I’ve been playing video games as long as I can remember. This goes back to at least the very early 90s with a very tiny bit from 1989, but I was only 3 then and the memories fade more and more every day! I do remember my first systems; though. It was actually a few systems in very quick succession that started with an Atari 2600 and an NES quickly followed by a Game Gear, Sega Genesis, and access to a Super Nintendo.
The 2600 and NES
Those were probably the silver age of gaming; though, some may argue them to be the gold. Regardless, the Video Game crash of the late 70s were over, and gaming was starting to grow again. I remember the games I played back then, at least on the NES forward. The Atari games are a bit more of a blur, we had tons of them but they all were pretty generic. The few that stand out in memory are some of the classics such as Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-man, Donkey Kong, Frogger, Adventure, and Pitfall.
Those games, and the tons I don’t remember, had one thing in common: difficulty. Those games were hard. There really were no settings to change it, you played and you died. Well, not everyone, but your average gamer did. Sure, there were hardcore people back then that made it to the kill screens in Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, or the first ever Easter Egg in Adventure. Yeah, but your average gamer, not really.
I personally never went into games on the Atari or NES with hopes of getting an ending. I was also pretty young back then, too, and really didn’t understand the concept of an “ending”. Most of the gaming community was, and the industry kind of grew with us. But those games were hard, and maybe it was mostly because of technical reasons.
You couldn’t save. There was not enough memory to really do so, in most games. Some games allowed it (like the original Legend of Zelda, I remember distinctly, and I believe it was one of the first). But look at two of the most difficult games on the NES: Contra and Ninja Gaiden. There was no saving, you had to win the game in one go, or pause it for later.
I remember my friend had spent months working on Ninja Gaiden, pausing and leaving it for later, and finally he managed to make it to the end. One day, coming home from school, he found the NES turned off. His mom had cleaned around the area and noticed it still on. There goes all the progress, and no getting it back!
Contra had the famous Konami code that allowed you to get free 99 men. This was one of the ways most people beat the game, and for those who managed to do so without it, they were gods among men to all us cheaters!
Before I move on, another really hard NES game to point out (oh, jeeze there are so many; though) is the original Metal Gear Solid. An extremely fun game that I would suggest anyone to give a go, but one of the hardest I’ve played. Again, it may be due to technical limitations of the older systems. Graphics and controls still had a long way to go.
Genesis and SNES: Growing Up
Graphics got better and more games took advantage of the save functions that came later in the life of the NES, but the games didn’t necessarily get easier. I should mention, not even all games took advantage of the save function (I’m looking at you Zombies Ate My Neighbors) and opted for a password earned that allowed you to jump back to a previous level.
That said, most games I remember playing worked well with this system since this was the age of the platform game. FPS’s were coming up on computers, but consoles really didn’t go there, yet. Of course, Zelda: A Link to the Past (one of the best games ever) used a save system. It was a pretty challenging game, especially the ice dungeon! I also had my first taste of RPGs with the SNES (yeah, I know Final Fantasy and others existed on the NES, but this was my first taste), and they had a nice save system, too.
So, technical limitations were being removed; however, games didn’t get overall easier because of it, at least, not in my opinion.
Platform games; though, seemed to be the most popular, and they didn’t tend to go with a save system. I’m talking about Sonic the Hedgehog and Earthworm Jim. These games could be pretty difficult to take on, especially depending on one’s age! Other games such as Toejam and Earl and the aforementioned Zombies Ate My Neighbors were quite fun and challenging.
This area also saw rise of the Fighting genre and some fun multiplayer options that changes gaming difficulty in a whole new way. With games like Street Fighter, Mortal Combat, and Pit-Fighter; you could avoid the sometimes cheap and cheating AI to fight another intelligent human being. Multiplayer would grow in the years to come with PC gaming’s FPSes (which would later make a big transition to consoles) and RTS games as well.
The Age of 3D
This isn’t an article on console wars, and while Sega and Nintendo were no doubt fighting, I’d rather not discuss the wars that occurred with the big three. The important thing to know here is that the Playstation, Nintendo 64, and Sega Saturn ushered in a new era of gaming. 3D had come into its own, and lots of technical limitations were removed (albeit with new ones regarding camera angles and collision being created).
