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What Happened to Hard Mode?

Posted on Wednesday, June 1 @ 09:32:11 Eastern by Josh_Laddin


If you played video games back in the '80s and early '90s, then you know what “hard” really is. Many of the old NES games didn’t even have multiple difficulties—they just had one, and it was brutal. Remember those impossible jumps in Super Mario Bros. that took hours of practice to master? Or the endless obstacle course of bullets that you had to wade through in Contra, when one hit meant instant death? And of course there’s always the infamous jet bike level from Battletoads


No doubt about it, they just made games harder back then. Even “easy mode”, on the games that offered it, was often a lot tougher than normal difficulty in modern games today. Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t hard games out there now. Every now and then, we see a nice change of pace in games that add a truly hard difficulty level, such as the God, Titan, and Chaos modes in the God of War series or “Dante Must Die” in DMC.

And once in a rare while, a game comes along that’s just hard no matter how you play it, like the under-exposed but wickedly awesome Ikaruga or the die-a-million-deaths Demon's Souls. These gems definitely hearken back to the old school games that tested a player’s skill to the limit, and players like me are thankful for it. But all of these examples are, as the saying goes, the exceptions that prove the rule. 20 years ago it would be nonsensical to make special mention of these games for their difficulty, because that was the simply the norm.

Take a look at the landscape of the industry today, and such games are few and far between. Huge, sprawling adventures are commonplace, many of them offering a story that takes 20+ hours to complete. But they are, in general, a hassle-free 20 hours. I've dumped at least 200 hours into all my playthroughs of the masterpiece that is Ocarina of Time. But there isn’t a single minute in that huge playtime that’s hard enough to require more than a handful of attempts to get by. Don’t get me wrong, I love Zelda to death, but I can’t think of any moment in the entire series (post-NES, of course) that frustrated me half as much as the first level of Contra.


So what happened to the world of gaming that created this change to the overall difficulty of our games? The first and foremost answer to that question is technology—improvements in technology, specifically. Consider the technological limits of an 8-bit or earlier console: It was simply impossible to create a game that was very long. Even the length of Zeldas and Final Fantasies back then paled in comparison to today’s creations within those same series.

With that technological ceiling limiting the amount of content a developer can put into their game, there's only one effective solution to extend a game’s lifespan—make it as hard as humanly possible so that a player has to try over and over to succeed. But with more powerful consoles the ceiling was raised—we got bigger and bigger worlds and save points every ten minutes (which has further evolved into quicksaves at literally any moment).

In the era heralded by the arrival of the N64, Playstation, and Dreamcast, it all became about keeping the player occupied by giving them more to do; making things truly hard was lost as a priority because it was no longer a necessary component of replay value. These days there is virtually no technological limit to what a developer can put in a game, so there’s no need to make something hard to keep the player coming back.
 


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