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Hard Games

written by Glyn Davies March 23, 2017

Videogames used to be really difficult. Nowadays you can complete the average console first person shooter in ten minutes. Glyn Davies celebrates the old days when video games made grown men cry and kept joystick manufacturers in business.

My mother often wondered just what the hell I saw in videogames, because as far as she could tell, all they ever did was make me angry. It seemed to her that whenever she walked past my bedroom, there would be frustrated shrieks and intemperate oaths emanating from within the musty gloom, followed by the unmistakeable sound of a Competition Pro joystick hitting the wall; those things were built to be virtually indestructible for very good reason. The problem was, even though I loved videogames (as I still do), I wasn’t exceptionally good at them (as I’m still not). I could get good at some games, but not without hours of painful, frustrating practice, studying patterns and waves and knowing when and where the bonuses would turn up, as well as reading endless strategy guides in computer mags. To some, this might seem like a little too much effort in order to successfully guide some pixels around a screen, but for me it was absolutely necessary, mainly because videogames back then were just so bastard hard. They had to be, of course, as there was so little actual content in them, developers had to ensure that the learning curve was on the somewhat competitive side, so what few secrets a game had wouldn’t be revealed too quickly. For the averagely-talented gamer, these were brutal times.

Battletoads has become a byword for difficulty among hardcore gamers, who consider it to be one of the ultimate gaming challenges.

I was reminded of this fact very recently when I purchased a videogame compilation called Rare Replay for the Xbox One, which contains thirty classic games by the celebrated British development studio Rare, from their early days (as Ultimate Play The Game) on the ZX Spectrum, through their unassailable, imperial Nintendo period from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s, to their more recent dabblings with the Xbox 360. Playing the older games in the compilation, the ZX Spectrum games in particular, is an immediate reminder of the relative difference in difficulty between older games and modern ones. Some modern games can be childishly simple to complete. They hold your hand throughout, giving you extensive tutorials to get you used to the controls and mechanics of the game, along with regular checkpoints in order to save your progress as you go, and sometimes even a rewind function, allowing you to undo your mistakes. Back in the 8-bit days we had no such luxuries. You played a game, and if you sucked at it (which was fairly normal) you had two choices: stop playing it, or improve. As technology advanced and game developers had more memory to play with, allowing them to add more content and depth to their games, this sheer difficulty curve began to level out somewhat, but even as late as the 16-bit era, players were still expected to rely a lot on trial and error while getting to know a game.

battletoads-nes

Battle Toads on the NES

Coming from a modern perspective, playing older games can be intimidating and seemingly unrewarding, particularly for those who never experienced them the first time around, which negates the nostalgia factor. Possibly aware of this, Rare Replay deals with the inherent difficulty of its older games in a rather ingenious way, with a feature called “snapshots”. Snapshots are mini-challenges related to the main games that also serve as a good way to introduce the various aspects of their gameplay. In Jetpac, for example, there are snapshots that involve building and fuelling your spaceship within 60 seconds, or shooting a certain number of aliens within a set time limit, stuff like that. All the older (pre-Nintendo 64) games on the compilation have little snapshot challenges like these. What I love about the snapshots feature is that, although some of them are very difficult, the target is always within the realm of possibility, and the more you practice, the closer you get, which makes you practice all the more. It can become very addictive.

It’s an excellent idea too, as it not only makes you critically examine how you play a game you might already be familiar with, but it also makes you appreciate the more subtle aspects of the game’s design. Take Jetpac. I’ve been playing Jetpac a certain way for over three decades, but when I tried the snapshots, I found that I had to completely alter my strategy when time limits were brought into the equation, and it’s only then you realise how cunningly designed the game really is, especially for something released in 1983 and crammed into a mere 16Kb of memory. It looks dated, dear me yes, but it still has a timeless quality, and is every bit as playable and addictive as it was 34 years ago, and playing the snapshots not only made me appreciate the actual design of the game a bit more, but also made me better at it. Games like Jetpac, along with many others of that era, remind me why I fell in love with videogames in the first place.

Jetpac-screenshot

Jetpac on the ZX Spectrum

The snapshots are also a very effective way of making you more familiar with games you know less well and help you learn about their mechanics and quirks, not unlike a tutorial in a modern game, only less patronising. For example, I’ve finally learned what I’m supposed to do in Jetpac’s follow-up, Lunar Jetman, a mere 33 years after I first played it with a sense of complete bewilderment and annoyance. Lunar Jetman is a game that I have always found to be unreasonably difficult, even for a mid-1980s 8-bit game. Fortunately, Rare Replay also gives you the option to cheat on many of the earlier games with infinite lives and infinite time, as well as a handy instant rewind function if you make a mistake. So, with all of these aids in place, I did finally manage to get past level two of Lunar Jetman and understand its gameplay more than I had previously. I’m pleased that I made the effort, but I still think it’s far too difficult for the average player (and they don’t get much more average than me).

