Let’s face it: extreme difficulty can ruin a game. Striking the right balance between being a rewarding challenge and flat-out torturing players is never easy for developers – make a game unfairly hard, and you only cause frustration; make it stupidly simple, and you risk boring everyone.
Most of us have a title in our past we just couldn’t conquer, and admitting defeat is never fun.
Today, some games are accused of being too easy (perhaps because trendy regenerating health and generous save points encourages sloppier gameplay), and players are generally keen to get a challenge for their money. The Arkham, Mass Effect, and Elder Scrolls series all hit the sweet spot, providing challenging moments that encourage multiple attempts without being unbeatable (anyone else have to slog through that Clayface fight again and again?!).
Some games, though, seem to have been created by sadists, and give even the most skilled players monster thumb-blisters. These titles deserve to be named and shamed, right here, right now.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES)
Everyone’s favourite pizza-loving ninjas have starred in many a game, but none has been as infamous as their NES adventure. Hard enough to give lifelong gamers nightmares, this is widely regarded as one of the most unfairly challenging titles on Nintendo’s antique console.
Different moments contribute to TMNT’s notorious difficulty: for example, platform sections with low ceilings make jumping an exercise in scream-inducing, sweaty-palmed frustration; in the much-maligned underwater dam level, deactivating time bombs is a hellish quest due to the electric seaweed.
While the game’s seen as something of a classic, the insane difficulty earned it mixed reviews, and put many players right off.
Eternal Champions (Mega Drive / Genesis)
This 16-bit fighting game is still one of the hardest ever. Sure, Street Fighter II can be challenging, but Eternal Champions makes that game’s M.Bison boss-battle look like a tutorial.
While we’re sure people out there have mastered this game, the difficulty level is just too high to encourage perseverance. Opponents seem to have the upper hand at all times, blocking your every attack before unleashing a string of hits that leaves you baffled. The neat concept and varied characters help this to stand out amongst the competition, but anyone looking for an accessible, fun brawl should look elsewhere.
Another brutal NES game, Battletoads teases players with a fun, accessible beam-em-up … before spiralling into a nightmarish descent into Hell.
The second stage, a repelling-based scenario, is equally fun, before the motorbike level rears its ugly head. At this point, Battletoads slaps you across the face with its difficulty, taunting anyone hardy (or stupid) enough to try again and again. By the time you reach level 5, your thumbs are typically a swollen mess and your brain is porridge.
Ninja Gaiden Black (PlayStation 2)
Ah, Ninja Gaiden Black. If ever you find yourself enjoying video games too much, pop this in for a spin – you’ll soon change your mind.
Ludicrous boss fights, gangs of enemies, and mega-hard challenge modes all help to make Ninja Gaiden Black virtually unplayable for anyone but the most hardcore. Luckily, the game does include Ninja Dog difficulty, accessible after dying three times in one level on Normal mode. Choosing this is basically admitting defeat, but most players welcome it with open, trembling arms.
Mega Man 9 (Multiple Platforms)
While the Mega Man series has never been the easiest, this 2008 instalment really takes the proverbial biscuit. Cheap deaths and ever-harder boss fights are pretty cruel, pushing even the biggest fans to despair.
Mega Man 9’s Galaxy Man level, supposedly the easiest, is still like pulling teeth. While it might be an essential purchase for fans, few gamers are likely to feel overjoyed by the oppressive difficulty.
Ghosts ‘n Goblins (NES)
Forcing players to plough through a game twice to see its proper ending is pretty unfair, but Ghosts ‘n Goblins has no qualms about it. Rescuing Princess Prin Prin is so hard simply finishing the game once isn’t enough, and Sir Arthur must finish it a second time, on a higher difficulty setting.
Sir Arthur can only take two hits before dying (receiving one hit removes his armour, forcing him to carry on in nothing his his underwear), and losing a life returns players to the level’s start.
Still doesn’t sound hard enough? Okay, well, how about this? Each life lasts only around three minutes, with the in-game clock resetting at a level’s start. If the timer runs out, Sir Arthur loses a life.
Dark Souls (Multiple)
Dark Souls is based around dying and returning to try challenging situations again & again. While this is a game worth persevering with, but many players have been put off by its high difficulty.
Rather than helping players to solve problems, Dark Souls pushes you to embrace the concept of cause and effect, to be willing to experiment. Learn your lesson, and you’ll overcome one challenge after another, but if you can’t get used to this system, the game might not be for you.
Still, Dark Souls was a success, spawning two sequels – so people clearly stuck with it.
That brings our exploration of seven of the hardest video games ever to a close – what are the most difficult ones you’ve played? Let us know!