With Dark Souls 3 looming on the horizon I think now is a good time to talk about difficulty in video games. Difficulty is something that has changed DRASTICALLY over the years and I feel like it’s something that’s become grossly misunderstood to the point where it and peoples general understanding of it has become bullshit.
So first, let’s talk old school difficulty. Games back in the day were much harder than today’s games, that’s just an undeniable fact. That’s not to say that there are no old games that are easy, but generally speaking you can expect more of a challenge from your SNES and Mega Drive (Genesis) games than you can from your PS4 and Xbox One games. This is because back then, you couldn’t fit a huge game onto a cartridge the way you can fit games onto a disc or into a download now. Games HAD to be hard in order for it to be worth the full RRP you were paying at the time. A great example of this is Ninja Gaiden
Ninja Gaiden is a game that will take most people weeks, months or years to beat because of its brutal difficulty but there is a guy who can play that game start to finish in about 12 minutes!
Now granted this is a speed run and he’s probably the best player but I know people personally who can run it just casually and have times of about 20 minutes. Ninja Gaiden is super short when it comes down to it but it’s hard as hell and that’s what gave it it’s length.
Games today don’t have that level of difficulty generally speaking but instead are much longer and have a ton more content in them. While old games just had the core game for you to struggle through, modern games have fancy graphics, extra modes, online play, and more that keep it going. Developers don’t want you to be dying constantly in one section of their 10-30 hour experience, they want you to see the ending, while back then games were designed to be a bit more of a challenge.
I personally preferred it the old way but that’s just me, gaming is a mainstream thing now and it wouldn’t generate big business if it spent all its time pissing people off. That said, there are games that do come out that are a genuine challenge and the Souls games are a good example of this.
Difficulty in games nowadays usually revolves around a selection in a menu at the start of the game; easy, normal or hard. The problem with this method of presenting difficulty in this way is that it becomes lazy and bullshit. Games were difficult by design back then, levels were expertly crafted to test your abilities but now it’s generally just a case of adjusting numbers. Give the player less health, the enemies more, make things stronger or increase the number of things you have to fight, that kind of thing. Souls games however, once raged about for having “artificial difficulty” by people who were shit, presented its difficulty in the old school way and that’s why I think, partly, it became such a success.
Souls games are NOT hard, not really, but they refuse to hold your hand and demand that you take the initiative. They demand that you actually learn how things like the combat and the systems within work with great detail in order to survive the games challenges. If you want an effective character in a souls game you better think carefully about where you’re shoving those points, because if you mis-stat him out, while fixable, will give you a hard time. More importantly however it wants you to pay attention to its level design. Tread carefully in the world of a Souls game because failing to do so will mean a quick death and some hair being pulled out of your head.
Most of the time that you die to “bullshit” in a Souls game, it’s flagged somehow in the design. Not a big flashy warning that pops up on the screen and interrupts the game like “BEWARE FOR TRAPS! PRESS X TO DODGE!” but instead there will be subtle hints in the props or the stages layout. There are SOME bullshit deaths in the various Souls games but these generally fit the theme of what is going on. Of course the evil shit that inhabits the world are going to lay down traps that maybe you can’t see, they want you dead and that’s the point of a trap but you probably still had a chance to avoid it with some good timing and awareness.
Even the bosses feel like they were designed with old school intentions behind them. They are scary, imposing, attack with great ferocity and in some cases may even seem impossible at first
But if you take your time, observe their movements and attack patterns and work out the best way to overcome them, generally speaking they are pretty easy. Once you learn how to do these bosses some of them become laughably easy. I personally like to compare this kind of experience to old school Megaman games. On my first playthrough of a Megaman game the bosses would kick my ass, but then you learn their attack patterns and weaknesses and now they are the easiest part of that game, similar to my experiences with the Souls games.
Difficulty in games is a forgotten art and there are very few titles that pull it off well anymore. I don’t mind the new approach to design where you have something longer, that looks better and with a nice story but sometimes I just want to be tested, you know? After being pampered through a whole bunch of “epic experiences” as they are described at things like E3, sometimes I just want to be punched in the face and told to work for my ending.
The indie scene is a little better with difficulty than the AAA people but your best bet would be to just dust off those old systems and carts and have a grand old time with some real challenges.
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