Nothing seemed better as a kid than to have the chance to sit down and do nothing but play video games for hours on end. It was challenging. It was thrilling. It was magnificent. Or was it? When you really think about it, how many of those exhilarating hours did you spend as kid frustrated out of your mind? How many did you spend screaming at the television? How many just wishing you could get to the next level? How many weeping into a pillow or throwing a rage fest because your brother or sister erased your saved data?
Don’t get me wrong; I love video games! I’m obsessed. So much so that I host a video game tournament with my siblings and closest friends every year to see who can beat the most video games. So before you freak out and turn away, this is not an article meant to trash our favorite video games. Consider going through this article as a bonding experience, a chance to discover that you are not alone in your retro video game turmoil, that others have suffered as you have to defeat the undefeatable. We’ve all been there. I know I have. Here are 15 Retro Video Games that gave us hell as kids.
15. Super Star Wars
A treasure to all, the Super Star Wars series is simply amazing. These games are probably some of the best movie-to-video game adaptations ever created. You get to play as Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewie. You even get to pilot an X-Wing. For a kid in the early 90s, this game was a gift from the heavens above. But that doesn’t change one thing: This game is incredibly difficult. You were brave to leave it on the normal setting. Seriously, unless you knew the invincibility cheat code or where the lives caches were, you were almost certainly always screwed. Of the three games released for their respective movies on Super Nintendo, Empire Strikes Back was probably the most challenging. I dare you to walk in front of the TV screen while someone’s playing one of these games. Chances are, you’ll end up with a concussion due to the person playing throwing their controller directly at your head.
Built in a similar fashion as Ninja Gaiden, The Castlevania series is a lot more forgiving. Still, it doesn’t stop these games from having their own frustrating moments. At the very least, the gameplay is enjoyable and beatable. The level designs are also wicked in a good kind of way, well-crafted and beautifully designed. What makes Castlevania so tough is it takes time to learn the patterns of some of its more difficult bosses. But boy, does it make you feel triumphant to overcome them. Time and patience are what it takes to beat these games. Now try and tell a ten-year-old child they need patience to beat a video game. Out of the original trilogy, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse was by far the most difficult.
13. Tomb Raider
There really is nothing all that challenging about Tomb Raider, so you’re probably wondering why it made the list. My answer is simple: jumping and grabbing onto ledges. Tomb Raider has the opposite problem of Super Mario 64 in that the sensitivity settings to the directional pad are majorly clunky — not as clunky as, say, the first Resident Evil before the director’s cut, but bad enough that jumping from ledge to ledge can be a real hassle. As much as I love this game, it’s a problem that turning Lara Croft around to face the other direction takes effort.
12. Crash Bandicoot
The Crash Bandicoot games are fun as hell and wacky to boot. Countless hours have been spent by many a child collecting crystals, gems, boxes, and time relics while they bumble through fantastically designed levels by Naughty Dog. What makes these games so hard? Well, let’s put it this way: the only way to get 100% in any of these games is to play every level multiple times while completing different challenges each time.
In the first game, the only challenge to get the gems and 100% was to break every box in every level. This was frustratingly hard enough on its own. In future games, you had to discover what the challenges were to get the gems; the game didn’t tell you. It also didn’t tell you if there were secret warp rooms that needed to be unlocked. Then there were the time relics that required players to beat each level under a specific time limit. Most hair and sleep was lost over those. Finally, the levels themselves, while fun, could be very challenging. Often, they would require a decent amount of timing and precision to conquer. Also, water levels. Curse those awful water levels!
