There’s a very common phrase I never thought I’d use before now: Back in the day. But here I am, just about to do it.
Back in the days of the NES, games were hard, so much so that at some point, someone coined a phrase to describe the NES and its games, “Nintendo Hard”. Games left you weeping and throwing controllers at the TV, just not by accident as it has happened with the Wii Remote, but out of pure rage at, for example, dying for the seventh time in a row, to those unfair birds on Ninja Gaiden.
NES games are among the hardest games ever created, simple to play but extremely hard to master and even complete. Games on the NES were unabashedly hard, sometimes feeling unfair but they never were; they just demanded attention to detail and constant if not complete dedication. They were harsh, but fair, and the sense of achievement when you managed to make it one level further, if not only a screen, was amazing. In a much more simple era, where technology was extremely limited and 8-bit was the most you could expect from the console in both graphics and sound, it was gameplay and challenge that drew people in and made these games into the classics they are now.
Nothing better describes the Nintendo Hard paradigm, also called Old School by those of us gaming for more than 30 years, than a few examples from that generation.
Take Ninja Gaiden, a series of games that before being released in glorious HD were just 8-bit platformers with one of the highest difficulty curves ever created, and with one of the most frustrating enemies ever conceived: birds. Hawks in the original Ninja Gaiden were infamous for their last second player killing swoops, often causing you to lose not only a life, but also a bit of your sanity. Climbing walls was easy, but once on the edge, the climb up could get messy and yet a bit more of your sanity went out the window. But despite all of this and the harsh boss battles, Ninja Gaiden was never unfair, and if it crossed the line, it paid you back with the very powerful powers at your disposal.
For another example, and close to heart to the Big N, you had Metroid, the first in a now long running series starring bounty hunter Samus Aran. Over the course of the game, you’d acquire plenty of upgrades to improve your chances of survival against not only the bosses but the entire world, which as is often the case in Metroid, everything on it wanted you dead. From the planet’s native inhabitants, to the environment itself (from acid pools to lava to spikes), everything in Metroid was designed to kill you. But you were never at a clear disadvantage and there was always a way out, even if it meant going backwards, as the game’s freedom of exploration gave you that choice.
Finally, there’s Super Mario Bros. the greatest of all NES classics, and while we all have fond memories of it and remember it joyfully; at the time, and even today, it’s a pretty hard game. If you don’t remember SMB as a hard game, then you probably used the warp on Level 1-2 and didn’t go through the entire game. Levels got increasingly complicated and dangerous, castles were painful and lethal and made the “The Princess is in another Castle” message that much more frustrating. Nowadays you can catch hundreds of speedrunning videos that make it look very easy, but once you are in control of that Italian Plumber, things became hectic, unpredictable and nerve-wracking really quick. But just like the previous examples, you had plenty going for you, from powerups to clear the way for you, to multiple lives and even the ability to get more of them. Super Mario Bros. was harsh at times, and often you paid the price of carelessness with one life, but you always had more to make up for the mistake, and by stacking the powerups (Mushroom, Fire Flower & Star), you had a greater margin of error.
These days, the focus seems to has moved away from the simple, yet elegant and challenging gameplay in favour of majestic visuals and inspiring music, and with greater focus on the cinematic, getting close to the line separating games and film, or in case of David Cage games, jumping it completely (and losing almost all gameplay in the process).
Yet there are exceptions, and the most notable among them is From Software’s Soul series, in which death is not only a constant companion and more than often an absolute certainty but is also an actual in-game mechanic, teaching the players how to progress through the games through trial, error, repetition and perfection, just as it was in the old days, and just as it was in those NES classics I mentioned, mastery is achieved after hours of play. What is your reward? You get to move to another area where you’ll go through the same again, or maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll have finally figured out when to take a risk and when to play safe and won’t die again.
There have been two games in the Souls series, Demons’ Souls and Dark Souls, and while both use the same overall mechanics, it’s Dark Souls that comes the closest to the Nintendo Hard, The Old School paradigm of the NES era, and mostly for a simple reason: fairness; but not only that, their focus on delivering challenging yet rewarding gameplay, and not just focus on the visuals and music and the cinematic experience also falls under the paradigm. As series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki said (according to Dark Souls 2 actor and series fan Peter Serafinowicz in a recent Developer Diary): “Films should stop being more like games and games should stop being more like films. They should both try to be more like themselves.” It is clear how much these two simple sentences influenced the series design, with their minimalist approach to storytelling and narration (minimalist, yes, but in no way shallow, just up to the player to fully explore) and strong focus on delivering satisfying gameplay.
Dark Souls fits snuggly inside the paradigm, with its tough but fair approach. Everything that works against you in Dark Souls works against everyone else, from monsters and other players to even bosses. The Hellkite Drake’s fiery breath will inflict its massive damage on players and enemies alike, sometimes working in your favour and sometimes against it. Enemies, and bosses, falling off ledges into the abyss will die. They can be poisoned as much as you can, and even toxins work. When you use a bonfire to rest, they all respawn, because if you can restore yourself, why shouldn’t they? Blocking and parrying work all around and your handy healing Estus Flask aren’t yours alone. They also have stamina just like you and their attacks and blocks and maneuvers drain it as much as it does yours.
Dark Souls is never unfair (except on that one unavoidable and unwinnable Seath The Scaleless fight), and once it has successfully and thoroughly hammered its important lessons into your head, you’ll find yourself breezing through previously nightmarish areas (though some, like Blighttown remain a thorn in your side), taking bigger risks more confidently and finding the overall difficulty lower than what you’d previously thought. The game teaches you how to play it, being tough but fair, and like any lesson, there’s a fantastic feeling of accomplishment once you successfully learn it and pass the tests. From personal experience, defeating Ornstein and Smough gave me an amazing, yet fleeting, sense of accomplishment akin to having actually done something in real life.
On subject of fairness, Demon’s Souls falls slightly outside the fence. While the overall gameplay mechanics are the same as Dark Souls, Demon’s Souls had one in particular that made it very unfair: when you die, you lose half your maximum health until you “restore” yourself; which you did by killing a Boss. Combine that with World Tendency (each world has it and it determines how the world behaves, including events and enemy strength), and the fact that multiple deaths can make it Pure Black, in which enemies are boosted to very harsh levels (though the give greater rewards), and the already difficult game becomes a nightmare.
With Dark Souls 2 recently released (and a month for the PC version), and its step towards Demon’s Souls’ HP loss on death, it’ll be interesting to see if the game ends up conforming to the Old School paradigm of tough but fair, and focused on delivering what its predecessors already have, a pure gaming experience with a focus on challenging gameplay.
- Five Franchises that Threw Difficulty Out The Window (GameDynamo)
- Making Dark Souls 2: A New World, Engine, & Exclusive Gameplay (IGN | Youtube)
- Making Dark Souls 2: Enemy and Boss Design (IGN | Youtube)
- What is “Nintendo Hard”? (Giant Bomb)