Games have variations on the usual easy, normal, and hard modes, and for the most part, regardless of the game we're playing, we're able to pick our ideal level of challenge. Sometimes, however, that's not always the case, and some games exist purely to see us squirm in agony as we're put through the grinder of gaming challenge, whether we like it or not.
These games don't pander to our specific levels of skill, or try to hold our hands, letting us get better, learning as we go before we master them. Oh no, these are games that, right from the off are brutal, unforgiving, and simply difficult. There's no other way to play them, you either step up or you give up. And we're going to celebrate some of the most notorious here, with our top 25 picks for brutally difficult games.
A couple of caveats. We're focusing on games that are hard by design, that present a good, solid challenge, not games that are difficult due to poor design, bad controls, or other issues. This is simply artificial, often unintended difficulty, not a true challenge. This also means we're looking at single player, as multiplayer is only as difficult as your skill and those you play against. We're going to limit the list to games that are hard by default, not relying on selecting a hardest difficulty to raise the bar. These are games that will chew you up and spit you out without the need for you to select a greater challenge. So, let's begin.
1993 | Cyan
It's all too easy to consider a hard game one that kills you over and over again or provides a reflex-demanding battle of skill, but there are more ways to stop a gamer in their tracks, including stretching the old grey matter. Myst is undoubtedly one of the best examples here, and is one of the most famously challenging puzzlers ever released.
The slide-show presentation of the game's surreal worlds put many off, but for those who saw past the limited aesthetics and became drawn into the beautiful and mysterious worlds, there remained a tough mental challenge that tasked you with solving all sorts of logic puzzles that required masterful use of problem solving, memory, and environmental awareness. Solving these puzzles was a truly daunting task, and when you succeeded, you felt like you achieved much more than completing a task in a simple game. You felt truly clever. A puzzle-solving savant.
It's true that Myst isn't the most difficult in the series, that honor goes to Riven in our opinion, but the original is still the best, and it's hard to forget the headaches the game brought on as you struggled to tackle the then unique enigmas on offer.
Around its original release in 1993, it was even reported that people lost jobs due to spending so much time solving the game's puzzles, and even marriages were broken up. Now that's the sign of a brutally challenging game, one that doesn't let real life get in the way of its challenge.
2012 | Subset Games
FTL is one of the most impressive indie titles we've played in a long time, and its mixture of boardgame-like navigation and real time strategy makes for an unforgettable tour of the stars where most people would like to blow you up into so much dust.
Perhaps the only thing more unforgettable than the unique take on space combat the game offers is its unrelenting difficulty. As a rogue-like game, all progress you make is lost upon death, and in your next game you have to start all over again. This is the norm for this style of game, and FTL complements this with another rogue-like staple of randomly generated universes, and a different experience each time. You just never know what's going to happen next.
During a single game, not only do you need to explore space while fleeing an always present threat that's chasing you through the cosmos, you also have to upgrade your ship, find new crew, replace dead crew and, of course, fend off all sorts of foes. There are also total gambles you need to make, such as sending your precious crew to the aid of a colony, with the risk of losing them to whatever threat there may be. Makes you appreciate how hard Capitan Kirk's job really is.
2009 | From Software
The Souls series is usually rated as one of the most difficult games ever made, but in truth, it's not all that bad when compared against most of this list. Granted, people have spouted hyperbole about the challenge the Souls series provides, myself included, and although this is certainly true in contemporary terms, making it stand out from today's games, those with a retro appreciation know better (just look at some of our following selections).
That said, the Souls series is still one of the most punishing ever made, with a very tough challenge and some of the most difficult boss fights ever delivered by the medium. No foe in these games can be taken for granted, as even the lowliest of zombies can kill you, and then there's the trifling matter of other players invading your game...
Importantly, all of this is complemented with superb design and a difficulty that hits that sweet spot between challenge and unfairness. Although it's punishingly difficult at times, it's always straight up fair, and with practice and mastery of weapons and tactics, no foe is unbeatable, no matter how ridiculous it may first appear. If all else fails, praise the sun and call for help.
1990 | Sandcastle
A long forgotten fantasy classic, the isometric dungeon crawler, The Immortal, is also one of the most deviously tricky games you'll play. It's full of deadly foes, traps, all manner of puzzles, and practically no help for the player whatsoever. Instead of any major clues or tips on how to survive, you're left to your own devices to explore and deal with the many ways to die lurking in the darkness.
