September 30, 2013

Nintendo Hard, or Hardly Working?

This image has the same effect on old-school NES gamers as a cross on vampires.

(A slightly different version of this article was published on GamesBeat Unfiltered.)

There’s a secret to figuring out just how good the game you’re playing is, and it’s very simple: play on the highest difficulty level. As far as the things that make or break the gaming experience go – controls, hit detection, camera, etc. – this is the only way to really find out how well everything works.

Naturally, many of you are already questioning this assertion. You’d think that controls, camera, aiming and other commonly-infuriating video game elements would show their strength equally well regardless of difficulty. However, the reality is that you will rarely be able to judge them fully when playing on lower difficulties. To explain why, let’s talk a bit about the right and wrong ways to make a game more difficult, the importance of playing on the highest difficulty level, and why I think most game reviewers are slacking off on Normal.


As an example, let's take one of the best reviewed games of recent years, Mass Effect 2. If you are not familiar with the series, then first of all, go play Mass Effect 3 right now. Now that you know that ME is a squad-based action-RPG, we can move on.  

One mission in ME2 pits against three waves of enemies: the first wave consists of varren, the lizard-dogthings in the image below, while the other two waves consist of ostensibly more formidable creatures. I say "ostensibly" because unlike on easy or medium difficulty, where the varren are pushovers and the other enemies are the main challenge, on harder difficulty settings, the varren are going to kick your ass.

And you thought the Reapers were the biggest threat to organic life.
Why? Well, on lower difficulties, the varren hordes can be quickly disposed of by using explosive weapons. Hell, if you’re playing an Adept (basically a magic-user), you can use an ability called Singularity to make all of them float around helplessly while your squad takes them down. Chances are, the varren aren’t even going to touch you.

On higher difficulty levels, though, things aren’t so simple. Here, the varren have an additional layer of armor, so that not only can they take a lot more punishment, but since many special abilities, including Singularity, have no effect on armored enemies, the varren can’t be floated until you soften them up a bit. Chances are, you’re going to get ganged up on pretty fast.

At this point in the game, several harrowing realizations will dawn on you. The first thing you’ll notice is that this game really doesn’t know how to handle close quarters combat with enemies half your size. Once a varren gets up close, it is practically impossible to attack him. If there’s just one, you can probably punch him and knock him back right before he takes a big juicy bite out of your leg. If two or more have gotten to you, though, you’re pretty much done for.

At this point you’re likely to think: OK, melee won’t work here, but I can at least run when varren get close. Time for your second realization: the running mechanism in this game is utterly broken. Your character can run for a limited amount of time, but it is so hard to move when running that you are very likely to run into a wall that your character should have seen, mostly because the camera doesn’t shift perspective when you veer left or right. Worse yet, your character automatically dives into any cover you run towards, so you’re all too likely to accidentally duck next to a rock while running, very nicely allowing the varren to eat your face with minimal effort. The third realization is by far the most horrifying: that ME2 is one of those games where you are knocked back when hit by enemies, regardless of whether you got hit from the front or from the back.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of the ME trilogy, but as far as I know, this is the only game of its caliber that managed to get away with characters floating in mid-air while walking down slopes, falling down through infinite holes in the floor, and various violations of the laws of physics. The only way I can think of to explain why this game managed to become so critically successful, even outstripping the sublime ME3, is that almost no one reviewed on a difficulty level higher than normal. There’s just no excuse for an encounter with alien dogs taking me ten times as long as beating the final boss.

