Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Progressive Challenge: A History of Game Difficulties

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Zelda2

Zelda II: The Adventures of Link, Shin Megami Tensei Persona, IkarugaDark Souls.  All of these games have one thing in common: they are hard as hell.  Since the genesis of the video game difficulty has existed to be the barrier to entry and the extension of game experiences.  What is a video game if not a challenge?  Originally technology had not caught up with the goals of the medium so games had to use difficulty to bridge the gap of a good experience where visuals and storytelling failed.  Nowadays games are just as capable, if not more, than other media in being an interactive experience and therefore difficulty steps aside most times.  I consistently hear that the concept of difficulty is dead, that a hard game dictates a good game, and that today’s gamers are weak and catered to.  Frankly, I disagree with all of that.  Gaming is typically tech dependent and with that dependence comes the evolution of experience, which results in the evolution of difficulty.  Games haven’t gotten harder or easier, they have simply evolved.

Difficulty Trends

I think the question of how difficult a game is comes to the amount of time you spend with it, which is why games seem easier today.  Traditionally the challenge was intended to get you to play the game more often, justifying the high price tag for a relatively short experience.  Take Contra for example, I cleared that game on this very site in roughly half an hour without using any codes.  This is not an easy feat for many gamers and definitely much harder for those that didn’t grow up playing the game.  While it may have only taken me 30 minutes, there are tens of hours of practice spanning more than 25 years that led up to that run.  In contrast, I could not conquer Ghosts’n’Goblins and finally gave up after two hours.  There is someone out there who is the exact opposite as me and it’s most likely based on what they have played.  This is transparently due to memorization – once you know exactly what is going to happen to the point that the game becomes manageable.  The best way to memorize something is to repeat it over and over.  Enter the first generation of the difficulty.

Parallel to this initial outing in repetition and memorization comes reflex.  Some of you reading that last paragraph may be thinking more of games like Punch-Out!! or even a PowerPad game like Stadium Events that require you to have the skill to conquer them.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve memorized Bald Bull’s charge, if you can’t nail the timing of hitting him in the stomach you’re either repeating the dodge till the end of the round or eating canvas.  Either way, you’ll never win.  Being able to conquer a skill set, nail timing, and basically having the reflexes to perform complex tasks in games like Super Mario Bros. 2 (Lost Levels in the US) either enabled or prevented your ability to win.

battletoadsFinally there were the dick programmers.  Like it or not they didn’t have an appropriate way to blanket difficulty so they were forced to fudge it.  This explains such terrible games as Beat Takeshi’s Challenge, Battletoads, and Silver Surfer where being good at the game or memorizing how to beat it meant nothing because the game invariably stacks the odds against you.  Repeating an area is one thing but forcing someone into game over screen after game over screen to the point of insanity with nothing but unsavable hours to retread the past is not fun.  These games are not fun.  They are only used for the purpose of masochism.

Contemporary Difficulty

From that point they just continued to evolve in a regular pattern until you get the games of today.  Nowadays the point of many games is to tell a tale rather than post a challenge, resulting in games like Heavy Rain that have no end game state.  On the other hand some of the biggest and oldest gaming tropes hold true.  Dark Souls is nothing more than a memorization game, as are any of the bullet hell shmups you may enjoy today.  The game never changes its course, it always spawns the same enemies in the same way – many argue to alter this mechanic would navigate it to the “not fun” hard status.  Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero/Rock Band are also nothing more than reflex gameplay, requiring that you not only understand what to do, but perform actual physical tasks to achieve your goal.  I think the only difference to games today and from the past is the unknown.

dark-souls-dragon-bridge

Imagine playing The Legend of Zelda for the first time today.  I will fully admit that I can breeze through this title in no time, having little fear of taking on Gannon at the end, but then I grew up playing it and knowing its intricacies.  I think you would be hard pressed to find someone today that hasn’t played it dedicate the time it would take to figure out the mechanics, find the secrets like where to get hearts and the location of dungeons, and finally complete the game.  If that person were to go online, you may accuse them of making the game unfairly easy or cheating to get ahead.  This is why people criticize Dark Souls and those that generate guides to get it.  It also explains why it’s so popular; gamers get to return to those better days where you have to figure the world out.    Also keep in mind that like Dark Souls, it may not be just about memorization or reflexes, but both, which creates a whole new barrier for entry.  Still, there will always be those games that are not fun and unnaturally hard for no reason, and for games like Knight’s Contract I say good riddance and the world is a better place without you.

Written by Fred Rojas

March 31, 2014 at 4:01 pm

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