The NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) is famous for many things, but mainly for two: single-handedly saving the videogame industry in 1985, and scarring a generation of kids with games that tested their will and determination. Those games tested players in ways that nowadays would seem vicious and cruel. In this article we're going to take a look at the reasons why they were so difficult, and the different ways that their difficulty varies from those of modern game experiences.
Back in the 1980s
Games from the late eighties didn't have the complexity of modern games in terms of visuals, game mechanics, controls and narrative. They had very limited color palettes, basic rule systems, a controller with few buttons, and short, simple stories.
Modern gamers want to play and finish a game for different reasons. Some play just to know how the story ends, even if the game's controls aren't great. But some games don't have an ending at all (such as Garry's Mod or early versions of Minecraft), so there are different ways to motivate today's players to keep going and eventually finish a game.
Back in the 80s most NES games' endings consisted of a black screen with the word "congratulation", so the motivation to finish a game wasn't even getting to know the ending of it - it was usually a desire to gain a feeling of accomplishment (and bragging rights) by attaining the amazing achievement of finishing a hard game.
This was a typical ending screen for a NES game, horrible spelling errors and all. (Ghostbusters, Activision 1998)
Why So Difficult?
To be honest, some retro games were difficult simply because they had poor controls and mediocre game design. But if we ignore those games and focus on the ones that had tight controls and were still difficult, then we end up with games that forced you to improve your skill, hand-eye coordination, memory, endurance and patience to almost inhuman levels. But why? Was there any reasoning behind those steep learning curves and unforgiving mechanics?
Well, on one hand there were the hardware constraints that game developers of that time had to tackle when making games for the NES: a very limited color palette of 52 shades, 32kb of ROM, 2kb of RAM, a processor with 1.7Mhz of power and a resolution of 256x224. With such limitations game creators had to craft lasting experiences with very little, so they decided the best way to do so was to extend play time and replayability by adding extra layers of difficulty to the game, forcing players to die over and over again. That way, even if developers could only fit ten levels in a cartridge, the game would feel longer because it would take the player more time to complete those levels.
On the other hand, we must consider the arcade mindset. Before consoles, arcade games ruled the world and console game developers drew inspiration from them, taking the gameplay experience from the cabinets to the consoles. Bear in mind that the purpose of arcade games was to have people pouring coins into them, so they were designed deliver a fast and engaging experience through high difficulty levels to make players pay more if they wanted to keep playing. This also explains why many people admire and respect Super Nintendo (SNES) games over NES games, because game creators started to develop their own style realizing that they had to lower the difficulty curve in order to make games more accessible.
And finally, the last reason on why retro games were so hard comes from Satoru Iwata (current president of Nintendo). In a special appearance he had on a Japanese TV show called Game Center CX he said:
Video games from that era are abnormally hard. Back in the NES generation, for example, let's say everyone debugs a game after it's finished. Everyone involved in the production would spend all night playing it, and because they made games, they became good at them. So these expert gamers made the games.
Modern Games vs. Old School Games
Games have changed over time to become more accessible to gamers and to give non-gamers the chance to play. The main problem with games that have a steep difficulty curve is that they can only reach a subset of the whole potential audience. That's why you will find that most games for mobile devices are casual and very easy to play; to turn every smartphone user into a gamer, you first have to start teaching him or her the basics via a very smooth experience.
Game mechanics have changed over time to give players more opportunities. Let's take a look at how:
Regenerating Health vs. Hit Points
Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 and Megaman
Back in the day, if you touched anything that moved, you died. If you were lucky the game featured a health meter that showed how many more hits you could take. Eventually you would find a game, like Megaman for example, where you had both: you have a health bar that gets depleted as you take damage from enemies, but if you touch a spike you die instantly.
These days, regenerating health has become an increasingly common standard in video games: when you are wounded you can recover your health by taking cover and waiting for your character to regenerate. This game mechanic is there to help allow faster paced gameplay where you have more chances to continue playing, and also to eliminate the need to keep picking up health packs, letting the player stay focused in the action.
Checkpoints vs. Long Endurance
Max Payne and Ghosts'n Goblins
Contemporary video game experiences include several ways to save your progress. This proves to be useful when trying to appeal to a wider audience - bear in mind that not anyone has the time to play a game for ten hours straight in order to beat it.
