Game Design Essentials: 20 Difficult Games

By John Harris

Difficulty in video and computer game development has been on the outs for some time. If a player possibly cannot complete Action Adventure Game X, so the thinking goes, the designer has failed. Most MMORPGs feel like they can be played on autopilot; in fact many can, a fact dear to some players' hearts. When Ninja Gaiden came out and turned out to be a stiff challenge some players were up in arms. That ever-so-quotable Tomonobu Itagaki said that hearing player cries made him want to make the game even harder.

Ahem. Setting aside what we might think of his statement, certainly, difficulty in a video game must be handled carefully. Nothing attracts the ire of those fickle game bloggers quite like them getting their asses handed to them by a game. And it is possible to make a game arbitrarily difficult without too much effort. Increase monster attack strength, decrease player health, remove resources and/or add more foes -- these are just the most obvious ways a game can be made harder, and it doesn't take any great skill to add them.

But this is not to say that games must be easy. The impulse to make video games easier can be traced to a fundamental change in perception over what a game should be. The older school of thought, which dates back and beyond the days of Space Invaders to the era of pinball, is that a game should measure the player's skill. Arcade games, in fact, must make it difficult for a player to last for any great length of time in order to keep money coming into the coin box. The newer concept is that a game should provide an experience to the player. The player is to feel like some character, or like he's participating in a story, or that he's making some difference in a fictional realm.

Tecmo's NES classic Ninja Gaiden

The difference can be seen in Super Mario Bros., but may date to before it. Super Mario Bros. doesn't seem like it's entirely convinced either; many of the later levels are quite hard. The discarding of score, the emphasis on "suspension of disbelief" and storytelling, the trend towards providing a narrative longer than "see those guys; kill them," and the idea that a game can be "finished," these are all substantial indications of the change. A game intended only to measure skill, particularly, shouldn't have a completion state, because it would be like the game has given up.

Because of this, many of the games on this list are older ones. There are some exceptions, and those may be the most instructive examples, games that wish to tell a story but are willing to take the risk that the player won't be able to see it through to its completion. Sometimes the difficulty lies in achieving a "super goal", which is kind of a way to have both things at once, an experience and a testing of skill.

Before I start, let's define that. "Super goal" is a term I use for a special goal in a game for supremely skilled play. Atari Games used them in many of their late 80s/early 90s arcade games for contests. A player could, for example, collect letters spelling TOOBIN' in that game to receive directions to follow for obtaining a free T-Shirt. Super goals are distinguished from ordinary goals in that they are an objective beyond winning the game, and that many players are expected to never achieve them.

 

Take note: although some of the hardest games ever made are on this list, it is by no means a list of the absolute hardest games. That’s why it includes Mischief Makers before Alien Storm; not because the latter game isn’t harder, but because Mischief Makers’ difficulty is particularly instructive. Of course, both of them pale before the terrible majesty of Sinistar.


1. Defender & Stargate

The greatest challenges.

Developed by Williams (Stargate by VidKidz)

Designed by Eugene Jarvis

Length: Arcade

Cool fact:

The Winner's Book of Video Games describes a tactic, similar to the hunting strategy in Asteroids, involving a place on Defender's planet's surface colloquially called the "International Date Line." While the scrolling planet wraps around horizontally, internally the game still marks player and enemy positions using X and Y coordinates, and simple greater-than comparisons are used to do direction checks to figure out how enemies should chase the player. The International Date Line corresponds to the zero on the X axis of the game's coordinate system. When the player crosses over that point, he may have moved only a pixel on the screen, but his position is suddenly clear across the map, and aggressive enemies will rush away from the player to attack by going around the world. The IDL is near the tallest mountain on the planet.

Watch for:

The end of the world, which happens if you lose all the humanoids. It's survivable, but only just.

You're a spaceship, flying around a cylindrical world. Also flying around are enemies. Some of them try to kill you, but the most important ones, the green Landers, are more interested in roaming around looking for the humanoids scattered along the ground. This is why the scanner is important: the humanoids are all over the place, and the player needs to know where they are so he can zip there when one is being abducted.

If a Lander gets away with a humanoid, the two merge into a Mutant, an insanely aggressive enemy that not only comes zooming to your location but likes to approach from above your ship, where it's hard for your horizontal lasers to hit. If all ten humanoids are killed or abducted the planet blows up, and all the Landers turn into Mutants in every level until the next multiple of 5, when the player's humanoid supply is replenished. If this happens, you might as well walk away from the machine unless you're already a Defender wizard, because you aren't going to survive.

When a Lander makes away with a humanoid, there is a distinctive sound to alert the player to look at the scanner to see where it's happening. Often the abduction will be too far away to do much about it (after the first level the Landers get really fast when they're stealing someone away), but sometimes they'll be close enough to reach in time. To save the humanoid, you must shoot the Lander without hitting his victim dangling beneath him. If you shoot the humanoid instead, you won't have a Mutant to worry about, but you'll still be one guy closer to the end of the world. Better is to shoot the Lander, then grab the humanoid out of his fall.

Doing this is worth a fair number of points. I mention this because points are supremely important in Defender, because it's so hard that you are always losing ships. Even Landers can fire shots that can cover the length of the screen in a split second, and there are plenty of harder enemies than that. The only way to overcome the constant loss of lives is to earn them, at 10,000 points each, faster than you lose them. There is a hyperspace button that teleports the player to a random spot on the planet, but it sometimes kills the player just because he used it. And there is the smart bomb, which clears the screen of enemies but is in short supply, and the game is so loaded with things to watch that many beginners forget they even have them.

When I read bloggers talk about bullet patterns and end bosses, I can only sympathize so much, because I know Defender was ultra hard in a completely organic and random way long before this new-fangled kind of shooter, and yet also required far more than memorization and reflexes. Defender and Stargate are a particularly awesome kind of hard, a fun-while-it-lasts hard, where most players aren't expected to survive long but can get better with practice. Anyone can make an arbitrarily hard game, but to make it so hard yet compelling enough to try again and again, only genius can create this.

How hard is it?

Defender is, quite possibly, the hardest significant game there is, and yet it was a huge hit in its time. That combination of qualities, massively difficult yet tremendously popular, seems unthinkable today, but if it happened once, it could happen again.

Design lesson:

If your game is genuinely fun to play for its own sake, then difficulty is an aid, not a drawback. Defender was so enjoyable at the time that players were driven to earn tremendous scores despite the difficulty.

Wikipedia's pages on Defender and Stargate.

GameFAQ's pages on Defender and Stargate.

KLOV's pages on Defender and Stargate.

2. Kaboom!

An emissary from Computer-Land has come to test the limit of human reflexes. His purpose? Destruction.

Developed and designed by Larry Kaplan

Length: Arcade

Cool fact:

The game gets faster all right, but it also slows down a bit when you lose a life. Yet while the player may survive for a little longer temporarily, the game has gotten harder permanently, because water buckets are taken from the bottom first. So, losing just one life usually means the end of the game.

Watch for:

The smile on the Mad Bomber's face when you lose. That bastard! It's said that, if you reach 10,000 points, he stops smiling when you miss a bomb. Sure, like we're going to get that far.

Kaboom! is an extremely pure form of game, so pure that it is actually possible to think it doesn't qualify to be called one. There are no pickups or enemies, but around the time of its release that wasn't really that unexpected. There is also no strategy, nothing to shoot at, no change of scenery. It is game boiled away; flavoring elements and impurities have turned to steam and escaped the flask. That powder left at the bottom is pure adrenaline.

At the top of the screen is the Mad Bomber. At the bottom there are your three buckets of water. The Bomber moves left and right, dropping a steady stream of bombs. The paddle moves the buckets left and right as well. Your job is to catch every bomb, matching the Bomber's movements.

As the game continues, the Bomber's bombs drop faster and faster. And faster. His movements become quicker and more erratic. If you miss even one bomb, they all explode and you lose a bucket. Lose three and the game's over. While the bombs slow down for a while after a miss, the game also gets subtly harder in that the buckets you lose are removed from the bottom first, decreasing the time you have to react to the Bomber's movements.

It is not exaggerating to say that there are WarioWare minigames that have more depth than Kaboom! has. But for what it is, that's okay. Kaboom! is about testing the limits of your reactions and nothing else. It is minimalist enough to qualify as a scientific experiment. Your score is a objective measure of the speed and accuracy of your reflexes.

That is all there is to say about Kaboom!, yet I can't recommend it enough in small doses. It's not just for breakfast anymore.

How hard is it?

As more a measure of reaction speed as a game, naturally it gets to the point where few human beings can keep up.

Design lesson

The game is more a test than a game, and the purpose of a test is to challenge. The point of Kaboom! isn't to have fun so much as measure your skill. Few games are this pure anymore. There is no strategy to Kaboom!, no tactics to learn. If you're better at using the paddle to match the bomber, the higher your score will be. Skill measuring games are rarely seen anymore, but still exist. The WarioWare games, at their core, are of the same kind as Kaboom!.

Wikipedia's page on Kaboom!