The Immortal also casts you as a crusty old wizard, not a big, tough warrior or sprightly hero. You're far from classical leading man material, and your combat skills aren't exactly great. Your best weapon here is your brain and your wits. Combat is difficult, requiring mastery of the dodging and counter mechanic, and enemies need to be taken with great care.
Even more deadly than the foes who want you turned into soup are the many and varied traps and dangers that make up the dungeon you're exploring. Pits, fire, spikes, poison, and much more are all hidden away in the depths, and to avoid them, you need to be very, very careful indeed.
1984 | Atari Games
Frustration is a powerful thing. For some it can instil a new focus and a willingness to triumph, and for others it simply turns an otherwise good player into a shambling mess of game overs. Either way, games that elicit large amounts of frustration are usually those that are both tough, and can very quickly see you fail over and over again. Marble Madness is one such game, and one that almost always leads to the second of the above examples.
The premise is as simple as they come—maneuver your marble through a series of increasingly difficult mazes to the goal without falling off the sides. Simple, yes? No, not at all. Not only do the mazes quickly become nightmarishly difficult, with spindly platforms, ramps, ice, and more devious architecture, it also throws in enemies that like to push you off the sides every chance they get.
You can still take your time and carefully move through the maze though, can't you? Nope, you've got a time limit too, so you have to master each maze, avoid foes, and do so without falling off, otherwise you'll quickly run out of time. The end result is a game that's tough, frustrating, and fiendishly addictive.
2010 | Team Meat
Some games try to hide their difficulty behind all sorts of mechanics and offer the player the means to get better. They may have mammoth boss fights you build up to or the need to level up of find better weaponry. Super Meat Boy has none of this, it's just hard, unapologetically so, and it wants you to die, just so your replay looks cooler.
Each and every level of this masochistic platformer has been crafted to be a masterful test of your platforming skills and your reactions. Here you need pixel perfect jumping and wall-sticking skills, as you have to avoid all sorts of hideous machinery to get to the end of each short challenge. Die, and you start again, instantly, only adding to the inevitable wave of deaths as you quickly splat onto circular saws, spikes, presses, and other Meat Boy-killing gear over and over again.
This kind of speedy torture is usually the sign of a game that's simply no fun, one that you'll quickly tire of and give up on. It's a testament to the developer's skill, then, that Super Meat Boy is a wonderfully addictive game despite this, with a challenge that's beautifully balanced to give you the belief that just one more go is enough to conquer the level and move on.
1987 | Sensible Software
Now, some may disagree with me, but I'm including Wizball here as a kind of exorcism of my own personal demons, as it's a game that simply terrorized my younger self when it came out way back in 1987.
Younger readers may not be aware of this home computer classic from the late 80s. In it, you play as a wizard who was turned into a green ball. The world is drained of color, and in your new, spherical form you have to bounce and fly around killing foes and collecting paint to recolor the world. This sounds simple, but the controls of Wizball are some of the trickiest we've ever seen.
To bounce around you have to gently spin Wizball left or right, with more spin making him move faster. Eventually you can power up enough to fly, which makes the game much easier, but this skill is lost upon death – and you die alot.
The mixture of oddball controls, constant waves of enemies, and environments that made combat difficult created a game that we simply couldn't play without turning into nine-year-old tantrum beasts. It wasn't pretty.
We're aware some had far less trouble with it (as our friends loved to remind me), but for us, this was, and still is one of the trickiest games we've ever played.
1992 | Novotrade International
Still one of the most unique games we've ever played, Sega's Ecco the Dolphin is also one of the most difficult. Completing this beast took some serious patience and careful thought. It blended puzzles with tricky maneuvering and aquatic combat. It was also surprisingly unsettling, with a dark story and a constant, unnerving ambience.
As the titular dolphin, Ecco, you had to repel an alien invasion that devoured much of the life from Earth's oceans. You did this by navigating a series of difficult areas that were filled with puzzles, riddles, and all sorts of danger, such as sharks, jellyfish, and aliens. At all times, you had to keep an eye on your breath meter, making sure you always knew where the nearest air pocket was, and you had to master Ecco's ram attack and sonar, which were tricky due to the 360 degree, fluid movement.
