Thursday, September 20, 2012


Some games just make you want to throw your controller at the wall.

Videogames weren't always this way. They didn't always mollycoddle you with 'easy' modes, automated save points, helpful tutorials and sissy automaps.

Oh, no. 

Back in the day, when videogames were meant for real men (and real women who were real men), one of those cheerful, bright and colourful 8-bit plastic cartridges could bring you to tears. Remember any of these names ? - Battletoads. Ninja Gaiden. Contra. Ghosts and Goblins. Mega Man. Ikaruga. Robotron. Yes? Then you probably also associate these with memories of aching thumbs, bruised egos and walls scarred with the marks of gamepads hitting them at considerable speeds.

Let's start with the infamous Contra, shall we? Three miserable lives is all you had [yes, yes, I know about the Konami Code. But that was for sissies.]. Three stinking lives to get through many hours of utterly devious level design, switching perspectives and relentless enemies raining a veritable bulletstorm around you. And guess what? One hit and you were dead. No namby-pamby shields or regenerating health bars to give you breathing space - you were a one-hit kill for your enemies. I think the first time I ever publicly said 'Fuck' was when I died for the 348th time in Contra. My parents have blamed videogames for my ongoing downfall ever since.

Or perhaps you'd prefer to talk about the maddening, superhuman coordination and reflexes demanded by that most badass of all shooters - Ikaruga? Your ship had two polarities - white and dark - between which you could switch at will. As did your enemies, and their bullets. Using two simple rules - you could be hurt by bullets of the same polarity, but you would do double damage on opponents of the opposite polarity - SEGA created a game of such beautiful complexity and difficulty that it is still spoken of as one of the hardest videogames of all time. You could either master Ikaruga, or you could have thumbs without calluses.  It was impossible to do both.

For the more strategy oriented masochists among us, there were also those deliciously brutal hack-n-slash dungeon crawlers, as they were called. Dungeon Master, Eye of The Beholder, NetHack. You'd spend hours painstakingly creating characters, giving them all sorts of skills and equipment to survive the deadliest of dungeons. Only to then get hopelessly lost in a labyrinth [games didn't have automaps back then - and unless you meticulously mapped the levels on pen and paper, you were doomed]. Or realize that you've misplaced a key that opens the gates to Level 21. These legendary dungeon-crawlers were renowned for taking delight in frustrating players in new and exciting ways every time they played. I once died a pathetic death at the hands of a lowly creature - because it was immune to magical and enhanced weapons, and all my weapons were in fact TOO POWERFUL to hurt it at all. I would have traded all my +5 Greatswords and Maces of Fire for a simple iron dagger at that point. Too bad there were none in sight (or in my inventory). Permadeath. Grrrrrr. Okay. Let's start over. This time - I'm keeping an iron dagger in my inventory for emergencies. And maybe I need a thief to backup my battle-mages . . .

Games back in those days lacked many features that make them so accessible today. No 'save' concept, for starters. If you died, and saw the dreaded GAME OVER screen, you started again from the very beginning. You had limited 'lives'. You had no tutorial levels - you had to actually read physical manuals to learn even the basic controls. You didn't have adjustable difficulty levels. Life was hard for gamers back then.

So why, then, do we insist on continue playing these games that mock our efforts to come to terms with their challenges? Why are we so willing to go through the humiliation of finding that our skills are so hopelessly inadequate that we're unable to do what, judging from their online boasts, other players accomplish quite easily?

Because, gentle readers, games are, at their very core, learning machines. And there's nothing that the human brain enjoys more than the mastery of a new skill. And, if you keep at Ikaruga or Contra long enough, you'll suddenly find that what was until now a seemingly impossible task is suddenly so easy, you are left wondering how you could possibly fail at it. It's beautiful, this thing that gamers call 'flow'. Suddenly, your mind sees a pattern reveal itself, solutions and strategies suddenly become obvious, and, before you know it, you're breezing through a series of challenges like a seasoned pro. "Look, n00bs, this is how it's done!" you sneer. The difficulty peels away, and you're flying (think of the first time you mastered riding a bicycle without trainer wheels). Until - BUMP! - you hit the next difficulty spike. And the process begins again.

The playing of difficult videogames is no different from any other sphere of human activity in which people attempt to master chellenges. In a sense, Contra, skydiving and cross-stitch are all the same. Okay, maybe not cross-stitch. 

Which is why difficult and hardcore videogames will never really go away. Recently, after a brief lull, they've made a great comeback. Dark Souls, Super Meat Boy,The Witcher 2, Trials HD and Legend of Grimrock are all modern games that have a retro core where difficulty is an integral part of the experience. These are games that offer the players the heady reward that only a truly challenging game can offer. Sure, you can complete Mass Effect 3 or Skyrim or Uncharted 3. But only the most hardcore of players can claim to have conquered Dark Souls or Trials HD. Legend of Grimrock even offers a 'hardcore mode' where it disables the automap. And you wouldn't know how to cast spells in the game unless you actually read the manual! How's that for retro? The ad campaign for Dark Souls featured a video commercial with the tag-line "You Will Die" - followed by a montage of different deaths a player can experience in the game. Old classics like Ikaruga and Radiant Silvergun are seeing re-releases on multiple platforms. The Indie development boom, combined with an ever-growing market of freshly-minted gamers looking for more hardcore challenges, has resulted in a mushrooming of difficult and hardcore games. Ironically, this is happening at a time when most publishers of big-budget blockbuster titles are all trying to done down the difficulty of their games to appeal to a wider audience. Lolwut?

So keep 'em coming, game developers! We need 'em hardcore and brutally hard games. We need the next Contra. The next Radiant Silvergun. The next NetHack. We need some good old fashioned difficulty - just to balance out the sissy stuff like Farmville, Angry Birds and Call of Duty.

Game Over.

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