GameFAQ's page on the game (yes, there is one).


3. Cobra Triangle

Rare's arcade approach at its utmost, a supreme, and supremely-difficult, action game.

Developed by Rare

Length: Arcade

Cool fact:

The route you take in the "race" areas determines what sequence of levels you get next.

Watch for:

It's a shooter R. C. Pro-Am with boats. That's damn near worth watching for by itself.

Check it out, it plays like R. C. Pro-Am, but it's not a racing game! It has boss fights! It has a Gradius-style powerup system! It has an amazing variety of action! And it's bone-crushingly hard!

Why did this game tank in stores? Why was this, which takes everything Rare's hit R. C. Pro-Am had and improves it off the charts, doomed to fail? The only reason I can come up with is that it's an incredible challenge, a game for experts. It remains the one NES game I've ever been reduced to using the slow-motion feature on my old NES Advantage to play. Dodging shots in boss levels is a trial in an Asteroids-controlling game with a big boat and a small screen, and the "Jump The Waterfall" stages make one want to smash things.

Yes, Cobra Triangle is a game that demands mastery. Nothing less will do. Despite that energy bar at the bottom of the screen a depressing number of things will cause instant death. But for those willing to put in the work, what you have here is one damn fine game.

The types of levels are:

Reach the Finish, of which there are two kinds: wide-open "race" levels where you're not really racing, and linear obstacle courses that require pin-point steering.

Disarm the Mines, where the player must drag mines from a holding pen into an area where they detonate harmlessly. Meanwhile enemy boats try to steal them back from you (they're good at it too) and other foes attack.

Rescue the Swimmers, which puts the player on point as guard against a fleet of enemy boats trying to carry them off. UFOs also join the attack here, and their missiles paralyze you for a couple of excruciating seconds. In this level, the player tries to wait out the clock instead of beat it.

Collect Pods, this is like a bonus round but with some obstacles. Ramps allow the player to reach power-ups floating in the air, but if you jump out of the river by accident it's instant death. This is generally a break from the other levels, though, and it also lasts until time runs out.

Fry the Monster, these are the boss levels. Unlike other stages, these don't scroll. Imagine what it would be like in R. C. Pro-Am if you had to maneuver around a single screen? Now imagine almost half of it is taken up by a highly-mobile enemy trying to kill you. The boss fights are also fairly random, and many times players will get through by the skin of their teeth.

Jump the Waterfall, which both sounds and is horrifying. There are multiple waterfalls in line (which is physically impossible, but hey, it's just a game), and all of them after the first have moving ramps that must be hit, and hit fast enough to make it across. And you have to maintain enough control to not leap onto dry land, which is just as deadly as falling into the gorge.

Bonus, which automatically scrolls although the player can still rotate and shoot. The idea is to shoot targets on the bank of the river. The more the player hits the faster he goes, and getting them all is worth an extra life.

Cobra Triangle is something of a black mark on my gaming record. Not only was this the only game to drive me to using slow-motion, to hit some of those more obnoxious ramps in the waterfall stages, but I never beat it.

How hard is it?

It's an arcade-like action game that's harder than most arcade games, because you can only continue twice! No one will be able to resist throwing down their controller during the Waterfall stages.

Design lesson:

The game is old school hard, and the difficulty serves the purpose it does in most of those games. Levels vary, but not enough that seeing what's next, the exploratory impulse, drives the player on. The game is played to improve, and for a high score, both ethics almost unheard-of nowadays.

Wikipedia's page on Cobra Triangle.

GameFAQ's page on the game.

 

4. Sinistar

That big floating head with a taste for spaceships is still among the greatest villains in gaming.

Developed by Williams.

Designed by Noah Falstein and John Newcomer

Length: Arcade

Cool fact:

The game has theme waves, like Stargate, but most players flame out long before seeing them. The progression is: first wave, Worker Zone, Warrior Zone, Planetoid Zone, Void Zone, then back to Worker.

Watch for:

When you pick up a crystal when you're full on bombs, there's a message saying "Crystal saved for warp." But how does one warp? The information is nowhere to be found and it's possible that feature isn't in the game.

It’s hard to believe that so many of our most fondly-remembered arcade classics came out in such a small time window. There were video games before Taito’s Space Invaders in 1978, but almost all of them except for Pong lie forgotten now. From 1978 to the big crash in 1983, that’s just five years. Sinistar came out in 1982.

Five years from Space Invaders, which is so slow that the aliens don’t move all at once but “wave” in their motion, to Sinistar, with its gigantic universe, physics, and dozens of active aliens going about with tasks to accomplish. Then 1983 rolled around and the U.S. the arcade industry hit a wall. Japan wasn’t as affected, and Japanese manufacturers came to dominate the direction that video gaming took. Imagine what video games would be like if they went in the direction of Defender and Sinistar instead? These are games that took a simulation approach long before Grand Theft Auto.

The play is an interesting mix of high-speed action and subtlety. The player needs crystals from the rocks to get bombs to destroy the Sinistar with, but shooting a rock too fast will destroy it. They must be milked by making them vibrate, but not too much. Killing Worker enemies slows the construction of the Sinistar, but the player doesn't want to slow it too much, since the wave can only be finished once it's made, and the longer it goes on the more Warriors come out to harass the player.

The player can carry up to 20 bombs (obtained by collecting crystals), and it takes 20 crystals in the hands of the Workers to make the Sinistar. It takes 13 bombs to destroy it, and sometimes more as bombs can be blocked by collisions with enemies or rocks, and after the first level Workers try to repair the Sinistar when it takes damage. It's easy to get 20 bombs collected in the first level, leaving seven bombs for the next level, but it rapidly gets harder to collect them while the Warriors are shooting.

Time is extremely important here. There is no clock, but Workers fuss away building the Sinistar regardless of what the player’s doing, and all over the game’s universe. There are also Warriors in the sector, who harass the player if they find him but otherwise spend their time shooting rocks to make crystals for the Workers. The sector is so large that there’s no way the player can halt the Sinistar’s construction for long; he can only put a dent in it.

How hard is it?

After Stargate, Williams made this for an encore. What makes this difficult, interestingly, is not the title element. The Warrior enemies are a lot less imposing than the gigantic ship-eating menace, but they take out a much greater percentage of player ships.

The Warriors are so troublesome that Sinistar, while not more difficult than Defender, has inspired lesser heights of accomplishment. The high score for Sinistar is less than (a still extremely impressive) 800,000. There's a rumor, reported on KLOV, that the game’s difficulty was increased late in production by decree of Williams management. Arcade manufacturers were afraid games were too easy back in the classic era, so they risked wrecking what was already a difficult game to compensate for the abundance of leet skillz gushing around at the time.

Design lesson:

I've never made it past the third wave without setting the game to more reasonable settings, yet, like Defender, there are people who have racked up very large scores. And like Defender, the pure play of the game is enough to come back; the skill-measuring aspect is just a bonus.

Wikipedia's page on Sinistar.

GameFAQ's page on the game. (Not too useful this time.)

KLOV's page on the game.

Just for fun: Bob the Angry Flower's "Coffee With Sinistar" and "Return of Sinistar."


5. Solomon's Key

The game has nothing to do with the Old Testament story, but it has everything to do with hurting. Entertaining puzzles and play, but ultimately requires reading a FAQ to beat it.

Developed by Tecmo.

Length: Arcade

Cool fact:

There are "Solomon's Seals" scattered throughout the NES version's 49 levels. They are particularly well-hidden prizes, and there are eight of them. They are all found by placing a block in a particular place then removing it, with no clues to its location. Without all of them the player cannot get the best ending, and that's only the start....

Watch for:

There are plenty of other secret objects in the game as well. Most of them are worth vast numbers of points. There is an extra life in the third level of the game (NES version): on your first attempt on the level, place a block in the upper-right-hand corner and remove it. This requires that you do something about the sparks in that room, of course.

The most hidden rooms aren't just difficult to figure out, they contain what appear to be unbreakable blocks sealing in essential objects. Sometimes the appearance is fake, but sometimes you have to perform arcane tricks to make them vulnerable.

Solomon's Key is of the breed of block-action platform puzzle games. The difficulty all lies in the ways the player can place walls upon the landscape, and the ways he can use and manipulate them. In fact, it might be the first of the type. Enemies are often killed by placing a block, letting them walk on it, then destroying it.

The rules to this one: wizard Dana can make a yellow block in front of him, at his feet in front of him, and if he jumps in the air in front of him. He can jump one block high, and with two jumps can destroy a block overhead. Usually he can do none of these things with white blocks. Some enemies are killed by dropping them by destroying a block under their feet, in other cases enemies reverse direction when they hit one, or flow along the outside of placed blocks.

One of the things that makes Solomon's Key different from most puzzle games, however, is the occasional ways the rules are broken. Not only do a couple of secret rooms lie to the player about which blocks can be shattered, but objects commonly appear when you place and remove blocks over empty spaces, enemies appear out of mirrors constantly on some levels but don't on others, some items (including a few keys in the arcade version) can be changed into others using the block-creation button, and the bonus levels randomly scatter the prizes.

