Difficulty in retro gaming (and gaming in general).

#1

To set up the discussion about difficulty in video games, I’d like to take a look at two games I played back to back, and how it affected me. It’s long winded, but I’ll try to keep it interesting.

I recently finished Mega Man 1 for the first time. No emulation or save states, and I didn’t look up any tips, tricks, or glitches. I fought tooth and nail and learned the patterns of the bosses, and I absolutely loved it.

Once I was done, I started right in on the all-fabled Mega Man 2. I was immediately disappointed… let’s talk about why.


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At its core, I know Mega Man 2 is a better game. It has more complicated enemy design, better levels, better graphics, and more varied special weapons. The controls are less slippery and feel super tight. It also lacks a lot (not all, though) of that cheap artificial difficulty that’s derived from poor hit-boxes, unfair challenges, and huge difficulty spikes. Capcom learned a lot about development on the NES when they were making Mega Man 1, and it shows.

So what happened?

When I first started playing Mega Man 1, the very first enemies on the Cut Man stage (Bunby Heli) kicked my ass. What the fuck? How am I supposed to kill them when they dive right at my face?! A few screens later, I was getting knocked off of ladders by erratic bullets from the red Blasters. Slowly I figured things out, I got better and memorized the patterns of the enemies. I got to Cut Man, and he whooped my ass. He was jumping all over, landing on my head, flinging his weapon at me. It took probably 4-5 tries, but I got him! I was now excited to continue on to the next stage. I eventually figured out that Elec Man isn’t actually utterly impossible, you just need to hit him with the Cut weapon (that took about 20 attempts of frustration before giving up and trying out all the weapons). I felt comfortable in killing most of the bosses, and I was ready for the end game boss. I’m coming for you Dr. Wily!

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I felt I was getting the hang of things. I had this game figured out. When I worked my way through the next stage, and saw the Yellow Devil, I was sure he was the final boss. Twenty or so attempts later, I had him! I killed the end boss and was ready to see the credits roll!

Nope. Little did I know that there were full on Robot Master gauntlets waiting for me, a copy of myself that will ruin my day, and even more difficult levels. There was a final trial designed to soften you up like a pillow before you face Dr. Wily.

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By the time I finished the game, my 4 year old that had been watching me play was humming along with the music in the game. I jumped up and screamed when I finished the game, and scared the crap out of him. I was standing and fist pumping like I just scored the game winning goal in game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals.

Mega Man 1 sets you up to fail initially, but gives you all the tools to succeed. This difficulty is baked in, and you have no choice to endure. If you can’t figure out Yellow Devil, too bad… you will never see the end of the game. There is no difficulty setting, and it’s not shy about messing you up right out of the gate. Mega Man 1 says “Here I am, you son of a bitch! Come at me!”.


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Understandably, I was excited to get to Mega Man 2. It’s also understandable that I was disappointed. Coming off the back of Mega Man 1 and the expectation that it had set, I set the difficulty level to “Normal”. I flew through the first three bosses without a single death. What the hell is going on? What did they do? I restarted on “Difficult” setting and didn’t notice much difference. I was still flying through the stages, especially if I used the Metal Blade for everything. I could shoot in 8 directions, do more damage than the Buster, and I was getting enough power ups that I didn’t even run out of energy. I found myself putting the Metal Blade away to artificially increase the difficulty. Refreshingly, Air Man kicked my ass for a while.

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Mega Man 2 felt smoooooth. It looked and played fantastic. The music is incredible and lives up to all the hype! It was a marked improvement in 1 in almost every way, but I still didn’t enjoy it in the same way. The sense of uneasiness when you approach a boss that has crushed you previously, is sadly missing.

Later on the difficulty spikes in really odd ways. Enemies that seemingly hit you no matter what you do. Why was there a Sniper Joe in a hallway where you can’t jump his bullets?

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Why did I find myself in a spot where I need special weapons to continue, but I didn’t have enough power to pass the area? I was running back a few screens to a spot where I could farm Weapon Energy. That’s no fun… the game had created situations that made me feel like it was purposely cheating me out of health, to artificially make the upcoming boss more difficult.


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Let’s look at the the mid-game bosses. Yellow Devil vs, Mecha Dragon, as I feel it showcases a great comparison that sums up the entire experience of each game.

Yellow Devil is deceptively simple. Right from the onset, you’re bombarded with yellow blocks flying into you, doing major damage. You don’t know the pattern and it’s ripping you apart. He finally finishes building himself, then fires a SINGLE SHOT. No time to rest, WHAM, you’re hit with another yellow chunk as he spans the screen in pieces to the other side, repeating his method of building himself in pieces. How the hell am I supposed to dodge all this?! He only has one attack, but he’s destroying me! You spend time trying to learn the pattern… is it better to take one hit and try and stand behind him? No… that didn’t work. He will kick your ass until you learn what you need to do. You need a certain amount of dexterity to kill him. It takes patience, skill, and if you can’t figure it out, the rest of the game is off limits.

