Let’s get difficult, difficult
Sitting on my desk right now are unopened copies of Bloodborne and Dark Souls 2. Having just got a PlayStation 4, I’m playing a bit of catch up with some of the games I’ve missed over its life. I’ve never played a Dark Souls game. In fact, I can’t name a FromSoftware game I’ve played off the top of my head. But I’ve always wanted to play the products they make because I am in great need of a real challenge.
Gaming has, either through design or through my years of training, become too breezy of an experience for me. Playing against others is always good for a challenge, but it’s been years since a single-player experience made me want to cry and give up. In fact, it’s been more than 20 years because no game made me want to give up the hobby forever more than Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
I lost count of how many lives I lost playing this game, how many times I had to break out the Game Genie to get past a level. Every step I took in that game put me closer to death with far too many enemies on the screen for me to handle. It’s a twitchy experience I spent plenty of weekends trying to conquer, but every time I rented it I found it to be a total waste of money. It made me want to hate Star Wars years before Jar Jar Binks did.
Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back is my white whale, and it’s impossible compared to the walks in the park listed below.
Being a tank in an MMO is probably the hardest thing I’ve done in a video game to date.
No, I’m not talking so much about the raid content itself (though depending on the patch/whether or not you were going for world/server-first [the latter in the above case], I could), but the act of tanking. Not only do you have to do your job flawlessly to protect the rest of the group from being demolished by the boss, but as a tank, you’re generally going to be shot-calling too. Like any good shot-caller in any competitive activity you have to know each encounter inside and out, call what’s coming up, call for people who are out of place, and just plain tell people what to do occasionally. Not all tanks are shot-callers but they set the tone of the raid. If they don’t properly position a boss, grab an add perfectly, or effectively manage their cooldowns, it doesn’t matter how many heals hit you, the group is going down. While healers often get blamed first for wipes, the tanks low key put each run on their shoulders.
Given that tanks are generally guild/static group leaders (every one of my statics since 2009 has had this arrangement), they also have the full-time job of wrangling together 8(FFXIV)-25 (WoW) folks every week and ensuring that everyone is up on their class. It’s exhausting, fun, and most of all, hard.
[Ed — I raid as Scholar too, Pixie, so I know the pain!]
I seriously don’t ever remember anything. Ever. I forget important appointments, birthdays, passwords – you name it, and my brain will fail me when the time comes. What I do remember is the first time I said the word “fuck.” I hadn’t even heard that word at that point of my life, but for some reason, I knew exactly when and how to use it. Little five-year-old Wes began his illustrious career in cursing while playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for NES.
I know I’ve written about it before. There’s a good reason for that: This game sucks. It super sucks. Most horrific water level of all time aside, this game is fucking punishing, and not intentionally. Out of the four turtles, only Leo and Donny give you any chance at all of defeating enemies, as their weapons have the reach necessary to avoid taking damage while trying to attack. Hell, their weapons even pass over walls and ceilings, so you can often mitigate some of the threat before it becomes an issue. But if you lose either of them, you’re intensely and immediately fucked. Like, Ryan-Gosling-during-a-power-outage-over-at-my-place-while-my-wife-is-out-of-town levels of totally fucked. That’s equal parts shitty game design that I can’t play as Raph (who is cool but kinda rude) or Mikey (total party dude!) because they’re so hilariously useless as characters and a total disregard for the legions of kids like me playing this game because they loved the cartoon. (Now I know the Turtles started as a comic series, but I feel comfortable in saying their widespread appeal came from the cartoon, so I’m speaking as a fan of the latter.)
What was harder than the game itself was the loss of innocence you had to confront at such an early age. In the cartoon the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were heroes; they always beat the bad guys, and they always had a great time doing it. Playing this game knowing nothing but the victory and triumph of the heroes from the cartoon show made me see my idols at their worst, at their lowest point. Not only could they not help others – they couldn’t even help themselves. Seeing my heroes get killed time and time again by weird jumping frogs and floating starfish things and underwater bombs and lack of fucking oxygen put this weird perspective on shit that I think sticks with me even to this day. No matter how hard you try, you’re going to one day die. That’s a tough pill to swallow at five years old, man.
Are there more traditionally difficult games? Sure. Games with worse mechanics that better guarantee your ultimate failure? Absolutely. But this broke me. TMNT made sure that from an early age, I knew failure was an inevitability in life.
