Reaching the credits is usually where the game ends but for others it is merely the beginning. As newer difficulties are unlocked we are challenged over and over, pushed to new limits and beyond those we thought reachable. But what makes a difficulty good? Often times one talks of a game being hard or having hard settings, but rarely on how the difficulty is done right or wrong. In this article we’ll try to analyze the origin of the higher difficulty settings, their purpose, what defines a good high difficulty setting and offer some examples of higher difficulty settings done right.
While consoles like the Magnavox Odyssey did break ground, gaming’s fundamentals are found at the arcades… one coin at a time. With the mechanic of a death costing you a coin games quickly became very hard and as a result only the most dedicated players could finish them. To obtain this level of difficulty mechanics like instant-deaths, strange enemy patterns or ambushes were abused which emphasized memorization; unknowingly leading to experienced players being able to beat a game using a single coin. This had an effect on score-based games which went on indefinitely but were eventually crashed due to player skill like with Pac-man where the maximum score obtainable is 3333360 before the memory overflows and fun things start to happen.1 Many arcade games did allow arcade owners to change certain variables of difficulty via DIP switches unbeknownst to the player if they wanted their visitors to spend more money – an evil practice. Another part where difficulty stems from is experience in the medium. While board games had been around for centuries, these had mostly focused on player versus player. Video Games – with exception – were about the player versus the machine. Others were difficult not because they were hard but because the controls were unresponsive and enemies had strange hitboxes or glitches surrounding them giving them an unfair advantage, all due to developer inexperience. It is because of these elements that older games are known to be more difficult than those of the current generation. No matter which point in time you’re reading this piece this will be true (a special welcome to our augmented readers of the year 2052).
When gaming took its defining jump to the living room things didn’t change for a while. The infamous “Nintendo Hard” hung around, focusing on games that had a short run time but could take weeks or even years to beat due to their high difficulty. Coins remained but were renamed as ‘lives’ making it possible to lose all your progress even at home. Gaming was a niche hobby only a few really appreciated and seeing the ending of a game was a real achievement. It wasn’t until a save-system was introduced that games had to switch things up.
Given the ability to save difficulty took a sharp turn. It could no longer rely on cheap tricks or unfair tactics to challenge the player as they could, technically, throw their digital bodies into a meat grinder until they came out victorious without having to replay the entire game. In danger of games being exposed as too short they started introducing difficulties: The Legend of Zelda on the Nintendo Entertainment System being among the the first to give this option to the players. Ironically originating out of a glitch during development it was unlocked by beating the game (or using a special code) and changed the dungeon layouts and items locations making the game fresh and challenging again. This system of difficulty was later updated with games like Contra and Streets of Rage which added new enemy layouts and tougher foes.
When the term “hard-mode” is mentioned, many people will ask “why”. Why is this here? Why should I choose this? Why didn’t they come up with a better name? Followed by the “what” question: what does it change? What if this is the way the game was supposed to be played? Let’s dive into the core part of this article – highest difficulty settings – by asking one such question: What are they for and what should they accomplish?
On a surface level they exist to add longevity to a game. If a player keeps playing he’ll be more likely to expose friends to said game. Should the title continue to challenge him it will be less likely to be replaced, as humans are drawn to challenge and the possible rewards that lay ahead. Like boasting to friends, unlocking a new weapon or an even higher more exclusive difficulty. The core concept behind any invention is purpose, the same is valid for game-design and its difficulty settings. Though in analyzing the hardest difficulty we must, shortly, offer up some terms. The hardest setting is different from New Game Plus, a feature that is getting more and more common during the seventh console generation despite its rise to fame in 1995 via Chrono Trigger. While some hardest settings include a form of New Game Plus, like Devil May Cry, these are exceptions. Often a New Game Plus lets the player experience the game anew with a fully decked out protagonist which often reduces the challenge to nil allowing one to ‘play with their food’ so to speak.
Lastly the unanswerable question must be answered: what is the difference between a truly hard difficulty that is well done and one which is artificially difficult and unfair? This is hard to note as even the most fair hardest settings stack the deck against you – this is part of the challenge, the game doesn’t pull punches. I hope that the upcoming examples will offer some insight in what makes one difficulty right and the other wrong. To top it off there’ll be a set of pointers from this list to present an overview of what defines a great highest difficulty setting. But feel free to make your own conclusions!
Let’s start with the quickest way to build your hardest difficulty; adjusting the sliders. Numbers in the games data are changed, making enemies have more health, items more expensive to buy and foes attack in greater numbers. This way of presenting a high difficulty is quick to code and only requires minor testing to prevent unbeatable situations. Examples are games like Medal of Honor and Deus Ex, but also action powerhouses such as Nioh’s “Way of the Strong” setting and the first Ninja Gaiden’s “Very Hard” on the Xbox. By adjusting the sliders action-oriented games might push a community towards an unintended defensive play-style, relying more on parries than well timed sword strikes and aggression. By increasing the numbers the designers aren’t focusing on making a more challenging experience or enhancing the game’s style but they’re focusing on making the player die more. As a result players will not want to revisit these difficulties as they make the game un-fun in their eyes.
