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Difficult games: The real brain training

10:01 AM on 11.07.2007 // Leigh Alexander

I beat that damn werewolf.

I complained recently that the current era's intuitive, "easy" games might have blunted my legendary, meticulously-honed gamer skillz of old, like a one-time champ who's over the hill. A little backstory on the complaint: before picking up Dracula X Chronicles, the games I played most recently were Dawn of Sorrow, Portrait of Ruin, Phantom Hourglass and Zack & Wiki. Portrait in particular is my zone-out title of the moment; after dinner I lie on the couch for about twenty minutes or so, and I just kind of leap around the castle, whittling away at my goal of 1000% map completion, hoarding money and idly whipping succubi across their naked bosoms. Phantom Hourglass requires just a bit more attentiveness, unless I'm just up to my usual business of meticulously lawnmowing for Rupees. Take that, plants.

Let's go back to a time when zoning out brought us not cheerful relaxation amid tittering cuccos, but deadly violent werewolf death.

After I whined about Rondo's difficulty yesterday, a lot of readers at my blog and here on Destructoid offered feedback. Kindly, only a few of you mocked me. The general trend, though, was quite on-point. It isn't necessarily a question of easier or harder, but largely an issue of game design -- it was done different back then, is all; it required a different set of skills. Words like "twitch" and "mathematical" came up more than once, and I'll add "choreographed" to the mix. I realized that I set out trying to play Rondo in exactly the way I played Portrait -- I wanted to leap around whupping things for stress relief and distraction. But in Rondo, like all of the games of my youth, distraction is lethal. It's concentration you need.

Re-energized by yesterday's discussion, I made a resolution -- to play Rondo until I beat it. God knows how long that will take. After all, remember the old days? An eight-level action-platformer could take six to eight months of steady play and practice before it could be conquered, if ever. We had two things as kids that we don't have now -- a dearth of titles and a glut of time. Think of how small, say, the first Super Mario game is compared to, for example, Half-Life 2. If it were a simple matter to make it from one end of a level to the other, we'd have beat our childhood titles in a few hours, and then what would we have done?

It isn't as if there were nearly a fraction of the available titles back then that we have now, especially if you count that many of us, if not the majority, straddle multiple console generations. This idea of having several games on your wishlist launching in the same week is largely a newfangled convention; not to mention, as I somewhat recently recalled, that with vintage games being so relatively simple, we had only a few lines and screenshots in a game magazine on which to base said wishlists, not this six-to-eight month advance PR whirlwind, video trailers, interviews, wallpapers and official websites. When we got a game, it didn't even matter what it was -- even if our dumb elderly aunt gave us Mendel Palace or something equally incomprehensible, it was like, "cool! A VIDEOGAME!" We had no choice but to milk that title for all it was worth, and instead of zillions of hours of cutscenes and plot threads and extra modes, we had dense, difficult levels. The harder they were, the longer the game would last us.

So I took a fresh look at Rondo, embracing that it was impossible for me to spank my way through it the way I'd done with more recent titles. I endeavored to return, mentally, to the days when Continues were precious and few, when every enemy hit was a critical grievance, to an era where every step must be calculated and precise.

Then, a wonderful thing happened. I remembered.

I began to memorize levels, to arrange myself precisely on the same pixel time and time again to coordinate an attack. I accepted that I would fall, repeatedly, into the same gap, be slain again and again by the same boss. I realized that, yesterday, when I'd died so many times (where was my graceful leaping, my effortless succubus-spanking?) I'd presumed something was wrong, either with the game or with me. Now, I've got my memory back -- this is the way it's supposed to be.

Games can be challenging even when they are far more intuitive. But this kind of gameplay that engages every fiber of your concentration stirs old reflexes, wakes wrinkles in my brain that have been slumbering for years. Screw Brain Age, man. I'm gonna beat Rondo.

And lest you find yourself someday suffering the same humiliation as I recently endured, I highly recommend you all stay sharp by revisiting an old fave. Chill with some Ikaruga or something. What game have you never been able to master that you wish you could? 

Leigh Alexander,
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