In most cases, modern video games are designed with the player in mind. Vastly differentiated from their predecessors by their moderate difficulty levels, refined mechanics and empowering themes, modern games place their focus on player experience. Game studios, striving to create games to which people will want to return, devote months to testing and engage in rigorous quality assurance protocols to ensure that the player experience is positive.
As a byproduct of these processes, modern, triple-A games — while still challenging — often feature a difficulty level that tends towards the easier side. Only recently — possibly as a response to a growing number of highly popular, extremely difficult indie titles — have larger game studios ventured back to the design principles of yore and produced a series of complicated, excruciatingly difficult titles.
The most potent example of this shift, 2009’s Demon’s Souls, had critics proclaiming that, “fans of old-school games will shed tears of joy” and describe it as “a game you learn how to play by losing.” In Demon’s Souls, players assume the role of a brave warrior who ventures into a lost kingdom. Tasked with collecting the souls of demons, the hero of Demon’s Souls is expected to die repeatedly. A large portion of the game’s charm is communicated within every failure, through every death; advancement depends largely upon the player’s ability to learn from their mistakes.
The successes of Demon’s Souls, though, is but a pale reflection of the most unthinkable, hopeless and occasionally impossible nature of retro video games. Where Demon’s Souls triumphed, many vintage games — imbued as they were with the heritage of difficulty — fell utterly short. They neglected to teach the player and opted to view them as an opponent rather than a partner.
It is those games that we now examine. Those games who, through abject malice or misplaced antagonism, wanted to win themselves. From technical deception to ludicrous, insensible puzzles, we take a look at five retro games that sought to beat their players.
5 The Prisoner
The Prisoner, a product of the twisted genius of creator David Mullich, is a game designed to hate you.
Released in 1980 for the Apple II, the game cast its players as the abstruse “#,” an intelligence agent who, after mysteriously resigning his post, is shipped off to “the Island.” At the start of the game, the player is assigned a three-digit number. Their goal is simple: do not reveal that number.
The game features twenty unique locations, of which only a select few explain their function or even how to use them. The graphics style constantly shifts, undermining the player’s sense of perspective. At times, locations rearrange themselves and occasionally key locations simply vanish. Like the titular prisoner, the player is trapped, confined by limitations both technically real and authoritatively implied.
All the while, the game tries to swindle the player into revealing their number. The most memorable — and underhanded — method employed is a false error. The game halts, crashes to an artificial command line and displays the error, “Syntax error in line XXX” where XXX was the player’s number. In the days of the Apple II, a gamer’s natural response would be to enter “list XXX.” Of course, doing so revealed that the game was still running and resulted in an immediate loss.
4 Cheetahmen II
Originally the headliners of the much maligned Action 52 cart for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Cheetahmen II was a product of Active Enterprises who looked at the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and boldly said, “We can do that. But much, much worse.”
Cheetahmen II is absolutely bereft of quality. For an example, look no further than the game’s introductory animation, which seems unsure of how its protagonists’ name is even spelled. Or take a glance at the game’s cover art, which depicts the three feline heroes gloriously illustrated in a style traditionally associated with 8th grade Trapper Keepers, which has captured Aries — the group’s “combat expert” — in the grips of some kind of palsy.
This list, however, is not about terrible games, it’s about games that abhor their players. So, all tangents aside: Cheetahmen II is literally impossible. After battling through all four levels and expertly employing the Cheetahmen’s cat-like reflexes to land on tiles so unreasonably narrow that they can only be described in Planck lengths, the player finally comes face-to-face with “Man-Ape,” or “Ape-Man,” because nothing’s better than an ambiguously named villain. Using the Cheetahmen’s unparalleled arsenal of martial arts skills, Man-Ape is dispatched and then, well, then you just stand there for eternity.
3 Bart Vs. The Space Mutants
A wave of excitement gave way to a flood of disappointment in 1991 with the release of Bart Vs. The Space Mutants, the long-awaited first video game to be based on The Simpsons animated series. Fans, eager to immerse themselves in the mythology of the show, had high expectations for the game.
And then they played it.
Reviews called the game “relentlessly unforgiving” and scolded its lack of a password system, pointing out that players were “always doomed to repeat the early stages, and considering the difficulty, that oversight is unforgivable.” Looking past the difficulty, the game was cursed with terrible, unwieldy controls and a nonsensical plot that forced players into performing a series of monotonous tasks that were only tenuously related to the television show.
In a 2009 retrospective review, Bob Mackey confirmed the game’s status as a “frustrating and generic exercise in platforming.” With clunky controls, merciless difficulty and tedious gameplay, fans of The Simpsons were granted a much-needed reprieve from Bart Vs. The Space Mutants when the beloved Simpsons Arcade Game was released later the same year.
2 Silver Surfer
The Silver Surfer, wielder of the Power Cosmic, navigates interstellar space on his metallic surfboard. Nearly indestructible, the Surfer can phase through solid matter, create black holes and travel through time. When a game’s protagonist is that much of a badass, what is a game designer do to create a compelling sense of danger?
In the case of the NES’s Silver Surfer, the answer came in two simple words: rubber ducks.
Almost universally reviled for its inhuman difficulty, the creators of Silver Surfer released a guttural snort and pshawed the entirety of Silver Surfer’s canon. The game’s hero is immediately killed upon coming into contact with anything. Touch a wall, you die. Touch the ceiling, you die. Rubber ducks, bullets, stones… it’s all the same story, you die. In Silver Surfer, you are cast as the only surfer in the universe who literally can’t touch water.
1 Takeshi’s Challenge
Most games are intended as an escape, they put players into positions of power by casting them as daredevils, swashbucklers and general all-around do-gooders. Takeshi’s Challenge is not most games. Takeshi’s Challenge rues the day you were born. In Takeshi’s Challenge, you are a wage slave.
In one of the game’s most infamous “puzzles,” the main character — in search of some ambiguous treasure — receives a blank sheet of paper. In order to expose the map invisibly printed on the paper, the player must not touch the controller for a full hour. The game seems to revel in presenting players with insurmountable, senseless challenges.
Among Takeshi’s Challenge’s unprecedented quirks is the ability to lose the game before you’ve even started playing. At the password screen players are presented with an option labeled, “Punch the old man.” Doing so, of course, results in an immediate game over. There is, naturally, a way to bypass all of the game’s silliness. By throwing 30,720 punches on the opening screen, players are treated to the game’s ending: five minutes of nothing followed by the message, “Why are you taking this game so seriously?”