What the Hell Happened to Tough Video Games?


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?


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?


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.

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  1. It’s because devs are actually good at making games now.

    Think about it, why would you make a game that some percentage (be it 75% or even 20%) of people would not see through to the end? It’d be a waste of time.

    Back “in the good ol days,” difficulty was a way to make your game last longer than the 2 hours it actually was.

    Contra — a game which has a rep for being hard — is a game I can beat fairly easily, with no Contra code. It takes, at most, 2 hours. But because it’s “hard” it seems longer.

    I just am tired of these “ohhh games were so much harder back in the 8-bit days.” If by hard you mean relying on repetition, memorization, and poor design, than yes, you are right.

  2. @ Jason

    It wasn’t just memorization and poor design, though. Nobody would argue that about Punch Out or the original Castlevania, would they? Those games were well-designed and pretty challenging.

    Now, when you finish a game, it feels like you just finished watching a long movie. It used to actually be an accomplishment. For me, at least, lack of a real challenge makes it somewhat regretful.

  3. Very interesting point Madison. Take Dragon Age for example, you can switch difficulty levels mid-game. Or if a fight is too difficult switch it to easy mode. What is the point there? If you cant beat the entire main quest on nightmare why are you playing at the level? Ohh I remember the days of being stuck on one particular series of jumps or one really bad ass boss. There was no make-this-easier button! I really liked Dragon Age but that feature annoyed me. Just the mere fact that it was there kinda took away the feel of accomplishment after beating it on harder modes….

  4. @ Madison
    Well TBH i had Ninja Gaiden in mind… Its the only game that took me over a year to complete. Every time i played it i had to take a break from it for a month lol
    I haven’t played Demons’ Souls so who knows. Never really seen Devil may cry as much of a challenge myself :/
    I do agree with you though…
    Games these days are just getting WAY too easy. GTA seems to get easier with each new installment. In Gta3 there was a scarce amount of health boosters hidden throughout the map. Now in GTA4 they have multiple medi packs and armor scattered throughout missions, hotdog venders and burger joints on every corner. It just doesn’t pose a challenge anymore. Luckily it has enjoyable gameplay and storyline but sometimes i feel that its just underestimating the player.
    Games do need to be more difficult though maybe not like they we’re in the 8/16bit days… those we’re kinda cheap lol

  5. I miss Mike Tyson’s Punch Out…I used to subscribe to Nintendo Power magazine and even with the cheat codes it took a while…

    I still have yet to see the end of Super Mario 2 – I never got close and gamer friends of mine just call the game ‘dumb’ then admit later they couldn’t finish it either.

    I have an uncle who plays any and every video game he can get his hands on and the only Nintendo game that really upset him due to difficulty was a Barbie game I got in the 4th grade…funny to watch a 30-something year old man use every swear word he knows because he can’t get the right charms on Barbie’s magic bracelet =)

  6. I won’t say Punch Out! is poorly designed. But it IS strictly memorization, or at best, pattern recognition. Is it difficult? Sure, but only on a twitch-based level.

    There were also far less games made back then, so the number of difficult games seems inflated.

    When you look at the Devil May Crys, Ninja Gaidens, God of Wars (basically all the action games today), those are difficult (and I would argue, not just on Hard or Very Hard) in a sea of easier games. There are a dozen new games released a week. It’s just a numbers game.

    I would have taken the “GameFAQS ruined difficulty” angle. As I know if I get to a super annoying part, I’ll fire that up and find out what to do.

    I would also say almost every RPG is harder now than they were then.

  7. 2cents) I think it’s a problem with 3D.

    The GPU accelerators are only now getting to a level of realism that allows a VERY fast rendering of a complex scenes while retaining enough environmental queues to rapidly focus human eyes on the target.

    Memorizing a 2D map is a hundred times easier than memorizing a 3D map. Thank god for Wolf-3D. It was primitive enough to be a great primer for that process.

  8. @Jason

    I thought that there were too many games back then.

    IMHO, I believe online multiplayer is what is the difference between then and now. Back then, without interactivity, the games HAD to be challenging for replay purposes. Today, replay is accomplished through the multiplayer component. You are pitched against real people vs. some AI.

  9. @ Jason

    That’s a great point (about GameFAQs), and I did consider it, but in the end it really doesn’t have anything to do with a game’s design. Still, if you’re stuck on a dungeon or a certain boss, you can just fire up a walkthrough and see how it’s done. I try to avoid those at all costs.

  10. The main reasons, as mentioned above
    1) Adjustable difficulty settings (Kudos to everyone who finished CoD:WaW on Veteran)
    2) Multiplayer (There is always someone better you can swear at)
    3) Length of the Game (Games back in the day would at most take a few hours if it wasn’t for frequent repetition)

    Other reasons include
    4) GameFAQs (Legend of Zelda with a walkthrough is more or less a walk in the park )
    5) Emergence of Browser Games (I found “Elona Shooter” frustratingly difficult)

    I agree with you, that beating a NES-Game was more satisfying than beating the usual game nowadays. But I wouldn’t want it any other way. Repeating the same stages again and again isn’t fun at all! I’d rather experience 40 hours of Mass Effect as an Interactive Movie than 40 hours of trying to land that motherf***ing plane on the motherf***ing aircraft carrier in Top Gun. (Btw I managed to beat this game)

  11. @ tebox

    I guess I just miss being able to brag about finishing a game. It’s become far more of an entertainment experience on the level of a movie than a challenge that only the most skilled (or patient) can overcome.

    So, I guess it’s a matter of what you like. Personally, I miss the days of working my ass off just to get up to a boss, getting killed, and then having to do the entire stage over just to reach the boss again. Maybe I’m just a masochist.

    Nice work on Top Gun btw.