To achieve the best ending, the player must find all eight “Solomon’s Seals”, which are well-hidden objects that can only be produced by placing blocks in the right spots and destroying them, entering the secret “Page of Time” and “Page of Space” rooms and figuring out their obscure tricks, then visiting the “Princess Room” and figuring out yet another highly obscure block breaking trick, then finally going on to the last level and figuring out what the hell you’re supposed to do to perform its trick. Trick is the only word for these solutions; they cannot be figured out from logic alone. One is tempted to not call this kind of difficulty wankery, but it is true that there are obscure clues alluding to some of the solutions in the manual.

How hard is it?

Puzzle games often have a reputation as being extremely hard, and there are two that top the list. Solomon's Key is a game that few have won, and far fewer have gotten the best ending for. Some puzzles (I'm looking at you final room!) are essentially impossible without tremendous luck or a FAQ. By the way, much of the information in this entry comes to us courtesy of Tom Votava's excellent Solomon's Key FAQ. For all we know the arcade might have as many secrets as the NES version, but no one's written a FAQ about it yet, so....

Design lesson:

The game's difficulty and great variety of secrets make this a prime example of what I call a mysterious game, where so many awesome things lie hidden within that, for a while, it feels like a wonderful adventure. Call it the Bubble Bobble effect.

Comparison: Arcade vs. NES

Wikipedia's page on Solomon's Key.

GameFAQ's page on the NES version of the game.

KLOV's page on the arcade version of the game.

A fan site devoted to the game.

6. Adventures of Lolo, a.k.a. Eggerland, series

Start with Sokoban, take away the requirement to get boxes in the right spots but add in enemies, items, powers, water and all kinds of other things. The result may not be as elegant as Sokoban, but it has definite charm.

Developed by HAL Laboratory.

Length: Short to long (depending on Sokoban experience)

Cool fact:

There are a number of tricks that players must pick up in order to make it through these games. One of them: boxes can be pushed "halfway" across the tile grid, sometimes blocking two Medusas at once!

Watch for:

The Snakey Displacement technique. Argh!

HAL Labs’ pre-Nintendo rule-oriented puzzle game Eggerland, known as Adventures of Lolo in the U.S., is heavily inspired by Sokoban. Our hero’s primary ability is that he can push boxes, here called “Emerald Framers,” but unlike Sokoban this is only ever a means to an end. The object of each room is to collect all the “Heart Framers,” then getting the jewel in the now-open treasure chest somewhere on the level. Then the door to the next level opens up.

Also new to the formula here are the various enemies which get in the way or even attack the player. The blocks become more than a hindrance due to them, as they can be used to hinder enemy movement, block shots, or even obstruct some particularly lethal monsters’ line-of-sight. Some of the enemies also share these attributes, and there are times when one must block a Medusa with a less dangerous monster to have even a slight chance of completing the level. The player also sometimes obtains magic shots from picking up certain Hearts, and they become another resource for dealing with the foes.

The addition of monsters and collection goals changes the character of the game to being something quite different from Sokoban. Not enough has been added to the game to make it complex beyond the point of playability, especially since no level brings all of the developer’s toybox into play, but enough has been added to produce a huge variety of puzzle to solve. There are enough subtleties and gimmicks in the original ruleset that on the NES alone there were three games, the last one with well over 100 puzzles. Even the first game became quite challenging by the end, and Lolo III’s puzzles required a high frustration threshold to make it through.

In Japan, there were basically two types of Eggerland games. One of them was fairly standard block-pushing puzzle games, but the other type, unseen in the U.S., took the basic concepts and applied them to a large, screen-by-screen map with multiple exits from many rooms, and adding in even more types of obscurities for the player to scratch his head over than the hateful Snakey Displacement technique.

Oh, and what do I mean by Snakey Displacement technique? It’s another example of a puzzle game cheating, when theoretically they should play fair and introduce all the essential elements before they become important. To perform the trick: use two shots to destroy a Snakey, or other shootable monster, then push a block over its original space. Most levels this causes the monster to die permanently when it regenerates, but on a few boards it will instead appear elsewhere, usually in a place it would be impossible to put it otherwise. There can be up to three of these spots on a level, and there are puzzles that require that the player use this technique to complete them. Imagine what a player who had been staring at a puzzle for hours trying to figure it out would think when he learned an un-heralded gimmick must be used to solve it? At least Adventures of Lolo III had the decency to demonstrate it in a tutorial area.

How hard is it?

This is the other infamously difficult puzzle series. Unlike Solomon's Key these are more about figuring out precise solutions than coming up with a viable strategy. If you figure out the Snakey Displacement technique by yourself then I'm sorry, you're not a genius, you're just insane. (For the record: I did figure it out.)

Design lesson:

Puzzle games are about overcoming trials. The harder the trial, the better the player will feel after solving it, but also the more likely he'll give up and throw the game away. This is the secret behind the ascending level of difficulty in most puzzle games: not only the frog being boiled player being eased in slowly, but by the time he reaches the toughest puzzles he's invested so much time into it that he's unlikely to give up.

 


7. The Tower of Druaga

Many people complain about games that can only be beaten with strategy guides, but they're usually easy enough that anyone can get through with practice. This is not the case with Tower of Druaga.

Developed by Namco

Designed by Masanobu Endoh

Length: Strictly speaking, Arcade. But no one gains the information they need to win over one game, so really, Short to Long, depending on how long one perseveres before seeking aid.

Cool fact: If you hate Gilgamesh’s slow walking speed then make sure to pick up the treasure in level 2, as it makes the game a lot more playable.

Watch for: Gil’s shield? It’s not just a graphic; it can reflect wizard spells. And when holding out his sword, the graphic of Gil holds the shield to the side. This is also significant!

The game is almost unknown in the U.S., yet in Japan it was a sensation. It may be help us to better understand the differences between the two audiences to try to determine their reactions to this particular game.

U.S. audience impression:

My hero, Gilgamesh, must ache his way painfully slowly through level after monotonous level killing unexciting monsters through the means of holding out his sword and walking into them. Eventually I encounter a level with an invisible exit or an invisible key, or I find an item that makes it impossible to use my sword, or the level’s dark or something else happens that makes it impossible to play. To hell with this.

Japanese audience impression:

My hero, Gilgamesh, must figure out the secret trick on each level that makes the item appear. All the things that I first hated about this game, the hero’s slow walking speed, the difficulty in using the sword, the darkness and invisible exits and keys in later levels, are remedied by finding the right items. Some of the items are bad and shouldn’t be collected (one can figure that out only by getting bitten by them). By the end, it seems I must have certain items, which must be collected throughout the game, just to win. It’s a stiff challenge, but I can do it!

I think the difference can be rendered down to willingness to jump through hoops. This does not necessarily reflect badly on Japanese players, for all video games amount to leaping like a trained poodle when you get down to it, but they do seem a lot less ambivalent about figuring out some secret rigmarole than U.S. players.

But no other game takes that to the extremes that Tower of Druaga does. What first appears like a slow-moving D&D-ish game is actually about these secrets. One is tempted to call them riddles, but honestly, riddles give clues, while Tower of Druaga has none! It doesn’t help that the tricks get harder throughout the game, meaning if the player is fatally screwed-over by, say, picking up the Evil Gauntlet, to get another attempt he must start over, because once collected items can’t be uncollected! In effect, miss a required item or pick up a bad one and even if you’ve otherwise played perfectly to that point, your game is over. It is a game that either demands spending credit after credit in order, at best, to find a fatal mistake on each one, or that requires collaborating with other players or looking up a FAQ. Imagine how bad that must have been before the internet!

One gets the feeling that eventually Japanese players awoke to this, for you don’t exactly see an avalanche of games with this infuriating quality these days.

How hard is it?

Take the thinking behind the Seals in Solomon's Key and the Snakey Displacement Technique in Lolo and apply them to the entire frickin' game. Congratulations: you just invented Tower of Druaga!

Design lesson:

While overall I think Druaga's difficulty is harmful, it conclusives proves that, no matter how obscure you make the puzzles in your game, if it's humanly possible to beat it, someone will. How Druaga does it is not just to set obscure tasks to accomplish that can only be discovered by lucking upon them, but to make such a wide variety of them that everyone is utterly stumped by some. Druaga is so extreme in its game winning criteria that players more or less must communicate between each other to win. It is a game that not only expects players to talk among themselves and consult FAQs, but requires it.

Wikipedia's page on Tower of Druaga.

Strategywiki's page on the arcade version of Tower of Druaga.

GameFAQ's page on the game.

KLOV's page on the game.

8. Monkey Ball, a.k.a. Super Monkey Ball

Putting that monkey in the ball may have been a whimsical masterstroke, but don’t let it fool you. This game is hard.

Developed by Amusement Vision (part of Sega)

Length: Arcade

Cool fact:

Finish all the levels in a difficulty in one life, or Expert on one credit, and you get to play the Extra levels for that difficulty. Finish all the Expert and Expert Extra levels and you get to play Master. But somehow, I don’t think you’re going to succeed at that....

