Posted by Marianne Miller on Jul 10, 2012

Retro Gaming: A Difficulty Curveball


I’ve heard it said many times during conversations that involve ongoing fits of nostalgia: “They just don’t make games like they used to.”  Players claim that games now are made to baby the player, and are nowhere near as challenging (or as good) as the rage-enducing games from the early 90’s.  And certainly, while it can be considered unfair to judge modern games that we have recent, adult experience playing against games that we played as children (and without the refined hand/eye coordination we have developed in the meantime thanks to our habit) and probably never since, I found myself thinking the same thing after rediscovering my SNES console and popping in a few of my old games.

“Shit,” I muttered to myself while desperately pounding the D-pad and heavy punch for a hadouken.  “How did I ever do this as a kid?”

But honestly, as I struggled to do something in Street Fighter 2 that I am pretty competent at in its much more modern predecessor, I couldn’t help but wonder—are games getting dumbed down, or are they simply becoming more comprehensive?  It’s true that nowadays you can’t turn on your console without having tutorials thrown at you, whereas 20 years ago you couldn’t beg for an in-game tutorial.  However, let’s take into consideration the changes that have happened since those magical, pre-pubescent years.



For games like Metal Gear, Mario or Bubsy (cue horrific screaming and flashbacks), there were really only two or three actions you had to worry about—running, jumping, and whatever button you press to kill the bad dudes.  Back when Final Fantasy was still on Nintendo and in the single digits, you maybe had to worry about opening a menu.  Since then, we have evolved to much more complex interactions with our games; we can walk, run, switch between weapons without even opening a menu, assign spells/skills to certain hot keys, sneak, select differing types of ammo, and a whole plethora of other things.  Assassin’s Creed has two different sets of actions assigned to each of the colored action buttons (for high and low profile actions) that can be swapped by holding the right trigger on your Xbox controller.  It should go without saying that every game should come with at least some form of tutorial, or otherwise every gamer would be flopping over themselves trying to figure out the controls (unless they RTFM, I suppose, but that’s only for nerds. NERDS).

Continuing off of that thought, the introduction of 3D environments has added an entirely new and much deeper level of interactivity and difficulty to gaming that many people don’t consider challenging because it just feels like an extension of real life.  Navigating 3D environments, reacting to events and challenges in those environments, and shooting people in the face are something that feel more domestic to us than only traveling to the right and finding the next foothold to jump on.  However, a study referenced by this article showed that there were more mental benefits to playing games like Call of Duty because of the depth of interaction the player has with the game as opposed to a “puzzle game like Tetris”.  While Tetris feels more challenging because it’s a concept that we don’t expose ourselves to often, a game like Call of Duty has more stimulants that require a more rapid response time and a wider variety of situations that require differing reactions.  And really, if even just using a search engine can cause our brain to light up like Christmas on an MRI machine (as opposed to simply reading a book, which involves no interactivity), can you imagine what the real-time situations within many modern videogames can cause our brain to do?

And, of course, to claim that they have stopped making games that are genuinely difficult (even within 3D environments, as most current games that are made to be difficult tend to be a love song to retro gaming) would just be uneducated.  After the release of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls and my attempt at playing them, I think I nearly swore off gaming.  (And personally, I felt as though Demon’s Souls was difficult in an almost arbitrary way.)



There’s also the matter of physics within old games—in many, you were either moving, or you weren’t.  Keeping your finger on the D-pad for just a fraction of a second too long could mean death, and quite honestly, that doesn’t necessarily mean a game is hard, it just means that it was poorly made.  Not to poo-poo the efforts of developers from 20 years ago (because for the time, they were amazing), but would it really be better for us to make games that imitated the “difficulty” of retro games by taking a step back in terms of character motion and walking/running animation?  LIMBO is a great example of a modern platform that perfectly mimics the old “trial by death” style of retro gaming, but does so in a very modern, artistic way with an amazing physics engine (and as a personal aside, is one of my favorite games).  Similarly, Super Meat Boy is ridiculously difficult, and while the physics may not be as believable, the animation is as smooth as butter, and the controls don’t make me want to punch an old woman in the face.  However, I found the platforming in No More Heroes 2 and Half Life 2 to be ridiculously difficult, but that was just because those particular games were ill-suited to those sorts of mechanics due to their execution.

The thing that rubs me wrong about the oft-repeated  phrase “they just don’t make games like they used to” is that it implies that only games were only good because they were “difficult” (which, as I have mentioned above, is a purely subjective idea), and that the majority of the market now are games made for people who can barely seem to hold a controller, which just isn’t true.   Gaming has evolved from two-dimensional platforming and awkward side-scrolling beat-em-ups all the way to fully three dimensional and entirely interactive environments in less than a generation.

Honestly, I think another part of the reason why we feel games are too easy now is because we evolved with them, and now developers have kind of reached the peak of what they can do with the standard controller we’ve grown up with.  And, as I mentioned before, just because a game is “difficult” doesn’t mean that it’s good.  That just sets up an unnecessary sense of superiority and elitism against kids today who are just growing up in a different age.  It’s the same as saying that people who get tattoos today are pussies because they used tattoo guns and keep the tattoo disinfected with soap rather than using whatever horrific manner of torture people used to get tattoos “back in their day.”



Does that mean that I don’t think there aren’t a lot of shitty games flooding the market right now?  Absolutely not.  Rage was so pitifully easy that I managed to go through it without dying once (which is sort of my litmus test for crappy shooters—if I can actually manage to play your shooter, you’re doing it wrong, because when it comes to shooters I might as well just be holding a kitten instead of a controller).  But saying that only shitty, easy games are being released now is as unfair as saying that all music being released in 2012 is Justin Bieber and Nickelback and that the only music that was released before this year belonged to Queen, Led Zepplin, and Journey.

Games are vast now, with deep, involving stories and even dialog choices.  You can see characters react to each other, you can see the crow’s feet in the corners of their eyes.  With Assassin’s Creed III, the barrier between interactive and non-interactive scenery has almost been eliminated now that we can climb into trees and scramble up too-steep inclines.  Even if games have gotten “easier”, does that mean that quality overall is lacking?  Games like Heavy Rain, Okami, and Shadow of the Colossus have started the heated topic of whether or not games can be art. 20 years ago, a time that rests within many of our very lifetimes, people wouldn’t have even humored the question!

Personally, I find games more riveting now than I ever have in my childhood, because I’ve always been more fascinated by characters, relationships and story than I ever have been by difficulty.  Blame it on my tiny lady-brain and inferior gaming skills, or just call it a difference of opinion, the choice is yours.  Either way, challenging games are still being released—you just have to look for them.  Many of the classic songs we love today didn’t even make the charts when they were released; similarly, many of today’s best games are unsung, or drowned out by the voices of Call of Duty and Madden players.  I guess all you can do is search for those games, and in the meantime, play VVVVV or Mutant Mudds before crying yourself to sleep.

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