Mecha Dragon is set up beautifully with a really interesting auto-scrolling section, where you’re being chased by a giant dragon. The blocks are getting destroyed under your feet, and you’re running for your life! The screen stops the auto-scroll, and the fight begins. The build up to the fight is executed so well, and you’re standing on a block over a void… this is amazing! What happens next, is you figure out the simple firing pattern one one attempt, get him to 1/3rd life before he kills you. Jump up when he fires low, jump down when he fires high. Your next attempt you kill him with ease. Oh… that was a lot easier than you expected.


I’m no elitist. I believe people will play and enjoy games in whatever way they want. If you want to play easy games (I do as well), relax and have a good time to unwind, you should do so. Some of the best gaming experiences I have ever had were so-called “Walking simulators” and games with vast worlds to just explore and experience.

I think of game difficulty as three categories.

Organic Difficulty, well done. ie: Mega Man 1 (NES)

  • Game developers should set up the difficulty to be a learning arch that rises and moulds your skills as you play. Difficulty should build trust in a way that proves itself. “I can do this, I know it’s possible, I just need to figure it out!” If I look back at the games that I have thoroughly enjoyed in the past, a large number of difficult games stand out to me. I think when it’s done right, a good amount of difficulty will set you up for a much more enjoyable experience. By the time you get to the end of the game, you have a set of tools and skills at your disposal, and the bosses should be testing you on all of that. If you throw a person that’s new to the game right into the end of the game, they should get their asses handed to them. When I completed the game I wanted to shout from the rooftops and tell the world about my accomplishment, and it actually felt like a real accomplishment.

Fabricated Difficulty, poorly done. ie: TMNT (NES)

  • Regarded as one of the most difficult games on the NES, the difficulty in the first TMNT game is often set up to make you fail. You fail and fail, and start to believe this section of the game is impossible. The game didn’t set you up properly to deal with the spike in difficulty, and you feel cheated. “That jump is impossible! How do I get through this section in the water without getting stung by the plants!?” This is the easy way out for developers, and I often feel like it’s used far too frequently. Games like this can still be rewarding, but if the game fabricates difficulty with cheap tactics, one-hit deaths, or by generally being unfair, it’s a different feeling altogether. You feel like your efforts are a waste, and when you do complete that tough section, you’re often met with anger of having to endure what the game put you through, instead of a victory dance with finger guns and a satisfactory sip of your drink.

Lack of Difficulty, not always bad, but it can be. ie: Mega Man 2 (NES)

  • A lack of difficulty can result in a rewarding, relaxing experience. Certain games are meant to be fun and engaging, instead of punishingly difficult. Kirby games are meant for a younger crowd, and they are not shy about the fact that they can be very easy. Story driven games are all about the narrative. Minecraft is about exploration, discovery, and hoarding double-chests full of gravel for no reason. Mega Man 2 is a sequel, and as such, carries an expectation to test their players. When the game design and graphics take a front seat, and the difficulty is not addressed correctly, the player is left with an empty feeling. Breezing through a game that you expect to be difficult, overshadows the action and fun of the game, souring the user’s perception of the game. I honestly feel like if I hadn’t first played Mega Man 1 first, I would have enjoyed Mega Man 2 more than I did. The only caveat being the parts where I ended up having to travel backwards to farm Weapon Energy. “Is there a way to unlock a more difficult mode? I’m going to be done this game in a couple of hours!”

What are your thoughts on difficulty?
Do you enjoy difficult games?
What games do you think are unfair with their difficulty curve?
What games do you think nailed their difficulty perfectly?

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#2

I agree with you 100% on TMNT NES for it’s difficulty. I do love difficult games, but mostly when it’s done right. I play a lot of them as well.

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#3

I don’t like difficult games, I never have, I feel like I don’t have the time to waste continually dying and becoming increasingly angry.
I have tried Mega man before but I have never enjoyed it, I feel the same way about ghosts n goblins.
I did spend a crazy amount of time playing TMNT on the NES in the 90’s, it is a hard game, but I really enjoyed it, we used to take turns, 4 of us would pick 1 turtle each and play with that character until we ran out of energy, I think that made it more enjoyable as we all tried our best to keep our individual character alive. I still remember the first time we cleared the bomb defusing dam level with all 4 turtles still alive!

