NES Hard games and the Role of Difficulty in Games

General question; I have my own thoughts on this, but what do you think of the viability of “NES hard” modern games? Few games really kill you, or demand much attention anymore. I think overcoming adversity makes the player feel good, but it’s “medicine” the player doesn’t always know they like.‎

I think most of the modern games pretending to be “NES Hard” are pale imitations. You get stuff like I wanna be the guy, Super Meat Boy, Hotline Miami, etc, where you die in practically one hit and have really short checkpoint/reload times. I’ll give Hotline Miami an exemption here because it does have some actual depth to it, preventing its levels from being repeating the same string of inputs ad infinitum. A lot of these games tend not to feature lives, or care about checkpoints beyond the last one you passed.

Others like Shovel Knight take a different study of NES games, building every single one of its levels with introducing that level’s unique design feature in a safe environment, then slowly building in complexity on it. It’s less like a level intended to challenge you and more like a tutorial. If you read a lot of level design literature, you’ll notice that the majority of it is devoted to teaching the player silently through level designs, almost none of it is on how to actually challenge the player in different clever ways.

Raph Koster has a definition of fun that I think is appropriate, from his book, Theory of Fun. More or less, people respond to achieving something inconsistently. Achieving something inconsistently is more or less what we define as difficulty. We evolved in such a way as to receive a mental reward for achieving difficult things. We’re capable of creating goals for ourselves without reinforcing stimuli such as food, unlike most other animals, whose intrinsic motivation to complete a task quickly fades in the absence of a tangible biological reward. This is what enables us to pursue things like money or psychological stimulation to the detriment of our physical wellbeing.

When we achieve something inconsistently, we have fun. The more rare the success, the more fun we have, the more engrossing it is. If no effort of ours is expended in the process, if the process is randomized, the enjoyment is typically more in the form of desire, than an actual enjoyment of the thing itself. People don’t like it, but they want to continue to do it. Wanting and Liking have been verified to have separate neurological pathways. When you expend your own effort, and occasionally succeed and fail, you tend to come to like the act of doing the thing.

In this way, good games tend to have a lot of big and little things to succeed and fail at. You might not beat the level, you might not get as far through it as last time, but this time you bypassed that tricky part without taking damage, and your consistency at getting criticals or headshots was 40% higher. There are associated skills to master, and they balance against each other synergistically in the overall challenge of beating the level before you.

Games can meet a lot of other psychological pleasures, but of course this is a unique one. I don’t know if it’s medicine players don’t know they want, I think it’s an unmet want in an environment that doesn’t totally know what it’s making.

The point of difficulty is to bring out the depth of the game. The point of depth in the game is to make the difficulty interesting. The two work together. You want to limit the player’s options while also giving them ways forward. Kill the easy strategies, force them to be proactive. Give them lots of tools, lots of ways to use them. Almost never completely eliminate the usefulness of a tool. Just because you want to punish the use of a tool in some way doesn’t mean it should be perfectly countered. If the player wants to do only one thing, give them a reason to want to do multiple possible things. Give the tools themselves drawbacks. Go study Castlevania 3 if you want to go for the retro difficulty thing, that game is a master class in it.

As for commercial viability, I believe people are definitely looking for this sort of thing, however I don’t think you will reach much success piggybacking off those that have made success in this area already. Create an identity for yourself, probably skip trying to cash in on nostalgia. By all means make the individual game challenges difficult, though go ahead and include multiple lives and an actual health bar if you feel those things are appropriate. Most of the actual NES games had those. Demon’s Souls was literally found and saved by the western community by importing a chinese copy of the game because they recognized its difficulty. Beyond that, it’s a lot of guesswork and it depends on your individual implementation.

In a way, the success of NES games is that despite their simplicity, they used the elements available to them in order to give the player interesting choices in how they proceeded through the level, challenging them in the precise ways they executed those larger scale choices. Like in the above video, there was a skeleton below, the guy tried to throw axes, expending resources, but missed. Instead of finding a place to throw more axes, he took up the risky move of jumping down and whipping the skeleton as he went, which succeeded. As fish men popped up out of the ground, rather than wait for them to settle on the blocks, he would jump forward and whip them as they rose up. This certainly has a larger punishment for failure and is a lot more timing dependent, but it is allowed to him.

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