Watch for:

The way the ball bounces. It’s important! There are levels where you must learn to control bounces to make it to the goal. This is where the fact that, when you push the stick, you move the level, not the ball, comes into play. If you think about it, tilting the level means moving it around a pivot point. The ball’s location is that point! If the ball is in the air, you can actually affect the path the ball takes by taking advantage of this.

First let’s get this out of the way. The monkey doesn’t affect the game at all. Some players prefer to pick Baby, the smallest monkey, but it doesn’t change the physics, only how easily they can see the spot the sphere touches the ground. Also, forget the party games. Monkey Bowling and Billiards might be cool, but ultimately the reason to play Monkey Ball is the levels.

Your ball resides on a platform, in 3D space. If you tilt the joystick, the platform tilts, and the action of gravity will cause the ball to roll. Somewhere on the level is a gate; if you roll the ball through it, you complete the level. Sometimes there’s warp gates, but they’re usually more trouble than they’re worth. If you get through all the levels, you win the game.

That is the entire game. You can hit a button to change the scale of the map, and that’s it. There is nothing more to it than this. If the game didn’t have an awesome physics system backing it up it’d be nothing.

But it does have incredible physics. What Monkey Ball proves, really, is that if you take modeling the real world as your aim you will never run out of level ideas. The ball bounces realistically, and there are levels where you must bounce the ball over gaps, or even skip over holes. There are levels with spinning platform elements you must try to stay on. There are levels with pinball bumpers that try to knock you off. There are levels with thin platforms. There are levels with “pop-up” walls that give the monkey a nasty bump. There are levels where you must maneuver atop a horizontal, spinning cylinder. There are levels where you must hold the stick so that you roll down the side of a vertical wall, instead of just fall, and roll off a curve at its foot to get enough speed to jump into the gate. This is just for starters; there are far more levels than this. The people who made them up must have had a blast, and the amazing thing is, they’re all fair.

How hard is it?

There are four difficulties to this game. Beginner is easy. Advanced is a fair challenge. Expert is for sadists. Few who don't read game sites even know the game has a "Master" level. Possibly the most well-guarded unlockable ever put into a video game.

Design lesson:

If you're going to make a super hard game, make it fair. No one thinks Monkey Ball is unfair. There is no randomness. Everything that happens is a direct result of the player's actions, and there are no hidden portions of the level waiting to destroy the player. It's not like a boss enemy with secret attacks the player couldn't possibly survive the first time seeing it. It's not only possible to reach and finish Monkey Ball's Master levels, but it could be done on one's first try. Winning the lottery is more likely, but it's possible.

Wikipedia's article on Super Monkey Ball.

GameFAQs page on the game.

KLOV's page on the game.

Speed Demos Archive, strangely, has nothing on Super Monkey Ball, but there is a minimalist site with videos from the game. Of special note are the videos of the ultra-elusive Master levels.

Pictures scavanged from KLOV and http://www.trustedreviews.com/gaming/review/2005/08/20/Super-Monkey-Ball-Deluxe/p1.


9. Wetrix

Zed Two never really made any games other than Wetrix, and games like Wetrix. Yet sometimes an awesome graphics effect can go a long way.

Developed by Zed Two.

Designed by John & Ste Pickford (source: GameFAQs).

Length: Arcade

Cool fact:

Wetrix’s ruleset is a masterpiece of multiplier scoring. Every lake the board has multiplies scores by an additional factor. Having ducks multiplies that by two. A rainbow? Multiplies all that by x10! This turns up the juice on the game’s fairly low scoring, but to get the highest ranks even that isn't nearly enough.

Watch for:

Bombs that fall in ice don’t explode, but are stuck there. They’ll go off eventually, but... not right away.

This one’s a bit challenging to get information on, since there hasn’t been a lot said about it since its release on the N64, the first game by then-hopeful startup Zed Two. It’s a cool game, but not really all that exciting a concept I suppose.

The player is in charge of a square patch of 3D land in the middle of a void. Water drops are constantly falling all over it, producing microscopic flows of water. Once water appears on the board it is accurately modeled and ripples convincingly, splashing when objects are dropped into it in a manner that players of Wave Race 64 will find familiar.

When water flows off the board it’s added to the player’s failure drainage meter, and when the meter reaches the top the game’s over. The player’s job is to stop that by happening by placing pieces, falling through 3D space, on the land. Most of the pieces are uppers, which raise the land where they fall by one level. Uppers are of various different shapes, and they can fall unevenly; leaving a vertical impression of their shape across, say, a hill or valley. To do well, the player must use Uppers to wall off the edges, keeping the water inside.

The other most common pieces are water drops, which create an amount of water relative to their size where they strike. Once water enters the board, it generally doesn’t leave until it flows out, so eventually the basin will fill to overflowing; that’s where fireballs come in, which evaporate all the water contiguous to the spot they hit. Fireballs provide the primary scoring in the game, worth a large bonus when they activate depending on the water evaporated plus lowering the drainage meter by a like amount.

Other pieces include Downers, which lower land or water, Bombs that leave a hole where they strike causing leaks, and Ice Crystals which temporarily freezes the body of water they land in, making it unable to drain but also removing any bonus multipliers it may have provided.

There still more to this game. All the volume of land on the board is summed and that directly affects how full the Earthquake meter is, which prevents players from building endlessly. Having a lot of water grants a large score multiplyer, but the player is encouraged to not just make a big bowl but to compartment it into multiple lakes, and make them deep, which further multiplies score.

All these different, competing aspects make the design look like a bit of a mess. Several pieces exist just to make things harder for the player, because the game wouldn't be hard enough without them. Yet the game still comes together well. The player gets rated for having high scores, with some of the top ranks being ludicrously difficult to attain. Zed Two used their website to maintain a worldwide leaderboard for the game, with scores backed up using a password provided after each game which also recorded score and rank. The highest ranks were incredibly difficult to obtain....

How hard is it?

I'm sorry, did I say Monkey Ball's Master mode was the most difficult? There is one worse. Zed Two, the creators of Wetrix, put a hidden maximum rank in their 3D puzzle game, also called Master. The only way to earn it is to earn a billion points in a game where most players struggle to reach a million. Yet before ZedTwo's website went dark they recorded several substantiated reports of people having earned it. All of them had more free time than I did.

Design lesson:

Again, the Druaga Principle at work: if it's possible, someone will do it. There may even be an unlockable feature for reaching Master rank. Because of this, while Zed Two may be a memory, the game lives on.

Wikipedia's page on Wetrix.

GameFAQ's page on the game.

MobyGames' page on Zed Two.

10. One Man and his Droid

Alien sheep herded by robot drones through the tunnels of an alien world! An awesome Spectrum game that prefigures Lemmings in a way.

Developed and designed by Clive Brooker.

Length: Arcade. (Players can start on later levels using passwords.)

Cool fact:

Ramboids follow the structure of the level whether they’re on-screen or off, but only collide with other Ramboids if they’re on-screen! Shades of Mario’s Koopa Troopas jumping over kicked shells when no one’s looking....

Watch for:

If the player digs a horizontal tunnel the whole length of the scrolling, wrap-around map, he’ll discover that the tunnel will be off vertically by one character cell when he gets back to the start, an artifact of the way the game stores the map in memory and handles wrap-around.

There are two basic play modes to this one. The first one, which is fairly uninteresting except that it’s often quite hard, is sort of like Frogger without the chance of instant death. The player’s robot must navigate upward through a sea of “Ramboids,” those alien sheep. The field is much larger than one screen in size, and the screen scrolls upward to follow the player as he goes. The Ramboids move rapidly left and right in horizontal layers, and the player must enter his robot into holes in their procession. Periodically the entire board of Ramboids will decide to head down, usually pushing the player all the way back to start, and if a line shoves him off to the side of the board he’ll also be sent back to the bottom.

Once he reaches the top and enters the exit chute the real game can begin. The player’s robot is put into a scrolling, maze-like system of caverns. There are seven Ramboids of different types wandering around it at high speed. Also in the caverns are vertical chutes that connect the horizontal tunnels, and somewhere there’s a teleporter. The player’s job is to coerce the Ramboids into the teleporter.

But the player can’t pick them up, or even push them around. The only way to get them into the teleporter is by altering the level to cause them to go where he wants, which is how the game prefigures Lemmings.

The player can block passages with the droid's chassis (the Ramboids treat him like any other barrier), or by digging new tunnels. The tunnels are a little more than two droids in height and the player can fly while the Ramboids cannot, so he can fly above them and dip down to interpose himself in their travel at the point he wants. Once dug a tunnel cannot be undug, and each level is so large that it’s often difficult to visualize what the structure will be after the path is made, so this option should be utilized with care.

Of the seven unique Ramboids there are really two kinds. There’s a kind that moves left and takes any up shaft it finds until it hits a wall and goes right, when it’ll take any down passage it finds, and so on. The other kind reverses this pattern. Key to playing the game well is taking advantage of this. By blocking an up or down shaft the Ramboid will just skip past it, and take the next shaft it finds.

