Hard Games: The Good, the Bad, and the Broken

Nintendo games are hard. It’s a fact.

Pictured: hard fucking games

A lot of old Nintendo games are, as a matter of principal, really hard… but let’s be honest here. Video games these days for the most part are moronically easy. There are exceptions to this rule, but the rule remains. Challenging video games are a dying art form.

Back in the 8-bit era games had to be hard in order to justify paying $60 (or more) for a video game with 6 stages. Video games of this time period were not played for the amazing, dramatic story arcs, or for mining achievements and trophies- they were played for fun, and often times the fun came from the challenge itself.

If you actually did beat a difficult video game, you either had to have your mom’s camera ready (and I swear, no child took a successful photograph of a TV screen before digital cameras) or have friends present to witness the feat. Barring either of the these scenarios meant that no one would believe you. I swear to god, I bet Mike Tyson in Mike Tyson’s Punch Out, but to this day not a single one of my friends believes me because I did it alone in my apartment in 2006. Dicks.

The near unplayably hard games for the NES were not just the Bayou Billys, the Amagons, or the Golgo 13s of the NES library. Some of the most loved and fondly remembered video games from the NES era were genuinely challenging affairs. The first 3 Mega Man games, Castlevania I- III, and Contra are among the best and hardest games of the late 80’s and early 90’s. They were also massive financial successes.

The difficulty type of 8-bit video games really falls into two separate and distinct categories; artificial difficulty and actual difficulty.

Actual, genuinely hard games slowly ramp up the difficulty and always make the player the master of their own fate. The room-crossing lasers in Quickman’s stage from Mega Man 2, the Grim Reaper boss from Castlevania, the final level in Super C. They are all hard, but fairly so. When you die you only have yourself to blame. Enough practice and you can master these obstacles and fly through without a second thought.

Artificial difficulty, commonly referred to as “cheap” difficulty, bursts from the seams of the most irritating hard games because they are, first and foremost, unfair. Randomly disappearing platforms, picky hit detection, over powered enemies, difficult and out of place platforming sections, and the combination of poor level design and one-hit-kill environmental traps all contribute to give a hard game an overall stink of cheapness.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot. The fucking birds.

Ninja Gaiden, a series famous for it’s high difficulty has three games (the NES trilogy) that entirely owe their reputation as controller smashers to those winged devils. Those fucking Ninja Gaiden birds still haunt my nightmares, and the nightmares of every gamer who has subjected themselves to the original TECMO Ninja Gaiden games. Seriously, jumps that were often hard by themselves, plus birds? Together? CONSTANTLY?

Some games, most notably Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, straddle the boundary between actually hard and artificially hard. One could argue that the first half of Zelda II is actually hard, in a good way. A fun, challenging platforming action game that gets a lot of things right. The second half of the game however switches gears, and becomes critically difficult. While certainly grind heavy through-out, it becomes an absolute nightmare to achieve the highest levels because the enemies that yield the most experience are often overpowered and difficult to kill.

“Fuck it. Let her sleep.”

The last few palaces become nightmarishly long themselves, and the frustration mounts as the task of even uncovering their locations becomes more and more convoluted.

In an ironic twist, the North American version of Zelda II was intentionally made to be more difficult than the original Japanese Famicom Disk System version. Conclusion? Nintendo of America hated us.

Ninja Gaiden

When one thinks of Ninja Gaiden, the mind will almost definitely fixate on the famed trilogy for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Developed as monuments to frustration and cheap enemy placement, Ninja Gaiden, Ninja Gaiden 2: The Dark Sword of Chaos, and Ninja Gaiden 3: The Ancient Ship of Doom where designed, I suspect, in congress with Nintendo in order to boost 1st party Nintendo controller sales. It would not be over-ambitious to say that over a three to four year period in early nineties more Nintendo controllers were stomped, smashed, bitten, and crushed on account of Tecmo’s influential ninja trilogy than any other in video game history.

Those who were not there may not know this, but ninja’s where the shit in the late 80’s. Ralph Machio, Michalanglio, Michael Dudikoff… Ninjas were big business. It goes without saying that every kid (certainly every kid I knew) wanted to be a ninja. However, having the inability to complete a competent roundhouse kick or concept just how nunchuks worked proved disheartening to my generation. On top of that, most of us bailed on Karate classes after we learned that it was mostly just breathing and strecthing. We wanted to kick ass damn it! And we wanted to do it now!

These reasons can more then explain just why ninja video games were such a huge success. We could assume the roll of our favorite ninja and experience all the carnage and bo-staff beat downs while living vicariously through the 8-bit sprite of our favorite hero in a half shell.

The original Ninja Gaiden trilogy was the standard for ninja games in my neighborhood, however. Every kid knew some other kid who’s older brother beat the third game- which was, of course a goddamn bold-faced lie. It would take months of training to even make it to the last stage, which I still contend is as unbeatable as any level in video game history.

It wasn’t until much later in life that I discovered the black sheep of the Ninja Gaiden family, the game simply titled Ninja Gaiden for the Sega MasterSystem. Not considered canon to the series, it is however a fast paced, completely original game that Sega developed using Tecmo’s license.

The game follows the same cut scene driven narrative of the NES titles, except for the fact that it looks, sounds and plays better. The wall climbing from the original has been replaced with a flawless wall jump mechanic similar to the one introduced in the third NES Ninja Gaiden title. The bosses are big, varied and fun and the game is actually beatable with very little cheapness built in to the game play.

The main reason that this game is superior to it’s predessors, however, is the use of the birds. If you have ever played the NES Ninja Gaiden games then you no doubt are overly farmiliar with the cheapest enemy in the history of video gaming to date; the Ninja Gaiden birds. The bastards that knock you off of ledges and come out of no-where to halt you mid-jump and cause you to plummet to your doom. Sure, there are birds in the MasterSystem Ninja Gaiden, but they are at least a manageable menace. Playing through the game all the way to the end a bird only caused me to die once, and it was my own damn fault for rushing- and rush you will. The game play is so fast you actually feel like a ninja running through entire stages artfully dodging pitfalls and henchmen alike.

The only real downside to Sega’s Ninja Gaiden is that you have to import a copy to play it. The game was created late in the MasterSystem’s life cycle (it’s North American life cycle, anyway), a time when it had become painfully obvious the Nintendo’s 8 bit machine had won the war and there were barely even scraps left for Sega. The MasterSystem was, however, enormously popular in Europe and Brazil, so those are the only regions that saw a commercial release of many late MasterSystem titles, Ninja Gaiden included.

Which is really a shame. This game would’ve been amazing when I was 10 years old. Thankfully, it’s even better now.