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Narration through difficulty: Should the NES-era of difficult games be studied further?

The difficulty in video games has been discussed at various points by various professionals. More often than not, the NES-era of games are accused of being punishingly difficult. Is there anything to be learned from some of those near impossible games?

Game Developer, Staff

February 17, 2015

8 Min Read

A week ago I finished playing Capcom's retro throwback to the 8-bit era, Mega Man 9. And when I say “finished” I mean “I quit”. Yes, I accept my failure. The machines have overcome humanity. Dr. Willy has won, and I have lost. I am left in my silent corner, pondering whether things would have been different if I'd made those crucial jumps, instead of plunging into those inevitable spikes and pits, all the while cursing my decision to not buy “spike guards” and other items that now seem like omnipotent holy relics of life saving grace implemented by a loving and caring God. Hardcore gamers will defy me as a failure and a loser.


I could not complete Mega Man 9.


I suck at video games.


Well, that's not true entirely, but that's only because other games are far easier than Mega Man 9. The game was intentionally difficult and rightly so, as anything less would have seemed as modern cookie-cutter version of its 8-bit siblings. Old-school Mega Man veterans felt right at home when the game was released in 2008, and in that sense, Capcom delivered a product which catered to fans of the franchise far better than a certain other Japanese game company


The topic of difficulty in games has more or less been covered on various gaming forums, sites or lectures – usually by distinguishing between fair and punishing difficulty and how games should now strive to find the perfect balance of fair and rewarding difficulty while maintaining the immersion of the player. While this discussion is all well and good and hardly in need of a voice to muddy the waters even further, there was something in Capcom's decision of developing a retro hardcore game that made me think to the NES-era of agonizingly difficult games as a whole, with games such as the first Battletoads, Ninja Gaiden, Ghosts 'n Goblins and Castlevania bringing me back to vague childhood memories and unfinished games.


To say “agonizingly” difficult is more or less correct; at worst the games were brutally punishing, requiring the player to memorize enemy patterns and invisible pits that, unless memorized to the detail, would result in the players demise. To make matters worse, some of the games did not even feature any kind of save/checkpoint feature, requiring the player to beat the game in one sitting only, punishing the player for every single mistake. The reason why developers went out of their way to create such a mind-numbing difficulty was simple: the gameplay features of the time were minimalistic and the games were short, and thus difficulty served as a counter-weight to draw out an otherwise simple and short game. It was only until speed run videos when casual gamers began realizing how short games like Ninja Gaiden in fact where, as they themselves had been beating their head into the wall over that one particular jump they almost always failed at.


Since then video games have come a long way, and perhaps rightly so. Auto-save features, regenerating health bars and gameplay involving reflexes and intuition rather than memorization all have become the norm and standard to expect in a video game. Games like Demon's Souls and Dark Souls have introduced a fair and rewarding difficulty and other – perhaps less difficult – games have simply decided to focus on other aspects of the game such as the agency of the player; one would be hard pressed to call Skyrim a difficult game, as its main design is clearly about sandbox exploration rather than difficulty, while the key selling points of Mass Effect clearly are more about the player making choices that matter, rather than seeking a challenge á la Dark Souls, Super Meat Boy, or any other challenging game. Diversity is a good thing, and now instead of having every game break our controllers, games are able to give us a handful of different interactive experiences: exploration, expression, story telling, competitive gaming and so forth.


But then I get this nagging feeling that something is off, perhaps excluded from the discussion. Thinking back to the NES-era of games, one has to ponder whether those games were completely at fault for being so brutally difficult as they were. Admittedly, one would have to be a complete masochist to enjoy missing a certain jump in the last level of the game and having to start from the beginning; this is the sort of stuff that put NES-systems flying down balconies in the early 90's and whether one truly enjoys such a challenge is purely a matter of twisted taste. However, in light of all this, I feel one can easily overlook something essential if one solely accuses those games of being too difficult only to extend gameplay hours.


Firstly, the games, difficult as they were, demanded the player to become better at the game. Like any other sport or hobby, the player could advance only as far as he was trained in playing the game. The more you played, the better you'd get and the farther you'd advance. However, one could, and perhaps should, make the argument that such a mentality is better suited for competitive games involving player vs player gameplay, and games such as League of Legends in a way owe themselves much more to games like chess rather than Battletoads. Nevertheless, one cannot say that it is a perfectly bad idea to have your players first become good at playing your game before letting them advance. To say such a thing would logically imply that you do not want players to take your game seriously in the first place, and no immersion can come from that. Immersion comes from concentration and dedication (among other things); it is that unconscious space that the Archer enters when drawing breath, focusing his sight on the bullseye, perfectly similar to the concentration level of a skilled Ikaruga gamer.


Secondly, entertainment such as literature and movies have always tried to achieve immersion by making us squirm in anticipation, making us guess, fear and hope for what's about to come. This is where the NES-games delivered in spades, as many gamers of those days can recall the leg twitching and heart thumping moments where one knew that a single misstep might be ones undoing. At these moments, the player became one with the controller; he'd hold on to the controller like his life depended on it. The player just sat there, absorbed, knowing that the one health he had was a mere second from bringing him to a sad Game Over screen. Fear of punishment? Perhaps. Total immersion? Certainly. It bears resemblance to the thought and writing process of George R.R. Martin, the renowned author of the mega-selling Game of Thrones, whom often stated that the readers fear of losing their favorite character is a main selling point of his creation. Like the NES-games, he wants to state that in his books no-one is safe and that anyone can die, and those who have played Mega Man since the beginning have seen their hero die over and over again. Without this kind of fear, that is, the sense that one actually might lose, there can be no such immersion either.


Whether this is the only correct way to achieve immersion in video games is highly questionable, and some gamers might actually prefer a solid story rather than an excruciatingly difficult game. It also should be noted that some games of the NES-era managed to pull off a challenging difficulty far better than others (in some games the punishing factor deduced the potential for immersion). Yet of some gamers, and developers alike, I would like to ask: wouldn't you rather prefer a story where you fought alongside the main character, aiding him to become the hero of the story by overcoming difficult obstacles which themselves proved as much of a challenge to you, the player, as the protagonist in the story? I can think of no better way to convey the troubles and problems of the protagonist than delivering it through just as difficult gameplay. Some games, but hardly all, seem to have forgotten about this link that the NES-era games created; our protagonists are being impaled on spikes and burned alive, while we are multitasking by reading our email, eating, and mashing the X-button, almost indifferent to what happens in the game, just to proceed to the next level or retrieving our quest reward or something alike.


At so many times have I read and heard about terms such as “narration through gameplay” and other extremely good approaches to the development of video games. But perhaps the NES-era of punishing games already managed to convey a different sort of narration: narration through difficulty?

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