As I was trying to overcome the mighty varren, stopping only to go buy new controllers to replace the old ones that I angrily broke in half, I suddenly started getting flashbacks to the days of my youth. See, in the old days of the NES, we didn’t have your fancy “difficulty levels”, or “online walkthroughs”, or “saves”. Back then, you had exactly one way to play a game: nightmarish, hellish, insane difficulty, and there was no one there to help you figure it out. It was so common for NES games to be teeth-grindingly hard that they inspired a term used to this day to describe impossibly difficulty games: Nintendo Hard. Bayou Billy, Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden, and many other games from that period showed you the Game Over screen so often that they must have given violent personality disorders to an entire generation of gamers, or at least that’s why I think GTA is so damn popular. Nowadays, it’s taken for granted that beating a game shouldn’t take more than a few days of playing, even if you really suck: just keep trying and you’ll get there. In the NES days, only the best and most devoted got that distinction.

In the 80s and 90s, the Nintendo Hard phenomenon was an artifact of the gaming industry’s backwardness: a lack of experience, which made it harder for developers to anticipate problems, as well as inadequate technology, which took its toll on gameplay mechanics. Things like being unable to attack when going up stairs, or getting knocked back into the abyss when jumping into a platform by an enemy you couldn’t see before, were likely the result of the limitations of consoles at the time rather than conscious design choices. Nowadays, such flaws are much more difficult to justify, especially coming from major developers.


I give Mass Effect 2 a hard time for the atrocious design flaws that the armored varren expose, but the armor itself is actually a great way of making the game harder. By giving enemies more powers and better defenses, the game forces you to take the strategies you have already developed for playing the game and upgrade them, challenging you without screwing you over. The complete opposite of that is changing the rules of the game on you, so that your old methods just don’t work at all. And when I started playing The Last of Us on its highest difficulty, Survivor, that’s exactly what the game did to me.

In case you don’t know, a lot of the enemies in TLoU are zombie-like things called Infected. The most common types are Runners, who mostly look and act like most zombies you have seen in other games and movies, and Clickers, who look, shall we say, more exotic. Since a group of Infected can be very dangerous, and even individual Clickers are instant kills, you’ll be using stealth a lot of the time to engage them. On Hard and lower, it’s pretty easy to crawl up to Runners, but you have to be slower and more careful when trying to sneak up on Clickers, who have perfect hearing.

"They're charging HOW MUCH for an Xbox One?"
On Survivor, things are quite different. Here, sneaking up on Runners is next to impossible. And while you might think this is OK, there are two problems with this. The first is that, while sneaking up on Runners is made extremely hard, sneaking up on Clickers is as easy as before, meaning that Clickers, with their supposedly excellent hearing, are actually more susceptible to stealth attacks than Runners.

The other problem is that rather than forcing you to play more intelligently, this change actually forces you to be dumber, relying more on brute forces and less on planning and sneaking.  Take for example one of the first encounters in the game, which pits you against four Runners and a Clicker. What I would do on Hard is sneak up on each of the Runners – which had to be done perfectly, otherwise they would summon the Clicker to rip out your jugular with an instant kill – and then eventually I’d take the Clicker one on one. I had to be very quiet and careful, move around elegantly, making sure I didn’t cross another Runner’s line of sight while moving – in short, I was Solid Joel, and it was glorious.

On Survivor, I quickly realized that this tactic has absolutely no chance of working. I tried to think of other things to do, until finally I had a really stupid idea: since only the Clicker kills you instantly, I could use a gun to take him down first. This would alert all the Runners to my location, but hey, I could probably take them down in a fist fight. It’s the Ryu Hayabusa school of fighting: make as much noise as possible killing the first guy and then beat the rest into a bloody pulp. Only Ryu Hayabusa is a ninja with a sword, while Joel is a middle-aged man with a two-by-four. But what do you know: on the highest difficulty of a supposed survival-horror game, brute force was indeed the way to go.

Frankly, I don’t know which is worse: games that are difficult because of bad design or games that are difficult because they just behave differently on different difficulty levels. In both cases, the feeling is that the game is harder for all the wrong reasons. I think the most important thing to remember, when developing, reviewing or playing games, is that being challenging and being frustrating isn’t always the same thing. Keeping that in mind just might make video games a lot more fun for all of us.

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