The hardest video games are only found in the arcades. If you want to brag about your skills as a gamer it’s as easy as doing a 1cc (1-credit clear) of any action style arcade game. There’s very few of them today, but there’s a whole lot of games that went on forever (or at least 255 stages) back when the arcade business was booming in the 80’s and 90’s. Leaderboards were a huge deal, and getting your name in the 1st place spot was all the bragging rights you needed. Of course there were the die hard players that would play for hours and manage to score millions of points. In half of those cases rolling over the score back to 0 after earning 999,999 because the score didn’t store 7 digits of data. So instead people would mentally track how many millions of points they scored in their heads. 80’s arcade games were all about endurance and how long you could play on 1 credit. 90’s arcade games had more modern day start to finish gameplay, and even when there was a story to the game it was still hard, harder than console games.
Arcade games were designed to take your quarters (or tokens) and you basically paid your way to beating the game. In a way it was a lot cheaper to beat an arcade game than it was on home console because at worst case you’d spend maybe less than $10 to finish an arcade game once. Console, whether on the NES, SNES, or Sega Genesis, you’d spend $60 to buy the game, have more time to play and finish the game, and then put it away forever. The difficulty wasn’t as hard, but the games took longer to finish due to the removal of continues. A few games had a limited continue function, but once those continues were used up you were forced to start at the very beginning of the game. Those without a continue feature relied on lives. Lose all your lives, start over from the beginning. No saves, no passwords, nothing. “Save states” were not invented, nor were they needed. We were skilled enough gamers to learn enemy patterns and react with the right timings to get through each and every game.
At some point during the mid 90’s games started to get a little softer. You could now save during an action game or platformer. There were more checkpoints. Tutorials were being introduced to the start of each game. In a way it made sense because games were being put onto CD’s and so they had the room to become a lot longer than when they were printed onto cartridges. RPG’s went from being maybe 30 hours to over 100 hours and put on multiple discs. At this time it wasn’t so much difficulty but more focus on how large a game can be and how long a game can last. Because of length more checkpoints had to be made in order for players to not get as stressed out over staying alive while clearing a really long level. Passwords were a thing of the past because memory cards had become the new form of saving game data, albeit very limited data.
This had basically become the new norm in gaming. In the early to mid 2000s when DVD media came around and the sixth (PS2, Xbox, Gamecube) and seventh (PS3, 360, Wii) generation of consoles were being sold games continued to become much larger in scale and longer. The average action/adventure game would last you around 20+ hours, almost the same length as a retro RPG. Saving your progress was pretty much found in every game you bought just because of the sheer size of the adventure you were going to journey through. Difficulty was hardly a factor anymore. It was more about how long it took for you to finish a game, and how much content and side-quests you could stuff inside a single game for nearly unlimited replayability.
With all of these drastic changes to video games, newer players who started out on the PS1 or Gamecube eras started out knowing every game had saves, were super long, and were not at all that difficult. They saw themselves as being the best at video games, being able to beat any game on the hardest difficulty and just plowing through levels with little to no effort. They may or may not even look to the older retro games because their first thoughts would usually be “The games I grew up with were easy...these older games must be even easier, practically baby-level difficulty...they’re most likely no fun for me if I can beat video games on the hardest difficulty.” Well young gamer, it’s true they may not be fun for you, but it’s not because they’re easy...more like impossibly hard. Without the ability to save, and only 3 lives to finish an entire game, dying would mean you start all the way back to the beginning of the game. It would be more frustrating than playing through Dark Souls or Cuphead. If you think those games are unfair and frustrating, I couldn’t imagine you trying to finish Battletoads or Bubsy without any level of frustration...those games are old, so they must be super easy, right?
Thanks to the powers of emulation, retro games are more accessible to everyone to play and enjoy through mini consoles you can plug and play right into the TV, and virtual console downloading services. With the save state system you can create your own checkpoints and play through a whole retro game without as much frustration as if you had played the games on the actual hardware. For an oldie like myself I’d consider that as cheating, but it’s become such a staple to playing retro games nowadays that I let it go and just let people enjoy the games how they want to. The moment you mention to play through a game without save states they would look at you like your crazy and would assume it to be impossible to play through retro games without save states. If games were impossible to finish without save states, then why were they sold at retail stores for $65? It was all about the challenge, and it was a challenge every gamer was up to conquer.
