To set up the discussion about difficulty in video games, I’d like to take a look at two games I played back to back, and how it affected me.
I recently finished Mega Man 1 for the first time. No emulation or save states, and I didn’t look up any tips, tricks, or glitches. I fought tooth and nail and learned the patterns of the bosses, and I absolutely loved it.
Once I was done, I started right in on the all-fabled Mega Man 2. I was immediately disappointed… let’s talk about why.
At its core, I know Mega Man 2 is a better game. It has more complicated enemy design, better levels, better graphics, and more varied special weapons. The controls are less slippery and feel super tight. It also lacks a lot (not all, though) of that cheap artificial difficulty that’s derived from poor hit-boxes, unfair challenges, and huge difficulty spikes. Capcom learned a lot about development on the NES when they were making Mega Man 1, and it shows.
So what happened?
When I first started playing Mega Man 1, the very first enemies on the Cut Man stage (Bunby Heli) kicked my ass. “What the fuck? How am I supposed to kill them when they dive right at my face?!”
A few screens later, I was getting knocked off of ladders by erratic bullets from the red Blasters. Slowly I figured things out, I got better and memorized the patterns of the enemies.
Minutes later, I got to Cut Man, and he whooped my ass. He was jumping all over erratically, landing on my head, flinging his weapon at me. It took probably 4-5 tries, but I got him! I was now excited to continue on to the next stage. Elec Man was a hard wall for me, as I didn’t know that enemies had weaknesses to certain weapons. I fought and killed all the other Robot Masters before I eventually figured out that Elec Man isn’t actually utterly impossible, you just need to hit him with the Cut weapon (that took about 20 attempts of frustration before giving up and trying out all the weapons). I felt comfortable in killing most of the bosses, and I was ready for the end game boss. “I’m coming for you Dr. Wily!”
I felt I was getting the hang of things. I had this game figured out. As I worked my way through the next stage, and came upon the Yellow Devil, I was certain he was the final boss. Twenty or so attempts later, I had him! I killed the end boss and was ready to see the credits roll!
Unbeknownst to me, there were much harder trials awaiting my arrival. Robot Master gauntlets, a copy of myself that will ruin my day, and even more painfully difficult levels. There was also a final trial designed to soften you up like a pillow before you face Dr. Wily.
By the time I finished the game, my 4 year old that had been watching me play was humming along with the music in the game. I jumped up and screamed when I finished the game, and scared the crap out of him. I was standing and fist pumping like I just scored the game winning goal in game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals.
"HERE I AM YOU SON OF A BITCH! COME AT ME!"
The first Mega Man game sets you up to fail initially, but gives you all the tools to succeed. This difficulty is baked in, and you have no choice to endure. If you can’t figure out Yellow Devil, too bad… you will never see the end of the game. There is no difficulty setting, and it’s not shy about messing your hair up right out of the gate. Mega Man 1 stares you straight in the face and yells “Here I am, you son of a bitch! Come at me!”.
Mega Man II
Understandably, I was excited to get to Mega Man 2. It’s also understandable (in hindsight) that I was disappointed. Coming off the back of Mega Man 1 and the difficulty expectation that it had set. Not wanting to get my ass kicked so hard, I set the difficulty level to “Normal”. I flew through the first three bosses without a single death. What the hell is going on? What did they do? I restarted on “Difficult” setting and hardly noticed any difference. I was still flying through the stages, especially if I used the Metal Blade for everything. I could shoot in 8 directions, do more damage than the Buster, and I was getting enough power ups that I didn’t even run out of energy. I found myself putting the Metal Blade away to artificially increase the difficulty. Refreshingly, Air Man kicked my ass for a while.
Mega Man 2 felt so smoooooth! It looked and played fantastic. The music is incredible and lives up to all the hype! It was a marked improvement in 1 in almost every way, but I still didn’t enjoy it in the same way. The sense of uneasiness when you approach a boss that has crushed you previously, is sadly missing.
Later on the difficulty spikes in really odd ways. Enemies that seemingly hit you no matter what you do. Why was there a Sniper Joe in a hallway where you can’t jump his bullets?
Why did I find myself in a spot where I need special weapons to continue, but I didn’t have enough power to pass the area? I was running back a few screens to a spot where I could farm Weapon Energy. That’s no fun… the game had created situations that made me feel like it was purposely cheating me out of health, to artificially make the upcoming boss more difficult. Admittedly, I found out later that this was a result of me doing it wrong, but it didn’t change the experience I had.
Let’s look at the the mid-game bosses. Yellow Devil vs. Mecha Dragon, as I feel it showcases a great comparison that sums up the entire experience of each game.
This guy doesn’t mess around. Right from the onset, you’re bombarded with yellow blocks flying into you, doing major damage. You don’t know the pattern and it’s ripping you apart. He finally finishes building himself, then fires a SINGLE SHOT. No time to rest, WHAM, you’re hit with another yellow chunk as he spans the screen in pieces to the other side, repeating his method of building himself on each side. How the hell am I supposed to dodge all this?! He only has one attack, but he’s destroying me!
Yellow Devil is deceptively simple. He has one attack, and he breaks into pieces to move to the other side of the screen. He doesn’t walk around or jump. You spend time trying to learn the pattern… is it better to take one hit and try and stand behind him? No… that didn’t work. He will kick your ass until you learn what you need to do. You need a certain amount of dexterity to kill him. It takes patience, skill, and if you can’t figure it out, the rest of the game is off limits.
This fight is set up beautifully with a really interesting auto-scrolling section, where you’re being chased by a giant dragon. The blocks are getting destroyed under your feet, and you’re running for your life! The screen stops the auto-scroll, and the fight begins. The build up to the fight is executed perfectly, and you’re standing on a block over a void… this is amazing! What happens next, is you figure out the simple firing pattern one one attempt, get him to 1/3rd life before he kills you. Jump up when he fires low, jump down when he fires high. Your next attempt you kill him with ease. Oh… that was a lot easier than you expected.
I’m no elitist. I believe people should play and enjoy games in whatever way they want. If you want to play easy games to relax & unwind, you should do just that. Some of the best gaming experiences I have ever had were “Walking Simulators”, which are games with vast worlds to just explore and experience a story-line. They often don’t even have enemies.
Perhaps this is a large contributing factor as to why Mega Man 2 was so wildly popular. Accessibility can often play a huge role in the legacy of a game, along with many other factors like graphics, marketing, series growth etc.
What are your thoughts on difficulty?
Do you enjoy difficult games?
What games do you think nailed their difficulty perfectly?
I can’t wait to dive into the rest of the series.