There is plenty of nostalgia to be had when it comes to retro games. Some of it might come from simpler times; when we were young and everything in life was easy and relaxed while playing video games. Maybe because these retro games were some of your earliest forays in terms of video gaming experiences. After all, the nostalgia reasons vary from person to person.
However, this also means that a few people out there will have fond memories of games because of how insanely hard they were. Video games have had leaps and strides when it comes to handling difficulty, with more accessibility options than before. But during the retro gaming era, developers were limited by both hardware and development experience. Since there was limited space to do things, games tend to be hard so that there would be more replayability, even though this was artificial in a sense. And since plenty of game development back then usually focused on arcade experiences, developers came with the mindset to make games harder to increase penny munching.
Despite these limitations, players have increasingly grown fond of these absolutely difficult games, accepting their difficulties as if gauntlets were thrown at the face of their gaming expertise. So join me today as we walk through some of the hardest retro games that have been thrown at us by the video game developers of yore.
Not quite bullet hell, but hellish nonetheless
Let’s start with one of the few games on this list that I have finished without using save states or cheat codes. Gradius is usually cited as one of the most important shooter games by popularizing the horizontally-scrolling shooter genre, players are seated into the cockpit of Vic Viper. You blast your way through levels filled with enemies trying to ram you and incessantly shoot bullets at you. At the end of each level, you will be confronted with a boss, and you’d have to shoot their weak points to defeat them. However, a lot of these points are protected by an additional layer that you have to grind down bit by bit till you get to the meat and ultimately destroy its weak point. The creativity of these boss battles is a highlight of the original game, as is the difficulty of each one.
My favorite part of Gradius has to be the power-up system, though. Unlike most other shooters, Gradius only has one kind of power-up, and when you pick it up, it will advance a power meter at the bottom of the screen, and if you reach a point in the meter that you would want to obtain, you can do so anytime by pressing the power-up button, but doing so would reset your power meter to zero, creating a mini push your luck game of trying to survive as long as possible with a weak weapon to reach as far as you can on your power meter.
Ghosts ‘n Goblins
Jumping in your boxers
The debut game of one of the most underrated franchises from Capcom, Ghosts ‘n Goblins sees a knight named Sir Arthur try to rescue Princess Prin-Prin from Astaroth, the king of the Demon World. While that plot is pretty thin, it is often referred to as one of the most difficult video games of all time. Unfortunately, much of that difficulty is either a love it or hate it kind. Sir Arthur can only withstand one hit before losing one life, and each life is also timed. What’s more, once Sir Arthur jumps, he can’t change directions until after he lands, which is maddening if you’ve played literally any other side-scroller. What’s worse is that each level only has one checkpoint, and that checkpoint is always smack dab in the middle of the level. If you die before reaching that point, you’ll be thrown back at the start of the level!
Sure, there’s plenty of additional weapons that you can pick up along the way, and the game is still pretty much beatable, but right when you thought you’ve gotten the hang of it, a very nasty surprise will meet you at the end of your playthrough because now you need to do everything all over again with a higher difficulty to reach the true ending of the game! Sure, it’s nasty, but it wouldn’t be notorious for its difficulty if it was any much easier than this.
Contra: Hard Corps
That title is not just a silly pun. This entry to the popular Contra franchise is very hardcore. If you thought the original Contra for the NES was hard, the first and only Contra game released for a Sega console is even harder. Despite the prettier graphics, it has more things to master with its multiple characters, each with its own different sets of weapons. Contra: Hard Corps also features multiple branching paths, with each providing a different ending.
While that may all seem like an enticing ride, at the end of the day, multiple endings will only have players trying to finish the game multiple times. That wouldn’t be much of a problem if it’s not a Contra game that we’re talking about, especially one that is already considered one of the hardest entries in the franchise.
Don’t let go of your holy water!
