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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Play Hard Part 1

Challenge. It's just about as important as the fun factor in video games. But some games go above and beyond the means to challenge a player. I'm talking about games that cause you to break into unintelligible shouts, leave your controllers in two or three pieces, and have you staring at the game over screen for the umpteenth time. Welcome to Play Hard, an going feature of Gaming Rocks On where we recognize some of gaming's most sadistic titles from the past to the present.

Ghosts 'n Goblins (ARC)

Arcade games are generally designed to be difficult. They pretty much had to be or else you wouldn't keep dropping quarters into the slot. That being said, Ghosts 'n Goblins is so much harder than the average arcade game. You could have twenty dollars in quarters and it still wouldn't be enough to get you through this nightmare of a game.

It's a simple plot. Arthur's girl, Princess Prin Prin is kidnapped by Satan. Get her back. Like a lot of old-school arcade games, you have a time limit to complete each stage. But the odds of you losing a life to the ticking clock are very slim. No, what kills you in Ghosts 'n Goblins are the waves of undead enemies, which are hands down the most well oiled, coordinated army of mooks I have ever seen. Zombies, one of the most common ghoul foes in video games make the ones from Resident Evil look like scrubs in this game. The zombies in GnG pop out of the ground in pairs. You can slay these guys pretty quickly but seconds after you've put them into the ground, they get right back up for more. These guys don't even have the courtesy to stay dead after you've killed them on screen. I mean, I could understand if you killed them, scrolled right then came back and they were there again, but no! These guys come back to life right on the spot to make your life miserable! Then there's the Red Arremers, red demon creatures that use their speed and airborne superiority to their advantage, which makes them extremely difficult to hit. Red Arremers also love to chase Arthur around and having just one on screen can make a simple jump impossible. Big Man, large ogres can take so many hits before they fall and they can drop boulders on you. If you're in close proximity to a Big Man, they'll charge at you so you better get out of the way or pray to God that he only has a few more hits before you kill him.

In case I haven't made it clear, the enemies in GnG are relentless. Even if you aren't dealing with Big Man or Red Arremers, no enemy is not to be taken lightly. Every single one of those flunkies are dangerous. More often than not you have more than one to deal with because these guys swarm you. It's very rare to feel safe in GnG because of the threat that even the smallest of enemies pose. You're always on edge and you're always in attack mode. You either kill them or they kill you and more often than not, they will be the ones fluttering about on the screen looking at your corpse.

What makes the enemies even more dangerous is Arthur's weaksauce armor.The blacksmith that made it should be stabbed. Repeatedly. I mean, the armor isn't very durable, which is to say, Arthur's armor has the strength of wet toilet paper. One hit and Arthur is forced to run around in his underwear. One more hit and he's a pile of bones. Get used to that death jingle.

If by some miracle you actually make it to Astaroth's lair and best him, you get what is perhaps the cruelest fake out in the history of video games. Your victory over Astaroth was all an illusion and you have to go through all six stages again on an even harder difficulty. I've seen some pretty horrible things in my lifetime, but this is just sick. At this point you have two options: go through an even more frustrating quest or shut the game off. I'm willing to bet more than a few gamers have let the bad guy win this one even with the unlimited continues that the digital versions give you.

Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels (NES)

Lots of NES games are hard. Heck, the Nintendo Hard trope was named after the dozens of brutal NES carts. But this game is in a class all by itself. Do you remember how tough World 8 was in the original Super Mario Bros.? The Lost Levels starts out like that and skyrockets from there.

I'm not sure if someone left a flaming bag of crap at Nintendo's headquarters in Japan, but someone must have really gotten on their bad side if this was what they decided to give gamers. Many of the same enemies from the original game return but they are far more aggressive. Piranha Plants do not play by the rules, popping out of the pipes even if you're standing on them. Hammer Bros., the most loathsome adversary in the game can move forward now and they don't stop moving until after you've passed them. Are you backed into the left side of the screen with a Hammer Bro. approaching? No blocks under him to hit to kill him? Don't have any power-ups? Well, then, you're screwed. Bloopers are not limited to underwater levels and now appear in stages where there is no H2O. Bouncing off enemies to gain extra height on a jump has been a staple in the Super Mario games for years and this is the game that introduced it. Unfortunately, the controls that made such a feat easier in later games is not present here and most of the time you have to perform these jumps over bottomless pits.

