In the past few years, there has been a growing concern that video games have become less challenging. Sure, things like hour-long tutorials and a lighter approach to in-game consequences haven’t helped recent generations.
This absolutely signifies a shift, or rather an expansion, in the demographic of gamers, from a smaller, niche group of hardcore fans to more casual players. People looking for more casual experiences probably won’t spend too many hours trying to survive one of the games on this list. Many big game companies have lowered the difficulty of their games in order to cater to as many fans as possible, those that maybe are more interested in storytelling than a hardcore challenge.
But for the fans who enjoy tough challenges, levels so brutal they might make you cry in frustration, there are still plenty of options to choose from. XCOM 2, for example, is about humanity being utterly dominated by a technologically superior force, which also describes the game’s effect on our productivity. Some games are hard like a diamond: beautiful, fascinating, and consuming weeks of our lives to earn glittering success. Which is why we’re mining our past for more fantastically hard favorites.
Here is our list of the most brutally difficult games ever:
Dark Souls series
2011 | From Software | XBO, PS4, X360, PS4, PC
Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls, everybody has a favorite, and they’re all right. It’s not that one game is better, it’s just that you never forget your first love. Dark Souls is rock hard, but the rock is marble: beautiful, crafted into a masterpiece by the hammer that chips away the weak and unwanted. The game is a synthesis of skill by both developer and player. The player slowly learns how to advance in a nightmare of death, and in doing so feels the joy of gaining earning skill instead of merely unlocking it.
But the real skill belongs to the developers. Too difficult and it would feel frustrating. Too easy and it wouldn’t be rewarding. These games are truly artistic in their difficulty. Compare this to the days of Castlevania and Mega Man: if you lose, you lose everything, forced to repeat hours of play for one more crack at a monster. In Dark Souls, even the smallest bit of success still permanently advances your abilities, your equipment, and your range. Each death is only a little chip, sculpting you into the perfect warrior.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl
2007 | GSC Game World | PC
With the thousands of first-person shooters in the world, it’s rare for something to have a truly unique angle, but S.T.A.L.K.E.R. managed most original. There’s weird radiation, there’s a lawless zone where all must fend for themselves, so far so cliche, but in this otherwise unoriginal world, you’re not the chosen one! You’re not an elite operative! All the crazy radiation means everyone else is busy, not standing around sucking their thumbs waiting for you. You’re just one more gun-wielder trying to make their way in the world. Even the developers don’t (seem) to care about your progress, as they dump you in the middle of a busy world without so much as a helpful NPC to set you on your way.
Which means every victory is all yours. You’re the one who works out what to do or makes a decision or ambushes those guys. Even if you read FAQs, it feels more like teamwork than cheating. You can adventure into the heart of the anomaly if you like, but that really is up to you.
Devil May Cry
2001 | Capcom | PS2
Devil May Cry. A name possibly intended to make gamers feel better about their own tears. A game which forced players to fling themselves to death against impossible odds before even offering an easy mode. This game worked out how to make something called a “GIANT LAVA SPIDER” even worse than the name suggests.
But like all the cruelest torturers, the game made its victims want to work through the pain, because no matter how brutal the flames, no matter how rapid the bludgeon, no matter how screen-filling the savage attacks, there was always a way around the challenges. Players always died with one last glimpse of what they should have done flickering in their fading virtual eyes. So instead of shattering their controllers, they guaranteed that they’d make it the next time, just one more time. What do you mean it’s Monday? I just started playing. Tell work I’m sick.
Ninja Gaiden Black
2004 | Team Ninja | Xbox
Some hardcore players complained that Ninja Gaiden was too easy. Ninja Gaiden Black is what happens when you challenge people who can build a universe of infinite ninja. This wasn’t so much a game as a voluntary flensing of the pretense most players had of gaming mastery. And in the truest way of the ninja, the more difficult the challenge the more satisfying it was for those who rose to defeat it. If game skills were transferable, any players who passed this test would have been able to beat everything else they played on the first attempt, upside down, blindfolded, while assassinating a feudal lord with their controller cable.
