This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
Do you fancy going on a journey through a few decades of video game frustration? If so, you’ve come to the right place, because this article is all about the rage-inducing titles that made one Den of Geek contributor want to hurl his controller (or perhaps a whole console) at a wall.
These are games that only a heart surgeon would have the dexterity and patience to complete; games so disgustingly unfair and evil that even Satan beholds their exquisitely cruel construction with envy, kicking himself that he didn’t think of them first.
With these points in mind, and considering that this article represents one person’s experiences and is not an attempt at ranking the hardest games of all time, let’s get started…
The Sinclair ZX Spectrum
For those of you who are between the ages of 30-ish and 40-ish, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum will need no introduction. It was likely the first home computer most of us owned. Now, it’s easy for the post-’80s whipper-snappers reading this to look back and scoff at the Spectrum’s 8-bit, jerky-graphics crappiness, but that’s a bit like traveling back in time to 100AD and laughing at a chariot because it isn’t a Renault Megane.
The Speccy was a tiny, spongy-keyed keyboard that connected to a bulky 1980s monitor and an external cassette player (later generations of Speccy had a built-in cassette player, but that was pie-in-the-sky dreaming for anyone with an earlier version).
Let’s be fair. There was one really great thing about the Spectrum: the ease with which you could copy games. All you needed were two cassette players, one of which could record, and hey presto, you had yourself your own little bedroom-based pirate lab. Conversely, the worst thing about the Spectrum was the ease with which your older sister could copy over your games. With one little strip of Sellotape she could convert your prized copy of Chuckie Egg into the Radio 1 chart show countdown. (If that sentence confuses you, ask your great-great-great-great-grandparents to explain it.)
As if all that wasn’t bad enough, the Spectrum’s loading process itself was a sort of game: a game to test if you could sit patiently for twenty minutes without suddenly smashing everything in your mum and dad’s house to pieces. You inserted the game cassette, pressed play, and then spent anywhere between three and 33 million minutes listening to the most horrendous noise yet imagined by humankind. If you’re a big fan of analogies, the sound of a loading Spectrum brought to mind a robot being beaten up on a construction site as a thousand stray cats screeched their approval.
Sometimes you waited those 33 million minutes only to discover that there’d been a loading error, or the game was broken, and the realization hit you that you’d just subjected yourself to audio torture for absolutely no reason. And sometimes, just sometimes, something even worse than that happened: the game did load.
Manic Miner (ZX Spectrum)
These days video games are total immersion experiences. The game engines and fully-realized worlds in which you roam force you to identify with the protagonists you control so completely that reality takes a back seat.
Back in 1983, things were simpler. Bug-Byte Software Ltd asked you to identify with nothing more than a glorified white pixel, whose animation made Hanna-Barbera look like Pixar. He was a little man called Willy, the titular Manic Miner, whose mission it was to jump around in a succession of caves searching for keys to enable him to escape back to his terranean paradise, where presumably there wasn’t quite so much emphasis on creatures with keys sprouting from their backs and flying toilets.
Unfortunately for our cursed generation, Manic Miner was developed in the days before save-game checkpoints were invented. There was no mercy: you could reach the final level with one life left, be moments from victory, and with one minutely misjudged jump find yourself right back at the start of the game, doomed to endure another slog through each and every nonsensical and increasingly treacherous cavern. And when I say “minutely misjudged,” I mean it: if a molecule of Willy’s haircut came within three miles of a bush on the platform above him as he was jumping, he would instantly die.
Once you’d lost that last life, you were forced to watch as a Monty Python-esque boot descended from the heavens and fatally crushed your wee Willy’s head. Accompanying this charming death-screen was the sort of rub-your-face-in-it sound effect that would provoke even Gandhi to track down the inventor of the ZX Spectrum and give him a hard stare.
Tetris (Game Boy)
Tetris was neither developed for nor exclusive to the Game Boy, but in this writer’s mind, the two are synonymous. For many years, my mother kept an old Game Boy next to her toilet, which was permanently loaded with a Tetris cartridge (the Game Boy, that is, not the toilet: that would be a weird and unnecessarily expensive ritual). Due to the location of the Game Boy, a trip to the loo in her house could last anywhere between five minutes and an hour – usually the dead-legged latter.
I would perch tingling and aching on the toilet seat, my bloodless legs dangling in the manner of a puppeteer-less Muppet. What oxygen remained in my body was put to work propelling swear words up through my throat: the foul language as numerous and varied as it was inventive.
And all throughout I kept trying to sell myself the old lie: “One more game and I’m done.” Yeah right. “Just one more game,” I’d snarl, “and I don’t even care if I win or not. Once this game’s finished, I swear it… I swear on all the gods in the heavens, I’ll switch it off and vacate this bathroom.” Ah, what folly.