Speaking of pits with no end, these things are EVERYWHERE! Yeah, pits are a common thing in platformers, but it's like Nintendo couldn't think of anything more intimidating to make us feel threatened. If you aren't getting offed by a tenacious Hammer Bro. or an ill timed jump that lands you on a Piranha Plant, it's the pits that will be the death of you. Which leads to the main reason why Lost Levels causes players to break controllers: the level design. The level design in the Lost Levels is not fair in the slightest and exists for the soul purpose of making the player rage quit. In level 3-4 you cannot progress to the end unless you're small, which means that if you came in that place with Fire Flower, you'll be forced to give it up. Other levels rely on hidden blocks to clear bottomless pits and some of the secrets to pass a stage can get ridiculously cryptic. Strong gusts of wind can help you make certain long jumps or send you flying into the nearest pit. Warp Zones return but some of them can actually send you back a few worlds and since backwards scrolling didn't come around until Super Mario Bros. 2, you pretty much have to kill yourself in the nearby pit that's been conveniently placed there should you happen by a backwards Warp Zone.

I mentioned the Fire Flower above, but really, you'll be lucky if you can even hang on to it for long. The copious amount of enemies and cheap level design ensure that you'll probably play most of the game small. Progressing as regular Mario makes the Poison Mushroom all the more dangerous. What is the Poison Mushroom? It's a power-down that has the exact same effect as touching an enemy. Poison Mushrooms are all over the place and can even be found in hidden blocks. Have fun with that.

The Lost Levels is completely remorseless. It laughs at your pain and suffering and your tears sustain it. Strange as this may sound, there are players that love the game for those very reasons. The Japanese cover shows Mario smiling giving the peace sign. He may as well have his middle finger up because that's exactly how the Lost Levels feels towards players.

Rayman Origins (PS3, Wii, 360, 3DS, Vita)

A mist all the holiday releases in 2011, you may have missed out on Rayman Origins. If you did, I highly recommend you pick it up. It's available on most platforms and is dirt cheap. I honestly think it was the best platform game released that year. Rayman Origins is also one of those games that reminds you that there are current generation titles that aren't afraid to kick you in the junk. Repeatedly.

You know a game is going to punish you when it completely dispenses with lives. That's right, there are no lives to collect in Rayman Origins and you have as many chances as you like to complete a stage. How many attempts you're willing to take, however, all depends on how many times you can stand being punched in the face with a pair of brass knuckles. Jumps will be missed and windows may be broken due to a chucked controller. Or two or three or four if you're playing with friends. Somehow Rayman Origins manages to have more spikes than Mega Man 9 so I'm guessing someone on the development team was a real fan. Each new ability Rayman and company learn is essential and you're required to switch from one to the other at any given time. One minute you're wall jumping for your life, the next you're using Rayman's hair as a helicopter to slow his decent to clear a gap. Even if you aren't going for 100% completion, Rayman Origins is no joke. Just finishing this game is an achievement in and of itself.

As hard as it is, Rayman Origins' difficulty isn't cheap. You die because you fell into those spikes. You died because you didn't use your abilities to help you with that jump. Unlike Lost Levels, when you die in this game, it's your own fault. Yes, Rayman Origins is brutally hard, but it's also fair.

F-Zero GX (GCN)

Developed by Amusement Vision F-Zero GX marks the last time the series had a home console release. That's a shame, really because GX really is the pinnacle of the F-Zero franchise. You may also know Amusement Vision from their involvement with the Super Monkey Ball games, games staring adorable little moneys in balls to lure you into a false sense of security to think that those games must be easy. The Super Monkey Ball titles are no breeze and as hard as the F-Zero games were before this one, GX is ten times more difficult. These days it's common knowledge that GX dishes out pain in mass quantities. But when I picked it up on launch day nearly ten years ago, this is something I got to find out on my own.

The two main modes of GX are the Story and Grad Prix modes. You need to play GP mode to win tickets to buy more chapters in Story mode. Story mode's first chapter is cake but after that, holy crap, get ready for one seriously obnoxious difficulty spike. Chapter 2 is a race through Red Canyon against Captain Falcon's rival, Samurai Goroh. Not only does the Samurai always boost at just the right moment, giving him a near constant lead on you, but you also have to watch for falling rocks. Colliding with just one of them means failing the mission. Other chapters in Story mode have you racing with a bomb strapped to Falcon's car that detonates if your speed drops to a certain point, fleeing down a tunnel of closing doors on a strict time limit and trying to stay alive as hordes of other racers try to knock you off the track. There may only be nine chapters in Story mode, but anyone that even makes the attempt to finish them will pour more hours into them than the GP mode of GX or other racers. On the lowest difficulty setting, GX's story mode will break the patience of even the most sane individuals, reducing them to raving lunatics fit for a stay in the loony bin.