Memory was a thing of the past, for the most part, and the systems all had their own way to save your progress no matter the game you were playing. Memory cards and packs were all the rage; though, most of the N64 games saved on the carts themselves.
I saw the PSone’s memory card as a godsend. And with it, I admit, there was a big drop in difficulty level. Also, many games had choices of level added back in the previous era, and this continued suit in all the following generations in some form or fashion.
Even platform games with Spyro and Crash Bandicoot allowed you to save here and there to preserve progress. Don’t get me wrong, this was good, too. Trying to beat a game in one sitting or pausing it as long as you could was not really fun or all that reliable (you know, with moms)! So, it was a great improvement, but you’re no longer scared to die when you can save. I mean, you may be for a moment, but not really since it becomes only a minor inconvenience to reload from your last save point.
Death was only a very small burden, nothing like dying at the very end of Ninja Gaiden.
I think I experienced this most with the Resident Evil series. It was a challenging game for the most part; however, I was never really afraid to die since you don’t really lose something as long as you saved often. Now, one may argue that ribbons were few and far between, but I never really felt it was balanced that way.
So, for better or worse, this did significantly change the way we play games, and the way we view them as well.
Though, that’s not to say that games weren’t hard; though. Even with same functions, games like Clock Tower and Civilization cranked up to the highest difficulty would blow you out of the water.
We also saw a new genre begin to mature a bit more on the consoles during this generation. That’s right, FPSes were coming into their own with games like Medal of Honor. We also saw the revival of the action game with Metal Gear Solid. Both genres also brought their own new challenges, including multiplayer’s fun and unique difficulty with the FPS games. Toss in a few bots, get a few friends, and have at it!
Open the Floodgates
From there everything just kinda rushed out—or at least it felt that way—like a dam burst. Time flew by, Halo came with the X-Box and galvanized FPS games for the consoles, and lead to a far larger multiplayer experience even going so far as removing the bot/AI element from the multiplayer side.
PC gaming, which was already big, continued to grow. Games like Diablo already had really difficult modes such as Hardcore (where you die, your character is gone forever). Online multiplayer increased with FPS and MMOs.
Some of the first MMOs were the hardest—depending on how you look at it. Games like Ultima Online and Everquest.
Then, World of Warcraft came and changed the game forever. WoW is probably a good game to look at and see the changes that came over the years, and how much the gaming community has changed. It was very close to the other MMOs when it came out, looking at difficulty; however, if you track it over time, you’ll see now that it is far different than when it came out. Like the memory cards, we can argue all day about whether the changes are for better or worse. I know, as a vet of the game, I enjoy the convenience of many of the changes, but feel they have really softened the community as a whole.
As a result, any future MMO has to follow suit, or it’ll generally not get a following. Hopefully; though, we’ll see this change in the future. The same can be said of other genres. The memory stick moved to the hard drive, and while cheat codes and game sharks are gone, most players still really don’t have a fear of dying in a game.
Look at Final Fantasy 11. An MMO that wasn’t nearly as popular as WoW, but it did add penalties for dying. I don’t know if that contributes to it not being as popular, but gamers these days seem to be afraid of taking the risk of losing out. No one wants the challenge, but we’re all ok with our achievements for putting a game into the console and turning it on.
Of course, this isn’t true of all gamers or even all games. The Binding of Isaac is extremely challenging, and you have to start over each time you die. Should you lose your progress in every game? No. Should everything give you a bit of a challenge? I think so.
Where do we go from here? I know a lot of people may disagree with me, but I’m in the same boat. We’re a generation that has been coddled, with hands held to the finish line. We don’t work for achievements, we get them for jumping.
Casual games are pouring in from companies like Zynga and populating the world in Facebook and Mobile platforms.
Is this bad? There should be enough room for both. There should be enough room for multiple difficulties as well. WoW has added difficulties ranging from casual to hardcore, but this also leads to more development time for balancing which leads to less content as has been noted in recent interviews.
All hope is not lost; though, with games like the aforementioned Binding of Isaac, upcoming games like Diablo 3 which retains the Hardcore mode, and Bioshock Infinite that has the much raved about “1999 mode”.
What do you think? Have games gotten too easy? Are they still too hard? Where do you think the market is going?