Frustration is built into the game. It’s what keeps you playing. It’s also what keeps you shouting things like: “RANDOM? How can it be RANDOM when that’s the ninth square block in a row? I need a slotty peggy thing or an up-and-downy long line, and you KNOW IT, you sentient game cartridge!”
I find it incredible how quickly I can invest a machine with the malevolent sentience of Skynet when I’m losing at a game. “This is what you’ve wanted all along, isn’t it, Game Boy? To make me lose my temper and throw you across the room, smash you into the wall. Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
North and South (Amiga)
Infogrames’ 1988 title North and South was a faithful adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel of the same name. Set during the American Civil War, you played as either the Yankees or the Confederates. The main game screen was a map of the United States, around which you moved your troops until your armies dominated every territory and the last of your enemies had been vanquished. There were three complementary sub-games accessible through the map screen: there was a battle, a one-man run to capture an enemy fort, and a good old-fashioned money-train hijack attempt.
The army-on-army battles were the most fun, although not without their taste of unfairness. As a human player, you could only control one unit at a time. If you switched control from cavalry to infantry your horses would be left trotting aimlessly in a straight line until you reclaimed control of them, by which point they’d usually met their swift and brutal deaths. If you were battling the computer in single-player mode, then you faced an omnipotent opponent who could control all three unit types simultaneously. It was a bit like playing against Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
One of the most heart-thumpingly maddening sub-games was the fort grab, which was damn near impossible to pull off. You rushed your little soldier across a scrolling two-tier landscape that was strewn with storage crates, dogs, and dynamite. You could try to get him to mount ladders, but that was only possible if you lined your soldier next to the stiles with scientific, pixel-perfect precision. To add to the fun, all throughout your deadly dash you had to dispatch or dodge fast-moving, knife-chucking enemy soldiers – and every vein-bulging, face-slapping minute of it was against the clock. You always failed. When a computer opponent undertook the same mission, it always won and seemingly within about seven seconds. It was tricky to stop their progress, given that your strategic defense options were limited to pressing either the up or the down arrow on the keyboard.
In terms of truly epic frustration, however, nothing can come close to the train hijacks, where with monotonous regularity your soldier was punched Popeye-style and launched from the carriage of the money-train onto the hard, unforgiving dirt below. I remember it well. As my wee guy beat his fists on the ground as the train retreated away from him, I was usually to be found trying to dismantle my keyboard with my bare hands.
Shadow of the Beast 2 (Amiga)
The environments in Shadow of the Beast 2 were haunting and all the more alien-seeming for their sparseness. Playing the game gave me the same eerie feeling I got when I first saw the establishing shot of the lithium-cracking station in the classic Star Trek episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”
So the game was beautiful, but beautiful counts for nada if the gameplay makes you so angry that you want to scream. If you died – which was often – you returned to the very start of the game.
There was one upside to dying: the achingly beautiful pan-pipe death music, which I can still recall with perfect clarity a full two decades after my last shot of the game. I would recommend that you seek it out on YouTube, and then listen to it while drinking whiskey and staring wistfully out of a window. But then I’m weird.
Besides, dying wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to you in Shadow of the Beast 2: worst were the moments in which you found yourself aimlessly wandering the empty gamescape, now bereft of baddies and stripped of purpose, because an hour earlier you’d fluffed a puzzle or made a wrong choice, most of the time unaware that the puzzle had even been a puzzle or the choice a choice. Ah, happy memories.
Stunt Car Racer (Amiga)
Geoff Crammond’s 1989 masterpiece Stunt Car Racer is one of those game titles that pretty much speaks for itself. There’s a stunt car. And you race it. On a stunt course. Ah, but hang on, there’s a twist: it’s set in the future: deep in the heady, futuristic end-times of 2006.
The race courses of the “future,” as imagined by Crammond, were raised, roller-coaster-esque affairs, which necessitated the use of cranes and chains to hoist competitors to the starting grid. The cars were fitted with turbo boosters, which to my mind is a potentially lethal extra on vehicles designed to race 100-feet in the air on courses without crash barriers, but, hey, that’s stunt racing for you.
Two drivers battled against each other over a series of increasingly difficult and death-defyingly dangerous courses, progressing through the divisions with a view to taking the league title. But as a human player, you couldn’t, because the game was so painstakingly difficult. Or perhaps its mastery required more effort and patience than this youngster could muster.
Whatever damage your car sustained in one race was carried over into subsequent races, meaning silly mistakes in an early race could wreck your chances of future victory. And damage was hard to avoid. Your car was designed for aerodynamics, not durability: a little too much speed over a mere mole-hill of a bump was enough to send a lightning-strike crack up the side of your damage indicator. The kiss of death.