GP mode isn't much easier and in order to unlock all of AX's content, you need to beat all of the races on all the difficulties. On the Master class setting, those AI racers are out for your blood, bumping and using spin attacks to knock you off course, costing you a precious retry. Quick reflexes, course memorization and mastery of the game's controls are all key to unlocking everything the GX has to offer and this a feat very few have managed to achieve without the use of a cheat device.

There is no shame in not being able to hack it in F-Zero GX. This game will cut you open multiple times and as you lay on the floor bleeding, thriving from the pain, it will back over your marred body with a huge dump truck containing salt and will pour it all over you. Even today there are players that still haven't advanced beyond Chapter 2 in Story mode because the difficulty is just too much to handle. Be that as it may, GX still stands as one of the GameCube's finest games. Yes, it will shatter your spirit into a million peaces, but all the good things the critics said about the game ring true. It's fast, it sounds amazing and it looks drop dead gorgeous. F-Zero GX is worth checking out even though it can turn grown men into babies.

Battletoads (NES)

Why wait until Part 2 of this feature to mention one of gaming's most well known, unforgiving games? Battletoads took many by surprise when it was released in 1991. During this period, gamers were gravitating towards the SNES and Genesis 16-bit consoles, so it was pretty amazing to see an 8-bit game with such detailed graphics on the aging NES.

Developed by Rare and published by Trade West, Battletoads is an unforgettable beat 'em up mixed with platforming elements. The game has a two player co-op mode but it isn't very up front about it. The title screen makes no mention of this and the second player can jump in just by pressing some buttons on the second controller. Some of the best NES experiences are shared with a pal and having buddy join in should make things easier, right? You can unintentionally hurt each other and while that's been a mechanic of most beat 'em ups, whaling on your ally by mistake is far easier to do in Battletoads than other games in the genre. Still, that isn't the first major red flag that Battletoads is out to get you. Most of the games I've mentioned in this feature thus far hit you in the face with a sledge hammer right off the bat. The first two levels, Ragnarok Canyon and Wookie Hole are actually pretty enjoyable and leave a great first impression.

So just when does Battletoads go from blissful gaming experience to sheer torture? Two words: Turbo Tunnel. Turbo Tunnel is the third level of the game, the one where Batteltoads true agenda is revealed. The level starts out innocently enough. More beat 'em up action with giant fits and boots to dispose of your enemies. But midway into the stage you come upon some hover bikes. You're thinking "Alright! A racing segment! This'll be fun!" FOOL! The moment you set foot on those bikes is the moment where you and your friend if you were dumb enough to bring him or her in on this, have given up all rights to have a good time playing this game. Your time spent on those hover bikes will be among the most painful memories you have in all the time you've been playing video games. The bike section in Turbo Tunnel demands nothing less than perfection from you and your friend. If you and your pal do not have the coordination of synchronized swimmers, cut the game off right now. All it takes is a blunder on you or your friend's part to make you both restart from the last check point. Yes, you both get penalized if just one of you screws up. The more you progress, the faster the things get, which makes thing nearly impossible if you're playing this level two player.

Should you actually get past the Turbo Tunnel, things don't get an easier. Even the side scrolling levels get more sinister. And if you think Turbo Tunnel was the only racing level in the game, boy are you in for a rude awakening. Battletoads has several racing stages, each one working more or less the same way as the dreaded Turbo Tunnel.

You could strap on the Game Genie and try to finish the game that way. I was once ignorant enough to try that. But then I came to realize that Battletoads was so hard that not event he power of Galoob's almighty cheat device could help me win. Battletoads could very well be the hardest NES game in existence. Since I've had the game rip out my insides and feed them to me every time I've tried to play it, I can safely argue that that is a title that is well deserved, however dubious it may be.


Chris Clash said...

Nice new feature !

Justin said...

This was a good read and I would like to mention one or two requests for part 2: The Etrian Oddyssey series (it's main pull is the difficulty for crying out loud). And Revenge of Shinobi (GEN, aka shinobi 2), that game was just evil.

GameOverYeah said...

So when will TMNT on the NES appear? ;-)

Reggie White Jr. said...


Didn't I watch you beat The Revenge of Shinboi is record time? It didn't seem that difficult. Maybe that's just because I wasn't the one playing.


TMNT is on the way. That game crossed my mind when thinking of this feature.

Justin said...

You could do some of the more difficult Castlevania games. i.e. 1, 3, COTM, OoEcc, etc