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The Difficulty Question

The long-awaited Metroid Dread finally hit store shelves this week. Fans of the series were excited to see Samus return in a new 2.5D adventure. The Switch game received overwhelmingly positive reviews thanks to its style, gameplay and story. Of course, with reviews there is always a bit of criticism and Metroid Dread was no different. One publisher mentioned how they were not a fan of the game’s difficulty, with it feeling more frustrating rather than fun. Even when they overcame a difficult section, they felt very little satisfaction. Of course, this once again raised the question around video games and difficulty selection. I haven’t played Metroid Dread yet (funny story, I tried to purchase it in GameStop but their stock was held up in customs), but I have played some difficult games in the past, including Ninja Gaiden, Ghosts’n Goblins and Dark Souls. I’ve also played several games on different difficulty settings, depending on what experience I want from a game. At the moment I’m currently playing The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II on the easy setting (boo-hiss). I’m very much in the camp of “games should be for everyone” camp, with difficulty select only been a plus for the games. Of course, there are others who are firmly in the camp of “no difficulty settings”, which is fine. I thought I’d have a look at some of the arguments that I hear often around game difficulty.

Metroid Dread

Video games in the 70s, 80s and 90s were certainly harder than today. Games such as Ninja Gaiden, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Back to the Future Part II and Golden Axe III were certainly a lot more challenging than most games today but there were a number of reasons for this. Many games of the time were born from arcade machines. The main purpose of arcade cabinets was to extract as much money as possible from the player. It wasn’t uncommon to absolutely destroy you within the first few minutes. A lot of these games would retain this level of difficulty when ported across to a home console. Many early games also built their gameplay around obtaining points rather than progress and it wasn’t unusual for games to simply have a few screens that looped. Donkey Kong on the NES is a perfect example. The main basis is to improve your score across the games four repeating levels. Every time you restart the cycle, the game becomes more challenging. Even though console games during the NES/ Master System era became more complex, they were still limited by the hardware of the time. These games were often expensive and so in order to keep you interested, they would often have to find creative methods. Difficulty was one of these. Back to the Future Part II is only five levels long and two of those are repeated levels and another is a sliding puzzle. I could never get past the first level no matter how hard I tried. Of course, Back to the Future Part II isn’t a particularly great came but other games such as Mega Man, Castlevania and Alex Kidd were more difficult than today’s games but were also shorter. There were ways around this, with cheat codes and cheat devices available, something which arcade games didn’t have. What’s often forgotten is that some of these games actually had difficulty options. Mega Man 2 allowed players to pick between two difficulty settings. This would become more common in the 16-bit era. Streets of Rage, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time and Castle of Illusion all had difficulty settings. Games also allowed players to edit the amount of lives and continues, making the challenge easier. Another issue that games faced was rentals. Video game rentals don’t exist in Japan but were common in the West. Developers had to come up with ways to make sure a game couldn’t be beaten in a weekend rental. Afterall, they wanted the revenue from a sale. This led to some games being harder in the West. Ninja Gaiden III had limited continues while Streets of Rage 3’s difficulty was beefed up. Then you had the famous case of The Lion King. The Lion King sees a particularly nasty spike in difficulty early on. The main purpose was to stop you completing the game in a rental period. As games became more complex, they started to get easier. Super Nintendo and Mega Drive games are certainly easier than the NES and Master System ones and so the PlayStation/ Saturn/ Nintendo 64 games would follow suit. This doesn’t mean that all the games were easy. Early in the generation, there were many punishing games. Resident Evil would be missing some of the features later games would have, thus making it harder. This generation did seem to make the difficulty select options more common place though. Some games could still take as little as an hour to complete (Fighting Force) but we began to see a lot more larger games that took hours to complete. Games such as Metal Gear Solid, Grandia and even Super Mario 64. There were long games in the 8-bit and 16-bit era, especially JRPGs, but it seemed as though they were becoming more common. As a result, there was less need to make games challenging to hold a player’s attention for longer. Some games did have a nasty feature of removing levels or blocking off progress on easy settings. Castle of Illusion, Twisted Metal World Tour and Resident Evil 4 all spring to mind. To show how much games have grown, there was a bit of criticism over The Order: 1886 and Resident Evil 3 (Remake)’s length.

Ninja Gaiden

The other side of the game difficulty question is the director’s artistic vision. Some games, such as Dark Souls and Ninja Gaiden Black are designed around their challenging gameplay. The Soulsborne series does have a strong lore surrounding it but the main driving force is its challenging yet rewarding gameplay. Making these easier could very well remove the director’s vision for these games. Often, the “normal” difficulty is the one the developers intended you to play on (it is called “normal” for a reason), with the game balanced perfectly (or close enough in some cases). It is easy to sit here and say every game should have an easy or hard mode when I don’t have any experience in development. In order to strike the balance, it may require a lot of extra work. How much damage do enemies cause? How much experience should be earned after a battle? Is it easier to remove sections or allow players to skip them? Sometimes enemies or whole areas are removed to make things easier and players end up missing out on the full experience. These are only a sample of the thoughts around implementing new difficulty selections. Resident Evil has become adept at scaling its AI to your performance on “normal” difficulty. On easy, the enemies remain at the bottom of the aggression scale, on hard, they’re constantly at the top. Some games may find this balance hard, resulting in a sudden difficulty spike or even none at all in order to keep it easy. It’s hard to see the development process, their original intent (especially since there are many factors affecting a game) and how they want it to be perceived when you’re looking from the outside in.

Dark Souls

Then there’s accessibility, a phrase that is becoming more and more common now. At the end of the day, these are commercial goods and having them more accessible to a wider range of people is often the goal. This can be done through not just difficulty tuning but also controller schemes, audio-functions, colours and the level of punishment for failure. On that last point, it was not uncommon for old games to make you start from the beginning if you died a certain number of times, while newer ones require less backtracking. Old JRPGs would force you back to your old save point while The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel will let you restart a battle if you die. The idea being that you can keep going with little punishment. Even the Soulsborne series has a relatively kinder penalty than, say, Super Ghouls’n Ghosts. As I’ve said before, I’m firmly on the side of having difficulty options. I believe it allows people to enjoy a game at their pace, be able to drop in and out of it whenever they can and allows a lot more people to enjoy them. I don’t have a lot of time for gaming and neither do a lot of other people but I don’t think games should be defaulted to an easier difficulty as there are people who can sink hours into these games. I also understand that I’m not going to enjoy every game and that’s ok. I can always skip ones I won’t get the most out of but I know there’s people out there who love them. It’s a difficult balance between accessibility and the development process but I am glad that gaming as a whole has gotten easier so more can enjoy. What are your thoughts? Do you prefer on standard difficulty or do you like having the choice?

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