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!


  1. I do agree that a lot of the games of yesterday was just plain frustrating – the maze castle in Mario stands out as being pure memorization in stark contrast to the rest of the game – but there’s also a lot of genuinely challenging stuff.
    While a lack of challenge does not guarantee a worse – or better – game, some games truly work FUN challenge into the gameplay and makes it work, and this is something that in my opinion we’ve generally lost as games have progressed towards the mainstream. Nobody is arguing we go back to making endless mazes without clues as a filler for real difficulty, but a lot of us do miss the stiff challenge of the older games.
    Thankfully, companies like Capcom is reviving a lot of their older stuff and personally, I can’t see why games like Mega Man 9 can’t coexist with the much easier Mario Galaxy.
    Variety is the spice of life, no?

  2. And this is why they invented the choosable difficulty setting.

    Want to play one of todays easy games? Set it to easy or normal. Are you a grizzled 8bit vetran? Set it to hard and then play the super hard mode when you beat THAT.

    Games are easy as hell on easy or normal and that’s for the mainstream. Mw2 for example; you can run through that shit on “Recruit” like the bullets are paintballs. Play it on vetran and you’ll be stuck in one spot for 20 mins.

    As an aside I hate trophies that make you play on hardest :( (Here’s looking at you mw2)

  3. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that lots of older games were about punishment more than actual challenge. If you die, you have to play the last 20 minutes all over again (or the whole game if you game-over).

    Look at LittleBigPlanet, though. That game’s main “story-line” levels have some really hard parts, but it’s fun rather than frustrating because they’re generous with giving you spawn points. If you fail a part, you only have to play *that part* again, and not the whole freakin level. If you fail a part too many times, you have to start the level over, but that’s as far as it goes.

    It’s possible to have *really* challenging games without making it fake-hard, and LBP proves it.

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