I'm a bit of an arbitrary gamer. I mostly enjoy retro games, but not for the challenge. I like games to be a mix of a book and a movie in that they are visually stimulating but still allow the player to fill in the voices and other elements with their imagination. I'm weird and awkward, if you couldn't tell.
Outside of video games, my other great passion is music. I'd consider myself a metalhead because it is what I gravitate towards most, but I don't consign myself to any one genre or style of music. My collection also boasts healthy helpings of darkwave, visual kei, neofolk, neoclassical, classic rock, prog rock, classical, and of course, video game soundtracks, along with smatterings of whatever else has caught my attention.
My favorite games include:
Castlevania II, IV, Symphony of the Night
Cthulhu Saves the World
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
Final Fantasy IV, VI
Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon
Lords of Thunder
Megaman II, III, V, X
Rocket Knight Adventures
Seiken Densetsu series: from Final Fantasy Adventure to Legend of Mana
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories
Tales of Symphonia
Threads of Fate
Tower of Heaven
World of Goo
When it comes to challenge, the general thought drifts to terms such as the number of player lives/continues, enemy health, enemy AI, ease of control, whether or not the game has cheap shots, and the presence of broken gameplay (bad cameras, mechanics). Ultimately, challenge itself is in the eye of the player. All of the above are basically deterrents – a common argument against newer titles is that if you have enough time, you’ll get through it regardless of skill. But either way, you put in time, and how much a game succeeds in slowing you down is determined by your frustration threshold. I was only recently able to properly articulate the presence of such a thing by a couple of games – I’ll get to them later.
In the shortest terms, the threshold is the period of time a player stays with a game before declaring “fuck it!” and hurling the controller across the room. So what determines this breaking point? As stated prior, everyone has a different tolerance, but these tend to be the common factors:
Death Screens – with many games, the player doesn’t simply die and reappear. You are smacked in the face with a death screen, such as the flashing colors in Zelda II, Death’s piercing gaze as in Shadowgate, and probably the most discouraging, The Silver Surfer weeping in defeat. It’s basically the game pulling you aside and chiding you for dying. You already knew you had failed, and probably knew it a moment before death even occurred, but the game just has to get its say in the most jarring way possible. I always liken them to a comment once left on my old geocities website, which simply stated “YOU MIGHT DO IT BETTER DUDE”.
Those effing jetpack guys are made so much worse by hearing the musical equivalent of "OOPS YOU FELL DOWN!"
Death Rattles – More common than the debilitating death screen is the little tune that plays when you die, the best example of course being Super Mario Brothers. Ninja Gaiden’s is particularly long and caustic, as is Castlevania’s. Again, the cue is entirely unnecessary; you know you messed up, and hearing that little sequence every single time is akin to some irritating spectator. We’ve all had an annoying onlooker who just can’t help but add commentary to your gameplay, with exclamations like “oh that sucks”, “so close”, “it was a pit…” Or in other terms, it’s like hearing the horns from The Price is Right.
Both of these elements expedite the process of a player quitting, because there’s only so many times one can withstand hearing and/or seeing them before they crack. Some games even combine the two for maximum frustration. Goldeneye is a prime example – you get the long drawn out death song as the blood covers your view, then you’re shown a long death screen where your failure replays three times. Sure, you can skip the second sequence, but it always manages to squeeze in a second just to make sure you saw it.
What really made these elements stand out to me were the games that completely side-step them, and in exchange, present challenges that border on absurdity. Super Meat Boy, VVVVVV, and Tower of Heaven are perfect examples of this phenomenon. When you die in these games, there is no death chime, no death screen, and most important of all, the music does not stop. Streamlining the music through the death process was a stroke of genius. For me, music is a massive factor in gaming – I highly doubt I would have put up with all the times the Dragon killed me (or to be more accurate, all the times the auto-scroll killed me) in Mega Man II were it not for the rocking Dr. Wily theme.
The worst part of the aforementioned components is that they were so disturbing; they rip the player out of their concentration, forcing them to recollect or give up entirely. It’s like trying to see a Magic Eye poster, and some bastard kids come up and ruin it for you. Leaving it all behind allows these games to get away with such cruelty as Doing Things the Hard Way in VVVVVV or taking away the ability to walk left as in Tower of Heaven. Had any of these titles been equipped with even just a death theme, chances are good not nearly as many would complete them. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the games all have incredible soundtracks.
Look at this. LOOK AT THIS.
I experimented while writing this entry to test my theory. While playing Super Meat Boy, I had my iPod queued up with the death theme from Ninja Gaiden. When I would die, I played the theme, then exited back to the stage select screen. On an ordinary day, I’m liable to shout curses at Super Meat Boy, but still press onward. With this style of play, I gave up after a few attempts. Try it out sometime – if you’re anything like me, chances are good you’ll go insane with rage.
When I see this, I know it's all over.
Of course, some games have done the exact opposite. I’ve never beaten a bit.trip game, and can only finish the first level of Beat. The reason being is that you not only have to endure a death throe and a death screen, but the music breaks up whenever you make a mistake. For me, that’s the perfect combination to set my threshold unbearably low. I can complete Battletoads, I’ve finished Ikaruga (though not with one credit!), but toss a game at me where it’s designed to constantly poke and prod me whenever I do wrong, capped off with your paddle shrieking and a neon flashing death screen, and I crumble.