11. Sonic the Hedgehog
Probably one of the most ironic and cleverly designed tricks in video game history, the only way to beat any of the original Sonic the Hedgehog games, in which the main character is a speedster, is to go as slow as you possibly can. How cruel is that? The longer you hold down the directional button, the faster Sonic goes. The faster Sonic goes, the greater the chances are that you’ll run him into spikes or an enemy or lava. For a lot of kids, this was their first introduction to the idea of temptation. Go fast and die. Go slow and survive. Like most kids, I chose to make Sonic go fast. Sonic is only cool if he goes fast. Never mind that the chances of surviving most of the later levels depend on precise timing and an understanding of the map you’re traversing. Never mind that if you went fast, you were lucky to reach the end of levels with more than five rings. Sonic was built for speed, and if this is a cause that all of Sonic’s lives have to be sacrificed for, then so be it.
10. The Adventures of Batman and Robin
A favorite from childhood and relatively unknown amongst the gaming community, The Adventures of Batman and Robin is tough as hell. For those in the know, this game required not just patience, but also consistent practice. On top of that, you were downright foolish to try this one alone. That’s right; The Adventures of Batman and Robin was a two-player beat-’em-up that was not only challenging, but also darn near impossible if you didn’t have the grit for it. The key to this game is the power-ups. That, and not dying. If you die, you lose all of your power-ups and have to start collecting them all over again. The further you are in the game, the harder that becomes, not to mention this game had one of the longest batwing levels in the history of Batman video games. Seriously, it’s like they stuck the entirety of 1942 right in the middle of the game.
9. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
The Legend of Zelda is one of the most popular video game franchises of all time. For a lot of people, Ocarina of Time was the very first game they experienced that employed the idea of plot and storytelling in the gameplay. “Video games can be like movies!” — this was the thought realized across the world as kids crowded around their N64s to play Nintendo’s latest smash hit.
I, sadly, was not a part of this crowd and did not discover The Legend of Zelda until Nintendo 64’s second title, Majora’s Mask. This game was spellbinding to me and did for me what Ocarina did for most other people. Thus, I cannot fully attest to the sentiments that follow. For most people, Majora’s Mask was a major disappointment. To them, it was just a clone of the previous game. It reused character builds and didn’t have any original coding in its software. On top of that, it employed a time-based convention that was widely unpopular amongst its players.
The convention is that the game takes place in a period of three days, and every time you reach the end of the third day, you must use the ocarina of time to travel back to the first. This action would reset all progress in plot points made, thus making the game very repetitive and, at times, frustrating. The idea was that you were supposed to use the knowledge of events you experienced to get further in the game every time you played through the three days. Personally, I loved this convention as it created an air of foreboding and doom as time would continually run out while you played. For others, it turned Majora’s Mask into the most disappointing video game sequel in gaming history.
8. Ninja Gaiden
Ninja Gaiden may be one of the most unfair games in existence. True, the game has a built-in save state, but the respawn rate of the enemy sprites is just awful. I’m talking instant respawns. It’s almost to the point where killing anything in this game is just about pointless — I mean, makes-you-want-to-cry pointless. You’re better off just mad-dashing through each level and just praying that your health bar holds out. I applaud anyone that can get through Ninja Gaiden without letting out a stream of endless curse words, leaving your roommates wondering if you need to speak with someone about anger management therapy. I speak from experience.
7. Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!
Oh, Punch-Out! What joy you bring and what pain. Built on a tiered difficulty system, this game is all about patterns. The further you get, the more difficult the opposing boxer’s patterns become to recognize and master. I’ll be honest with you: I still have not beaten this one. I’ve never even gone up against Mike Tyson, the final boss of the game. I don’t know anyone that has. If you’re one of the lucky few, give yourself a pat on the back. You’re a better gamer than I. I respect you. The amount of time and commitment it takes to master Mike Tyson’s: Punch-Out! leaves a gamer as weary as Little Mac on his final knockout.