Before long you would come to the conclusion that foul play was your only viable option. Only one small snag in that plan: it’s impossible, too. For some reason, the CPU cars were indestructible and immovable. If you seized your chance and tried to smash one of them off the track as they rounded a corner, your car would be the one lying in a smoking, smoldering heap on the ground below. I lost count of the number of times I found myself shouting: “Well I guess there’s no such thing as physics in the future, is there, Crammond?”
Ultima 8 (PC)
I loved dwindling away my teenage years inside Ultima 8’s large and rich gamescape. Many will balk at my love for number eight, as it’s universally acknowledged to be the naff step-child of the saga. But hey, to each their own, right?
My only quibble with the game – and by quibble I mean “thing that made me want to throw a computer out a window” – is that occasionally it attempted to cross over into the platform genre, but was hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with the game-mechanics necessary to make it playable.
At various points throughout the game, you had to execute flawless jumps between platforms, be it over water, lava, or million-foot drops. Thanks to a combination of poor programming and an isometric game grid that robbed you of depth perception and spatial awareness, those jumps were almost impossible to get right. Even if you tried to calculate them using the pooled powers of Pythagoras, Stephen Hawking, and Carol Vorderman, you’d still fail horribly. The only way to succeed was to save your game before every leap and pray that blind luck would eventually carry you through.
“I’ll bet Crammond had something to do with this too!” I’d cry, punching my mouse.
GoldenEye 007 & Mario Kart 64 (N64)
Both GoldenEye 007 and Mario Kart 64 appeared on the N64 in the late ’90s, a pair of games most beloved for their multiplayer modes. I’m going to lump them together not because they crave comparison but because they were the twin addictions that seized control of me and my friends in the twilight of our youths. We would descend upon one mate’s house for nights on end, playing until we could see the games tattooed on the insides of our eyelids each time we closed our eyes, like a paused image forever burned onto the screen of a plasma TV.
Four-player Goldeneye with the License to Kill mode enabled (one-shot kill) created so much hostility between us that it became necessary to institute a UN-style charter to defuse the tension: certain levels and weapon-combos were black-listed; certain “combat strategies” were discouraged; and it was strictly forbidden, under pain of banishment, to unpause the game and kill each other’s characters while we were in the bathroom. Unfortunately, our resolutions proved useless. The system broke down. Chaos ruled.
There was a level called Facility where one of the respawn points was a vent above a toilet cubicle. We all agreed it was unfair to camp out at the respawn point: the kill was seen as so easy it was tantamount to cheating. Unfortunately, rules pretty quickly fly out of the window when the reward for breaking them is to see one of your friends literally shaking and shrieking with rage. You can’t put a price on that.
And now we come to Mario Kart 64: a bright and colorful, cutesy jamboree of fun and frolics that has probably been responsible for millions of fractured friendships and sincere death threats. I’m sure some top scientists could devise a graph to prove that the cutesier a game and its sound effects, the greater the rage you experience as a consequence of something unfair happening to you while playing it – like “The Blue Shell of Death,” for example.
This colorful collection of pixels will smash up your kart no matter how hard you try to avoid it. And the chance to dish out these devilish blue shells is reserved for players who are struggling at the back of the pack, giving them an unfair route back into the competition. How are you not meant to rage when one of those attacks you from behind?
If you’re unfamiliar with Mario Kart 64, I can sum it up thusly with the following story: you’re a mushroom driving a little car, and a princess in a pink car bumps into you and knocks you into a pit of lava; you get mad and threaten revenge on the princess. Your anger is so powerful it could be measured in megatons. And all the while, the “friend” that nudged you off the road in the first place is smirking from the sofa as the princess careens away from the scene of the crime and races off towards certain victory. Great stuff.
I would consider myself a reasonably rational human being, given to bouts of ill-temper, certainly, but basically decent and even-keeled. But shove the Xbox twiddle-stick in my hands and shunt me off into the Halo multiplayer kill zones, and prepare for an evil bastard to emerge.
It’s lucky that I eschew the Xbox’s microphone headset because had it ever been connected during any one of my many frustration-filled forays into the slayer maps, I undoubtedly would’ve been banned from Xbox for life. And then arrested.
When I did yell at this game (which happened a lot), the reasons I’d invent were utter flights of furious fancy: I was matched against people whose mastery of the game verges on suspicious, they must have been cheating; my opponents must have all know each other and decided to gang up on me; or perhaps God Himself vowed allegiance to my opponents. It was, of course, never this reason: I was a little bit rubbish. Who’d admit that?
Co-op games, in which you’re let down by your so-called teammates, frustrate me the most, as there’s nothing more annoying than trying to play the game well while everyone else on your team misses the point of the mission entirely. And don’t get me started on people who sign up for a game and then stand there doing nothing!
But, really, when it comes to series like Halo, nothing gets the blood boiling faster than the realization that you’ve been defeated by people with call-signs like ShakeDatAss and BieberRocks.