Since the debut of the Nintendo Entertainment System in Japan in 1983 (Famicom), gamers have been trying their hand at all manner of games from fantasy, to sports; from horror to action: these games have been and remain an important part of society. Back in the mid to late eighties, and early nineties however, when games were really starting to figure themselves out and explore new possibilities, there were often stories and adventures that made little to no sense, or were, in spite of the clarity of some of the stories, so incredibly difficult that it made playing the bloody thing either an unbelievable test of patience, or a futile struggle that ended with a controller embedded in a TV screen.
Suffice it to say games have become comparatively simple in the past two decades, and while there are still those few exceptions that drive gamers bonkers with a masochistic relish, reminiscing of the games of old, there is a much bigger market for simplicity, and aesthetics… much like the typical relationship today.
So here are some of those blasts from the past from when Nintendo was still relevant and the only real player in the market for games that were damn near impossible.
15. Super Mario Bros.
This is perhaps the easiest of the next to impossible games here… which to some readers may say a lot about just how bloody difficult these games can be. In the first few levels of Mario one can get by with relative ease (like with virtually every Mario game): they make it easy to dive into. Unfortunately, unlike Super Mario 3, this first instalment is devoid of warp whistles and so, once more difficult levels and worlds are reached, there is no avoiding them; one has to go through each one… likely multiple times. Hardcore gamers might not consider this game one of the harder NES games and, in the grand scheme, it certainly isn’t, but that doesn’t stop the screens of Bullet Bills flying about, and Lakitus dropping Spinies every which way from being an incredible pain in the ass, especially when precarious chasms, crumbling platforms, and lava pits spitting fire are thrown into the mix.
14. Zombie Nation
This absolutely ridiculous game is one of the biggest pains in the ass available for the NES. One of the more nonsensical games to have ever been produced, Zombie Nation features the ‘Head of the Samurai’… literally… a head, that happens to be a Samurai. The story is that the head is to retrieve the sword of the Samurai to bring it back to its rightful place, and defeat the forces of evil. These forces consist of zombie soldiers who shoot machine guns and fly helicopters, as well as lava monsters, and a brought-to-life Statue of Liberty… because of course the legendary sword of the Samurai was stolen and brought to the United States in order to turn the American people into zombies, and thus rule the world. There are two difficulty levels in the game: easy, and hard, and neither are easy, to be sure. There aren’t enough zombie hostages to eat in order to keep firepower and life at a consistent strength, with everything else going on in the game… yes, the ‘Head of the Samurai’ eats zombie hostages, who jump from destroyed buildings, in order to gain power.
13. Solomon’s Key
Solomon’s Key is perhaps one of the most frustratingly difficult games for the NES. Playing a sorcerer, searching for Solomon’s Key in order to return the world to the light, and close out all the demons and darkness, one must puzzle one’s way around enemies who have unlimited spawning capabilities, un-intuitive level design, ridiculously short level timers, instant death from enemy contact, very few ways of dispatching enemies, and an ability to self-defeat by way of rendering levels unbeatable through messing up one puzzle or another. With no save points, the game must be played all the way through in one go and, if all lives are lost before the end, the game must be started over from the very beginning. With several secret levels that are sometimes unattainable due to previous puzzles, one can reach the end without being able to truly win the game. If that’s not a lesson in frustration…
12. Mike Tyson’s Punch Out
Playing as Little Mac, the object of Punch Out is to earn one’s way to the ‘Dream Fight’ against the World Heavyweight Champion, Mike Tyson! Fighting up through the minor, major, and world leagues, Little Mac is not too well equipped to take on a good number of his opponents. With no special attacks to speak of other than an uppercut which must be earned by countering attacks from opponents, Mac can only give jabs, and body blows, while other fighters can do some pretty fun, and difficult-to-counter attacks. Mac can only be knocked down three times before he loses by K.O., and can only lose three matches in total before the game is over, no matter where he is in the rankings. Being hit, blocking, or throwing a punch that an opponent blocks knocks down the hearts that Mac has and, once they reach zero, Mac will turn pink, and will only be able to dodge in order to gain hearts back to keep fighting. Try taking all of that into account while dodging Tyson trying to bite your ear off.