I would say gamers nowadays have it made because of the ability to save your games and come back to them at a later date. At the same time, a part of me wants some games that have absolutely no saving abilities, yet are short enough to get through in less than 5 hours if you’re good enough to get through them. I think the latest game I’ve played that did that was Contra Shattered Soldier on the PS2. I couldn’t help but laugh at some comments in forums where people were like “How do I save? When can I save the game? This game is so hard!” and then the saddened response when someone answers saying there was no saving in the game. You had to go through and literally master all 7 stages of the game to get the true ending. Later stages were only playable if you had no lives lost and a 100% hit rate on all of the previous stages. It’s the type of game that I would love to see more of in this generation.
Let’s switch gears a little and talk about difficulty options in games. The biggest decision you can ever make in a video game is whether you want to take it easy and casual, or go full hardcore and suffer the wrath of the game’s true difficulty and power. I suppose if you’re recording a YouTube video or streaming on Twitch you’ll instinctively want to play on the hardest difficulty so you don’t show that you’re a wuss and can handle the challenge. Quite frankly its those types of decisions that might make the most entertaining content, but at the same time not put you in the proper head space of actually enjoying the game for what it is. I know back in the pre-internet days of gaming there was no judgment on what difficulty you chose. Sure you had kids that bragged about beating some games on the hardest setting, but those were the schoolyard talks. Nobody really ever proved first hand that they could finish a game like Rocket Knight Adventures on the Hard/Crazy Hard setting (1 hit, 1 life, 0 continues). As far as I can tell most gamers would play the normal difficulty and if they wanted to try a harder setting they would, but they wouldn’t go out of their way to finish it...these games were already hard enough as it was.
Now with internet forums, YouTube, Facebook, Twitch and other places, you may or may not be judged by someone for the fact that you couldn’t beat a game on the hardest difficulty. Does it honestly really matter though? The game (in most cases) is the same no matter what difficulty you choose. Sure you might die less and enemies might be weaker, but the overall game is the same. Sure you might miss out on an ending or two if you play easier difficulties, but that should be the least of your worries. The overall enjoyment of the game is what should matter to you most. I think this whole mentality of “you gotta beat the game on the hardest difficulty” all started with the original Halo on Xbox. It was during the time when the internet was slowly starting to go mainstream. Game and camcorder captures of Halo were spread across the internet of various people beating the game from start to finish on Legendary difficulty. It was an amazing thing to witness for a lot of kids, and it was something they, themselves wanted to achieve for themselves as well. After most every Halo kid beat the game on Legendary, Halo 2 came out and right away they thought “Well if I managed to beat Halo 1 on Legendary, Halo 2 should be no problem as well!”, and the same went for Halo 3, ODST, and so on.
Before long, beating the game on the hardest difficulty labeled you as a “True hardcore gamer” and I almost feel this label is still a thing nowadays as well...almost a standard now. Back in the 80s and 90s a hardcore gamer was simply just someone who owned a lot of games. It didn’t matter what your skill was on the games, it was just simply being a game collector in today’s terms gave you the honorary title of “hardcore gamer”. Now that title has shifted away from how many games you own to how your skills are at games. Streamers and YouTubers alike feel they’ll get the most acknowledgment if they beat every game they play and stream/record on the hardest difficulty. Is it really necessary though? Just playing the game is entertaining enough for people to watch, but its not like you’re going to lose 100k followers simply because you played Devil May Cry on Normal and not Dante Must Die mode. I guess showcasing skill is more important than just simply enjoying the game overall and having fun. But if you’re idea of fun is a ridiculous challenge on a game you’ve never played before then all the more power to you. This goes for sequels as well, just because you’ve played all the previous games doesn’t instantly make you a master at the latest installment when you have no idea how different the game engine might be, or how some features may have been added or removed.
There’s a lot of cocky “big-brained” gamers out there and quite honestly I feel it’s tainting the community as a whole. The least anyone can do is support those who may not be as skilled as you are and maybe help them out in a kind manner. So what if you see someone playing on an easier difficulty? Maybe they don’t play games all that often. Maybe they just want to enjoy the story of the game without having to struggle through progression. Video games are much like interactive stories. Difficulty should have no impact on whether you are considered a newbie or a pro at games. What matters is you are playing it, you are having fun, and you are sharing your enjoyment with other people. This is a very loving and supportive community and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Don’t let a select few try to steer your decisions towards playing at the hardest difficulty as “the only option” when playing a game. Play to your style and comfort level and have the time of your life!