It’s always a shock to go back to games of old, perhaps on the SNES or even the NES, to find there’s no difficulty setting. You press start, and you go, and you get your ass kicked. Mastery of these games is pretty admirable in itself, because back in ‘the good old days’ video games rarely held back (if anecdotes are to be believed, anyway). The phrase Nintendo Hard has been coined in homage to this era of insanity, but their legacy has dwindled as games grow to be more approachable, “intuitive” and, well, friendly.
The first ever commercial video game, Computer Space, absolutely bombed because it was too hard for the general public to pick up and play. Nolan Bushnell learned from his mistakes, created Atari and released Pong instead, which really got the ball rolling for the video game industry. Despite this, however, gaming was for decades maligned as the hobby of obsessive, anti-social males, and despite games temporarily coming into vogue for “all the family”, the domain mostly languished back into the hands of the hardcore.
There’s that word. Hardcore. Used in the modern day to differentiate between someone who plays as a primary hobby and someone who simply thumbs Bejeweled Blitz on their way to work, I’m using it here to describe the earlier pioneers who were passionate about something not because it was in vogue, but because they genuinely loved it. With an audience mainly consisting of enthusiasts and young people, the ante on difficulty was inevitably upped. Video games did not have checkpoints, they rarely (if ever) allowed manual saving, they frequently featured nightmarishly complicated platforming and puzzles, and the idea of a hint system or skipping a level because it was too tricky was laughable. If you were stuck, you were stuck, and the Internet wasn’t there to help you out.
This makes returning to games of an earlier era a nasty slap in the face. Even titles like the original Tomb Raider, only a decade and a half old, present an extra challenge in the form of no analogue stick, no clues and unforgiving collision detection which sees the slightest mistep send you sprawling into the abyss. In contrast, its modern day counter part, Tomb Raider Underworld, comes with in game hints (and in earlier levels outright instructions), frequent check points, manual saves (which were only available in the PC version of the original Tomb Raider) and Lara giving you a split second of flailed warning because you dropped from a ledge to your death.
Are we dumbing games down, or simply allowing a wider audience to play them? I don’t think one is really possible without the other – to appeal to more people you must aim to as low a common denominator as possible. If you want millions of people to buy your game, you must ensure that millions of people can play your game without being put off. As a bonus, it would do good to cater to the segment of players who want a true challenge, rather than a simple leisure experience. Not all games do this, at the risk of rocking any pre-established fan bases.
Some games have even been developed to deliberately counteract the trend of family friendly titles, to truly test the skill of their players. Titles like Demons Souls take a fair stab at challenging the player, requiring levels of determination and an eye for keen detail that many modern players lack. Others, such as the infamous I Wanna Be The Guy, deliberately take lessons from Nintendo’s early offerings and offer platform games that are only a shade away from impossible.
Does this mean then, that aside from a few who pursue these niche offerings, that modern game players are not as skilled as their Golden Age counterparts? In terms of patience, yes, we are probably more lacking than those who waited for their ZX Spectrum to successfully load. From a personal perspective, I am certainly in the position of knowing that if I purchase a modern game that I am extremely likely to finish it, whereas I look at my copies of Super Mario World and can only wonder what the final cutscene might look like.
There is a fine line between ease of use and ease of play. The more recent Pokemon games, particularly the DS iterations, are far smoother in terms of interface, in-game travel, item storage and general play. The original Red and Blue games saw the player walking at a snail’s pace for nearly half of the game, a feature that seemed tolerable until speed boots were introduced in a later title in the series. After being exposed to this improvement, Red and Blue didn’t become harder per se, but they definitely became more frustrating. In terms of battle mechanics (the main play element of the games) however, the games were improved in terms of fairness while maintaining the same level of difficulty in combat, with the introduction of natures and new group types. The player was granted access to move descriptions before teaching them, but this gave no strategic advantage that could not be discovered simply by deploying the move or reading about it in a magazine. Developers, then, should be careful about what is implemented to make the game accessible, and what is implemented to determine the game’s difficulty.
I’m a relatively easy going player. I don’t tend to crank things up to eleven unless I’m so gripped by a game that I want to increase its longevity by playing again in a harder mode. When starting my Mass Effect 2 game, I was offered casual mode for “players who have no experience with shooting games, or players who are more interested in story than in combat.” I appreciated that last line – I am very experienced with shooting games, and always feel mildly insulted when I select the easiest difficulty under the guise of not being very good. For the most part, I play games for a sense of progression and achievement, something which is notably harder to achieve in difficult modes. I don’t get a buzz from racking up kill streaks in Insane mode – I do, however, get the fuzzies when I get a cutscene where my squad’s back stories are developed or the plot is furthered.
Would things have been different if I’d grown up in the Golden Age of games, when difficulty levels didn’t even exist? Maybe. Maybe in my younger years I would have developed incredible hand-eye coordination, mind blowing finger dexterity and the ability to persevere with even the most difficult of bosses. As it turned out, I’m into games for the fun, not for the challenge – and that’s fine by me.