Does difficulty matter in videogames?

Do games have to be challenging to be fun, or is relaxation and entertainment enough? Kirby’s Epic Yarn provides the answer, says Ryan…

The last few weeks have seen me spend inordinate amounts of time playing games more suited to a seven-year-old. I’ve become hopelessly addicted to Pokémon Emerald, and I’ve been sinking valuable spare moments into completing Kirby’s Epic Yarn.

If you have a passing interest in the games of Nintendo, you may have already read that, completing Kirby’s Epic Yarn is a bit like arm wrestling a three-day-old kitten – extremely simple. Those seeking to simply plough through every level and kill the final boss will almost certainly be able to do so within only a handful of hours.

Epic Yarn’s greater challenge, though, comes from unlocking everything the platformer has to unlock, and collecting everything there is to collect. To do so, it’s no longer enough to kill each world’s boss as rapidly as you can; instead, you have to avoid their attacks, and collect enough fallen gems from each of your own successful hits to earn a patch.

It’s only be obtaining these patches that you can unlock all the other worlds that are secondary to the main quest – and it’s in these other worlds that Epic Yarn houses some truly engaging surprises, not least for fans of old-school shooter, Gradius.

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The wonderful thing about Epic Yarn, therefore, is that its creators, Good-Feel, have allowed players to make the game as challenging as they want to make it. With no lives to lose or time limits to beat, you can simply enjoy the game for what it is – a charming, retro 2D platformer with some truly gorgeous low-def visuals you’ll see on the Wii.

Those who want to see everything the game has to offer, meanwhile, will find that Epic Yarn has far greater longevity than many reviewers gave it credit for. I’ve now been playing it for more than a dozen hours, and I’ve still not managed to finish 100 percent of it.

Both Epic Yarn and my recent brush with Pokémon have got me thinking about the topic of videogame difficulty, and just how important it is. Before I started playing these, I often relished the stern challenge that many other games have to offer – the intense, pixel-perfect jumps of Super Meat Boy, the studied precision of Gran Turismo 5’s driving, or the joypad-shattering mayhem of the unexpectedly taxing third-person shooter, Vanquish.

This latter category of games derive much of their appeal from the steepness of their learning curve. The challenge bar is set high, but the thrill of finally vaulting it (usually after many, many failed attempts) serves as a welcome reward.

Great though these experiences are, playing Epic Yarn has reminded me of a type of game that I’d all-but forgotten about – the type of game that exists as more of a companion or a playmate than a gym instructor, or, to paraphrase Rooney Mara’s character in The Social Network, the videogame equivalent of a StairMaster.

Epic Yarn’s a bit like exploring the world of Grand Theft Auto IV (or any number of sandbox epics) while ignoring the missions in hand. It’s a playpen full of things to collect, buy, and decorate your flat with.

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Pokémon Emerald, I’ve discovered, has a similarly relaxed air about it. While there’s some frustration to be experienced when you come up against a trainer whose Pokémon completely outclass yours, for the most part it’s a joyous romp through the countryside. By following the breadcrumbs of advice that emanated from its residents, I found that my collection of Pokémon were almost always levelled-up and well-equipped for whatever battles were around the corner.

Compared to some of the other games I’m used to playing, which often have me throwing a joypad across the room, or leave the neighbours threatening to call the police because of my guttural shrieks of rage, Epic Yarn and Pokémon are havens of blissful calm, like relaxing in a Japanese garden, watching Koi carp float about in a pond.

Not all videogames can be as gentle, whimsical and downright simple as Epic Yarn, of course. If they were, I’d probably start to miss the taxing bloodlust of shooters or beat-em-ups within a day or two. But at the same time, they’re a reminder that games can offer something other than a test of skill and reflexes.

To hardened FPS fanatics, Kirby’s jumping and collecting antics are probably analogous to making daisy chains or flower arranging. But for some of us, games such as Epic Yarn and Pokémon offer a refuge from the frustrations of the real world, serving to dissipate stress rather than add to it. More please, games industry.

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