Compounding things are the fact that there is no “scanner” in this version of the game (the unreleased sequel, available from the developer’s website, does provide one) so the player has a hard time seeing what’s going on and figuring out exactly which shafts to block, and that he can’t just send any old Ramboid to the teleporter but must have them enter in the right order. Four or more Ramboids must enter it correctly in order to proceed to the next level.

How hard is it?

For some reason European developers, like Rare and Zed Two, seem less afraid of making games difficult. One Man and his Droid's herding sections are unique and innovative. But the Frogger-like sections are disproportionately challenging, and mostly devoid of strategy. In late levels the Frogger phase becomes insanely difficult. Further, in some levels the player must drill tunnels to complete them, yet drilling the wrong ones can make the level unsolvable instead. With no map, no scanner, and only one life, this is needlessly punishing.

Design lesson:

This is more a don't-do-it thing. OMahD's most interesting play, by far, is in the Ramboid-herding sections. The sea-of-walls phase gets obnoxiously difficult later on but one can't get to the herding game without passing it. The lesson, really, is to recognize where your game is fun, and don’t put stuff in there that gets in the way of that just because you think needs fleshing out. If the Frogger section came after the herding, it’d still be bad, but wouldn’t be quite so frustrating.

Wikipedia's page for One Man and His Droid.

Designer Clive Brooker's page for the unreleased sequel, available for download!


11. Phantoms of the Asteroid

A gigantic exploration game released two years before Metroid, containing fruit-shaped monsters, diabolical traps, and a heaping helping of mystery.

Developed and designed by Martin Ellis.

Length: Long to very long. It’s bloody huge!

Cool fact: Half the puzzle of this game is just figuring out what you're supposed to do. The instructions mention finding 36 "Uranium cubes," but after that? And just getting that far is not a simple task. And the game was produced long before automatic mapping was expected....

Watch for: A little clue to get you started. There are three kinds of deadly energy beams that block your way. Green ones flash on and off, while purple and cyan ones stay on permanently unless you do something about them. Cyan ones can be turned off for a limited time by stepping on a green pad (take notes, class), and the purple ones can be turned off for good by stepping on a purple pad. There is a purple pad very close to the starting location. That should be your first objective. (And afterward, don't step on cyan pads!)

The 8-bit computer revolution of the 80s and 90s is often ignored when it comes to placing the most important games that have seen the marketplace, which is a great shame. One of the more inventive publishers of these games was Mastertronic, a publisher of ultra-low-cost software in the UK and later in the US, who like the Electronic Arts of the time didn't make games in-house but released games made by other groups, in some cases individual programmers.

Although their games were sold for very small amounts effectively ($15 or less), they managed to produce a number of extremely inventive games during their history. One Man and his Droid was published by Mastertronic, and so was Phantoms of the Asteroid, which predated Metroid's exploration gameplay by two years, featured similar atmosphere, and had full scrolling to boot.

Now, trying to figure out which game really originated some feature is an exercise in madness, and one should not discount Metroid in the least just because Phantoms of the Asteroid did some things first. There were certainly exploration games before PotA as well (Pitfall! and Adventure, for example, and Pitfall II even had scrolling). My point here is that it is bad to be ignorant of any aspect of gaming. There are lessons to be learned all over the place, from pre-Asteroids arcade games through home computers to what-have-you on the PS3. Every game one is not conversant in makes one a weaker designer.

Phantoms did some things have still haven't been seen much elsewhere. There are step pads all over the place, of different colors, and the player is never told what any of them do. He has to figure that stuff out for himself, and sometimes their purposes are maddeningly obscure. The other big problem is that the player has three primary gauges, and if any of them runs out he either dies, or will die soon. It is very easy to get trapped in an area without sufficient fuel, oxygen or energy to make it to the next source of that resource, sometimes without even knowing that you're doomed.

How hard is it?

This is the other British 8-bit game on this list. These are here not because they're the hardest European-developed games, but as kind of representatives of their culture. This game is a prime exemplar of the idea that players should be given little in the way of aid, not because the developer hates them, but because everything the player figures out for himself is one more puzzle to be solved. There are colored step pads everywhere here, each color with a different function. The only way to figure out what they do is by experimentation. It's possible to hit one and screw yourself over irrevocably, only discovering what happened many saves later. It doesn't help that the game world is similar to Metroid's in scope, yet because it's free-scrolling it's much more difficult to map.

Design lesson:

Everything you tell the player shortens the game. Including a chart telling what different objects does means makes it easier, but also means the player has that much less to do. More recently player (and certainly critic) expectations have been to receive proper instructions, despite their continued reluctance to read manuals, but there is something to be said for making them figure some things out for themselves.

Gamebase64's review of Phantoms of the Asteroid.

12. Faster, Harder, More Challenging Q*bert

It's Q*bert... and it's harder. Also, more fun.

Developed by Mylstar.

Designed by Warren Davis.

Length: Arcade.

Cool fact: The original game had different rules for each of the first four levels, each with four rounds. FHMC Q*bert recaps those rules in the first level, then goes on to add more funky rules.

Watch for: There's more than just expanded rules here. There are a couple of bonus levels, and even a new character, Q*bertha.

Everyone knows how to play Q*bert I take it? Let's start with that. Change all the cubes to the target color to pass the round. Avoid all characters that are not green. Jump on disks to lure Coily to his death, clearing the screen in the process. Green balls freeze the board and make you invincible. Later levels, jumping on solved cubes unsolves them. Yada yada yada. All of this is the same.

Now, disks move around (they get a "burst" around them when they're about to move, and never move if you've just jumped to one). On the other hand, it's a lot harder to exhaust them now. The differing level rules appear throughout the game now, and there are new rules. Level 2, Slick and Sam make cubes unsolvable until Coily jumps on them! Level 3 has Q*bertha chasing you instead of Coily, and she messes up cube colors as she goes!

The other differences are more subtle. The original Q*bert, on default settings, awarded extra lives at 8,000 points and every 14,000 after. FHMC Q*bert awards at 10,000 then every 20,000 after, but that's not the worst part. The first game, you see, awarded 1,000 points for finishing the first round, and bumped that up by 250 more every round after. Eventually those round bonuses got to be quite significant, even compared to the 14,000 between lives. The updated game awards points based on time to complete the level instead, which starts at 2,600 on each level, but never gets above that. The first extra life comes at about the same time as in the original game, but later ones are much less frequent.

Q*bert got one sequel in arcades, the sadly forgotten Q*bert's Qubes, coming right around the time the crash hit. This game presumably would have come out shortly after.

How hard is it?

It certainly has a fitting name. This one never saw production at the time of its creation, but has been released by its developers specifically for use in MAME and in retrofitting old Q*bert machines. The original game was no slouch in the difficulty department anyway, suddenly going from laid-back enemy-avoidance game to punishing puzzle game once the player hit Level 3-1 and blocks could be changed away from their correct colors. In this game, those rules come in by Level 1-3, and there are plenty of evil new tricks in the levels to follow. Yet, overall, the game is more interesting than the original Q*bert.

Design lesson:

FHMC Q*bert never got tested in the arcade marketplace so we don't know how popular it would have been, but it seems more interesting than Q*bert because it's more complex. In a way, it plays like further levels of the original game, with boards in which Slick and Sam make cubes unsolvable and Coiley changes them back to normal, and one where a new chase character, Q*bertha, messes up the board while pursuing the hero. Meanwhile all the old color changing rules are still there, mixed throughout the boards. Not a lot of games need to be more complex, but Q*bert's initial simplicity supports it.

KLOV's page on Faster, Harder, More Challenging Q*bert.

Coinop.org's story on Q*bert, mentioning the FHMC version.

Retrogaming Times article & interview.


13. Blast Corps

Rare's other first-wave N64 game got severely overshadowed by its ultra-popular sibling, which is simply a crying shame.

Developed by Rare.

Designed by Martin Wakeley. (Source: GameFAQs)

Length: Medium (winning) to Extremely Long (getting all Platinum medals)

Cool fact:

The game has an incredible variety of bonus levels, including several on other planets.

Watch for:

The 'Z' trick. On the original NTSC version of the game, if you try getting out of a vehicle several times in a spot where your exit is blocked by a destroyable building, the building will fall apart and you will emerge. Since the object of the game is to destroy buildings, and some of them are very hard to tear down with the vehicle supplied, this programming oversight makes some levels much easier to complete. It's fixed in other versions of the game.

Blast Corps is a completely unique game, released during the PlayStation/N64 era. That enough identifies it as something special. The main idea behind the game is to destroy buildings, through whatever means are available, and throughout the game there is tremendous variety in how to do it. Each vehicle tears 'em down in a different way, from driving straight through through to spinning out to shooting missiles to crushing it beneath mechanized feet.

