Difficulty as an Artform is Dead
You know the problem with the kids these days? They don’t know what difficult is! Back when I was a kid playing videogames, and some of you were probably teenagers playing videogames, probably some of you were even 20-somethings playing videogames (what the hell was wrong with you back then?), good god is this sentence long enough for you yet? Anyway, back when I was a kid playing videogames, we had games that were insanely difficult yet somehow still incredibly fun. Some of the best examples are games like Ghosts’n'Goblins, Battletoads, Contra, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ninja Gaiden, Metroid, and of course one of my all-time favorites…Mega Man!
Back in July of 2008 I was practically floored by the announcement that Capcom was putting out a new Mega Man game, most importantly that they were calling it Mega Man 9 and it was going to use the same graphics as the original NES games. I was really excited by the prospect of a new retro-Mega Man game that would perfectly recreate the feelings I had when I was younger but with totally new content. The game was released in September 2008 as a download for the Wii, X-Box 360, and the PS3 and has since gotten numerous excellent reviews and been nominated for several awards including ‘Best WiiWare Game’ and ‘Best Platforming Game’. I think all of that is complete, and utter, bull shit.
Admittedly I did not play Mega Man 9 for very long, the first level alone was enough to make me want to kill babies. I read some reviews that praised its retro look and claimed it was every bit as difficult as the original games, these are damned lies. The game may be “as difficult” as the old games, but it’s not the right kind of difficulty. I’m sure some of you are thinking it, and believe me I cringed at the very hint of it, that I have simply gotten rusty and that this game was punishing me like a pimply freshman in gym class. Nay, I say to you, that is not the case.
My wife, angelic messenger that she is, has purchased for me a great number of gaming fineries in our time together. Possibly the best of which was the port of Mega Man X (the first one for the Super Nintendo) for the PSP, titled Maverick Hunter X, which is almost an exact recreation of the SNES game. Let me tell you, I may have been able to play the guitar or the recorder in middle school at some point but those skills might as well be gone to some cave in north korea, however when I found myself at the helm of the blue bomber on the PSP, the muscle-memory had only been sharpened with age like the razor sharp edge of an sharp executioner’s sharp axe. Possibly even as much so as a picture of said witty executioner printed from a Sharp printer, covered in vicious razor blades!
Suffice to say, my skills had not dulled, so something had to be wrong with the game. What I ended up pondering was the difference between a game that’s artfully difficult and a game that is simply painfully difficult. An excellent example of artful difficulty is the classic disappearing block timing puzzles that appeared predominately in the first two Mega Man games. When you entered the room you were initially shocked by seemingly random blocks appearing and disappearing in mid-air with some super sweet sound effects accompanying them, but after a few moments you began to notice the pattern of jumping that the blocks were spelling out to you. As you progressed, you no doubt fell a couple of times, but you knew the secret to the puzzle and with a little bit of time and determination you could get passed it relatively easily.
In contrast, an example of painful difficulty is when something is just plain hard and there is no real secret to figuring it out. You can spend five minutes trying it or three hours and it’s still just as hard. Mega Man 9 is pretty much infected with this kind of difficulty, right from the very beginning you can see a certain lack of polish that the other games had is missing from this one. I even played the game a couple of times, spread out over a few months each time, to see if my opinion changed and it hasn’t so far. I’ll probably go back and try to play it again, this time trying really hard to not suck and die a thousand times over.
I actually feel that many of the classic NES games I listed above dance precariously close to the edge between these two types of difficulty. Contra, BattleToads, TMNT, and Ghosts’n'Goblins in particular are all exceedingly hard and can pretty quickly become less fun than they are painful. Ninja Gaiden, Metroid, and Mega Man all top my list as well balanced games that provide challenge while still remaining quite fun. Then again, I could just be a pansy…