Here’s a quick test: does the phrase “Nintendo Hard” mean anything to you? If you’re a gamer that hails from the golden age of gaming then even if you’ve never heard the term before you can probably figure out what it means. The term refers to a time when game designers deliberately made games hard in order to extend the time you spent playing them as budgets were far more limited back then and creating content is never a cheap endeavor. For me whenever I hear those words the first game that comes to mind is Battletoads, a game so difficult that I don’t think I found anyone who had finished it, despite many of us owning it. This extended into many other games and it wasn’t until recently, within the last 15 years or so, that this trend started to abate with games seemingly becoming progressively easier.
Indeed the sentiment seems shared by nearly all gamers who began their playing careers within the past decade or so. This isn’t to say we can’t find games that challenge us, more that the average skill level required to complete most games is well below that than what we used to expect. This is almost universally seen as a bad thing as it feels like the games industry is being dumbed down in favor of a wider audience. Whilst most of the evidence that is used to back this is up is purely anecdotal there has been some evidence from third party sources that has helped to fuel this fire:
“It may come as a shock to some of you that most gamers today cannot finish the original Super Mario Brothers game on the Famicom,” he said. “We have conducted this test over the past few years to see how difficult we should make our games and have found that the number of people unable to finish the first level is steadily increasing.”
At this point, a whopping 90% of participants couldn’t finish the level. (We presume that means they used up their few available lives before having to restart the game.)
He also noted that most didn’t understand basic game mechanics such as the run button, or that coins are to be collected and aren’t enemies, or the concept of a bottomless pit. About 70% died at the first enemy, and half of those died at that same spot twice.
At first glance this seems to be pretty damning as Mario is a game that is as fundamental as it gets, even when compared to current day indie titles that are incredibly stripped back. Probably the most interesting piece of information there was the upward trend in those who couldn’t complete it which falls in line with the gaming is getting easier narrative. Initially I took this information at face value but after thinking about it more I think there’s a lot more at play here than games simply getting easier.
If you take the past 5 years of games and compare them to the same games from a decade previous there’d be a distinct difference in the makeup of the genres, styles and mechanics that made them up. Indeed one of the games that’s seen the most innovation is the platformer and back when Mario was first around they were by far the most common type of game. Today it’s far more likely that a new gamer has grown up on a steady diet of AAA FPS games like Call of Duty or 3rd person action adventure games like Tomb Raider. Not being able to complete Mario 1-1 means doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on today’s gamers, more it highlights a lack of domain knowledge that your run of the mill gamer just won’t have today. You can see that by some of the comments that those gamers made in the article I quoted, namely them wanting Mario to be armed.
It does highlight one particular aspect of gaming that wasn’t necessarily considered fundamental until recently: the tutorial. Now it’s easy to argue that Mario 1-1 contains all the necessary visual clues to teach you how to play it, and I’d agree with you to a point, however tutorials like those are far more effective when your game utilizes the current gaming norms. Due to the wide breadth of game genres now available to gamers today tutorials are almost a necessity as it’s nigh on impossible to rely on current game norms to carry players through it. This is especially true when most of today’s games will try to include some form of unique mechanic to distinguish themselves from the crowd, something which you probably wouldn’t be able to just figure out on your own.
So instead of using Mario 1-1 as a benchmark I’d argue that we’d probably need some kind of game mechanic simulator, one that incorporates all the fundamental ideas from the past 2 decades. With this you could see where their domain knowledge lies and then compare them against others who are similarly classified. I can imagine that someone who plays mostly indie platformers would do pretty well with Mario 1-1, but your FPS player would struggle. Over time you could then see if new gamers struggle with these fundamental mechanics instead of just testing their domain knowledge for a specific genre.
As for me, someone who’s played hundreds of games over the past 2.8 decades, the trend has most certainly been towards a more friendly experience for players should they choose it. Nearly all games come varying difficulty levels of which the easiest is usually aimed at those who’ve never played that kind of game before. The hardest however still provides a challenge to most gamers and there’s been a resurgence in Nintendo Hard games and difficulty levels for those who seek that next level of challenge. Essentially we’re seeing a much more diverse range of games and difficulty levels that accommodates a larger audience, something that the games industry should be praised for doing. Some might not like this, seeing it as the commoditization of the games industry (parts of which I agree with), but as someone who revels in sharing gaming with as many people as I can I can’t help but embrace it.
I consider myself to be pretty good at video games. More often than not I’ll go for the hardest difficulty setting as otherwise the game will just feel too easy and beating the challenges the game puts before me just won’t be as satisfying. Still I lived through a time where making a game extraordinarily difficult was one way to make the game last longer, like the insane level of difficulty in the game Battletoads. I spent years playing that game and I believe I only ever made it to level 4 a couple times and the experiencing was so scarring that I’ve never been back to defeat my old foe. Still when I came head to head with Super Meat Boy I felt like I had been sent back 15 years to my youth, where the games were simple and incredibly hard.
