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What Happened to Hard Mode?

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



With more powerful technology also comes with more freedom in how obstacles are designed. That's led to puzzles and boss fights in modern games that are less about powering through the difficult parts and more about figuring out the particular strategy or gimmick governing the encounter. And once you do, it's usually a breeze after that point.

Remember Psycho Mantis in MGS, The Sorrow in MGS3, or Vamp in MGS4? (Hideo Kojima really likes these gimmick fights). All of them are literally impossible to beat before you figure out the trick, and laughably easy afterward. While those may be some more extreme cases, just take a quick look at your modern game library and you're bound to recall all the bosses that revolve around figuring out the trick to exposing their weak point or preventing that big attack, mechanics that stand in stark contrast to retro boss fights in which you just had to survive a merciless onslaught in order to come out still barely breathing. You forever have my undying loathing, Dr. Wily.


Another cause of gaming’s declining difficulty is the expansion of the industry itself. The group that usually labels themselves “hardcore gamers” (a title I use with distaste) has been on the decline among the total number of video game consumers. As the industry has gone mainstream we've seen the influx of casual gamers, who despite contributing to the widespread growth of the industry, have also caused a trend toward products that are tamer and less intense.

Many of these games are undoubtedly fun and I do enjoy them myself, but they are certainly nowhere near as hard as the games I grew up with. And they are perfect for the casual gamer, who isn’t willing to spend the time and effort to get past some maddeningly frustrating stuff for what he or she probably considers a marginal reward at best.

It's also important to keep in mind just how huge a component multiplayer is in today's games. With fighting games and first-person shooters leading the charge, most people get their kicks out of beating down real, live competitors rather than hit-or-miss, predictable AI. People look to competitive multiplayer for their challenge nowadays, which is a distinct shift away from hard single-player or co-op modes. It's unreasonable to expect developers to focus on putting challenge in a place that their customers don't care as much about anymore.

But the rest of us are still out there, that slowly dwindling group of gamers who ravenously eat up any challenges thrown our way and won’t stop trying until we triumph. For us the reward isn’t anything material; it's not the unlockable content, an alternate ending, or a secret message from the developers. That kind of thing is certainly a bonus, but wholly unnecessary. The real reward is internal, a sense of relief and exhilaration that can’t be adequately described until you’ve accomplished such a nigh-impossible task yourself. For a brief moment, you become utterly invincible (not unlike the effects of cocaine... or so I've been told).

I first got that rush when I finally beat the original NES Ninja Gaiden. I was still just a kid, but I had been continuously trying to beat the game since almost the first time I ever picked up a controller. It took nearly ten years of getting smacked around by bosses and falling down bottomless pits, but the high I got from seeing the simple, paltry ending screen after all that time made it all worth it. I don’t think I’ll ever experience another moment in gaming that will ever match that feeling. And it felt that great only because it had been so damn hard.



Obviously, the world has changed to the point where not every game can or should be that hard anymore. The industry is stronger than ever and we’ve got some great products that are a blast to play, even if they are on the easy side. But I hope that between all of the epic adventures and casual-friendly creations, we continue to see at least a trickle of games with that good old mind-numbingly hard challenge. For my money, there’s nothing quite as sweet.

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