Of all the game's challenges, the final showdown was by far the most difficult and downright evil. We've included this in our previous hardest bosses list (that you can find here), and it's here too, for good reason. In this confrontation, you had to beat the alien queen, who not only looks very creepy, but can also devour you, sending you back to the beginning of the previous level. This level is one of the most difficult in the game, and having to do it over time and time again to get back to the boss made for a hellish fight, and one that means you'll remember Ecco for a very long time.
1995 | Sega Technical Institute
A definite Mega Drive classic, and one that's shockingly overlooked, Comix Zone is also one of the most difficult games for the system.
The whole game takes place in a living comic, and you play the artist who's been teleported into his own creation by the villain of his story. Using the unique approach of progressing through the actual pages of a comic, moving from panel to panel, Comix Zone mixed hand-to-hand combat with puzzles and a non-linear level structure to brilliant effect.
The level of difficulty on display here, however, quickly lets you know this isn't only a game that offers great visuals and a superb setting, it also wants to punish you relentlessly. Combat is tricky and foes are hard to beat without taking damage unless you're a master. Puzzles can be tricky too, and you have to plan ahead and carry the right items with you to progress in the best state. Oh, did we mention that you have one life? There's also that jump at the end of the first level. Did anyone else shudder when they had to tackle that?
2001 | Treasure
Ikaruga often finds itself towards the top of best shooter lists, and there's a reason for that—it's great. Developer Treasure's pedigree when it comes to producing arcade shooters is among the best in the industry, and as is so often the case with the studio's games, it takes one simple premise and makes it into a genre defining title.
Here the central theme is color. More specifically black and white. Enemy projectiles in the game are either black or white. By switching the polarity of your ship to either one, you can absorb bullets of that color. This not only makes you invulnerable to that polarity, but it also powers up a special weapon that can devastate your foes.
A true "bullet hell" shooter, where you're constantly having to avoid screen-filling swarms of projectiles, Ikaruga is as tough as nails, and it's all the better for it. Some would prefer the likes of Jamestown or Espgaluda II, but Ikaruga is on this list.
2003 | Amusement Vision
The original F-Zero was one of the first games to show off the Super Nintendo's impressive Mode 7 tech. Basically Mario Kart with sci-fi hover crafts (F-Zero actually came first, preceding Mario's racer by two years), it was a great game that set the bar for future racers.
It was a long time coming, but F-Zero GX eventually arrived on the GameCube, and boy was it a different beast. Now in full 3D, and looking more like Sony's Wipeout than the flat, Mode 7 game of yesteryear, it was nevertheless all Nintendo. However, it also came with a new feature—an amazingly steep difficulty curve.
F-Zero GX is without a doubt one of the most difficult racers you'll ever play. It's just plain brutal. In fact, even the game's story mode gives no quarter, and the second race jumps in difficulty so much that many players never progress any further.
1984 | Nintendo
The series has seen a few iterations and clones arrive on other systems, with the Wii most recently hosting a new version of the cartoon boxer, but the NES classic, Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!, is still heralded as one of the most difficult games ever, if only for the last fight against Iron Mike himself.
The gameplay is very simple and is almost all down to the player's reaction time and ability to quickly respond to the opponent's moves. Knowing all of the tells and signposted moves is essential, but where Punch-Out!! succeeds is its ability to still make this challenging, even if you know what's coming.
Even the best players of the game have said that you really need to put in a perfect performance to beat Tyson, and there are specific tactics used to defeat him. For most players, however, he still remains that undefeated champion, one that taunts them endlessly.
1989 | Konami
Surely one of the most anticipated games ever, the NES title based on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a game that every child of the 80s just had to have. The Turtles were so popular, it was bound to become an instant classic. So it did. It was also damn difficult, something that's caused the game to generate a lot of criticism.
It could be argued that this game goes against our rules of games being legitimately hard and not badly designed. Some have said the game was cheap, and the difficulty was over the top. We'd argue against this, though. Although the computer ports were awful and certainly badly developed, in the NES version, there wasn't really anything wrong with the game on a design level, it just had ridiculously challenging sections. The water level alone is enough to make most seasoned gamers weep. However, the game's controls were fine, and it was perfectly playable at all times. With effort and a lot of dedication, it's perfectly beatable and ranks as one of the greatest challenges around.