With certain games becoming well-known and actually beloved based on their level of difficulty in recent years — Den of Geek citing the Dark Souls franchise as one such example, and one we’ll get to in due time — it seems time to take a look back on the most challenging games ever made. As always, this list is entirely subjective and salted to taste and the author takes no responsibility for triggering readers who do not find their personal favorite included.
#5. Vagrant Story – The only PlayStation 1 title to appear on this list, as well as the only RPG, Vagrant Story from Squaresoft is one of the unsung heroes of the original 3D gaming generation. Never quite as popular as the legendary Final Fantasy series, nor even making it to the heights occupied by The Legend of Dragoon or Tales of Destiny, Vagrant Story was a stylish and somewhat baroque interpretation of the traditional role-playing genre. There was only one problem, grinding actually depreciates your character overall, enemies provide no true EXP in the normal sense, and avoiding too many encounters can likewise cripple a character and an entire playthrough permanently. The traditional tricks of the trade employed by seasoned RPG veterans just don’t work here, and no amount of running in circles hitting A can cure that. A wonderful game hobbled by a sickening difficulty curve right from the outset, Vagrant Story is truly a title for gaming masochists.
#4. Mega Man – Originally known as Rockman in Japan where the iconic blue bomber was first imagined, Mega Man’s first outing on the NES was, in a word, simply savage. Players were dropped into a pixel-ridden roller-coaster of levels from the snowbound steppes of Ice Man’s stage to the nigh-unbeatable nightmare that is Wily Stage 1. The game was so punishingly difficult that the sequel, Mega Man 2, was intentionally reduced significantly in difficulty. Mega Man 2 would then go on to become the breakout success for the franchise and is perhaps the most well-known volume of the series to date despite over a dozen sequels and spinoff properties.
#3. Shinobi – While it may have been more relevant to the mainstream gaming community to suggest a title of kindred spirit such as Ninja Gaiden Black for the Xbox, Shinobi as released by Sega for the PlayStation 2 simply takes the cake. Death means the entire level must be done again, and jumping puzzles require many leaps of faith into the darkness, controller clenched. Waves of enemies that know just when to strike out, claiming your health, are the norm and there is literally no time to rest against the constant pressing assault that the game forces upon you. Like most excellent games in its genre, Ninja Gaiden games included, play control is very tight and responsive but the overall bar is set so high that many players will never beat the game despite hours of persistent attempts.
#2. Super Meat Boy – Released in 2010 by the small indie studio known as Team Meat, Super Meat Boy was a breakout success that saw distribution not only on PC but on most major consoles. Filled to the absolute brim with hardcore level design that forced an increasing number of always-lethal obstacles upon the hapless pile of bloody meat that represented the player’s only hope in a hellish, yet cute, world, Super Meat Boy would be imitated endlessly by other games in the genre. A large number of unique levels, charming characters each bearing their own unique in-game abilities, and collect-a-thon elements before they would become ubiquitous are highlights of this effort. Super Meat Boy Forever, a full sequel, is slated for a release later this year.
#1. Super Ghouls n’ Ghosts – A sequel to the almost-as-hard Ghosts n’ Goblins for the original Nintendo, the SNES classic from Capcom features tight play control, an amazingly deep and gorgeously expressed graphical palette, and inspired art and aesthetic design. Besides that, it’s extremely hard. Not only does the game throw endless projectiles and monsters at you ranging from standard zombies and skeletons to magical explosions of every size and unpredictable disposition, but the titanic bosses and their immeasurably large health bars are the topping on the dreadfully dreary cake. Your reward for slogging through 13 taxing stages and eight bosses? Do the entire game over again because the item you need to slay Sardius, the end boss, for good is back at the beginning of the game. Oops!
One of the most common memes circulating on Reddit, industry magazines, and internet forums surrounds the naming of notably hard games of any genre as “The Dark Souls of ____”. While this may become tiresome and cliche, there is truth in the notion that gamers do appreciate difficulty in their titles, and that the games of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s forced a much higher level of difficulty on the player to create an aspect of replayability that would otherwise be lacking given the physical constraints of the hardware of the day to produce lengthy plot lines and narratives.
Here’s to hard games! You’ll get your money’s worth out of them – so long as you avoid crushing your controller in a fit of rage at yet another “cheap” game over!