I’d like to say I came out on top in the end, but some twenty-five years later I still haven’t made it past that goddamned water level. Good thing I’ve come to accept that the good guy doesn’t always win.
There’s so much talk of modern games when it comes to difficulty, but the era that always kicked my ass was the golden age of the arcade, custom designed to kill you repeatedly and eat up all of your pocket money before you could spend it on penny-whistles and moon pies. Whenever I revisit those games today, most of them I can get down no problem. Sometimes it takes me more credits than I care to admit, but they generally fall to me with persistence.
There are a whole bunch, however, that I’ve never beaten and probably never will. Of this selection of archaic nightmares, I’m choosing Capcom’s Gun.Smoke as the representative. Essentially a shmup disguised as a land-based wild-west adventure, Gun.Smoke is painfully hard. The player’s sheriff character auto-scrolls vertically through various old western settings on a quest to round up a bunch of varmints, by “round up” I, of course, mean “slaughter.”
You push through increasingly harder levels and boss fights, unable to stand still, take cover, or even fire in all eight directions. If someone gets behind you, you’re basically done. Our hero drops dead from just a single shot, before being pulled back to a point earlier in the level. A horse sometimes shows up to increase your speed and even take a bullet for you, but you’re generally surrounded, out-manned and out-gunned for the entirety of the game. Your bullets don’t even travel the full length of the screen, forcing you to go toe-to-toe with most of the enemies. How the game expects you to deal with fucking ninjas I don’t know.
So, of all the arcades that still give me ‘Nam-style flashbacks, I’ll go with Gun.Smoke as the one that I genuinely think I may never complete before I wind up on Boot Hill myself.
So, for the record, fuck Battletoads. I will never beat it, period. I’ve accepted this. I can get close to the end, but it’s just insurmountable. Oh well.
Tetris is the hardest game I have ever played. Mostly because I have been playing it since I’ve been a little kid and although I’ve gotten good over the years, there is just a hump I can’t overcome to get into that higher echelon of play. I competed at a local Tetris tournament and set one of the lowest high scores, despite being able to consistently get high ones at home, due to the pressure. I’m not bad at Tetris. The picture above is my best high score on the Game Boy version. But to get skilled enough to reach top tier play is an insane challenge. I have the utmost respect for top level players. It’s a brutal, amazing game.
Calling something the “hardest” game ever doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. There are so many different genres that each tackle different facets of game design that any one person can find a “difficult” game easy and a “simple” game hard. In that regard, I once thought the Souls series was particularly hard until I started to understand the philosophy behind its design and I properly acquainted myself to its challenge.
I’ve completed a bunch of games that people would consider hard. I tend to go for harder games just because easy ones don’t really pose a challenge to me. The advent of the achievement system on Xbox 360 made me start playing everything on “Hardest,” so I’ve kind of just gotten used to easier games being a total breeze.
So, I guess before that happened and I became some hardened gaming veteran, one of the hardest games I had ever completed was Ninja Gaiden on the original Xbox. While I still never bested “Very Hard” or “Master Ninja” mode, I finished the game on Normal and Hard and it took me literal weeks to reach the ending. To do so, I had to truly understand the combo system, learn when best to dodge and acquire a whole heap of patience for when to execute attacks.
Sure, some of the design isn’t flawless (the camera control is horseshit) and the balancing is out of whack (the level seven boss is one of the most difficult in the game), but the game gives you ample tools to dispose your foes with; the only thing stopping you was your own skill. As such, every level is a test of that skill and will continuously kick the shit out of you until you nut up.
I still joke about the fucking ghost fish to my friend, because my first encounter with them ended with me swiftly being devoured. It just seems like everything is out to destroy you in Ninja Gaiden, which doesn’t get easier when the enemy ninjas acquire explosive kunai. Hell, the first boss is tough and he’s supposed to be a tutorial. God, this game never wants you to take it easy and I think that is why I love it so much.
The first time I really played Super Meat Boy was during a snowstorm while I was trapped at my friend’s house for three days. For that entire three days, we did nothing but play Super Meat Boy and drink excessive amounts of alcohol. It was amazing. We’d pass the controller each time we died, and we died a fucking lot! The rush of excitement that came with each completed stage was absolute bliss though. We’d throw our hands into the air while screaming with delight, take a drink, and then get right back to work on the next one.
