Game Overview Editorial: Difficulty in Video Games
May 8th, 2008 by Dan

You’re playing through an RPG. You’ve gained five levels, found some sweet equipment drops, minimized the use of your precious items, and then it happens. You come up against a behemoth of a monster. Your party is decimated, your progress lost, your controller tossed through the screen.

Does this even begin to sound familiar to anyone? It’s like modern gaming, in an effort to bring in an even broader audience, has started to dumb down our video game experience. Think back to the last four, at the very least, Final Fantasy games (not counting XI). Aside from side quest bosses who are geared to be a challenge, how often did you even find yourself remotely challenged in these games? I honestly don’t think I worried much about save points in any of these games (aside from when I was hunting the harder mobs in XII) at all. There was none of that between-save-point stress and worry that a game with any difficulty might throw at me. I just go on through the game, breezing through the fights and find myself at the final boss, sometimes taking more than one try to kill him, but, more often than not, just breezing through him too.

It’s not just RPGs either. Think back to Mario Galaxy. The only challenge in that game came from the green stars where the developers were given free range to punish players into some of the toughest, most fun challenges possible. Even The Legend of Zelda isn’t safe. The last two console installments, The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, were among the easiest games I have ever played. Sure, their stories were epic and fun, but the bosses were jokes compared to past Zelda games. They dealt close to no heart damage, they had hyper-predictable patterns, and they were just plain not challenging. I don’t think that I’ve evolved much in skill as a gamer since about the sixth grade and I definitely remember more challenge in both Link’s Awakening and A Link to the Past when I played them (late to the game, I know).

There is hope. Mistwalker’s latest RPG for the Xbox 360, Lost Odyssey, will actually make you hope that a save point is imminent. The enemies will brutalize you if you mess up. It seems odd that I’m actually hoping for a game to punish me for screwing up or not leveling up, but I just can’t take a game that doesn’t even challenge me in the slightest. I consume games mainly for story, this is true, but I don’t want the story-telling to come so easily that I might as well be watching a movie or reading a book. It can get frustrating when a game is difficult because it’s broken or the computer cheats :cough: Mario Kart Wii :cough:, but it’s also tremendously satisfying to spend an hour bashing your head against the wall trying to defeat a boss only to finally get it down and win with just a sliver of health left.

This is why I look forward to the day when I will be able to devote more time to Persona 3: FES. The short time I spent with the game already almost beat me in a random encounter and I’m sure that an actual boss will own me several times. I fully believe that a game should punish you for making a mistake and I already know from experience that Persona will wail on me for being an idiot.

There’s certainly a market for casual games and casual gamers out there, one only needs to look to the Wii to see that fact with obvious clarity, but surely it wouldn’t be too difficult for developers to go out and actually make a game tough for players. The inclusion of difficulty levels, even with the fact that it means more work, will satisfy me. Here’s hoping that we see harder games in the future.

6 Responses  
  • Eric writes:
    May 9th, 20089:05at

    I’ve been feeling this way for years. I never beat Super Mario Bros 1-3. Super Mario World we beat completely over the course of a few months. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island we beat in one week while we were on Christmas vacation at our grandmother’s house. I beat Super Mario Galaxy in one weekend while visiting my In-laws for Christmas. I’m afraid I’ll beat the next Mario game in an hour.

    I think there are a couple of different things going on here. First of all, we’re much older. Perhaps today’s kids still find video games hard. But, also I think there’s a different focus on games. If you remember (you were quite young then) when we had the Nintendo, nearly every game (including Mario) had a High Score. Even then I had trouble understanding why a game like Mario would have a score. After all, wasn’t the point to rescue the Princess? And if you remember, all the way until Super Mario World there was a timer on the levels. So you couldn’t take a long as you wanted. Sheez, I mean, nowadays Mario doesn’t even die unless you chuck him off a cliff or let him take too much damage without touching some water.

    I think that basically when we first started playing games, back in the original Nintendo day, they were still in an arcade mindset. With an arcade game you want the game to be tough enough that people will have to add tons of quarters. Mario Galaxy would be a HORRIBLE arcade game. So you need timers to make sure they don’t take their sweet time going through the level without getting hurt. You need score so that there’s a point to doing difficult or potentially dangerous tasks. That’s all game designers had been doing up until that point (and ports of arcade games) so I think they were used to making nearly impossible games.

    So I think they’ve moved more towards a rich, more of a sandbox type of world where they want to to explore all their beautiful content. Thus they’ve made it a lot easier. But I do agree that a game that isn’t challenging is quite boring. However, games at the impossible level of the original Nintendo games are also boring because knowing that you can never win (especially back in the days before continue spots) also made the game boring.

    PS – I still haven’t gotten past Final Fantasy 8, but I do seem to remember you having a pretty easy going on 10.

  • Dan writes:
    May 11th, 200815:29at

    As I predicted, Persona continually punishes me for getting reckless, cocky, or when it feels like showing me who’s boss. It’s lots of fun.

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