While not the most difficult game on this list, the original Castlevania will still take you by surprise, especially if you were able to play future entries into the series. Unlike the newer games, Castlevania doesn’t take an entire map and let you explore it to your whims. This was way before the series popularized the Metroidvania genre, and is instead a classic linear side-scrolling platformer. Like Ghosts ‘n Goblins, part of why this game was hard was because of how it handles jumps. You can’t change your trajectory in the middle of your jumps, and while that is realistic, none of the other aspects of the game is chasing for realism, so this seems like a design choice that is made to make your play sessions harder.
However, this game has one neat trick that you can keep to heart to make things easier. When you acquire the holy water, hold on to it as if your life depends on it. It will make quick work of most enemies within the game. All that’s left for you to do is to practice your jumps. You’ll be beating Dracula in no time.
Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels
When both launch and landing are problems
The only game in this list that was both difficult to finish and difficult to acquire, Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels is the actual sequel to the original Super Mario Bros. The reason why Nintendo never gave this game an international release was because of how absurdly hard it was, to the point that one of Nintendo’s consultants in the West back then called the game an undeserved punishment. However, this spike in difficulty was by choice, as the game was sold with a label that said it was a game “For Super Players”. Plenty of tricks for infinite lives were included in the opening levels to provide additional room for players to breathe in. The latter levels were no joke as they had insane difficulty spikes.
None of that helped in easing the game’s difficulty, and up to this day, The Lost Levels remains one of the few blotches of the Super Mario franchise. Still, some people regard the game as fun and clever and view it with fondness. While there’s no denying Nintendo’s excellent level design is at work here, there’s also no doubt that this is one of the hardest games in their entire catalog.
Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!
He’s the least of your problems
While not as notoriously difficult as The Lost Levels, Nintendo also had you reeling in terms of recovering from its punches with this game, later changing its name to “Punch-Out!!”. This is the easiest game on this list, with the different opponents that you face having distinct patterns that you need to figure out to beat them. However, people still remember it as one of the hardest Nintendo has ever released due to how you would need to restart the entire game from the beginning if you get knocked out in the middle of a fight against any of the fighters.
Besides, if you experienced this game at a younger age, would you even think that boxing is a cerebral experience? You probably wouldn’t even think to see if your opponents are fighting with a pattern. You’d just mash the punch button in hopes of getting a hit-in. That would most likely be the reason why people remember Punch-Out!! as one of the harder games to have ever existed. Still, I wouldn’t count out the times when one was able to identify Mike Tyson’s pattern and still be hit with one of his uppercuts that will instantly knock you out. That kind of experience is infuriating, and even so when it brings you right back to the beginning of the game.
Prepare to crash over and over again
And finally, we come to the one game on this list that is considered by many to be the hardest game to have ever existed. Battletoads’ main problem is not in its controls or how friendly fire is enabled throughout the game, but in how it was designed. If you have noticed, most other games will give you an idea of what’s coming before it happens. For example, enemies would appear at a significant distance from your character, which gives you an ample amount of time to react appropriately before they do some damage to you. The problem with Battletoads is that it skips all of that. Enemies and obstacles inadvertently appear at near-instant speed, which turns the game less of an exercise in hand-eye coordination and more of an exercise in memorization.
If you’re convinced that you can finish Battletoads, though, you’re in luck. The game itself is fairly short, so memorizing the patterns of each level is easier than, say, memorizing all the names of stars within a constellation. Just prepare to lose some hair in the process.
While people play games for different reasons, there’s a certain magic when it comes to difficult games, especially when you can overcome the seemingly insurmountable odds associated with them. There is a reason why difficult games have been on the rise recently, with games like Cuphead or Celeste taking center stage. These modern games are now unhindered by the technical limitations of the olden times. So with plenty of ways to adjust these games’ accessibility while also keeping true to their word for the gluttons for punishment, these games have truly transcended the barriers between being a game only the hardcore can muster and a game for everyone.
However, despite the inherent difficulty that comes so often with older games, the design practices have evolved along with them, paving the way for all of the newer games in terms of designing for a larger audience in mind, and in turn, growing the industry.
Which of these games have you finished? Or maybe we missed out on a game's difficulty that hits differently than the games mentioned here? How about you head on to our Discord and chat with like-minded friends or head on over to our Youtube channel to see more retro gaming goodness.