At one point during the third day, I looked over at my friend, and there was blood dripping down his face. He had gotten so stressed out, during a particularly brutal loss, that he got a damn nosebleed! I suggested something along the lines of, “maybe we should take a break?”
“NO!”, he immediately snarled at me. “We’re fucking doing this!”, he snapped, as he thrust the controller into my hands. I grinned, turned to the screen, and continued our masochistic death march. My friend wiped the blood off of his face, and we went on to beat the game that very night.
No game has ever made me shake with rage like Furi. The boss rush mode focused game released for free on PlayStation Plus back in December of 2016 and I was instantly hooked. You play as a styling swordsman and face off against shoguns, robots, and other strange adversaries all to escape your prison.
It had been years since I threw a controller, but Furi got me there. The worst part of it all? It never felt unfair, Furi is simply super challenging and hard to master. To this day I’ve still never made it passed boss number four. I pick it up now and again but probably never will.
Pixie The Fairy
When I chimed in on this topic in the email thread I asserted playing healers in MMOs was the hardest thing to do in a video game, which prompted Chris to say tanking/shot-calling was harder.
Currently, tanking is my big focus in Final Fantasy XIV and the goal of that job is to make enemies hate you so they don’t hit the squishier members of the group.
So there I have to gauge a group’s ability and start grabbing packs of monsters based on the first couple of pulls. Sharing boss strategies other members might not be privy to, doing things that continue to get me hit, reducing the pain of said hits and hurting enemies back in kind is what my Warrior does every day. Such is the life of one of the least squishy people in the game.
When I play any healer, though, I become the squishiest person in the group. I’m charged with keeping everyone alive while they get hit by things, casting out healing spells and status cures while also seeking to buff their abilities and possibility mitigate incoming hits. If I’m lucky, I get to toss out some hurt to the enemies as well.
Enemies are also programmed to seek out the healer and, if possible, kill them first, so I have to place all my faith in the tank.
When you’re grouped with smart players, you get to play healer to your maximum potential. Sadly, you do not always get grouped up with smart people who have been learning gameplay mechanics and updating their gear. Instead, you get dumb people delighted to ignore you if you dare try to guide them toward the light of knowledge. Said dumb people also refuse to update their armor and run away from Protect spells and other damage-mitigating barriers a healer might set down to aid the group. This is because they think all I do is push my MP into their HP bar to keep them alive
This can be a real strain on the healer because it makes the job a reductive experience rather than productive. When the tank hasn’t upgraded his gear in twenty levels or a DPS goes lone wolf on a target that the tank didn’t pull, they have reduced my experience to simply mashing Cure. And my efforts may not be enough if an under geared group tries to bite off more than they can chew, which means I get blamed for their inevitable deaths.
Then you have the Genjis. You know, the players that wail at you to be healed when they only took a tiny sliver of damage and they have also run well outside of your casting range. I’m not chasing your ass down if you don’t stay on the objective in PvP just like my Mercy won’t if you’re not near the payload in Overwatch.
And then there’s the act of triage. When multiple people die and groups balloon to bigger sizes, healers are tasked with maintaining those still living while deciding who should be revived first. The tanks are priority #1, followed by the other healer and then what DPS is revived depends on what they bring to the table. These days in Final Fantasy XIV, one might revive a Red Mage ahead of the other healer since they can easily raise two dead people in rapid succession for what small support skills they have. Monk, Samurai, and Dragoon will have to eat floor until everyone else is back up and running.
My Monk never takes that personally, by the way.
Healer is a far more complicated role than most are willing to admit. Not only does it require faith in others to do their jobs properly, but also still keeping that faith to the end. It requires you to be the calm within the storm, to keep your head on when shit hits the fan and to endure tremendous stupidity.
Anyone can be a shot-caller. I’ve done that as a tank, healer support and DPS across many games. That just comes with experience within a game and a willingness to lead. It’s not a trait exclusive to a particular job class. Tanks are just stereotyped as leaders.
Not everyone can be a tank or healer because it requires faith and trust in others. Sometimes it’s the staff, codex or globe that feels like the heavier burden to carry than my axe, sword or shield.
But I have people I believe in, so the burden isn’t always bad.
I have to hand it to our staff. A whole article devoted to difficult games and it didn’t devolve into a list of nothing but shmups.