  12. I’ve had discussions about this before, and I’ve never really come up with an answer other than that gaming is different than it used to be. It is more story-driven, so games are created with the difficulty lower in order to allow gamers to complete the story. The older games were also made difficult to make them last longer. That isn’t necessary with today’s larger games. When retro-style games are released now, they are still pretty hard. Mega Man 9 was similar to Mega Man 2 in difficulty.

    If you want to see a guy beat some difficult classic games, check out Until We Win at lordkat.com. He plays through tough old games until he beats them. He’s done Battle Toads, Blaster Master, Dick Tracy, Ironsword, Dragon’s Lair (NES) and a bunch of others. It’s interesting to see what it takes to beat some of these older, tougher games.

    The toughest games of the last decade would be an interesting article. Demon’s Souls and at least one of the Ninja Gaidens would have to be up there. It also depends on what difficulty level you are talking about, because many games become a lot tougher at their maximum setting. Also, I Want to Be the Guy should be at least an honorable mention. It’s not a commercial game, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever tried to play.

  13. After I beat Top Gun the first time I called my friends over to show them my skills. I managed to evade all bombs, most of the refueling and most of the landings. I got the final boss, beat “him”, my friends were cheering, but I knew that it wasn’t over yet. There was still one landing sequence and I only had one life left. It was not enough…I crashed beside the aircraft carrier. I never laid hands on Top Gun again and so the first time I beat Top Gun was also my last time.

    It’s these stories that make finishing a NES game memorable.

  14. I think you hit the nail on the head with your comments regarding the move toward a more cinematic experience for video gaming being the driving factor behind the dumbing down of the difficulty level of games.

    I can understand why developers have taken this route, because if they are trying to create a compelling narrative that narrative would be defeated by a player’s inability to progress through the game due to their lack of video game skill. I think that developers actually do realize this issue, which accounts for the inclusion of the various difficulty levels that they build into their products these days.

    I’ll make a confession here. (One I very freely make often.) I suck at video games. I love them. Absolutely love them. I always have, and always will, but I’m not very good at them. However, as my gaming tastes have matured I find that what draws me to a game is more often then not the cinematic aspects of the game. I appreciate the game play elements as a vehicle for the story that I am being told through the game. I will frequently play games through on the normal or even easy difficulty, so that my ineptness as a gamer does not detract from my ability to experience the story.

    The two most recent examples of this trend for me have been Dragon Age and Mass Effect. I’ve been playing both games on the easy difficulty, and it suits me just find. I actually find that playing at these difficulty levels actually makes for an interesting role playing experience. It allowed me to focus more on my individual character and role playing that character. I really liked the experience, because it made my teammates feel more like intelligent independent characters that I didn’t need to babysit all the time. In both cases I even have forgone managing the character leveling process letting them auto level, which adds an even greater depth to the feeling that they are living breathing characters.

    I think this trend towards making games more easy to complete will only continue as the medium continues towards a more cinematic nature. Plus, another thing to think about in this regard, is as games are becoming more sequel driven the developers have a built in incentive to provide experiences that can be completed in a much easier fashion. (However, I’ll concede the fact that this didn’t seam to hurt the Mega Man or Castlevania series.)

    I do remember the simpler days of gaming, when games were hard to beat. However, I can’t honestly say that I miss it. I like knowing that most likely if I pick up a game I’ll see it through on my own terms. I am happy that the days of not seeing the end of Golgo 13 or Metroid are in my past.

  15. I agree!!! i had to post about it, sry to spam my blog but i think you made alot of great points, but what was it that made games great to begin with??


    check it out tell me what you think

    “So now a days they are making games for poorly educated fuss bunny simpletons that have spawned from a lack of parenting and common sense; they exist to fulfill some strange need of their parents to procreate and they are mostly treated as an ornament of their linage rather then a person who will one day be held accountable for their actions” -me

  16. I remember beating Power Drift in the arcade surrounded by some dubious looking guys whom I was sure were going to mug me. However on beating it they were cheering like i was some local hero… That was a great feeling.

  17. I think another component could be that gamers are simply getting better. This generation has grown up with video games, I personally have been playing since I was 6, and as we all know practice makes perfect. I have gone back and played games that I had an extremely difficult time beating but now its a cakewalk.

  18. The reason games are “easier” these days is much simpler than you all think it is. I can sum it up in two words.


    The fact that we no longer have to do everything perfectly in one go.

    Try to play any of those “super hard to beat” games from the NES on an emulator and use the quick save and quick load buttons. You’ll be done in no time.
    The problem was that with old games they didn’t have the technology to allow you to save whenever you wanted so when you were out of lives that was it. Back to square one.

    That was what made them so hard was that you had to do it all in one go without making any mistakes.

    Now you can just save every 4 or 5 minutes and be home in time for tea. But really, try beating half life or portal without quick save and I think you’ll find it significantly more “difficult” than those games of yore.

  19. Ok, now Gears of War on Nightmare wasn’t exactly easy, and I didn’t sail through Halo on Legendary. But I did beat them both and it did take a few days BUT I always thought that Nintendo games were harder because they were SHORTER. I mean 9 Levels was a lot back then. Now we need 36 Missions, some spanning multiple stages. I just figured they were trying to stretch the play time out. Modern Hard game? Ninja Gaiden is still pretty tough on teh Xbox. I never beat that one, and it’s rare noadays to let a game slip through my fingers. Maybe I should revisit that one, I’m sure I could pick it up in a $5 used pile somewhere.

  20. I gotta say that i like your website and i completely agree with this blog entry, i mean c’mon new games are so simple and easy, years ago the real action was based on the excitement that you could feel when having a hard battle with that annoying boss that could kick your ass in 8 seconds. Ninja Gaiden III for NES, that’s a badass game.

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