The Ryan Lambie column: How difficult is too difficult?

Ryan recalls the sadistic difficulty of R-Type on the Super Nintendo. and wonders if gamers are masochists...

Super R-Type on Nintendo - grimly fiendish.

As a slavish devotee of old-school 2D shoot-em-ups, I spent a bit of my pocket money this week on a copy of Super R-Type for the Super Nintendo (originally released in 1991, when all games released by Nintendo had to have the word ‘Super’ tacked on the front by law).

If you’ve ever played an R-Type game, you’ll know that they’re all pretty hard. Super R-Type though, takes things to an almost sadistic degree of difficulty; in a bizarre fit of spite, the game’s creators decided to design a game without one single restart point on any of its lengthy levels. This means that even the smallest, most insignificant error sends you all the way back to the beginning of the stage; particularly galling when you’ve fought through approximately ten minutes of intricate enemy attack patterns to the end-of-level boss, only to be killed instantly by an unexpectedly fast bullet.

I played the game for an hour or two, with my shouts and howls of anguish resonating around the house with increasing frequency. Sarah, fearing for my sanity, has banned me from playing Super R-Type ever again, and I must say I’m quietly relieved.

I’ve never actually attempted to programme a game before (anything beyond Spectrum BASIC proved utterly mystifying to me), but I’m guessing that pitching the correct difficulty level is pretty difficult. How can you create a game that successfully caters to all tastes – to experienced gamers as well as novices, youngsters and older players alike? Like people’s taste in food or colour, gaming difficulty is essentially subjective – what one gamer finds easy another may find completely impossible.

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I, for example, find almost all third-person shooting games, and some driving games, quite difficult. This isn’t because of any particular lack of co-ordination; rather, it’s my sense of direction that lets me down. Place me in any free-roaming, maze-like first-person game and I’ll get lost in seconds.

Thank god then for games like Sega/Bizarre’s The Club, which thoughtfully leaves huge arrows scattered about every level so that even I can’t get lost, leaving me free to run and gun without confusion.

To be fair though, I’m not particularly brilliant at game playing in general – my enthusiasm for them far outstrips my prowess, which is probably why I like writing about them so much.

Take Resident Evil 4, for example – the best game in the series so far, and one of the best titles of the previous console generation. Despite my love for it, I got horribly stuck somewhere towards the end, and I’ve never got round to completing it. Looking at my games collection, the same story’s repeated time and again; I’ll get hooked on one title, get stuck, lose motivation and move onto the next, newer release.

Lack of talent aside, it still amazes me that, with all the focus group meetings and extensive play testing that games are now subjected to, unbelievably hard videogames still make it to the shelves. Even a game as apparently perfect as Super Mario Galaxy has the horrendously difficult (and already infamous) Purple Coins scenario to contend with – a challenge that requires you to revisit levels you’ve already completed to find the said coinage. One tiny, tiny error and you’re sent, kicking and screaming (literally, in my case) back to the start.

While there’s nothing wrong with games that are challenging – the Devil May Cry series, for example, often treads that fine line – it’s when developers forget that they’re supposed to be creating pieces of entertainment that things go wrong. We’ll fight and swear our way through the more difficult moments of Devil May Cry 3 or Mario Galaxy because we know that, given time and practise, we’ll clear the hurdle eventually, and our ultimate reward is a new level with fresh challenges to overcome.

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But when games feel insurmountably difficult, as is the case with Super R-Type and, to cite a more recent example, Stuntman on the PS2, the frustration level only spoils our enjoyment.

Even relatively small, seemingly incidental details, like overly long cutscenes that can’t be skipped (as seen in Gradius V or Call of Duty 3, and too many other games to list) can ruin an otherwise enjoyable gaming experience.

It would seem that, despite the piles of cash and hundreds of staff involved in the development of modern games, sudden difficulty spikes and unnecessary repetition are still all too common. And while it’s true that superior graphics and sound can make a game more immersive, nothing pulls players out of that immersion more quickly than an irritating play element or poorly judged hike in difficulty.

Still, I suppose you can’t really call yourself a proper gamer until you’ve shrieked at your console or monitor until your face turns purple. And besides, gamers can be a masochistic bunch, often refusing to admit defeat even in the face of overwhelming frustration.

Now where did Sarah hide that copy of Super R-Type?