There was this part in the third stage of Battletoads where you had to pilot a hoverbike through a series of jumps and obstacles, and your speed would continue to increase as the level progressed. This hoverbike challenge has gone down in history as one of the most frustratingly difficult video game segments ever made.
The thing is, I never really found it that difficult.
Now, it probably sounds like I’m just bragging here (and that’s probably valid), but I say it to make a point about the 8-bit and 16-bit game era: The games weren’t necessarily difficult, per se, they just rewarded repetition and memorization.
Take the aforementioned hoverbikes in Battletoads. Sure, you were going to die a billion times before you got through that sequence, but once you memorized where all the obstacles were, it really wasn’t that bad. It just took patience, something gamers don’t seem to have a lot of anymore. (How many of us feverishly button mash during cutscenes, hoping our console will eventually just get sick of being pestered and let us skip the thing? I admit that I’m in that group too.)
And, in the level right before this, there were birds that tried to peck at you as you descended a cavernous shaft. You could endlessly bounce these birds off the wall for about a squadrillion extra lives, once you got the hang of it. This meant that you should have had a multitude of lives to work with once you got to the hoverbikes, offsetting the difficulty and encouraging you to keep trying until you made it.
A more recent example comes from Mega Man 9. I can’t verify if this is one hundred percent true or not, (mainly because I don’t want to Google it just to find out that it’s not true — I like this factoid, even if it’s as fake as Britney Spears’ singing voice) but I read somewhere that the guys at GamePro couldn’t beat a single level of that game, leading several forum members to unofficially dub them GameNoob.
The thing is, Mega Man 9 isn’t all that difficult either. (Okay, so I admit there are a few segments that are downright brutal. Most of that game, though, is fairly easy once you’ve played through it a couple times.) There were areas in that game where I died far more times than I’m comfortable admitting, but I almost always reached a point where something just clicked in my brain and that particular segment would all of a sudden become a simple matter of timing.
And to drive home this rock star analogy, let me compare playing Mega Man 9 with playing a musical instrument.
Back when I was first learning to play guitar, being able to play three chords in a row consistently enough to make the sounds resemble an actual song was hard. But after repetition and practice, I could eventually do it. The first time I was able to play a song all the way through without screwing something up was exhilarating. That’s sort of the same feeling I got when I was finally able to get through Mega Man 9. Or the hoverbike sequence in Battletoads.
But not all games can be like this.
And that’s because of gamers’ aforementioned lack of patience. I’ll admit that button mashing through unskippable cutscenes was probably not a very fair example, but the impatience thing is true nonetheless. A lot of gamers will die a bunch of times in the beginning of a game and get frustrated with it. And developers are scared to death of this happening in their games — so scared that they dumb down the difficulty to appeal to a broader audience.
And that’s fine. Sometimes I just don’t appreciate being forced into something super repetitious and unfairly brutal. But at the same time, I admire a challenge. I metaphorically shed a nostalgic tear every time a Meat Boy dies, for example.
And the fact that there are people like me who actually enjoy classically difficult gameplay from time to time (“classically difficult” here being used to mean it requires practice and a decent sense of rhythm) is why games like Mega Man 9 and Super Meat Boy are important. (I have a friend who once told me that he spent more time trying to beat the Cotton Alley stages of Super Meat Boy than he spent on the entire rest of the game. And he was totally cool with that.)
Now, the fact that every game isn’t Super Meat Boy hard, or Mega Man 9 hard, (which, as I’ve already explained, is not really hard; it just requires patience, fortitude, and an unbreakable will — there’s a difference) is probably a good thing. But for classic gamers, it can be extremely rewarding to be rewarded for possessing the proper mix of skill, memory, and patience, and games that do so without sacrificing good level design should be rewarded for this.