11. Ninja Gaiden
This twenty-level, side-scrolling adventure follows the story of Ryu Hayabusa: a ninja who seeks revenge for the death of his father. Clad with a traditional, family dragon katana, and some magical secondary weapons that take sustained ‘ninja power’ in order to use, Ryu runs and jumps, slashes, and fires through each level, clinging to ledges, and climbing seemingly impossible surfaces. Speaking of seemingly impossible, the jumping feats Ryu is expected to achieve in this game are absolutely ludicrous, especially with angry birds hunting down Ryu every time he tries to jump a chasm. If one is to reach the final boss… all three final bosses… and survive the gauntlet of boss battle after boss battle, then Ryu is reunited with his father, who has been revived, and subsequently shot. As Ryu lets go his dying father, he watches the dark castle he just spent too much time infiltrating, crumble to ruins. Saving Irene, a special agent who is then tasked with killing Ryu, his suave ninja manner seems to sweep Irene off her feet, and they gaze into the sunrise, with a somehow newly found love (even though Ryu didn’t even know her name until he proclaims her his prize for his efforts. #feminism
10. Mega Man
One needn’t go too incredibly far to find someone who has thrown their controller at the little robot dude, hellbent on destroying evildoers and sucking back their souls for a power charge. Mega Man is one of the biggest names in Nintendo history, right up there with Mario, but loved a little less by the general gaming public, and a little too much by the “so what if I stay up till 5am drinking 4 Redbulls, 2L of Coke, while eating sweet chili heat Doritos? It’s not like I have a job” sorts of gamers. The incredible thing is that all of the features that make a Mega Man good are found in this first installment, and the sequels do more to hinder the excitement of the game play than to help. That being said, the one thing that the sequels did do to help this game, was to make it easier. With no saves, and the same ridiculous levels, powerups, and jump-challenges, Mega Man was the epitome of difficult games most people only ever played one or two levels of. At least there was no damn timer.
9. Ghoul School
This game is one of the greatest, simplest, and most difficult games out there for the NES. Assuming the role of Spike O’Hara, after having brought a skull found in the cemetery back to Cool School High to show the bio teacher Mr. Femur, one must fight through the now demonic teachers and football team in order to rescue the captured head cheerleader, Samantha Pompom. A classic story of monster slaying in order to win the babe, Ghoul School is the quintessential movement from late eighties sap story, to early nineties grunge ambiance. Unfortunately for the would-be player, Ghoul School has some stilted jumping, and delayed attack controls. Though it must be said that the weapons and accessories are genius, the difficulty level in the game is incredible, especially when it takes a gorgon only two hits to kill Spike, and it takes Spike hours of searching for a weapon in the two hundred-room school to find something to even remotely damage the damned thing.
8. Ghosts and Goblins
A hero, saving a princess from the forces of darkness… this is definitely not a story that has been done in games before… playing the brave Sir Arthur, the player must fight off the titular Ghosts and Goblins in order to save a princess. Thankfully, along the way, there are upgrades one can acquire to aid in one’s quest. Unfortunately, those upgrades are often useless: increasing Arthur’s damage to an enemy, while making it virtually impossible to actually hit a damned enemy. It doesn’t help either that Arthur can only take two hits. The first hit renders Arthur armour-less… literally removing his armour; left to run around in tighty-whities. The second hit renders Arthur breathless, and one must start all over again. This is not a good hit function to have when the game’s jump ability, unlike most other games, and much like reality, does not allow you to change direction in mid air. Take away the armour, put Arthur on mushrooms, and give him a plumbers butt, and the ability to jump where he wants, and you have a darker version of Super Mario.
Originally a far superior arcade game, with magical narration and support for the gamer, the NES version of Gauntlet is more insular, with confusing alphanumerical characters that make passwords in the treasure and clue levels damn near impossible to translate and use correctly. Unlike its successor Gauntlet Legends, Gauntlet is a much more confusing, un-intuitive, and difficult game. Not only does every stage surround the player with ghouls and ghosts that drain one’s health in a heartbeat, but Death decides to show up every once in a while to say hi, and to instantly kill the player while midway through a stage. Death comes to town in Gauntlet Legends as well, but one can very easily fight him off at the cost of a potion… otherwise… the player is just as screwed, but just not as quickly. A great function of this game, however, is the ability to choose between four different character classes, a la Diablo: Thor, Thyra, Merlin, and Questor— two strong, warrior classes, a magic-using class, and a rogue class… though only two of the four characters can actually face the final boss.
6. Friday The 13th
What could be better than watching Jason Vorhees creatively kill everyone in Camp Crystal Lake, or in Manhattan… or in space? Why, playing Jason yourself in the exhilarating game version of Friday the 13th… oh wait, that’s the new game coming out soon! No, the NES version of Friday the 13th is far less intelligible, far less scary, besides one’s inability to really do anything, and far less fun as one does not play as Jason, but as a camp counselor. The counselor role could be cool if the movies ever depicted one saving the lives of every camper, as well as themselves, all while defeating Jason… but Jason is never defeated before a slew of kids, cops, and kooks get offed. Thankfully one can win the game, even if the fellow counselors die, but one still has to survive the onslaught of Jason, his mother Pam, and a horde of zombies (for no good reason) for three days and nights, without letting the children get killed… watch a Friday the 13th movie, and then decide how likely it is to beat this game.
