am) at video games.  It’s that now, virtually every game I buy I expect to beat for the simple reason that video games just aren’t that difficult anymore.  But why?

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Granted, it’d be disingenuous to not acknowledge that video games today have evolved considerably from their 8-bit predecessors.  Games today are rarely linear, and those that are often involve various side quests or secret missions that serve to supplement the overall gameplay.  Further, video games have become more of an immersive experience, complete with cinematic cutscenes and top-notch voice acting.  Add in the option of online play – the main appeal for many current games, particularly first person shooters – and it becomes increasingly unclear just what “beating a game” means these days.  Is it enough to finish the main quest of the game on a normal difficulty level?  Or is completing all achievements or collecting all trophies the only way to truly beat a game?  Being that many achievements are arbitrary (and some are downright silly – complete the tutorial?  Yawn.), I don’t think they’re the best way to determine whether or not a game has been completed, and to me, “beating a game” still means finishing the main quest.

But even so, it’s just too easy.  Everyone who’s owned Halo has beaten it.  Gears of War?  Cake.  Assassin’s Creed?  If you can stand the monotony, it’s not very difficult.  In fact, for just about every major release that I purchase, my hope is that the gameplay itself will last for more than a couple of days.  Never do I think about whether or not I’ll actually finish.   There are a few exceptions of course – such as Ninja Gaiden 2 and the Devil May Cry series – but even those require playing the game at a harder or hardest difficulty level to produce a real challenge.  My point is this:  long gone are the days of throwing controllers, crying, and locking myself in my room so that my dad wouldn’t beat me for swearing at a group of pixels on the television.  And so if the games aren’t too challenging, then what’s the benefit of finishing them?

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Beating Mike Tyson in Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!!! is still one of my greatest video game accomplishments.  Sure, I know a lot of people who could do it, but there’s just one of them for every 50 who couldn’t.  How many people do you know who beat Battletoads?  What about Blaster Master?  I almost wet my pants the night I beat Rygar.  I wanted a parade in my honor when I completed the original Mega Man.  Why?  Because it took actual time and effort to do so, and it was something that most people couldn’t pull off.

Nowadays, games save automatically, you’re given unlimited continues, or you have the option to “farm” for currency to upgrade your character.  If a certain stage seems difficult, you’ll be able to take a crack at it as many time as you need.  For Nintendo games, though, these luxuries were rarer than someone under 40 siding with NBC over Conan.  You’d get a password or limited continues (if any at all) and that was that.  If the game was too tough, then tough sh*t.  A tough game meant that most people wouldn’t be able to finish it.  Now, everyone finishes games; it’s just a matter of how much time it takes.

Perhaps part of the reason the difficulty of games has decreased so much is because the demographic of gamers has seemingly changed so drastically, but it’s hard to imagine games clearly targeted at young men – such as Grand Theft Auto IV and Gears of War – would curb the difficulty level for newer or more casual gamers.  With games as evolved as they are, maybe game companies are more interested in providing a rich, memorable experience as opposed to creating difficult challenges.  Frustrated gamers may avoid games in a series if they think that the games will be too hard, and it’s in the companies best interests to appeal to the masses, not just the hardcore gamers.

Whatever the reason, there just don’t seem to be any “impossible” games anymore.  And it’s really kind of a shame.


28 Comments

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