The Illusion of Challenge
If you talk to many a cantankerous old gamer you’ll hear about how easy today’s games are how much more challenging games were back in the day. The story usually goes something like this: “Back in my day we had a limited number of lives and you’d be lucky to get any continues. Saved games!? Forget about it sonny!” At this point you get rapped atop the head with a cane. It may be true that gamers today have unlimited lives and quicksaves but lets go back and look at why games of the golden age were supposedly more challenging than games are today.
First lets look at the most popular games that grumpy gamer geezers will point you too: Super Mario Bros., Contra, Sonic the Hedgehog, Battletoads and Castlevania. If you were to sit down and play through these games from start to finish you could probably complete them in about an hour or two. There’s even an entire group of gamers who use emulators to complete speedruns on these old games trying to finish them as quickly as possible. If you just went to the store today and dropped $60 on an XBox360 game and beat it in under an hour there’s little doubt you’d be pretty pissed off. The technical limitations of the NES prevented games from lasting more than a few hours at the most. In order to keep gamers playing the games were designed to require time to master and multiple playthroughs to understand.
If you look a bit closer at the actual nature of these games you’ll notice that much of the challenge is really just punishment. Battletoads frequently killed players with little to no warning. Beating the game required a bit of skill and a whole lot of memorization. Sonic the Hedgehog encouraged players to run faster than any fat plumber ever could. Of course as soon as you approached mach 2 there’d be a wall with spikes on it to ruin your fun. Super Mario Bros. had it’s moments in frustration. The final castle required players to navigate through an endless maze giving you no clue how to progress to the final boss. Castlevania constantly knocked players backwards into watery graves. Contra and many other arcade ports were games designed specifically to kill players repeatedly in an effort to syphon as many quarters as possible from youngester’s jean shorts.
It’s painfully obvious that games of the golden age were extremely good at killing players. They were great at punishing players and demanding deep levels of patience from even the most experienced gamers. Did that make them better? Of course not. The question then is why do grizzled gamers today make such an effort to belittle today’s gamers for their lack of digital frustration? The answer is probably just that misery loves company. We had to put up with so much crap in our videogames and we were happy to have it so by gum we’re gonna make kids these days appriciate what they’ve got!