I love hard games. For me a challenge is always better than an easy ride. I’d rather lose than win easily. What’s the point in being a passenger? Where’s the challenge in that? Where’s the sense of victory?
Now we talk about ‘finishing a game’, or ‘completing’ a game. I’m not interested in completing a game, I want to BEAT it. Sometimes a game should be something that really doesn’t want you to win, something that you can feel working against you every step of the way. Then it’s personal. It’s me versus that team of developers.
Of course, it can be frustrating. Losing isn’t fun in itself, but it’s an integral part of a satisfying learning process.You should always lose for a reason. Sloppy control schemes, unfair enemies and too much chance can ruin the fine balance required to make a hard game satisfying.
Here’s a good hard game: Devil May Cry 3. Here it is in a line: Trenchcoat wearing, pizza eating, sarcy megahero with a sword as big as a bus slays demons for shits and giggles while terrible thrash metal plays endlessly in the background. It’s as shallow as a premise gets, and it’s all fine and entertaining stuff. But underneath it’s a masterfully crafted and intelligent third person brawler.
A typical scene will see about five or six enemies teleport into existence right next to you, and try and their level best chop you up in an extremely confined space. A hit sees about a quarter of your health bar disappear. Oh, and there’s no block button. Sorry.
It’s a recipe for disaster. Everything is stacked against you. You’ve got a sword and some guns, and the ability to dodge. No magic, no area of effect attacks, no breathing space. What you do have on your side is blindingly fast and responsive controls, and just enough visual cues to give you a chance to negotiate the violence unscathed. Up close, attack is the best form of defense. Your sword strikes are swift enough to interrupt enemies as they wind up. Your foes can charge into you from outside the combat area as well. As you fight off immediate dangers your peripheral vision is trained for a signal: the sight of a demon raising their weapon in preperation. A roll as they charge sees them sail past you, a few strokes to the back and they explode into dust, and you immediately resume close combat with the crowd surrounding you.
You’ll die the first few times. It’ll seem impossible at first, but when you start to get it it’s fucking zen.
Some games are even harder to the point of alienating most gamers. I wouldn’t advise making your game so hard that it’s effectively unplayable to most of your audience, but I kind of appreciate the guts it takes to make something as impossible but beautifully crafted as, say, Ikaruga.
It’s five levels long. The game can be beaten in about 25 minutes.
You won’t beat it.
Ikaruga requires minute knowledge of every wave of bullets and for the player to be in a compeltely focussed and trance like state of competence to win. Even then, at certain points death is just inevitable as the cost of reaching a certain section (Unless you’re this guy: http://snipurl.com/pinnz) It’s going to take a lot of time and concentration to even get close to making it through.
It’s a vertical scrolling shooter, as old school as they come, with one genius conceit. With a button press your ship can switch between light and dark shields. Light and dark bullets are fired at you from all angles. If one single bullet of the opposite polarity touches you then you die instantly. Bullets of the same polarity are absorbed and can be unleashed as homing missile attacks to get through difficult spots.
The full potential of this rule is realised perfectly by the levels, which are some of the best examples of level design I can think to name. The variation in the nature of the challenge from section to section shifts Ikaruga from a shooter to a puzzle game, then back to a shooter in minutes. Certain sections see you negotiating tight enclosed spaces, plotting the most effictient route through while absorbing as many bullets as possible to aid you when you’re thrown into that indescribably difficult next section. At other times Ikaruga is a game about patterns, beautiful intricate paterns of light and dark through which you thread your ship. for a while, Ikaruga was my obsession.
The day I finally beat Ikaruga was a good one. It was almost a relief. I was never going to approach hard mode and I would always, always need continues. But I felt like I had done something almost superhuman. I looked back at the levels and thought: how? How in hell did I do that? I came away with a sense of achievement unmatched by most other games I’ve finished. There are not many gaming victories you can really take pride in, but this was certainly one of them.
I went back to Ikaruga recently. I remembered a lot, but all of the intricate knowledge I had built up of those levels was lost. It was opaque again, as surely impossible as the first time I sat down with it.
Hard games are a dying breed. The onus in game design now is on accesibility. This makes financial sense. A game doesn’t want to alienate its audience, it wants to appeal to as many people as possible. Ikaruga is years old now, Devil May Cry 3 was back on the PS2, and its sequel is a much more forgiving, if still challenging, fighter.
So let’s hear it for hard games. A dying breed that’s given me memories of immense success and unbearable frustration in almost equal measure.