Category Archives: Games

On Game Design: Difficult vs Frustrating

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.

How To Solve Rubik’s Cube Every Time

As a child of the 1980s, I’ve been fascinated by the apparent complexity of Rubik’s Cube–the world-famous puzzle toy designed by Hungarian architect Emö Rubik–but I could never solve one past peeling the stickers and placing them in the correct position (a trick my uncle taught me that could be used to “mess with the Cube nerds”). I’ve had a newer model sitting around for a few years, and as one of my “COVID Side Projects”, I finally learned the proper way to solve the Cube.

Get the Original Rubik’s Cube on

The Algorithms:

Building the yellow cross:

If you have no yellow edge pieces on the top face, then F U R U’ R’ F’

If you have a line of yellow pieces through the center, then reorient the entire cube so that the line is vertical to your perspective and F U R U’ R’ F’

If you have two yellow edge pieces making an “L” shape, then turn the top layer until the edge pieces are in the 12:00 and 9:00 positions and F U R U’ R’ F’

Solving the yellow face:

If there are 0 or 2 yellow corners showing, then R U R’ U R U2 R’

If there is 1 yellow corner showing (“the goldfish”), then turn the top layer until the yellow corner piece is in the lower left of the face (the “goldfish” will be diving to the left) and R U R’ U R U2 R’

Set up the top layer:

If there are no matching corner pieces on any faces of the top layer, then L’ U R U’ L U R’ R U R’ U R U2 R’

If there is a set of matching corner pieces on a face, then reorient the cube so that face is on the left and L’ U R U’ L U R’ R U R’ U R U2 R’

Continue until there are matching corner pieces on all 4 faces

Solve the top layer:

F2 U’ R’ L F2 L’ R U’ F2

Continue until the top layer is solved, then rotate the top layer to solve faces as necessary.

Coleco Electronic Quarterback Teardown

In the late 1970s-early 1980s, we didn’t have fancy touchscreens or dot matrices with stereo sound, we had an LED matrix and a handful of 7-series logic chips AND THAT WAS GOOD ENOUGH FOR US! In this video, we’ll teardown the iconic Coleco Electronic Quarterback handheld game and see just exactly what makes it tick. Later, as part of Project Hawthorne on element14 Presents, we’ll build a new LED handheld game from scratch and attempt to repair this one, so stay tuned!

Watch the rest of Project Hawthorne on element14

Building the Haynes Retro Arcade Electronics Kit

Haynes Publishing (the folks behind the indispensable Haynes automotive guides) has released a series of electronics kits targeted at the young STEM-enthusiast. In this video, we’ll be assembling the Haynes Retro Arcade electronics kit and seeing if it’s worth the $35 price tag.

How To Use A Tiny OLED Screen with RetroPie

There’s not much documentation on how to use a tiny OLED screen with RetroPie, so in this video, I’ll walk through the process of setting up one of Adafruit’s teeny-tiny OLED screen modules with a Raspberry Pi Zero.

Watch the complete Project Kongmas build video at

Raspberry Pi GPIO Pinout:

PlayStation Classic Controller Teardown

Continuing on our quest to hack the PlayStation Classic and coming off the heels of the console teardown last week, I thought it might be fun to also take a peek inside the PlayStation Classic’s USB controllers and see how they’re put together.

The PlayStation Classic is still a lot of fun. Grab one on Amazon (and hack it):

PlayStation Classic Teardown

In my quest to hack the PlayStation Classic, I have to first open up the system to see what’s inside and what makes it tick. In this video, we’ll teardown the PlayStation Classic console and explore its insides, determine the state of its build quality, and see what kinds of electronics are hiding inside!

It’s a good console, you should get one on Amazon (and hack it):

2018 Hallmark Keepsake Nintendo Ornament Review

For a Very Special Element14 Christmas, I’ll be building a project using one of Hallmark’s Keepsake ornaments. But first, I’ve got to open them up and have a look at how they work. In this video, I’ll be unboxing as well as reviewing the Donkey Kong and Legend of Zelda 2018 Hallmark Keepsake ornaments, showing their functions, and giving my initial thoughts.

They’re sold out from Hallmark, but you can try the usual suspects: Amazon


PlayStation Classic Unboxing

With this PlayStation Classic unboxing video, we’ll be taking a little trip down memory lane, reminiscing about gaming in the mid-1990s, and exploring the pros and cons of the hotly-debated system. Later in this series, we’ll be tearing down the console before hacking it to “fix” many of the alleged problems with the aggrieved PlayStation Classic.

If you are a gamer of a certain age, I highly recommend picking up a PlayStation Classic on Amazon and subscribing as we proceed to hack it into the device it should have been!

How To Upgrade A 3DS SD Card On A Mac

I recently purchased Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D and it’s too big to fit on my 3DS XL’s SD card. In this video, I’ll show you how to upgrade your 3DS SD memory card and save all your data using a Mac. You can also use this method to backup your existing SD card data in case your handheld is ever lost or stolen.