The game, unfortunately, both looks and plays like a first-generation 3D game. There are invisible walls everywhere, there's little in the way of enemies in most levels, most of the time the player is completely invulnerable and the challenge is all in the timer, and the game seems to be so filled with the raw excitement of being in three dimensions that it tries to rest on those laurels.

Yet, for this game, it helps. The game is about style and figuring out the control quirks. Especially concerning the game's favorite, and player's least favorite, vehicle: the Backlash. It's a dump truck with a reinforced bed that is its only means of demolition. It doesn't have a button that launches it at enemies; it has to rush at buildings and purposely spin out to smack into them with the force to knock them down. It is a magnificently unlikely wrecking vehicle, but there is definitely a touch to handling it successfully.

Blast Corps is a game entirely about acquiring that touch. That of the Backlash, and of all the other vehicles too. That, combined with the sensitivity N64's analogue stick, gives the game a kind of tactile feel that few games even attempt to create.

How hard is it?

Players who receive the excruciatingly difficult Gold ranks in every level were dismayed, to say the least, to be told "NOW GO FOR PLATINUM!" Some platinum medals are so difficult to obtain that it took several years before someone got them all (the FAQs on the game are instructive), and for some utilizing glitches remains the only reasonable means of earning them.

Design lesson:

Few games these days have what I'm going to call "super goals." Like Monkey Ball and Wetrix, they are special rewards for the dedicated player. Some players these days consider a game only completed once everything has been unlocked; these games stand in direct opposition to that by offering rewards less than one player in ten thousand will see. It's worth noting that, for all these games, the mega goal is a complete secret: there is nothing in the game's UI to hint it's there until the player either achieves it or has a reasonable chance to. That way, it is a nice surprise for players who become surpassingly good, or at the very least, know how to read FAQs. (That's how come I know of the above things, by the way.)

Wikipedia's page on Blast Corps.

GameFAQs page on the game.

Speed Demos Archive's page on the game.

Screenshots scavenged from Danny Cowan's Bastards of 32-Bit column on the game on GameSetWatch.

14. The Legend of Zelda (particularly the second quest)

The template for much of what followed.

Developed by Nintendo R&D 4

Directed by "Miyahon", i.e. Shigeru Miyamoto.

Length: Short (if you know what you're doing) or Very Long (if you don't)

Cool fact:

The game's second quest almost ranks up with Lynx Battlezone as far as great secrets go. How cool is it that the game essentially contains its own sequel? To play the second quest from the start, by the way, use the name ZELDA when registering your name.

Watch for:

The game over music. In a series that calls back to earlier games as much as the Legend of Zelda games, can you believe that memorable tune has only been referred to in one later game?

It is the case with video game genres that, often, it is difficult to determine exactly which game is the first. In the case of the action adventure game, a fairly convincing case could be made for Adventure, for the Atari 2600, which is old enough that it is hard to come up with a conceivable predecessor. But it is easy to point to the game that caused the genre to take off.

The Legend of Zelda is a game that flourishes beneath the weight of all the handicaps it's been given. As a one-megabit game, its ROM space is 128 kilobytes, twice the memory in my old Commodore 64. Nintendo makes use of some compression tricks also seen in Super Mario Bros. to squeeze its 128-screen overworld, and even larger cumulative underworld, into that space. It is not hard to see that dungeon rooms are duplicated many times over, and surface screens are cunningly arranged into vertical strips of tiles, allowing entire rooms to be defined by just a handful of bytes.

The original Legend of Zelda is a game that has fallen out of favor in some circles, with many people claiming it's too primitive, too simplistic, or too abstract. Hogwash; what they really hate about it is that it's hard, dating from an age when video games were supposed to be tests of skill, and thus difficult. Even now, it's probably the hardest game in the series. In the long catalog of video game bastards, Zelda's Darknuts and Wizzrobes both rank quite high, beating out many more-famous jerks like the medusa heads from Castlevania.

Another thing that "modern" gamers dislike is how there aren't clues for finding most of its secrets. The ever-popular bombable walls in this game aren't marked in any way, and the Blue Candle players have for most of the game, used for burning similarly-unmarked trees, can only be used once per screen. Finding secret passages is a massive exercise in trial by error, and just when you get used to that, you start encountering old men who penalize you by forcing you to pay them for finding their hidden room! Yet it remains just on the good side of the awesome/obnoxious line, for The Legend of Zelda is positively riddled with secret passages. Something like half its overworld screens contain a secret room! It is possible to complete the first quest without finding un-clued secrets, but you'll be missing out on hundreds of rupees and three whole Heart Containers.

At the end players defeat Ganon, slash the ineffectual flames holding Zelda captive, and earn their well-deserved credits... and then get treated to one of the most stone-cold awesome ending bonuses of all time, the second quest, a much harder, remixed version of the game with entirely new dungeons and whole new kinds of secrets. It also contains the most horrible trap in the entire series: dungeon rooms where the old man holds you up for either fifty rupees or a heart container. No later Zelda game has the temerity to shrink your life bar if you don't have enough cash, thank God.

How hard is it?

The first quest is fair; for the second, the gloves came off. This one proves that deep down, Shigeru Miyamoto is not the kindly Japanese toymaker he appears to be. Most of the second quest's dungeons must be found by laboriously searching every screen of the overworld. Level 7 is found by burning in the single most difficult-to-burn tree in the game! And if a player gets far into Level 4 or 6 without enough cash on hand, he stands a good chance of losing Heart Containers unless he goes for the reset button.

Design lesson:

Really good games always feel like they're too short. Including an extra game like this was a nice move on the developers' part. Players who were struggling at the end of the first quest can treat the second quest as a bonus to play around with, while players who thought the first was too easy are free to consider the second quest the "real game." That's an excellent piece of social engineering, when you think about it.

Wikipedia page on The Legend of Zelda.

StrategyWiki's page on the game.

GameFAQs page on the game.

 


15. Deadly Towers

A sadly maligned action-adventure that makes the player work for every scrap of progress.

Developed by Lenar

Length: Long

Cool facts:

- The "dungeon" areas are huge compared to the rest of the game, but generally you don't need to enter them, and if you accidentally end up in one early on, you usually die before you can find the way out.

- Most humanoid opponents, who typically appear in dungeons and towers, are best defeated by hitting them in the body. If you hit their head they take damage, but don't get stunned, allowing them to move out of the line of fire or get off a shot of their own.

Watch for:

For an early NES game, the game has a fairly lengthy backstory. Wait at the title screen to see it. The ending ties it all up nicely, too.

Some time ago, popular internet layabout Seanbaby of Retrocrush, he of formidable snarking skill, created a list of the worst NES games of all time, which was published both on Retrocrush and in Electronic Gaming Monthly. The contents of the list, of course, are his opinion, and mostly, his opinion is right on. But there are some questionable things on it. And the most questionable of them all is Deadly Towers, which beats out such things as Bible Adventures, M.U.S.C.L.E., and even Chubby Cherub.

Now, Deadly Towers is not a pretty game, although it looked okay at the time, and its monster art has a certain fitting hideousness to it. It is certainly not an easy game. It is a tricky game, with lots of invisible secret passages; it is a unforgiving game, as death can occur in a careless instant; and it is a inscrutable game, for the only hints you'll find are in the manual. But I am here to tell you, it is not a bad game.

Overlaid upon the basic quest structure are some, admittedly, frustrating mechanics. Myer attacks by throwing swords, but at the start he can only have one on-screen at once, and they move very slowly. Getting close to monsters allows the player to machine-gun them, but also increases the chance of getting hit. But then, most of the monsters you'll have to machine gun don't have a lot of variety to their movement pattern.

At the start of the game, Myer is painfully weak. Some monsters can kill him in a handful of hits, and if a hit knocks him off a crumbling ledge he dies immediately.

Part of the challenge of the game is finding the objects that make Myer a suitable match for the bosses. One of them allows two on-screen swords at once. Others decrease damage taken, make his shots more powerful, and increase throwing speed. Until those are found, even ordinary enemies will seem obnoxiously hard. That's just what these games were like back then. The novelty of actually being able to keep your stuff when you die was still fresh in designer's minds, so they were quite willing to kill the player for whatever reason could be found.

Games like this force the player to earn every scrap of his progress. When you start a new life, your health is back at 100 no matter how high your max health may be, forcing the player to kill enemies to get his health up to more survivable levels. Yes, that's bad. No apologies will be made for it. But The Legend of Zelda did this too, and compared to Metroid, which always starts Samus out with 30 energy, Deadly Towers is generous.

The final result of this heaping plate of difficulty is that relatively few players have finished Deadly Towers, but that makes it a major video game accomplishment. There is something to be said for that. Games are just not made this difficult anymore. The joke about Final Fantasy games is that one presses the 'X' button until he wins the game, but that's almost accurate compared to the hyper awareness one must develop to beat Deadly Towers. It is a game for which one must reach down and develop new ability to defeat. And once beaten, it is hard to give modern games so much respect.

How hard is it?

