In my last post, I laid bare several of Borderlands 2‘s worst flaws, and I consider its frustrating difficulty to one of the chief reasons why I haven’t played it in almost a week now. While I will readily admit that I prefer my games to be a bit on the easy side (I crave progression and despise forced repetition), I’ve played plenty of games that offered just enough of a challenge to make me feel like I’ve got to turn on the ol’ brain and earn my progress (Portal 2, Pikmin 2, Telltale’s adventure games). I don’t usually play ultra-difficult games because I find the payoff dwarfed by the endless hours of pain and suffering, and I’m not interested in completing games solely for bragging rights. But despite my preferences, I have found myself legitimately enjoying a handful of maddeningly-difficult games over the years.
Part of the reason why I stuck with the following games is that despite the monumental death toll, the core gameplay was so fun that I had to keep playing. Another reason is that I was eventually able to master all of these games, but it took a lot of practice and patience. My skills have since faded, but even when I was at the height of my power, there were some sections of these games that I just could not beat, and with my aging reflexes, my window of opportunity for 100%-ing these games has long since passed. But I came damn close, and for a time, I was caught in the grip of some of the hardest games the market has ever seen.
F-Zero GX – I remember bringing my GameCube to a friend’s party back in the day. We set it up next to a kid who was stubbornly playing PS2 while the rest of us did our best to run each other off the road on F-Zero. At one point, the PS2 kid (who was playing Gran Turismo) looked over at our screen, and I could almost hear his jaw hit the floor. F-Zero GX was a shockingly fast racer for those brought up on more realistic sims, and it boasted some gorgeous visuals (courtesy of SEGA) and a punishing level of difficulty to boot.
F-Zero GX is the kind of game where you die if you don’t exhibit a godly level of precision over your racer. In the earlier levels, you’ll probably just bounce off the walls a few times before you explode, but in the later races you’ll immediately go careening off the track into oblivion (instant game over), since there are hairpin turns and no fucking walls. At that speed, the slightest twitch in your thumb and your racer is toast. But I somehow got good enough to beat a few Grand Prix on the highest difficulty with a handful of different racers, and I even unlocked a few AX pilots by beating the excruciating Story Mode chapters on the highest difficulty. My two greatest regrets were that A) I never unlocked the AX tracks (never could beat Diamond Cup on Master), and B) I never unlocked the Rainbow Phoenix, which I thought was the coolest racer (couldn’t beat Story Mode chapter 1 on Very Hard…gah).
Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn – In retrospect, I probably made this a lot harder on myself than I should’ve because I consider myself pretty damn good at Fire Emblem games. I was doing a no-death run and playing without using the overpowered laguz Royals, which worked out pretty well until the endgame, where I discovered it was actually impossible for me to beat the final boss. I couldn’t believe it; I had to restart completely, and over 100 hours of game time went down the drain (Radiant Dawn is a long game). I used the same masochistic rules in my second playthrough, but this time I paid much more attention to my character builds and XP gains. The endgame isn’t the only difficult part of the game, however; in both playthroughs, the final third of the game was spent carefully assessing probability ratios and testing movement ranges, and as a result, each chapter took me over 3 hours to beat. Radiant Dawn is definitely the hardest of the five localized Fire Emblem games, but it’s a game that speaks to my OCD in soft, hushed tones and strokes it lovingly. While F-Zero GX required me to make split-second decisions, Radiant Dawn gave me as much time as I wanted, and I needed every second of it to make sure I had the perfect battle strategy.
Super Meat Boy – I still can’t believe I even beat* this game. While F-Zero GX and Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn are generally considered difficult, Super Meat Boy is the only one of the three that was actually designed to be so. Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes sought to create a game of legendary difficulty, but not one that would drive people away in frustration, and in my opinion they succeeded. The key is the fact that each Meat Boy level takes under 30 seconds to beat, meaning you could die instantly but still know that you’re only five or six jumps away from the goal. It’s a tantalizing prospect, and one that kept me playing despite my growing corpse pile. The last level might have taken me a full week to beat, but when I finally beat it, you can get everyone in the building knew about it (I screamed pretty loud). Mind you, this was before I bought a wireless receiver for my 360 controller, so I beat this thing using a keyboard. Nearly gave myself carpal tunnel.
*Light World only, but that’s more than enough for me. Cotton Alley and the Dark World are for masochists.