For all intents and purposes, challenging video games are long gone. Games used to be hard, brutally hard. Old-school games such as Pac Man, Donkey Kong, Mega Man, Castlevania, Contra, and even the first few iterations of Super Mario Bros. were among some of the most popular titles that brought gaming into relevancy. These games were also incredibly challenging. Now that the game industry has eclipsed motion pictures in terms of revenue, it can be argued that gaming is the most popular form of entertainment in modern society. With that popularity and appeal to mass audiences, games have become eerily realistic with graphical advancements, world-building, and storytelling, but some may say that they have faltered in at least one aspect: Difficulty.
Most games that are released have difficulty levels, a setting that did not exist during the onset of the gaming revolution. Even at the hardest difficulty level, most games released today, do not measure up to the challenge that old-school brought to the table. However, ever so often, a modern game is released that not only challenges the player, but also provides a sense of accomplishment when progression is made. Everyone likes to feel a sense of achievement. With the recent release of the brilliant, yet punishing Playstation 4 exclusive, Bloodborne, let's take a look at some of modern gaming's true tests of gaming skill. The following games/series do not hold your hand, but if you are willing to put in the time and dedication, they reward you with an overwhelming loft of accomplishment. For this piece, modern games will be defined as anything released after November 2005, when the Xbox 360 was born. These are just several of the many games that could have been included on this list. They have been chosen because each of them have introduced something revolutionary to gaming. In no particular order, some of the most commercially successful games that also happen to be incredibly challenging:
Bloodborne (2015) and Dark Souls Series (2009-2014)
The game that revitalized this conversation, and the one that millions of players are currently struggling to play through, is the latest controller-breaking release out of From Software, the studio that has a firm grasp on how to make a 3D world extremely challenging. They are known for the Souls games: Demon Souls, Dark Souls, and Dark Souls II. Bloodborne is the spiritual successor to those titles. Anyone who has attempted to play any of these games knows how difficult they can be. That is not to say that they cannot be mastered, but becoming even competent at slaying the beasts within these dark worlds takes time, patience, and an abundance of perseverance. Even at the beginning of the game, enemies can take your character down in just a few hits if you are not careful. Luckily, Bloodborne is a very, very good game, which makes the endless amount of times staring at the loading screen after yet another death more tolerable, because, of course, you have learned something new about the way the world and the enemies work with each failed attempt at progression. The sense of accomplishment that comes when defeating one of the game's many bosses makes the grind more than worth it. This game is not for the faint of heart. While many will give up after just a few deaths, claiming impossibility, the ones who stick around might be able to conquer the fictional land of Yharnam and become a master Hunter.
Donkey Kong Country Returns (2010, 2013) and Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze (2014)
Yes, Nintendo is generally considered a company that targets a younger audience with their releases, but just as the original arcade version of Donkey Kong and subsequent side-scrolling releases on SNES provided experiences that required immense platforming prowess, two recent iterations renewed the difficulty, possibly even reaching a new level. The great thing about Nintendo games is that they have a magical feel to them, but the bad thing about the latest Donkey Kong titles is that the magic can be interrupted rather quickly due to an ill-timed jump, momentary lapse of focus, or just overconfidence. After all, they are kids' games, right? Wrong. 2010's sequel to SNES classic Donkey Kong Country, Donkey Kong Country Returns (Creative title, eh?) on the Nintendo Wii was so difficult that when it was rereleased on the Nintendo 3DS in 2013, Nintendo gave players an "easy" mode. While still incredibly hard, it made the game more manageable. Then they came back and released Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze, one of the only must-play games available on the Wii U and the difficulty was just as rampant as before. Although these games seem unfair at times, the level design is impeccable, bringing 2D side scrolling to modern gaming in a beautiful way. With colorful graphics, and plenty of secrets to find, the latest entries in the Donkey Kong franchise are amazing throwbacks to classic side scrolling combined with the modern day beauty that technological advancements have brought to games. If you buy these game for your kids, be prepared to help them, although it is not clear if you will be able to provide any useful form of assistance guiding Donkey Kong through the jungle.