Walk over the wrong unmarked spot on the ground? Oh, what unspeakable sin you have committed! Your penance is to search for a secret exit somewhere within a gigantic death-zone filled with monsters who can just hate you to death. Yet take note: even in a game this hard, the player's tiny advances each game add up, and the game doesn't take any great hand-eye coordination to complete. With hundreds of plays and lots of patience most people can, indeed, beat Deadly Towers. By the time they do, they'll probably have spent longer at it than even the longest Final Fantasy games.

Design lesson:

More confirmation for Phantoms of the Asteroid's "make the bastard work for it" approach. The dungeons are the hardest part of the game, but the player must enter them to get to the shops that sell basic equipment. The towers themselves contain secret rooms and parallel zones that hide the best equipment and contain, proportionately, more lethal monsters, but are still much easier to complete.

Wikipedia's page on Deadly Towers.

GameFAQs' page on the game.

Speed Run Demos' page on the game. Highly instructive!

16. Mr. Driller

It looks like a plain old block-matching puzzler. At first! Really it's a bone-hard action game that would have been right at home in the late 80's.

Developed by Namco.

Directed by Yasuhito Nagaoka (source: GameFAQs).

Length: Arcade.

Cool fact:

More recent Mr. Driller games provide multiple characters. The rules are subtly different for each one. The robot can get crushed once without dying, the dog can climb two blocks, the Dig-Dug guy drills super fast, and so on. It’s interesting that the rules are flexible enough to support these kinds of rule variations.

Watch for:

The “undergrounders” scattered throughout each level are worth 765 points if touched. 765 is Namco’s trademark number! In both Pac-Mania and Pac Land, eating monsters beyond the 6400 score level is worth 7,650 points. In Marvel Land, getting the center of the bull’s-eye at the end of each level is worth 7,650 points. It’s used as a secret score award in many games!

The object of Mr. Driller is almost laughably simple. Drill down through a sea of blocks of various colors and shapes. No matter how large a block is, when drilled it’s destroyed completely. Blocks that are unsupported fall. Blocks that touch other blocks of the same color merge. If a merged block is 4 spaces or more in size it vanishes, as do such blocks that fall any distance. Scattered throughout are air capsules that replenish the player’s time limit. Also scattered are X blocks that are hard to drill and waste 20% of the player’s air supply if drilled. Other than that, there’s nothing. There are no enemies, and no great complications. You die if something falls on you, and you die if you run out of air. That’s it. The tension between these two sources of danger drive the whole game.

If you drill straight down, then you cannot be crushed. If you were able to go through collecting air and not worry about the blocks, then the game would similarly be easy. It’s the fact that each of the dangers pushes you towards the other, and constantly, that make Mr. Driller a blast to play.

Yes, constantly. Beyond the first three or so levels the game tightens the screws on the time limit. The player must constantly be drilling down, racing for the bottom grabbing whatever air he can along the way. If he doesn’t air runs out absurdly fast, often 2% or more per second. At that rate, an air capsule is only worth ten extra seconds. Further, air capsules start appearing encased on X-blocks, and it’s no accident that the penalty for drilling one is the same as the bonus for collecting the air. If X-blocks break from getting grouped into a unit of four or more then they disappear without penalty, and figuring out how to do that, while not getting crushed, is a major challenge.

It’s obvious from playing the game that it’s undergone extensive play testing. There is no easy way to calibrate how fast the air counter should deplete to keep that tension up. The game is only barely possible to complete 2000 meters in, but it can be done. That fact itself is rather amazing considering how impossible that seems to newbies.

How hard is it?

What first seems like a whimsical puzzle game by the makers of Dig Dug turns out to be hugely difficult. Most Mr. Driller games include modes that ask the player to dive 1500 and 2000 meters at a high difficulty level. For game completion, they allow the player to fudge a bit by letting him take in powerups, but if he does so he can't earn a high score. And some versions offer special rewards for doing this on one life!

Design lesson:

The other games have mega goals, things that players can optionally do but aren't told of. Mr. Driller, on the other hand, seems to expect players to eventually solve the 1500 and 2000 meter goals. The effect on the player is to say, in essence, "We here state that this thing is possible. With practice, you can get good enough to do it!" Whether that's a lie or not is uncertain, but I suspect that most people will give up on Mr. Driller long before then.

Wikipedia page on Mr. Driller.

GameFAQs' page on the Dreamcast version of the game. There are many sequels though, and some of them also contain interesting information.


17. Mischief Makers, a.k.a. Yuke Yuke!! Troublemakers

Another fever dream from the guys at Treasure, who only make two kinds of games: joyous platformers, and small explosive devices that some people call "shooters." Thankfully, this is an example of the former.

Developed by Treasure

Directed by Hideyuki Suganami (source: GameFAQs)

Length: Medium

Cool fact:

While the game is not a shooter except in a couple of levels, there are places where the game seems like a companion to Gunstar Heroes. Protagonist Marina looks like the lost sister of Red and Blue Gunstar who had to take up work as a domestic, and has about as many moves. The collectable gems bear a striking resemblance to the older game's goal items. Its clever bosses, in particular, feel Gunstarish. In play, however, it is unique. It's difficult to say that about many 2D platformers anymore!

Watch for:

The tremendous variety. One level feels like a remake of Track & Field, another requires players navigate through a sea of missiles, yet another requires figuring out mixing recipes. It is obvious that Treasure poured their hearts into this game. Also watch for the cheerful violence. Nearly every character can be picked up, shaken for goodies, then thrown. Some of them break down crying when you do it.

How does one think to make up a game like this? I'm not even talking about the premise. I mean, a robot maid with super strength and jet engines who has to protect her lecherous inventor from evil forces? That's only strange to people who have never heard of anime.

But the game play itself is way out there. This kind of platformer is about applying your stock set of moves to a wide range of situations. The spotlight, thus, is cast on those situations, on the levels themselves. And the levels in Mischief Makers, to say the least, are unique.

There are three common moves that must be mastered to get around the game. The first is the grab, by which some object, either an enemy, an enemy's missile, an innocent bystander, a friend, or any of the game's hundreds of floating grab spots, can be latched onto. The second is the shake, by which an object that has been grabbed can be divested of loot. The third is the throw, by means of which most of the above objects can be used as projectiles.

The grab move gets a lot of use. Treasure has been known to play around with "counter" moves, by which with good timing a player can get out of some bad situations with a button press. Gunstar Heroes' melee attacks are a version of this. Mischief Makers expands and universalizes that attack into the grab. Many things that the enemies shoot at the player can be snatched out of the air before it hits and thrown back. In order to get all the gold gems, the player must become a master of this by defeating all the major bosses without taking damage.

As video games continue to evolve, these kinds of counters and evasions are becoming more common. Viewtiful Joe contains a move that allows a player to escape some damage if he presses a button just as he hits the ground after a knockdown. Soul Calibur contains the "Guard Impact" move which can deflect most attacks with good timing, and other fighting games are also making use of this.

 

How hard is it?

It is forgotten sometimes that Treasure makes games other than shooters. Mischief Makers got a bum rap upon its release, but the moaners missed out on a surprisingly clever 2D platformer. And while most people can make it through the main game, the amount of the ending the player got to see depended on how many Gold Gems the player had found. Every level had such a Gem. In most levels they weren't too hard to find, but boss levels had them too, and to earn it the player had to win without getting hit. And the last one could only be earned by getting an 'A' time on every level of the game. That is not an easy task; take my word for it.

Design lesson:

Here's another mega goal, but subtly different in how it's presented to the player. When the final level is completed, there appears an "ending" level on the selection screen. When the ending portion of it actually starts, in the corner is the number of gold gems the player collected, counting down over time. When the number runs out, the ending ends.

If the player gets all the gold gems except the one for having all 'A' ranks, which is a big secret, the ending ends on a picture that could be seen as a resolution. If the player has all the gold gems INCLUDING that one, there's another picture after it that turns the previous picture into the setup for a joke.

Wikipedia's page on Mischief Makers.

GameFAQs' page on the game.

18. Rogue

Developed and designed by Michael Toy, Glenn Wichman and Ken Arnold

Length: Arcade (Yes, arcade)

Cool fact: You’d better believe these are spoilers… use scrolls of scare monster by standing on them! Drink healing potions when unharmed to gain maximum hit points! Potions of extra healing cure blindness! Rust Monsters/Aquators harm armor, but do no damage to the player, even if he’s naked! Throw potions at blank range to affect the monsters!

Watch for: There are two kinds of food in Rogue: food rations and fruit. Fruit is interesting because the player can name it whatever they want in the options file. "Mango" is a popular default for this.

Rogue was the subject of a great fad on college campuses back at the time when “using a computer” meant, as a matter of course, logging into a terminal on a time sharing system. What is sometimes forgotten is that there were plenty of other games back then. We remember Adventure and Dungeon (a.k.a. Zork), of course. Sometimes we remember things like Hunt The Wumpus. But who remembers Trek, an in-depth Starship Enterprise simulation, or Hammurabi, which put the player in the shoes of a Sumerian king?

