In the last ten years, the video game industry has moved into the realm of experiential games that allow players to use virtual worlds, characters, and game play mechanics to craft their own narratives, either individually or collaboratively. This shift was the result of products becoming more social in nature (thanks to widely available broadband Internet and robust multiplayer offerings) and a desire on the part of designers to expand the scope of the games they loved. While games that were steeped in narrative and character had always been available, they became the industry standard.
In 2008 and 2009 Mega Man 9 changed all of that. Originating during the glory days of the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System, the “Mega Man” series exemplified the phrase Nintendo hard. Now used to describe a game that stacks the odds for the sake of challenge (often to the point where the game is unbeatable), Nintendo hard was once the norm: enemies filled the screen, their projectiles creating weblike patterns as players navigated deadly pitfalls, and merely coming in contact with a hostile nonplayer character resulted in taking damage. Mega Man 9 was a return to that style of game play.
That’s not to say that Mega Man 9 was the only game then that offered any challenge, but it came out at a time when games were more about having a deep internal experience and making connections. It reminded participants that spending hours getting past an especially vexing obstacle or foe could be just as satisfying as going on an emotional journey and crafting an artistic experience.
Hard to handle
It’s important to stock your library collection with games that move the genre forward and encourage patrons to see video games as a legitimate medium for personal expression, telling stories in new ways and asking deep questions about ourselves and the world around us. But for a healthy segment of your gaming population—especially those who were forged in the fires of Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!, Ninja Gaiden, and Contra—you want to offer games that put up a fight.
Most modern video games have adjustable difficulty levels, of course, but some titles are known for being punishing even at their most forgiving settings for those who want a real challenge.
The classic “Ninja Gaiden” series has been resurrected and is as demanding and satisfying as the original—but now it’s in 3-D and features a deep fighting system that rivals some dedicated fighting games. All current “Ninja Gaiden” games are rated M (mature) for good reason: buckets of gore, frightening enemies, and sexual imagery piled on top of a harsh difficulty level make for an experience that’s not for all ages.
The “God of War” series likewise sports a well-earned M rating but also gives the kind of meaty game play that old-school combatants love. The payoff in these games is the massive sense of empowerment; properly executed moves result in player-character Kratos executing epic, screen-filling finishing actions. The boss fights are especially rewarding, with mythic, action-hero feats.
The “Devil May Cry” series features a part-demon paranormal investigator who uses physics-defying swordsmanship and action-movie gunplay to dispatch freakish enemies. This series runs the gamut as far as challenge goes. On the easiest difficulty settings, each game is approachable, letting players do amazing things with just a few button presses as they carve through waves of opponents. On higher difficulties, however, the gamer must execute moves with zenlike discipline, against enemies that forgot the meaning of mercy long ago.
For all-ages-appropriate material (maybe something for old-school players to enjoy with their kids), look no further than Duck Tales Remastered. A remake of the 8-bit classic that was inspired by the Disney cartoon, this game demands split-second timing and dexterity (it’s also cited as a classic “Nintendo hard” game).
Best of the best
The most shining example of merciless, unapologetic, brutal difficulty in a game, however, is the current “Dark Souls” series. The games are set in an oppressive medieval world in which zombies are pretty much everywhere. The player-character is one of the Undead, zombies that are still in control of their own actions and not driven by blind rage and hunger; this game makes it quite clear right from the start that you will die, over and over again, and you will accept it. With careful timing and patience, the in-game combat becomes manageable, but it never relents. This is not an activity for those looking for something to pass the time; it is for players who are looking to sharpen their focus, earn some bragging rights, and experience the joy that only a game that hurts you relentlessly can deliver.
Needless to say, these are not products for novice gamers, so keep that in mind when you’re advising someone new to this rewarding hobby—we don’t want to scare them away!
Until next time, keep telling yourself—just one more level!