6. Super Mario 64
If you’re a completionist, a gamer that must reach 100% on every video game that you play, Super Mario 64 is the demon game you wish you never started playing. It’s not that the game is difficult or that the levels are particularly challenging. Super Mario 64 is a fantastic and enjoyable game for the casual gamer. For the completionist, it’s a nightmare spawned from the deepest pits of video game hell. This is because the motion controls on Mario are so freaking sensitive, a tap will send him running off the edge of the nearest precipice. And since most of the levels involve at least one star where you have to climb some sort of structure to its highest point, this can be a real problem. That being said, I wouldn’t have Super Mario 64 any other way — once through to full completion is enough accomplishment to last a lifetime.
5. Donkey Kong Country
Donkey Kong Country is one of the most beloved video games of all time. Playing as Donkey Kong and, more often, Diddy, gave players a thrill like no other. But the further you get in the game, the less thrilling and the more nail-biting the gaming experience becomes. It all starts with the minecart level, and from that point on, the Kongs are thrown into a world of hurt as players continuously fail to shoot Diddy and Donkey from one barrel to the next. The upside: this game is so much fun, it doesn’t seem to matter. Retro gamers flock to Donkey Kong Country no matter how much it hurts them in the process. All they ever think about is those sweet opening levels that fly by way too quickly. Then, they reach the snow levels — the worst invention in gaming history since the underwater levels of Super Mario Bros.
Two words: Yellow Devil. That thumb-breaking nightmare terrorized kids for years. You were a badass if you could master the Yellow Devil without getting hurt. Even as an adult, the Yellow Devil is hellish. To face off with him is a test of eye-hand coordination like no other. Slip just once, and you’re done. Luckily, MegaMan is a game without game overs, but, man, does it suck to lose all those hard-earned points from previous levels and bosses to that yellow son of a bitch. If that wasn’t hard enough, the last level involves a gauntlet of previous bosses with incredibly difficult terrain between each boss leading up to the final boss, Dr. Wily.
Contra is one of the most beloved shoot-’em-up side-scrollers of all time. But, man, did it give us a tough time as kids. You were brave to play these games without the Konami code. Without a countless supply of lives, these games pack a solid punch right to the center of the ego. With one hit kills, more bullets flying than a player can dodge, and endless enemy respawns, Contra could probably make a person insane. Luckily, the game allowed you to go insane with your friends due to the game’s best feature: multiplayer mode. So while these games may take every shred of confidence you and your friends had as gamers down with them, at least it gives you the opportunity to go down guns blazing and together.
Simply put, Battletoads is broke. What starts out as a seemingly simple beat-’em-up becomes a test of persistence and timing the further you can get in the game. Honestly, I applaud you if you can get past the third level. This cult classic had kids screaming and crying at their televisions for hours on end due to some of the most unfair levels in existence: Turbo Tunnel, Rat Race, and the most notorious of all, Clinger-Winger, a level in which you have to ride a motorcycle through an unending maze of twists in turns. Sounds easy enough, right? Well, factor in that you have a spinning circle of death chasing and one, and I mean literally one, missed or wrongly pressed button on the d-pad, and you were mercilessly slaughtered. It’s so bad, and the turns come so quickly that the only way to survive is to pause the game before each turn to see what button needs to be pressed next.
1. Super Mario Bros. The Lost Levels
Finally, the mother of all difficult games, Super Mario Bros. The Lost Levels. This game was so tough that Japan thought it better not to initially release it to American audiences. Instead, we got Super Mario Bros. 2, a simple and easy romp through Mushroom Kingdom compared to the monster that is Lost Levels. What makes Lost Levels so hard? How about the fact that the game actively works to lure Mario & Luigi to their deaths with tricks, traps, and dead-ends that were nonexistent in the previous Mario game: things like Poison Mushrooms that depower you or kill you if you’re too weak, leaps that only the best Mario players can master, decoy Bowsers hidden in the castle levels, and worst of all, secret warp pipes that actually take you back to the very first level of the game. Needless to say, Super Mario Bros. The Lost Levels is cruel. Fun, but very cruel. In retrospect, the game is a lot easier if you just suck it up and play as Luigi who can jump higher and further than Mario. But honestly, who wants to play as Luigi?