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#4

I do love the Ninja Gaiden NES games as well and beat them, but man they are difficult. The 3rd one is the worst due to increased enemy damage output and limited continues.

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#5

I agree that Mega Man 1 > Mega Man 2. It’s a controversial opinion apparently, but I think you summed up why rather well

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#6

For turtles from best to worst it goes Donatello>Leonardo>Michelangelo>Raphael. I feel sorry for anyone using Ralph(and Michelangelo to an extent) unless you have scrolls!

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#7

Yes! Everyone wanted to be Donatello to be able to kill enemies from above and below!

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#8

Yep, Leonardo can do that too, but not as well as Donatello.

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#9

That does sound like a lot of fun.

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#10

I enjoy difficult games but they have to hit that special balance of being fair at the same time.

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#11

The older I get the less interest I have in games that are difficult for the sake of being difficult (and I just bought Sekiro so apparently I’m a hypocrite). Generally speaking I don’t have the time or interest in bashing my head against a difficulty wall over and over as I try to progress.

Worse are the games where they are not only difficult, but come across as feeling unfair as well.

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#12

Regarding arcade games which I consider myself a fan:

Its an unfortunate fact about arcade gaming that a lot of games with potential are marred or ruined by the need to extract quarters from the player. It’s pretty obvious in some late 80’s and early 90’s titles.

The best arcade games have a learning curve and allow you to fight fairly for that quarter, and there’s plenty of them. Sometimes that gets lost in this internet world of instant gratification and black or white opinions. But those who think all arcade games are unfair are generally idiots and we don’t listen to them anyway.

I do believe that initial difficulty level is why the classic generation of arcade is still fairly popular; people like a challenge and like the accomplishment of getting good at something, which can be said is missing from modern gaming.

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#13

I’m a fan of hard-but-fair too. I think a lot of it comes down to level design.

There’s a noticeable difference between a challenge which almost wholly relies on memorisation and one which gives you wiggle room to try something new each time you attempt it. In the former case the margin for improvisation is so slim that you are really just brute forcing a very specific set of inputs to overcome a boss fight or level.

That’s why the “ultra hard” levels you see made in games like Mario Maker aren’t really that difficult to make, the creator knows the exact timings for each section of the level that the player has to carry out, then it’s just a case of replaying said level over and over until the player has the inputs in memory. Not really the kind of difficulty that actually respects your time - I find clearing memorisation-heavy sequences like that gives me relief that it’s over, but not satisfaction.

If there are mechanics or enemies or rules to learn to better yourself in different contexts - something shmups are great at - I’m all for it. Or if the game gives you enough space to improvise each time, I’m all for that too.

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#14

Many arcade games are just designed to take quarters, but yes a lot are doable for 1CC though they tend to require doing tactics that you wouldn’t normally do. Since various parts of them in those games are designed to simply kill you, players would often find an exploit or a strategy that makes it possible to get by those sections. In fact, various games are nearly impossible to 1CC without doing those things. I still agree with you though and that’s true about modern gaming.

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#15

I am actually a fan of games that rely on memorization for most of their difficulty. A good example of this is Contra: Hard Corps (and this may also go for more Contra games, but I’m less familiar). That game is like 99% memorization outside of a few sections. As you practice, you are training yourself to identify and react to each part and once you get it, you are just so laser-focused you zen-out and I love that feeling. Of course like any mechanic, it can be done well or poorly.

On a semi-related note, I am also a fan of the lives/continue system. This is the #1 feature separating modern games and most retro ones. I’m not as big a fan of games that balance things to be difficult only in 3-4 minute intervals and are designed for you to retry the same short section 20 times before hitting the next checkpoint, with infinite tries and near-instant reloading. There is no payoff, no tension. Mess up on the boss 10 times in a row? No sweat, just try again in 20 seconds. Fail to make it through the level 100 times? That’s okay, just make it through once and get a checkpoint immediately! This is basically playing NES Games with save states at the beginning of every screen, and I think is a detriment to truly great game design/balance.

That said I’m a fan of games that use both systems, and I know many people find the limited lives feature archaic and cheap, I just have my preference. Of course slapping a 3 lives/3 continues system on these games wouldn’t be very satisfying, but in my opinion, with proper balancing, it would crank up the tension and make for a better experience.

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#16

I agree with everything you said. Limited lives/continues encourages you to get better at the game so it can be more rewarding when you beat it. And yeah, Contra Hard Corps and other Contra games are like that, I definitely want to do a playthrough of Contra Hard Corps as well.

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#17

Well said. Those who say “lives are pointless” or some sort of arcade relic just seem to be missing the point in my humble opinion.

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