5. Cybernoid: The Fighting Machine
Originally for the Commodore 64, Cybernoid is one hell of a difficult game, especially considering how brief it is. There are only three levels to the game, with several screens each, and yeah, like many games, the levels are timed, but even worse: each screen in each level is also timed. If one does not sort out how to pass from one end of the screen to the other fast enough, the screen will begin to flash, giving perhaps ten seconds to figure a way through before having to start the whole thing over again. There is no timer per screen, and each time varies, so that’s a wonderful start to a game. As with too many ridiculously difficult NES games Cybernoid does not have any save points, and three difficulty levels that are basically ranked from: 1) near impossible 2) impossible 3) you’re stupid. The room-escape manner of this game (just with obstacles that will kill very quickly), could be very interesting if there was a realistic amount of time afforded the player, and an ending that wasn’t simply an elongated pause that seems like a glitch, followed by a landing of the Cybernoid onto a mother ship, followed by an elongated pause, followed by a congratulatory message, followed by the title screen… what a sad way to win: with no excitement.
Here it is: the very first game to implement a ‘Hard Mode’. As if Castlevania wasn’t already hard enough with the bats, flying Medusa heads, and skeletons who eternally throw their bones at you without losing even the slightest glimpse of structural integrity, hard mode can only be achieved after beating Dracula in normal mode. Since there is no way to save this game, one must beat the game all the way through, in one go, before achieving a greater difficulty that can only then be played immediately, lest one has to beat the game again in normal mode. Absurd. Speaking of absurd, after fighting the Bat, Medusa, Mummies, and the thankfully properly named Frankenstein’s Monster, one must fight Death, who has only 7000HP. Then the final boss is Dracula. Somehow it seems to be that Death might be the bigger baddy, or if not, then Frankenstein’s Monster should be ahead for cheating Death just like Dracula, but the fanged favourite has two forms in his boss fight and a whopping 50,000HP! That is a huge jump from one boss to the next. Who the hell would want to play this on hard?
Prince Rafael must save Princess Margarita. A simple story if ever there was one. Equipped with a limited number of multi-coloured keys specific to certain doors in the castle, a map in the manual, as well as an in-game map, that points directly to where Margarita is, one might think this game is a breeze… but they would be wrong. With one hundred rooms to explore, fifty lives, no save points, and a disclaimer in the manual telling players to start over if they run out of keys, this game both equips a player for success, so as to set them up for failure. Giving players the option to sit in the chair, strap themselves in, and kick the switch themselves, Castlequest is a ridiculously troublesome puzzle/adventure/dungeon game that is relentless in its mission to crush the player’s self worth. Unable to actually fight the thankfully small list of enemies, save for dropping pots on them, Rafael must avoid being even touched by any enemy. The pace of this game may be the most difficult thing to withstand, however, as the…elevator…moves…in…such…a…slow…and…tedious…manner. By the time one has ridden the damn thing twice, the player is ready to flip the switch on that chair.
Battletoads has perhaps some of the most difficult game sequences… in the history of gaming. One could make a good case for this being at least one of the top three most difficult NES games of all time. Though very diverse in the types of game play it provides: from brawling, to jump puzzles; from cavern spelunking, to hover biking, Battletoads can break a gamer’s morale more quickly than being turned down by that cute goth-girl sitting in that stairwell by art class. Just the hover bike sequence alone is enough to make any gamer chuck their controller into the fish tank and end it all. Starting slowly enough to make out the barriers, and dodge them in time, the side scrolling does nothing but speed up, adding more obstacles and enemies in the way, with no ability to attack, and not enough time to think of it anyway. Thankfully graced with checkpoints, one can pick up at the beginning of this section or that, but… if no one here has yet played this game, get to that point, and see if you bother finishing it. The bonus is, if the hover bike segment is completed, there is a more difficult surfing segment to follow.
1. Action 52
Oh, the wonders of the Action 52 series. This NES cartridge, as suggested, is a compilation of fifty-two different games, and the word different is used advisedly. Anything from p-shooting, to tank destruction; from lollipop dungeons, to leopard cops (yes, that is to say cops, who happen to be leopards). And by lollipop dungeons, what is meant is that one fights one’s way through dungeons, with evil bats, sticky, fatal gumdrops falling from the ceiling, and defends one’s self with a gigantic lollipop. It is one giant acid trip of a cartridge, and no one of the intensely stilted and underdeveloped games is particularly easy. A Nintendo nerd’s collection is incomplete without this ridiculously retro collection of grueling 8-bit games. Sure, its commercial success cannot compete with powerhouse games like Mega Man and Ninja Gaiden, but much like Friday the 13th, it’s awful game play, and frustratingly tempting way in which it makes a player reach for it again and again, make it a classic compilation.