As the fat, mustachioed red and blue plumber slimed his sweaty corpse down the final flagpole of New Super Mario Bros. U and repeated one of his numerous catchphrases, I flung my aching arms up into the sky in celebration: I had finally finished the stupid secret Superstar levels (at 4:13am, I might add with a yawn). And by ‘stupid’, I mean infuriatingly brilliant and decidedly challenging: the good kind of stupid, not the “Let’s split up and explore the abandoned mental hospital on this stormy, Halloween night” kind of stupid. The whole experience took me back to playing Super Mario Bros. 3 as a child, where I’d spend what felt like years attempting the beat the war-torn levels of the ominously named Dark Land, and feeling like I’d really achieved something thereafter, aside from a stack of snapped-in-half NES pads…

The whole event got me thinking. Sure, the last 8 levels were fairly punishing at times – I’m not counting the final 9th level: it’s more of a funfair than a level, and doesn’t offer the same challenge – but the rest of the game was, for the most part, a stroll in a goomba-ridden park. And whilst I understand Mario games are child-friendly things (with a difficulty setting that even Baby Peach with one finger up her nose could enjoy), it made me think back to games between the 80s and late 90s: games like Mega Man, Super Star Wars, Resident EvilZelda II, Battletoads, and the early Final Fantasy games. Aside from Resident Evil, these games, like Mario, were designed for all ages, but had one very distinct difference: they made you bleed from your very soul with how hard they were. Blistered palms and raw thumbs aplenty, these games made you work for your pay-off – if you ever actually achieved one. Even your standard games, such as Pokémon Red/BlueDonkey Kong CountrySonic the Hedgehog, or Tomb Raider gave even a seasoned gamer quite the challenge; simply put: they didn’t let you win, you had to earn each and every victory.

Difficulty Settings
Some things are better off being lost! The Lost Levels were ‘lost’ for a good reason…


Recently, I’ve found that video games just don’t challenge people in quite the same way. Personally, I guessed that I’d maybe improved in my gaming skills – I am, after all, now a ninja – but when going back and revisiting some of the older games that line my dusty shelves, I still find the same element of challenge that I always found, which is something I simply don’t get from my more modern collection. The campaigns in most of the Call of Duty series barely raise my heartbeat; modern outings for platformers and adventure games like Ratchet and Clank, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Super Mario don’t quite offer the same sucker-punch they used to; and even the new GTA felt a touch too simple – what happened on the way up? Aside from the odd exception, video games were never brutal but, instead, encouraged you to get better and utilise what you’d learnt as you progressed: it was this compelling difficulty arc that made completing a game so satisfying. End bosses were terrifying, life-altering fiends; the last race was a white-knuckle, adrenaline-junky’s dream; and the final level would be controller-lobbingly ludicrous and laborious – in the best kind of way. But nowadays…

Difficulty Setting
Look at them. Having ‘quality family time’. Pfft…


Nowadays, video gaming has become a much more family-friendly affair. With the inception of the Wii and Nintendo DS, and with the copycat attempts of Kinect and Move, granny and grandkids alike were all wanting a slice of the gaming pie, and maybe this is part of the reason why games seemingly got easier. Games with fewer button combos, less moves to learn, and an easier overall difficulty translate into a greater mass-market appeal, and this means more money in the pockets of the publishers and designers – I get that. But granny also likes bingo, and grandkids also like sticking Lego in their nostrils, whereas gamers…well, we like games. Good games. Challenging, well-made, anger-inducing games. And, thankfully, amidst the fog of fart-worthy titles that stain the very systems they spin on, there are a few saviours left that remind us games can still make you want to bite your controller in half. Games like Super Meat Boy (which is pure evil and forces you to re-watch EVERY SINGLE DEATH once you’ve finally finished each level); God of War 3 (which inspires even the most religious of us to swear like a drunken Scotsman); Dark Souls (which wants you to die repeatedly until you learn that death is inevitable); and Zombi U (which, when you play it properly, makes you long for a real zombie apocalypse, as that would actually be easier to survive!).

Difficulty Setting


Ultimately, it seems that video gaming is now in an easier, more chilled out location. Australia, perhaps. Gone are the days of games that literally laughed at your suffering whilst skinning your loved ones alive, but maybe that has more to do with improvements surrounding in-game ‘balance’ rather than anything else. After all, if a game is too tough or ‘unfair’, the player may give in and resent the game in general, and if a game is too easy…well…the gamers write articles about their frustration online and nothing really changes (…go me!). But that is honestly a plus side to this decline in challenging gaming, as we avoid revisiting such monsters as Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels or Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, which spawned enemies at random, patternless intervals, and were downright cruel. So maybe I’m not asking for programmers to load the dice in this way again: games are actually more enjoyable when they’re possible to complete, but I hope that those with the coding and decision-making tools remember that including a ‘Difficulty’ option isn’t a waste of time. Instead, having the choice to crank the game up to ‘Extreme’ is a nod to those of us who still like to shout at inanimate rectangles and help our not-actually-real characters to the finish line…even if in the end, all we get is a pixelated Game Over screen…

Which games have you found too easy or too hard? Do you wish modern games were tougher?
Sound off in the comments below!

Difficulty Setting

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