On its flip-side are games that make minor changes. It can be quite dangerous to change the game on higher difficulties, upsetting the player and taking away the lessons learned during previous playthroughs. This is why designers can opt to make small adjustments, paired with adjusting the sliders, to keep the experienced player on his toes. Resident Evil 4’s “Professional Difficulty” does this by having enemies run at you instead of walk turning a lot of combat scenarios on their heads and requiring a different approach. It also removes the Tactical Vest item from the game, which reduces damage taken by 30%, leaving the player with an unexpected feeling of dread when he realizes this option is unavailable to him.
Meanwhile in its “Trauma Difficulty”, shooter extraordinaire Painkiller removes its soul pick-ups from enemies; a mass of light that grants the player one extra health-point to a maximum of 150 and should 66 be gathered during a level he’ll enter an powered-up state. This, paired with the increased damage output of enemies and the removal of a quick-save feature, retains the game’s focus on offensive play but forces the player to rely less on recovering lost health and more on keeping the health that he has; making him play less sloppy and eventually making him a better player. A more small-scale example can be found in first person shooter Crysis’s “Delta” difficulty, which changes the spoken language of enemies to Korean making it harder to hear their tactics.
Some developers though like to adjust existing rules. This can be as simple as changing the amount of time a player can slow-down time in Vanquish’s aptly named “God Hard” difficulty, changing it from 6.5 seconds to a painful 1.5. A more extreme change can be found in World of Warcraft’s Legion expansion pack’s “Mythic Plus dungeons”. These dungeons are always the same but the higher the number behind the ‘plus’ the more additional features are added, which cycle weekly. These can be minor like more enemies being present. Big ones include random spouts of fire from the ground which force players to keep moving. Others make enemies stronger if they see their allies die, so all enemies must be damaged at once and killed at the same time to prevent a painful end. A mechanic similar to this can be found in GoldenEye 007 which, on higher settings, adds new objectives to missions. While the layout never changes, known perfect strategies might require a different approach and once useless tactics might now prove superior. It can also be done with one simple adjustment as seen in the Hitman games. The higher the difficulty the less you can save during a mission, with 0 saves being available in the “Professional” setting. By adding these types of features the core of the game stays intact, but the player also has to deal with new problems that he didn’t account for at first; it teaches him to adapt within the game and evolve as a player.
But instead of the above, designers can also switch up enemy-compositions and locations to surprise players. A foe that gave you nightmares during the game’s closing chapters might now appear in pairs during the first mission! This is a trick used almost exclusively in action hack&slash titles, because these usually contain a high amount of different enemy-types. Examples can be found in Devil May Cry, Bayonetta but also the black sheep Dark Souls 2. An evolution of this can also be found in games like Ninja Gaiden Black, in which the developers switch it all up. Items are put in different places, what was once a key item is now a potion. While you might originally gain the Counter Attack ability early, it isn’t gained until much later on “Master Ninja” difficulty. Aside from adjusting the sliders and switching up enemy-compositions the player has to adapt to having less resources than expected for a certain fight or having to face that dangerous boss without a key ability. This teaches the player to rely less on the tools he’s given and more on his knowledge and skill at the game using just the base-mechanics.
Sometimes though designers can overreach. In an attempt to deliver the hardest experience they start to go overboard. Sliders are adjusted, core rules are changed and enemy-compositions are switched up without taking the game and the system it runs on into account. This is seen in Killer is Dead’s “Nightmare” difficulty, in which nearly all attacks no longer kill an enemy; making a lot of offensive options useless.
A more famous example is the ever loved Ninja Gaiden 2 on the Xbox 360. It’s “Master Ninja” difficulty increases the enemy count by a ton and introduces the more ranged enemies sooner. This, unwillingly, forces the game to take on a ranged basis; during close combat one should only focus on a few key moves that are quick and deadly. The increased enemy count can lead to extreme frame-rate issues, sometimes even dropping from a solid 60 frames per second into 6 and even onto a complete crash of the system. A dangerous and disappointing side-effect, one that was revisited in Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge and also seen in titles like Painkiller (when played on a console).
Another minor example can be found in Spec Ops: The Line, in which a minor playable cutscene becomes nearly unbeatable on its “Fubar” difficulty. The player is supposed to run away from a helicopter but due to the difficulty’s high damage-output the helicopter will kill the player instantly before even making it halfway. The only way to beat it is to get lucky which can take up to twenty tries.
A good highest difficulty has a lot of things to do, but most of all it should aim to do some of these things:
■ it allows the player to bring in the knowledge he has gained from his previous sessions in the game and use them.
■ compared to lower difficulty settings, the highest setting forces the player to think further than a single strategy. You will not be able to get by using one single combo or that one weapon, diversity is required.
■ it must surprise the player. A fight that used to have three enemies, can now have five for example. That one room now houses a mini-boss. Or that one crucial item is suddenly in a different place. But they must still operate under the knowledge he has gained: a potion is still a potion.