On the other side of that same coin, I’ve completely fallen in love with Battletoads. Battletoads is a game I didn’t catch on in it’s original release, as it was only available for Nintendo’s 8-bit NES console which, despite being huge in Japan and North America, was largely ignored in Europe during its lifetime. Battletoads is probably a much harder game overall, albeit one that is at least predictable to a certain degree. It’s also very slick and charming, with a wonderfully dark sense of humour. Most importantly, it’s a lot of fun to play and is a masterclass in 8-bit game design. However, it’s also insanely difficult, and a lot of the time comes down to being little more than a test of memory and reflexes, both of which I failed on repeatedly while trying to play the game.

When it comes to videogames, I still have a defiant, old-school mindset, a mindset that absolutely refuses to be beaten by any game.

Fortunately, it isn’t just me. Battletoads has become a byword for difficulty among hardcore gamers, who consider it to be one of the ultimate gaming challenges. It starts off easily enough, with a straightforward scrolling beat-em-up stage in the style of Golden Axe or Streets of Rage, which is followed with a slightly trickier stage in which you descend into a subterranean cavern, having to dispatch enemies and avoid hazards, often at the same time; it’s tough, but with a bit of practice is perfectly navigable. But then comes the turbo-tunnel stage, and that’s when you realise that Battletoads is nothing short of a merciless, evil bastard in the form of a videogame, as you hurtle through a tunnel at high-speed, having to dodge, duck, weave and jump over oncoming obstacles.

The ridiculously difficult Ghosts n' Goblins

The ridiculously difficult Ghost n’ Goblins

Even with practice it’s incredibly difficult, but unlike Lunar Jetman, which is chock full of random elements over which you have little control, Battletoads is so ingeniously designed that the only person to blame for your inevitable, repeated failure is yourself. Every single one of the game’s devious obstacles can be overcome with practice, memory, precise timing and quick reflexes. There is nothing in the game that could honestly be called random; sneaky, certainly, but never random. Seasoned Battletoads players liken it to a rhythmic experience, in which every obstacle that comes your way appears in exactly the same place and at exactly the same time. One of the game’s coders, in an interesting “making of” film included with Rare Replay, boasted of being able to navigate the turbo-tunnel with his eyes closed, so confident was he in the game’s clockwork precision. In short, you don’t need to memorise what appears on the screen, merely what buttons you need to press at what time. Your eyes, as Obi-Wan Kenobi reminded us, can deceive you; don’t trust them. Which is a bit glib for a Jedi, but it’s an interesting point.

When it comes to videogames, I still have a defiant, old-school mindset, a mindset that absolutely refuses to be beaten by any game. I’ve never seen myself as a particularly competitive person, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to be bested by some pixels on a screen. I frequently have been, of course, countless times, but it’s rare that I just give up on a game and walk away without having at least tried to make some progress with it; I’m determined to play every game I pick up to completion, or at least get as far as my meagre amount of skill will allow. It’s a mindset that endures, and I’m far from the only one who occasionally craves a seemingly impossible challenge. Indeed, for all of the relative ease of modern games, there are still some deviously hard games out there that are specifically targeted at that hardcore audience of apparent masochists, from deliberately difficult platform games like Limbo or Super Meat Boy, both of which also have a very old-school aesthetic, to cult Japanese shoot-em-ups (another favourite of serious hardcore gamers) such as Ikaruga and Radiant Silvergun, as well as more ostensibly mainstream titles like the very successful Dark Souls franchise, the fantasy RPG that, whichever way you want to look at it, is more like a never-ending nightmare, and is a spectacular success because of it.

Ikaruga, responsible for more broken controllers than any game in history.

Ikaruga, responsible for more broken controllers than any game in history.

Games like these are very old-school in their approach, in that, like the earlier Ultimate/Rare games, they give the player very little in the way of instruction or information and just leave them to get on with it and discover the game for themselves in their own way. They’re a real trial-and-error experience – with any error usually resulting in a gory, bloody death – and yet their very popularity shows that there is still a demand out there for incredibly challenging games, and even though they tend to be exceptions rather than the rule, they are at least a conscious attempt to capture what was a fairly typical experience for the early generation of gamers. But back then, we knew no different, which is why it’s quite surprising that so many of us stuck with the hobby for so long. It was almost an act of faith: faith in the future, and faith in the certainty that the games, along with the technology we played them on, could only improve. And yet, playing games that were for the most part not only unwinnable, but, once you’d failed, would send you straight back to level one without so much as a “hard luck, old chap” taught this middle-aged slacker a very important life-lesson, namely that failure is not only a learning process, but is also absolutely nothing to fear.

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