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The hardest video games of all time

There was a day, not to terribly long ago when games did not want you to beat them. Things like “checkpoint” were a laughable concept, and beating a certain game became something that you could brag about to all your friends (and you may still bring it up on occasion). Those days are mostly gone. There are a few exceptions, especially with indie games that put challenge above all else, but for the most part the days of controller-snappingly frustrating games as the rule are a thing of memory. 

With that in mind, we look back at what are still some of the hardest, most difficult games ever created by sadistic programmers that jealously guarded their end game secrets.

Battletoads (1991)

Battletoads

Before they made Donkey Kong Country and GoldenEye 007, Rare developed Battletoads, a blatant Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ripoff for the NES. The beat-em-up became famous for its exceptional graphics for the time and ridiculous difficulty – especially the motorcycle level that bordered on evil. You were given only three lives to complete the whole game, and if you didn’t, you were sent back to the first level. And cooperative play made the game more difficult, because you could accidentally injure your fellow toad. And yet somehow we still miss the franchise. 

Contra (1987)

Contra

A lot of people remember this game as being relatively easy, and it could be – assuming you cheated. The famous Konami code would give you 30 lives, but if you instead tried to play without it, you are given only three lives, and any random pixel coming at you could spell doom. With no regenerating life, no armor, and no cover, all you can do in this game is run and run and run. Give it a try in your browser.

F-Zero GX (2003)

F-Zero GX

This is one of the greatest racing games of all time, and one of the GameCube’s best thanks to its unique, colorful visuals and track design. It’s also one of the most difficult. Those unique, colorful racetracks are intense and twisting – many without guardrails. Accidentally launching yourself into oblivion with a mere flick of the joystick was a common practice. Sharp turns, a demand for precision, and super-high speeds had many gamers clutching their controllers.

Ghosts ‘n Goblins (1985)

Ghosts'n Goblins

In this side-scroller, you play a knight called Arthur who must journey through a world full of, well, ghosts and goblins, in order to rescue a princess. Like ya do. Pretty typical stuff, except these ghosts and goblins are really, really hard to beat. If they hit you once, Arthur is reduced to his underwear. Another hit and Arthur dies, then goes back to the start of the level (or the halfway point, if you were lucky). Also, each level has a time limit, because it badly wanted you dead.

I Wanna Be the Guy (2007)

I Wanna Be the Guy

I Wanna Be the Guy: The Movie: The Game is a throwback to platformers of the ’80s, complete with broken English translations of Japanese, and is a crazy difficult piece of work. Parts of the scenery randomly drop onto you, like apples or the Moon. Many levels are designed just to kill you: levels full of spikes and no safe ground anywhere. It’s an exercise in rote memorization, but even that may not be enough. All you can do is double-jump and pray.

Mega Man 9 (2008)

Mega Man 9

Really, any of the early Mega Man games could be on this list, but like I Wanna Be the Guy, this game existed to kill you. The ninth installment of the Mega Man series is a throwback to the 8-bit era in terms of style, gameplay, and difficulty. Bad guys come from out of nowhere and knock you dead; all you can do is remember and try again later. The creators said they wanted to make a game that would piss off players used to video games that don’t require memorization and patience, and they definitely succeeded.

Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! (1987)

Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!!

Before he ran afoul of the law and his accountants, Mike Tyson was one of the greatest, most feared boxers in the world. The rest of the game is generally fondly remembered, from the confidence building Glass Joe to the soft drink addicted Soda Popinski. It was fun, pattern-based boxing that required quick reactions and memorization. Until you got to Tyson. One punch from him knocks Little Mac to the mat, and Little Mac’s punches do almost nothing. Those exclamation points in the title are out of frustration.

NetHack (1987)

NetHack

One reviewer noted that NetHack has “no graphics, no sound, no razzle-dazzle,” and still concluded that it’s one of the best games ever created. The game follows your character trying to escape from a dungeon, and the gameplay feels like you’re groping around in the dark via keystrokes. If your character dies, it’s permanent, and you have to completely start over. It may be the best game ever made for masochists.

Ninja Gaiden series (1988)

Ninja Gaiden

This whole series is a beast to play, and even today the franchise prides itself on your tears. The original though… if the phrase “those damn birds!” doesn’t mean anything, then you probably haven’t played the game. Fast enemies come from all directions with deadly accurate aim. Your timing, especially when it comes to blocking, must be perfect or else you’ll get destroyed. The only plus was that you could continue. And your reward for defeating the final boss? Another final boss. And then another.  

The Oregon Trail (1981)

The Oregon Trail

Everyone gets dysentery and everyone dies of it. The difficulty of The Oregon Trail isn’t in its gameplay – that’s all really simple choose-and-click stuff – but in the existential angst that arises from the choosing and clicking. Unless you’re otherworldly and make perfect choices your first time on the Trail, you or a member of your wagon (or everyone all at once) will die of some malady or accident. Injury or death is inevitable in The Oregon Trail, and it’s delivered with a passive frankness like, “You have died of dysentery.” Mourn your dead later, traveler, for death has your scent. Once you reach the end of your journey, you don’t feel triumphant or proud, just relieved. Relive those frustrating moments on the Apple II in your browser.

Which games would make it on your list of the most difficult? We want to hear about it!