Well this looks easy enough…
You play as Meat Boy a little red block who’s girlfriend, Bandage Girl, is taken away by the evil Dr. Fetus. At its heart the game is a good old fashioned platformer challenging you to get from the starting area of the level to the other end where Bandage Girl is. Of course every time you reach her Dr. Fetus appears and takes her away again, usually giving her a firm beating right in front of you before disappearing again. There are of course numerous obstacles that are in your way when you’re trying to navigate the levels and a good chunk of them will turn Meat Boy into a lovely explosion of gibs, sending you right back to the start of the level.
Super Meat Boy differs from the old school traditional platformers in several ways, most of which are done in order to keep the game play fast paced and incredibly intense. For starters each level is quite short, with many of the early levels over in under 6 seconds. Towards the end they do get quite a bit longer but even then none of them are longer than a minute (the non-boss levels anyway). There are no lives in this game either (save for the special Warp Zone levels) and the re-spawn time is incredibly quick, so much so that sometimes when you die you’ll be able to see your previous Meat Boy’s gibs still exploding as you respawn. This is not to say the game encourages you to just bash your head randomly against the keyboard until you finish the level, far from it. There are many additional elements to the game that encourage precise, carefully timed movements and finding the most optimal path to the end goal.
Oh what the hell!?!?!
Each level has a set time there for you to beat and doing so will earn you a “Grade A” mark for that level. It will also let you switch to the Dark Side of that level which is usually an incredibly more sadistic version of the same place, requiring even more precise timing in order to get through to the end. Additionally most levels have a bandage in them which can be used to purchase additional characters to use in place of Meat Boy. The bandages are usually placed so out of the way that you really have to go out of your way to get them and if you’re vying for Grade A status you’re usually going to miss them (as I did, I think I have 4). I’ve heard unlocking the additional characters can make the game quite a bit easier than the insanity that I experienced by doing the entire game with just Meat Boy.
Woah, single rainbow all the way.
When I first started out playing Super Meat Boy I relished the challenge that it presented to me. As a long time gamer I pride myself on being able to conquer most modern games without having to break too much of a sweat. As many gamers will agree the past decade has seen many games go the route of not being particularly hard in order to drive their adoption rates and thus games with difficulty that decades ago wouldn’t have been out of place are now infamous for their difficulty. The trick is not making a game difficult for difficult’s sake, more it is to teach the player to overcome what they once thought was impossible and rewarding them as they learn.
Super Meat Boy does this quite consistently, presenting you with challenges that on the surface look nigh on impossible until you start having a crack at them. The last 5 levels are brilliant examples of this having stumped me to the point of staring blankly at the screen for minutes on end trying to figure out just how the heck I was going to beat the puzzle laid out before me. The learning curve is pretty smooth at the start but quickly ramps up into insane territory towards the end. I think this is best shown by my played time which sat at a 8 hours as I hit the last zone and 12 hours after finishing the game¹.
My Twitter followers will probably perk up at this point and say “Dave, wait a sec, didn’t you say you used a trainer to finish this game”. Yes I most assuredly did thanks to the last level requiring a key sequence that I just couldn’t master after 2 hours of trying to. The game tells you every time that you start it up that the keyboard is an inferior input device for Super Meat Boy but I had gone this far without using one and couldn’t be bothered setting up my PS3 controller with it. So I did what any programmer out there would do, I coded up a program in AutoIt to press the right keys with the right timing for me:
Sweet, sweet AutoIt.
If you look at that script you’ll get a sense for just how precise timing you need in order to execute the right moves in order to complete some of the levels. This script only gets you past the first major obstacle on the last level but that was more than enough as I was able to complete every other part of the level after an hour or so. It doesn’t work perfectly every time either with the sleep timer usually being off by a couple milliseconds either way, leaving Meat Boy standing there doing nothing or foolishly leaping to his death.
This sums up how I felt after finishing it.
Super Meat Boy sucked me in with its nostalgic feel and hat tips to classic gaming only to turn up the nostalgia even further by adding in punishing levels of difficulty. Immediately after finishing it I swore that I’d never go back to it, the sheer insanity of difficulty ruining the prospects of ever going back. However I hadn’t taken any screenshots of my adventure so I had to play for a bit to get some pictures for this review. 2 hours later I emerged after unlocking the Bit Trip Runner and playing through a couple of the warp zones I hadn’t seen. Truly Super Meat Boy had me experiencing beaten wife syndrome on a whole new level, I just couldn’t stay away from it no matter how much pain it put me through. Still this game is definitely not for everyone but at $20 on steam (and can be had at sale for $5) it’s hard to go wrong with Super Meat Boy, especially if you’re keen to revisit the world of games as it was almost 2 decades ago.
Super Meat Boy is available right now on Xbox360 and PC right now for $20. Game was played on the PC using a keyboard for the entire game, with a grand total of 14 hours played.
¹I do not care if it’s the real end or not. I got the achievement that said “The End” that’s it, it’s done! *puts fingers in ears* LA LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!!!!!!