I was thinking a little bit about video games this morning and the differences between a game that’s difficult (or even extremely difficult to where it’s almost impossible to finish without the help of Game Genie or save states or anything like that) versus games that were just arbitrarily difficult because they wanted to just fuck over the player.
Like, the difference between something like Ghosts ‘n Goblins that’s arbitrarily difficult for the sake of being arbitrarily difficult because they just do things to make it arbitrarily difficult throughout the entire game and then when you finally finish the game–if you finally finish–you don’t actually finish the game! You have to start over and then there is an item that you have to collect somewhere in the game that you don’t know about and you don’t know the whereabouts of it and it’s entirely random where it shows up and you have to get that and you have to finish the game again and you might get the good ending because it depends on how you played the game originally.
I feel like that is not the mark of good design. It’s not the mark of a good game, and–especially at the end–it’s not at all rewarding! It’s just been so frustrating to get to that point that you’re rewarded with a simple “Congratulations” screen and that’s about it! It’s like “No no no no!” I mean, at least give me a credits crawl or something! Maybe rudimentary animation? Give me something to be proud of!
Of course, this is the earlier 8-bit era games, and this franchise–especially being a port of an arcade game–is meant to be extremely difficult. These games are meant to eat quarters, but there’s a difference between being just arbitrarily difficult and being difficult in a fun way that encourages replay. I don’t believe the NES port of Ghosts ‘n Goblins encourages replay. It’s a frustrating game that is not fun enough to play again; however, the later ones are okay–like they’re fun diversions. The arcade version is actually kind of fun to play through, but the console versions–by and large in my experience–have just been arbitrarily difficult and they’re set up to be that way so that you play them for a long time. In my experience, though, it just means they get thrown into a corner (or traded or sold) and never touched again by that player.
Contrast this to something like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the original one that everybody hates but I actually enjoy). Everybody loves to hate that original Turtles game, but I love it. I think it’s a lot of fun, it’s unique, and it’s more interesting than the beat-em-ups that came later. Granted, I do love Turtles IV on the SNES because I think that’s a beautiful port of a really fun arcade game and the console version actually adds to the arcade game. Of course, the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade was ported to the NES as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game and it was amazing when it came out and it was a lot of fun and it was great to play to be able to play the arcade game at home but it and its successor The Manhattan Project just don’t grab me the way the first one does.
Maybe it’s because I had the first one and I really enjoyed playing it a lot, putting a lot of time and effort into playing it and getting good at it. Maybe I’m different because I never felt that the dam level was all that difficult? It seems everybody hates swimming under the dam and doing the bombs, but I’m like, “That didn’t take me long to learn and get through it!” It’s difficult, but it’s not so difficult that it becomes frustrating and has that arbitrary feel to where it’s just full of “gotchas”. Ghosts ‘n Goblins is full of gotchas, but Turtles is just a genuinely difficult, skills-based game. It’s not a memory-based game where the difficulty lies in simply memorizing all the patterns and knowing exactly where the enemy is going to be before it appears on the screen.
Turtles, like many well-designed games, is a game where you really have to develop certain skills in order to progress through the game. You have to learn how the dam works. You have to learn to lay out of the dam. You have to learn the swimming mechanic. You have to learn the map of level 3, And yeah, that’s a little bit of memory work, but there is there’s a Metroidvania-like discovery mechanic, and there’s a lot of skill-building involved where you’ve got to start getting good at using the individual turtles to your advantage because they all have different strengths and weaknesses and you have to be able to play that. Then there’s certain jumps that you have to make, and you have to make them a certain way, and you make them with the certain turtle (because of his weapon).
There’s a lot that you have to learn and a lot that you have to know, but there’s a lot that you have to actually be able to do versus something like Ghosts ‘n Goblins which is just run and gun and know where the bad guys are going to pop up. It’s not like you can watch the screen and time it, you just have to know before it happens, and that is the difference: You have to know before it happens.
If you can’t look at the screen and see what’s going to happen as it’s happening, and instead just have to know it’s going to happen before you see it, that’s a mark of bad design.
There have to be visual cues in order for the game to be fun. When you can see the visual cues, you can learn them. Then you can apply that to other places in the game versus just having to know where everything is and memorize the whole game in order to be able to beat it. Visual or auditory cues are the key to good game design. You don’t want to spoon feed anybody like modern games do, but you don’t want to leave them without any way to figure out the problem. It’s a delicate balance, and some games do it really well while some games do not.
Then there are games like Fun House (NES) which is very much skills based, but also memorization. In this title, you have to be good at controlling the avatar through its unique control scheme and you have to learn the layouts of every level! Meanwhile the designers did a decent job of placing cues and directing the player where to go. Once you’ve played a level two or three times you know how it works, but you’ve run out of lives and now you have to go back and you play it again, but there’s a fair “continue” mechanism that won’t set the player back too far and there are enough lives that troublesome spots aren’t detrimental.
A good design for a game keeps you playing; It has replay value. A well-designed game is just addictive enough, and it’s just difficult enough to warrant another try. Turtles is an extremely difficult game, but it’s also fun. Fun House is an extremely difficult game, but it is also fun. Mickey Mousecapade is ridiculously difficult! I’ve only beat it once (and I think I did that by accident), but it’s actually fun. It’s challenging–not something that is beyond your ability as a mere mortal–but just challenging enough to test your ability, and that’s the difference!
You don’t want games to be so difficult they’re not fun, but you don’t want them to be so easy they’re not fun either. I look at modern equivalents like I Wanna Be the Guy or VVVVVV and they’re just difficult for the sake of being difficult, but they’re also doing it in a tongue-in-cheek way and you go into the game knowing that! You go into the game knowing that they’re just fucking around with you and they’re playing against all these different tropes that came before–all these different conventions. So they set it up and they’re all tricks! Every design element is there to trick the player, but it’s specifically done that way and it’s more of an artistic statement, I think, in how can conventions can inform our decisions and how we can play off of those conventions to misdirect and I appreciate what they did. These titles may be arbitrarily difficult, but they’re arbitrarily difficult for a specific reason. They are arbitrarily difficult because they’re setting you up for failure on every screen and that’s part of the fun. It’s subverting those tropes and those conventions, and it makes for a very fun experience even though it is hopelessly difficult.
There’s a lot of commentary on game design in those pieces, and even though I’ve never felt compelled to play through either of those examples, I appreciate what they’re saying. These games fit into the gaming landscape much in the same way that films from Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker fit into the larger landscape of cinema. These are pieces that play with established conventions and techniques, and while not always considered “good” by critical standards, they know exactly what they are and why they exist, and they delight in deconstructing everything you thought you understood about the medium.