Further, while some of those games are still remembered it doesn’t mean they’re played much anymore. The same can be said for many of the other games on this list, of course, but Rogue is different. It’s still played, and that’s entirely because of its randomness and difficulty.

Random dungeons in gaming aren’t as uncommon as they once were. Diablo and Diablo II used them to pretty good effect, and some MMORPGs uses quasi-random instanced areas to provide a small amount of replayability. Yet Rogue differs from those games in that its random dungeons aren’t of the superficial, “oh, what lurks behind that corner?” type, when it really doesn’t matter too much from the player’s perspective if what he finds is loot or a mean nasty. Many of Rogue’s monsters are extremely dangerous opponents, some of the treasure is surpassingly useful (some allows the player to defeat an arbitrary opponent, or even group of opponents), and further, its treasure must usually be figured out, its purpose deduced through experimentation or using a scarce scroll of identify.

Of all the roguelikes, Rogue remains the game that retains this emphasis on player knowledge. Even Nethack, a game which is ultimately more-or-less a direct descendant, gives the players many ways to identify items that don’t use up significant resources.

How hard is it?

Roleplaying games don't tend to be really difficult anymore, but the roguelike subgenre is an exception, and the trend was set by the first of them all. Its difficulty is a huge part of its appeal; if it were possible to make arbitrary progress the game wouldn't be nearly as fun.

Design lesson:

Simple victory at Rogue, really, is a mega goal. The game is meant to be played for score. That's why it's got a score list! Even if he gets the Amulet of Yendor, the player can choose to either make it back to the surface with it (reward: extra score for every object he's carrying including the Amulet) or keep descending, facing beefed-up monsters but even greater rewards in gold pieces, a very risky move but potentially lucrative.

Wikipedia's page on Rogue.

The Rogue's Vede-Mecum is a particularly good strategy treatment on the game.

Finally, rumor has it that there's a guy over on GameSetWatch who writes on roguelikes, including Rogue, quite a lot. I had Er, he had an article on Rogue itself sometime back.


19. The Bard's Tale II: Destiny Knight

There are three major Wizardry-style first-person dungeon exploration games: Wizardry itself, The Bard's Tale and classic Might & Magic. This is the middle game of the middle series, a high point of the lot of them.

Developed by Interplay.

Designed by Michael Cranford.

Length: Very Long.

Cool fact:

The secret spell ZZGO, a.k.a. “The Dreamspell” is not technically a cheat because it’s code is available in the game, but it’s not in the manual. It’s a multifunction spell that does incredible damage in combat and heals the party completely, and when used outside of combat allows the group to teleport to any dungeon.

Watch for:

Each of the seven main dungeons ends with a special area called a Death Snare. These are special puzzle areas set to a clock... a real-time one. Most of them would be fairly challenging on their own, but having to solve them to a real-world time requirement pushes them into frustrating, especially since teleportation doesn't usually work there. If the time runs out (and no clock actually appears on-screen) all your party members die, which is itself is quite a penalty to overcome. Further, the last of these snares requires the player to answer obscure riddles (I never did figure them out actually) and use cryptic directions printed on the last page of the manual to pass it.

The Bard's Tale series (the real ones, not InXile Entertainment's attempted revision) are old-school dungeon exploration games in the tradition of Wizardry. You can usually tell these games because they have a kind of square-based 3D display, one that doesn't glide smoothly like Wolf 3D or Doom but goes in discrete steps. They are filled with something that one might call mapping puzzles. These days a game without an automap is looked on as a kind of throwback, but it can be quite difficult to make a good map by hand, especially when the game is teleporting you between similar-looking areas and spinning you at inopportune times. By providing the player with an infallible mapping facility, a lot of opportunity for challenge is, essentially, streamlined right out of the game.

On the other hand, these games also tend to go to entirely separate modes when combat begins. The combat and exploration games are very cleanly separated, and although, for example, Bard's Tale II keeps track of the distance from the party to each group of enemies, up to 100 feet each in groups of 10, the structure of that encounter has very little to do with the arrangement of the dungeon around the player's group.

The Bard's Tale games are all rather long, once you factor in the time required to collect items, map out towns and huge dungeons, figure out puzzles, and defeat thousands of monsters in each game, and to be honest actually trying to simulate the experience of being a bunch of people exploring a dungeon probably isn't as interesting to random players as just going out and slicing up monsters.

How hard is it?

There are difficult traditional RPGs. Some of the dungeons in this game push the limits of credulity. If you haven't mapped a magically dark chamber full of spinners and teleports in the middle of an anti-magic area then you don't know how hard a roleplaying game can really be.

Design lesson:

The game introduces each of the troubles in that last sentence individually, then compounds them one at a time. And note that even in antimagic zones in Bard's Tale games, one spell still works: SCSI, a.k.a. "Scry Sight," which tells the player his precise location on the level. Without that one spell even a simple spinner (which provide only a brief screen flicker to let the player know they've worked) would be a cruel obstacle. The lesson, thus, is that whatever you do to mess with the player's mind with mapping puzzles, they are surmountable so long as he's able to easily get an accurate reading of his location. Think hard about whether to provide or deny this resource!

Wikipedia's page on Bard's Tale II: The Destiny Knight.

GameFAQ's page on the PC version of the game.

The Bard's Tale Compendium is an excellent resource on the series. (Warning: music)

20. Lode Runner series

The archetype side-view puzzle platform game.

Developed and designed by Doug Smith.

Length: Very Long

Cool fact: The original game had 150 levels, many originally designed by friends of Doug Smith. While the game has seen many Japanese-developed sequels since then, levels from the original, plus the sequel Championship Lode Runner, keep turning up.

Watch for: There's a particularly fiendish kind of trick that appears once in a while that involves, from a ladder, digging the top space of a pillar, then waiting to dig out the space beneath it until the top space is just about to fill back in. The result is you're able to dip in to collect gold, then run out and use the top block to walk on. Sometimes this trick is compounded upon itself several times, creating an immensely tricky puzzle.

The Ultima and Wizardry games had sizable spin-off series in Japan that are mostly unknown to U.S. audiences (and generally for good reason), but Lode Runner far exceeds those. There have been far more Japanese Lode Runner games than American ones.

It's kind of amazing that the series hasn't changed all that much in that time. A couple of recent versions add in some extra kinds of blocks, but the vast majority of the series get surprising mileage out of eight types of blocks: empty, gold, diggable floor, undiggable floor, ladder, handbar, trap door, and escape ladder.

From those pieces came all 150 levels in the original game and the 50 levels of Championship Lode Runner, the levels of the NES and PC Engine versions, and four arcade games. Every implication of the blocks' rules, and the behavior of the rather dim-witted enemies who by the end are more tools to be taken advantage of than opponents, is mined for all its nuances by the end.

A few examples:

- Enemies fall into dug floors and are stuck, but if they walk into the pit from the side, they can move normally.

- Enemies walking across spaces containing gold can pick it up, and afterward drop it randomly. Sometimes this gets gold out of an impossible area.

- Enemies falling into pits drop the gold they're carrying...

...unless the space the gold would appear on is a dug floor or contains some other object. In that case, the gold vanishes from the level, meaning (usually) it doesn't have to be collected to finish. Some levels rely on this fact.

- Escape ladders act like space in all ways until the last gold is collected, at which time it appears and allows the player to exit the stage at the top. Sometimes this means the last gold must be collected in an area that is impossible to escape from, for an escape ladder will appear and let him out.

- Enemies' heads can be stood upon. If the enemy is moving, the player can walk across on his head. If the enemy is falling, the player's fall rate is faster so he can land on them on the way down. This can enable him to step to the side in the middle of a fall, something he cannot ordinarily do.

By the way, Lode Runner cannot technically be called a platformer. Platformers are generally understood to be jumping games, and that is something our hero cannot do.

How hard is it?

The original game had 150 levels and its sequel, Championship Lode Runner, had 50 more. A GameFAQs resource reveals the Japanese sequels gleefully crib from them every time a new version is released. Many of those offer a level of strategy modern gamers can't cope with. Yet they're all fair, and by the time one has struggled his way through that brick-strewn hell one will have graduated to a higher plane of gaming. After that the likes of Tetris will never again be a satisfying meal; bring on the meat.

Design lesson:

From one perspective the 150 levels are actually beside the point, for Lode Runner was also one of the first construction set games. The game's simple rules don't seem like much at first, but just a few levels in and their great depth becomes apparent. From one perspective, the levels of the main game are just there for inspiration, to show off how deep the game can be. See what we've provided for you, they seem to say. See what you can do! Now go forth, and improve upon what we've done.

Wikipedia's page on Lode Runner.

GameFAQs has pages on many of the games, although almost all the FAQs there are written by the prolific ASchultz. Here's the pages on the Apple II version, the Apple II version of Championship Lode Runner, the NES version, and the first arcade version.

KLOV's page on the first arcade version of Lode Runner. They have pages for the other games as well.

ASchultz also has a Geocities site devoted to the game.

Some information on Lode Runner's early history.

IGN's interview with Lode Runner creator Doug Smith.

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