■ a new element can be introduced. To compensate that the player knows all, one new element can be thrown into the mix to put his knowledge to the test and reassess the game from a different point of view.
■ the game does not cheat. Adding lag, having enemies read your inputs, enemies with moves that cannot be dodged, added camera or game bugs. All these things can operate against you and must be avoided at all cost.
■ the rules do not change. If jumping on an enemy kills them, it should still do that here.
■ beating it without being hit should be possible while applying the above rules. Even the highest setting should be able to be mastered.
In addition small annoyances should be avoided, like:
■ mundane tasks are streamlined. Forced segments where the player learns how to crouch or slow-walking emotional segments should be skippable.
■ cutscenes can be all be skipped, or auto-skipped as seen in Nioh which allows the player to “automatically skip watched cutscenes” from the menu.
All of the above points will increase the difficulty and push the player to new limits, while also adding longevity to a game. And while this may seem hard to balance all it requires is a change in perspective. If one were to boot a game right now and select “Normal Difficulty” you’ll read: “the way the game was supposed to be played”.
What if that piece of text was positioned next to the hardest difficulty?
斬 postscript notes 斬
This was the first article meant to be written for Stinger and has sat in my drawer waiting to be finished for nearly a year. Eventually I picked up Devil’s Third which prompted me to review it and Stinger was born.
Finding actual historic data on when “Hard Mode” was first coined was impossible. While Contra was the most famous for it, I doubt it was the first.
Some examples were omitted to save space, but Mass Effect 3’s infamous Marauder Shields deserves a mention. Originally an enemy the protagonist is supposed to beat while in a dramatic playable cutscene, this Marauder with his shields up became a near unbeatable monster on the highest setting. Definitely not tested and a prime example of adjusting the sliders getting out of hand.
I’ve always hoped to find evidence on whether “Master Ninja” difficulty was indeed the base difficulty for the Ninja Gaiden franchise moving on, and scaled down for lower settings, but could never find it. It is never mentioned in interviews.
First article to contain sources and which games were played to make the article, and on which platform. Goody.
源 sources 源
1 Samthebrand (October 3, 2014) “Why is 3333360 the maximum score in Pac-Man?” gaming.stackexchange.com
Games played for this article: Legend of Zelda (GC), Super Probotector (SNES), Chrono Trigger (android), Devil May Cry (PS2), Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (PC), Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (PS4), Nioh (PS4), Ninja Gaiden (Xbox), Ninja Gaiden Black (Xbox), Ninja Gaiden 2 (X360), Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge (WiiU), Resident Evil 4 (GC), Painkiller (PC, Xbox), Crysis: Warhead (PC), Vanquish (PS3), WoW: Legion (PC), GoldenEye 007 (N64), Hitman: Blood Money (PC), Bayonetta 1 (WiiU), Bayonetta 2 (WiiU), Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin (PS4), Killer is Dead (PS3, PC), Spec Ops: The Line (PS3), Mass Effect 3 (PS3),Viewtiful Joe (GC), Mirror’s Edge (PS3).
- Screenshots used: Shalandar (PC), Legend of Zelda (NES), Devil May Cry 3: Special Edition (PS3), Call of Duty: World at War (PS3), Painkiller: Black Edition (PC), World of Warcraft: Legion (PC), Dark Souls 2 (PS3), Ninja Gaiden 2 (X360), Deus Ex: Human Revolution (PC), Alien: Isolation (PS4).
What are your thoughts on doing playthroughs in Ninja Gaiden 2  without using any recovery items as the proper way to experience the game? While doing so is an unstated view on how to play the title, I have more questions based on doing just that: (1) Doesn’t it seem like Master Ninja difficulty is actually reasonable and shouldn’t receive all these complaints for those who use recovery items, and (2) Did you or anyone you know play the game without using healing or magic recovery items on their first playthrough?
Let me preface by saying, this article is a tad dated and is up for an update.
Regarding your question about Ninja Gaiden II. I would absolutely say that playing NGII without healing items would be to play the game wrong, if there even is such a thing. Ninja Gaiden II’s complaints are mostly aimed at its frame-rate problems, which are fixed as of now (X1X version). A lot of its comments towards balance, difficulty etc. can be atributed to not being comfortable fighting foes, or its playstyle.
NGII is (as noted in the article about it) a game about dying slower than your enemies. It is not a game about not taking a hit, as that goes counter to its extremely agressive combat vision. If you play the game safe, i.e. a no-damage run, you’ll end up playing the game in a far more ‘boring’ (personal opinion) way. Think abusing wall-delimbs, ninpo resource management focus and more OLUT spam than one’d like.
To answer your two other questions:
1 – Master Ninja is very reasonable in its design on Master Ninja baring some oversights like camera, lag (X360), crashes (x360), water mines, water combat and a weird difficulty curve (starting hardest, ending up easy). It just requests a lot of attention and thinking from the player, as well as reactions.
2 – I do not think there’s a single person that did his initial Master Ninja run without healing items. There have been no-item runs afterwards of course, but not as their first run on said difficulty mode.
Hope this helped somewhat!