1987 | Konami | Arcade
Contra! Woo! Right now, you’re either asking, “What?” or your fingers just finished flexing the Konami code. This was a game so hard that multiplying our lives by ten didn’t feel like cheating, but was taken as a basic survival mechanic. Bill and Lance were the world’s most violently single-minded Time Lords.
This was the standard of difficulty back when we didn’t know better. When being slaughtered seventy billion times on the third level just meant you were getting value for money. And when you could finally dance through the incoming fire like a bullet ballet to shoot out an alien heart, you felt like you’d really achieved something. It’s not like any of us wanted to learn a second language or musical instrument in the same amount of time, anyway.
2003 | Amusement Vision | GC
F-Zero GX wasn’t a game, it was a feeling, an instant of pure velocity that has never been replicated. We can only assume Nintendo hired neurologists to wire the exact edge of human reaction time into their hyperfast hovermotors, tuning it one perfect sliver of speed below impossible, so that we could bridge that gap with our own breathless piloting skills.
The game would slam you into an explosion faster than you could blink, and it would always be your own fault. You always knew you could do better. First place in this felt better than anything else in the world, because the only activity more adrenalizing, more endorphin-releasing, and more enjoyable than a good game of F-Zero is probably illegal.
Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels
1986 | Nintendo | NES
The original Super Mario Bros. went from Level 1-1 to 8-4. The sequel started at 93-one million and skipped a lot of steps from there. Lost Levels was designed by people who took everyone enjoying one of the most popular games of all time as some kind of personal failure. Your first attempt at The Lost Levels is: press start. Die. Realize that yes, it’s going happen a lot.
This was a sequel to the original in the sense that university is a sequel to high school: you mastered everything that went before and assumed you were prepared to work on nothing else but getting through the next few levels for the next four years. If you arrived expecting to just have fun, you were in serious trouble. If modern games made sequels like this, their sales would be exponential decay curves, but anyone who beat the fifth entry in anything would actually be the Last Starfighter for real.
1980 | Stern Electronics | Arcade, Atari 2600, Atari 5200
The true home of difficulty is the arcade, where the machines were literally paid to kill you as quickly and entertainingly as possible. They had to get another quarter out of your pocket, but just saying “YOU DIED” as soon as you started would be more of an artistic essay on capitalism than a game. Which is why they needed you to believe you had a chance. And few games tested that belief like Berzerk.
Berzerk put players into an electrified instant-death maze full of bullet-firing robots to be chased by the indestructible “Evil Otto,” and was still so fun we kept going back.
1987 | The NetHack DevTeam | PC
There are now so many indie rogue-like games that anyone designing a game in this genre might as well be programming a steam engine. NetHack was grandchild of the original Rogue, and remains one of the most challenging and time-consuming games ever designed.
If the Matrix ever happens, and the machines enslave us all in a virtual reality city, they’ll still have to keep it running for at least a decade before it consumes more gamer lifespans than the quest for the Amulet of Yendor. But both enforce the basic rule that if you die, that’s it, game over.
2011 | Zachtronics Industries | PC
SpaceChem looks like a chemistry lesson and an electronics textbook had a child and raised it to take revenge on all video gaming distractions from pure study. But it’s smarter fun than Professor X enjoying every game of chess in the world simultaneously. The chemical-combining game is so addictive you can be playing it even when your computer is switched off, your brain churning chemical paths and combinations to crack the next level.
It’s the wonderful opposite to the old nightmare difficulty of Discworld-style games, those point-and-click journeys into madness where no sane mind could ever have guessed the right item combination. In SpaceChem, every step makes perfect sense. And getting them all in the right order feels like decrypting enlightenment.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
2012 | Firaxis Games | X360, PS3, PC
XCOM is every kind of hard: brutal turn-based conflict, resource management, fractious funders who can’t fight their way out of a conference room but will happily destroy your budget (and the entire planet). And just when you’re getting everything under control, it springs appallingly powerful new enemy types. Usually just after you move a soldier one step too far on the final turn.
Best of all, it’s now canon that XCOM was too difficult even for XCOM. They failed, which is why the sequel sees us resisting aliens who’ve already invaded and dominated our planet. And we’ll enjoy every second of it. No matter how many times we have to restart and replay it.