However, when this feature is used without restraint, it ends up dumbing down the pace of the game. Generally, eighties games had to be beaten in one sitting, and if you couldn't, you had to keep your console turned on and pray for it to still be untouched the next day so you could continue where you left off. One of the most famous examples of this was Contra, a game with eight areas that had to be beaten with only three continues - that means that you only had 12 lives to beat a game where a single bullets kills you. While playing Contra you realize that cheat codes were an act of mercy by the developers of those games.
Tip:Games like Contra made the Konami Code famous; this was a button sequence that granted you extra lives in those games, and has since popped up in all sorts of other places.
Instant Gratification vs Frustration
World of Warcraft and Ninja Gaiden
The most frustrating games from the NES era were definitely the 8-bit scrolling platformers, because even if you considered yourself an experienced platformer player you had no clue what to expect, which made each game extremely challenging and frustrating.
Ninja Gaiden had a mixture of those two factors, challenge and frustration. One of the most frustrating things about this game is that enemies knock you back when they hit you, so you are constantly falling into pits because a bird or any other enemy touched you in the middle of a jump.
There are some levels of frustration that are fun to have in a game, but if the player doesn't have enough patience, they will soon pick another game. You must ensure the player is the only one responsible for his defeat; if he feels that sloppy controls or unfair game mechanics are a factor for his Game Overs and not his ability to jump and dodge, he will be discouraged from playing. That's why games today apply instant gratification mechanics such as achievements and in-game rewards, because another game is just a couple of clicks away - unlike in the eighties where you only had a couple of cartridges and had to stick to them.
There's a Niche Market Out There...
I Wanna Be The Guy, a game where spikes kill you, clouds kill you and apples kill you.
For a long time, video games with high difficulty were completely forgotten by the industry and only lived in the memory of hardcore retro gamers. As modern video games with smooth difficulty curves took over and spoiled gamers with checkpoints, regenerating health and tutorials, some games did the complete opposite and started a trend that made the games that rewarded skilled players popular again.
I Wanna Be The Guy and Super Meat Boy deserve mentioning here, because (at least for me) they bring back the feeling of having to master a game using the same methods of the NES era. What's really interesting is that there's genuine interest in these types of games. There's a big market of players that enjoy challenging platformers
Arino "The Kacho" Shinya
If you google "Game Center CX" you can find a plethora of episodes
Arino Shinya is part of a Japanese comedy duo called "Yoiko", but in the last couple of years his gaming persona as "The Kacho" ("Section chief" in Japanese) has exceeded the fame he had before as a comedian.
Basically "The Kacho" is the host of Game Center CX (Known in the US as Retro Game Master), a Japanese TV show in which he attempts to beat extremely hard old games. This leads to very humorous and dramatic situations because he's not skilled at playing them; nevertheless, as you start to watch the episodes you develop a remarkable bond with this character as you see him struggle through tough situations.
"The Kacho" is the reason why I became interested in analysing difficulty in retro games. I've watched every single episode of Game Center CX and it's been a ride. I've cheered and I've cried watching this guy beating games in front of live audiences with sore thumbs and a cooling pad on his forehead. Even though the TV show started in 2003 and it's very popular in Japan, it has only recently been slowly catching the attention of foreign countries through international distributors.
Do It Yourself!
We've talked about many retro games and how they shaped the childhood of many with their extreme difficulty, but the best way to really understand them is to play them and endure their trials. Below you will find a short list of games that I consider to be "must plays" for someone that craves a lasting and challenging experience from the NES era.
Contra is a fast paced action game with great music and great controls that brought a very rich experience to a console that had great hardware limitations. The touch of a single bullet in Contra means defeat, so you have to be on the tip of your toes at all times.
Although it was not a commercial success, the original Megaman game spawned a franchise with an abundance of sequels and was also the first game were you could acquire the powers of the bosses you defeated. With tight controls and great platforming challenges, this game that left a mark in the eighties will test your muscle memory with all the attack patterns that you have to memorize in order to progress.
This game is considered one of the most difficult games of all time. This game is cruel and punishing. This game is the equivalent of hell.
What's funny about Battletoads is that when you ask a friend to help you out, the game becomes even more difficult than it already is, because a second player only hinders your progress. The most infamous level of this game is the wind tunnel.