Fire Emblem Awakening (2013)
The Fire Emblem series has quietly been around for over twenty years. It's popularity is much larger in Japan where the studio, Intelligent Systems, is located. Fire Emblem is a turn-based strategy game, but it can be described as intense, medieval chess. Strategy is paramount in this series, because although the player has all the time in the world to make a move, the computer is waiting, ready to strike at every misstep. Fire Emblem Awakening was released on Nintendo 3DS in 2013, and was a commercial success for a game of its kind. On default settings, the way that Fire Emblem is meant to be played, the intriguing concept of permadeath is implemented. Permadeath, or permanent death, means that if one of your characters die, they are not only dead for that level, but for subsequent levels. The character that was vanquished is gone forever, bringing a whole new level of importance to decision making actions. Skill is important but intelligence is a must. The studio, Intelligent Systems, must have picked their name very carefully, because Fire Emblem Awakening takes players to school and often times, fails them over and over. Progressing through each level makes the player feel smart, while also remaining vulnerable, knowing that one of their favorite characters could perish at any time. In modern gaming, given their name, strategy games are supposed to take the most thought, and in that regard, Fire Emblem is king.
Super Meat Boy (2010)
Originally released on Xbox 360 and PC, Super Meat Boy is a glorious love letter to classic gaming. Developed by Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, Super Meat Boy is one of the most impressive accomplishments in modern gaming. They were two of the pioneers that brought independent game development to the mainstream, inspiring countless aspiring developers that want to create something like what they grew up playing. The game is a side scrolling platformer, that demands expertise of the controls. That is where the challenge lies within Super Meat Boy. The levels are short, but grueling. At times, the player can see the end of the level at the beginning of the level, but jumping over obstacles that cause immediate death make the end so far away. If the player is even slightly off when timing jumps, it is game over. The physics of jumping are developed so well that the game is not unfairly challenging, just difficult to master. The learning curve is drastic, but doable. Once a level is completed, the player would likely be able to complete it again somewhat easily, but the next level is a different story. Taking what you learn from one level to the next helps, but in the end, each level brings a new challenge, a fresh element of gameplay, and a new strategy of controlling Super Meat Boy is needed to advance any further.
Developed by Derek Yu using Game Maker Studio, Spelunky is one of those rare success stories that started off as a fun project, but turned into a huge success. It has since been released on almost every major platform since Xbox 360 for gamers around the world to enjoy. An action-adventure side scroller with platforming and strategic elements, Spelunky is the love child of almost every gaming genre. While none of the games on this list have been named more difficult than the others, Spelunky probably has the best argument. The game counts how many times the player has died. Typically, it will probably take an above average gamer about 1000 deaths or more to reach the ending. The reason for this, is also the reason why those deaths keep the player coming back for more, every level is randomly generated. Yes, each time you die, the levels change. You will never experience the exact same level layout, enemy placement, or finish line for each of standard sixteen levels. Sixteen levels doesn't sound like a very long game, but once you die, you have to start over. Despite access to shortcuts by being successful several times over, the shortcuts are more of a way to learn the four distinct worlds within the game, not a way to actually complete the game. There are bonus levels as well, if you are skilled enough to beat the game, and have also acquired the goods needed to access them, but they are even more challenging. A typical round of Spelunky can last anywhere from a few seconds to twenty fifteen minutes if you can beat the game. Yes, the game can be completed in fifteen minutes, even less if your skills are that refined, but expect the death counter to rise before you even get close to the end of the game, and even then, you will likely have to start over many times. You will learn things about the controls, enemies, and items that will assist your travels each time the levels regenerate, but the randomization makes each play through almost as challenging as the last. Spelunky is one of the most interesting modern games, as well as one of the most challenging and rewarding. The best part is that it is always a new experience, which keeps players coming back for more even after they have failed time and time again.