The NES and its associated “NES difficulty” have codified strong feelings on the subject for decades since. If you’ve frequented the online gaming world for long enough, then chances are that you’ve heard some variation of this argument: “Video games these days are way too easy. They constantly hold your hand, telling you where to go next. Classic games were so much better because they were harder. They made you think about what you had to do, instead of showing you. Gamers these days are so spoiled. They’ll never know what it’s like to actually work for an ending, and that’s really sad!”
There’s a lot to deconstruct here, but tangential thinking like this also ignores the evolution of video games as an interactive medium. For one, it assumes that games have to always be hard, completely ignoring that everything is relative. And two, it disregards why older games were so hard to begin with, which is crucial in understanding why newer ones aren’t. But most importantly, it’s ableist thinking. And it mocks people who, for a variety of reasons, don’t have the time or patience to sit down and play a difficult game.
Humble origins of NES difficulty
See, back in the early days of the video game medium, games were often ported over from arcades. Arcades, by their nature, are designed to be money-makers. They’re meant to suck up as many quarters as possible; otherwise, what’s the point? Why bother making an arcade cabinet when it can be beaten in five minutes on your first go-around? Considering the limitations of early game cabinets, the only way to extend the length of a short game was to make it incredibly hard.
The same could be said of classic NES games, many of which were downgraded ports of arcade cabinets. Because the games were already limited, squeezing them into even more limited cartridges sometimes meant that developers had to up the difficulty further to compensate for their lack of length. Games like Ninja Gaiden and Contra weren’t simply hard because the developers wanted them to be. They were hard because, when it came down to it, they could be beaten by a pro in less than a half hour. Even NES-native games, like The Legend of Zelda and Metroid, were still restricted in length by what their cartridges were capable of. One could argue they were hard out of necessity.
Now, games have become infinitely more complex thanks to a loosening of technical restrictions, meaning difficulty (or lack thereof) stems from myriad sources. For instance, one way games have become easier than in the NES days is that fewer of them suffer from cheap level design. Things typically don’t just spawn and kill you at random anymore — and that’s a good thing!
Ambiguous to a fault
Another way classic games like Metroid and The Legend of Zelda were difficult was they offered little or no clues on what to do. I understand that not knowing what precisely to do is “part of their charm,” but considering that I don’t have the time or patience to spend several hours on a single objective now means that I won’t get much enjoyment out of these kinds of games. If I were to actually try them, there’s a good chance I’d end up looking up hints online anyway. And considering that Nintendo Power was around in the ’80s, there’s a good chance that that mentality existed even then.
In general, more people play video games now than in the ’80s, and many of them don’t have the patience, skill, or time to sit down and learn a challenging game. For those people, it is better to offer some gateway games that are easier to start or to offer lower difficulty options for complex games. More options is better than forcing a game to be too hard or too easy.
Particularly, I’d be all for difficulty settings that actually tweaked the gameplay to match your skill level or even assist options that help those who need them. But I also recognize that that’s not always feasible for time reasons, or even necessary for some games.
It’s not always easy, but it wasn’t always hard either
Even in the NES days, easier games did exist. The Kirby franchise immediately comes to mind, as the original game on the NES was designed for little kids. It’s a light, colorful, short platformer that focuses more on breezy adventure than it does on difficulty and high-stakes gaming. And given the Kirby franchise’s fan base, that mentality seems to have worked.
Conversely, it’s not like there aren’t newer games that are hard too. On the Wii alone there was Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure. That game was incredibly hard to me, but it was also really fun. And I think part of that is because the game’s challenge mostly felt fair. There are also games like Bayonetta, Dark Souls Remastered, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice that are both immersive and can be quite challenging. You can have your cake and eat it too, especially in a gaming environment as diverse as today’s.
Remember, difficulty is subjective
Ultimately, there’s no way to gauge a “perfect difficulty” since that’ll always vary from person to person. What might be hard to one person might be a cakewalk to someone else and vice versa. Gaming, like all art, is a subjective experience, and assuming that one size fits all is reductive thinking that isn’t helpful. As is shaming people for looking up hints and clues online.
True NES-level challenge might not exist in large numbers of games now, but that’s how it should be. And if that bothers you, you can always play the older games instead, right? No one’s stopping you from doing that.
What do you think? Do you find that newer games lack the NES difficulty of old? Or are they fine the way they are? Let us know in the comments below.