The most fascinating thing about the history of difficult PC games isn’t necessarily the difficulty of individual titles but rather the diversity of difficult experiences the platform has gifted us throughout the years.
From meme games specifically designed to make you rage quit to underrated platformers and punishing puzzle titles, the history of difficult PC games essentially doubles as a fairly comprehensive look at all the ways developers have creatively punished us for daring to think we were ever good enough to beat their cruelest creations.
What are the most difficult PC games ever made, though? Well, answering that question is only slightly easier than actually playing the games on such a list, so in the interest of honoring the hardest PC games ever, we’re offering an extended look at the games that made you toss your mouse and keyboard in the air and briefly consider the benefits of smashing the family computer. We’re also focusing on games that were initially released exclusively for various PC platforms (or at least games that weren’t simply ported to PC later on) in order to properly pay homage to the truly unique ways our personal computers have tortured us throughout the years.
The first PC game many of us probably played dominated computer classrooms, ate up more free time than many of us will ever care to admit, and ultimately confounded a generation of gamers who desperately tried to see its victory screen.
That’s what’s impressive about Minesweeper. It’s ultimately a pretty challenging puzzle game that becomes borderline absurd at high-difficulty settings, but I’m just amazed that Microsoft was bold enough to make such a confusing, complicated, and difficult game one of the most recognizable early Windows experiences.
24. Dota 2
This is a bit of a tricky entry, largely because I’m hesitant to highlight PC multiplayer games in this discussion about difficult titles. Obviously, it’s pretty hard to win a match against some of the best competitive multiplayer players in the world.
What separates Dota 2, though, is its incredible learning curve. Yes, top-rank Dota play is incredibly difficult, but the barrier to entry in this game is so thick that it’s amazing most new players even stick around to try to learn it.
23. Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear
If you’re only familiar with the Rainbow Six series because of Siege (which, to be fair, is a challenging game in its own right), then let me just warn you now that you’re probably in for a world of hurt if you ever dare to try to play the first few entries in this long-running franchise.
The only word that properly describes Rogue Spear‘s difficulty is “unforgiving.” You have to be nearly perfect in your planning, aim, map, knowledge, and execution of all of those elements if you’re going to have any chance of completing this game’s most difficult missions. Don’t even get me started on those stealth sections…
22. Return of the Obra Dinn
There are quite a few challenging “logic puzzle” games on the PC, but what separates this truly incredible experience from some of its immediate competition is the way that the game’s time manipulation mechanics require you to cross-reference nearly every piece of information that you acquire with every other piece of information you acquire.
Yes, you can make educated guesses in Obra Dinn, but that little piece of freedom just shows you how complex this game’s puzzles really are. Return of the Obra Dinn doesn’t just make you think; it demands a different kind of thought process than you’ll find in any other game or any other kind of storytelling experience.
21. Kerbal Space Program
It’s not hard to enjoy Kerbal Space Program. It is, after all, a fairly goofy game about building spaceships where half the fun comes from watching your plans quite literally blow up in your face. However, have you ever tried actually playing Kerbal Space Program well?
If you have, then you probably already know that Kerbal Space Program is one of the most complicated and mechanically advanced PC games ever made. Building a fully functional rocket in this game’s nightmare world of physics and miniature components is only slightly less difficult than being asked to build a rocket in real life.
20. Hotline Miami
Hotline Miami is widely recognized for its all-time great soundtrack and absurd violence, but don’t let this game’s popularity somehow convince you that it is not one of the most unforgiving and mentally exhausting action games ever made.
While each level in Hotline Miami is essentially a puzzle, few puzzle games also demand perfect aim or the ability to pick up a makeshift weapon at just the right moment in order to salvage your plan of attack. Few gaming experiences match the feeling of getting a Hotline Miami level just right.
19. Dead Cells
Dead Cells is so much fun to play that you might forget that it’s absolutely one of the most challenging action games of the last few years. Of course, that reality will rise up and smack you in the face the moment that you dare to try to beat the game’s later levels.
Even if you “grind” your way to the top of Dead Cells and unlock every weapon, attribute, and skill, you’ll still struggle to topple this game’s most devious challenges. By that point, though, you’ll likely be too committed to seeing it through to realize that you’re actively being beaten down.
FTL certainly wasn’t the first roguelike game, but this crowdfunded title elevated the genre with its incredible sci-fi setting, brilliant structure, and intense strategy-focused combat sequences. It’s also the game that showed millions just how difficult roguelike games could be.
Years later, it’s easy to argue that FTL is still one of the hardest roguelike games out there. You can do everything right in this game (which is certainly no easy feat in and of itself) and still instantly lose the “perfect run” thinks to one of a hundred random little things that can go wrong.
Imagine trying to pass an advanced chemistry test while simultaneously attempting to re-wire the electricity in your home. That’s roughly what it’s like to play SpaceChem: one of the most complicated puzzle games ever conceived.
I’d say learning to play SpaceChem is half the battle, but the thing that is so interesting about this game is that you never really entirely learn how to play it. You just learn to roll with the punches and make the most out of the various challenges this game uses to constantly keep you on your toes.
At the risk of relying on too many comparisons, I’ll say that the best way to imagine what it’s like to play Flywrench is to imagine trying to play Super Hexagon and Super Meat Boy at the same time without messing up in either. That’s roughly the Flywrench experience.
What’s amazing about this game is that even those with lightning-fast reflexes aren’t guaranteed to be good at it. Victory in Flywrench comes down to a brutal combination of reflexes, map memorization, quick reads, and the kind of persistence that few games would ever dare demand from their players.
15. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl
Somewhere between a survival horror game and a simulation shooter lies S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl: one of the most original, terrifying, and yes, brutally difficult PC games ever made.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl convincingly sells the horrors of its setting by burdening you with the knowledge that you could indeed die at any time. If this game’s atmosphere, story, and tone don’t make you feel depressed, trying to navigate its toughest sections will probably do the trick.
14. Dark Seed
While it’s true that the best reason to play Dark Seed is its incredible horror style (which is actually based on the art of H. R. Giger), the second-best reason to play Dark Seed is the desire to experience as much digital pain as possible.
Dark Seed’s puzzles are hard enough on their own, but this game takes things one step too far by utilizing a time limit system that affords you almost no time to stop and smell the roses. You could argue this game would have been better off overall without that time limit system, but it certainly wouldn’t be as notoriously difficult as it very much is.
13. Devil Daggers
If you’ve never played Devil Daggers, please be sure to find the time to do so. This absolutely incredible FPS experience effectively reimagines classic shooters as a kind of arena action game that places you in the middle of a small circular stage that is quickly swarmed by the most horrifying foes you’ll ever dare to imagine.
Devil Daggers is basically what you’d get if you used mods to turn Quake into a bullet hell shooter. Ther are safe zones in this game, but good luck spotting them in a 3D, first-person setting while you’re actively trying not to die at every single moment.
Even at a time when point-and-click adventure puzzles were designed to be as difficult as possible, Discworld quickly gained a reputation for featuring arguably the most challenging collection of puzzles that genre has ever seen.
Discworld embraces the outlandishness of its source material by tasking you with solving puzzles that quite honestly defy any logic that we mere mortals are used to adhering to. Just when you think you may have possibly found a solution to one part of its devious puzzles, you suddenly realize that you haven’t begun to appreciate the maddening scope of what this game truly expects from you.
11. 1001 Spikes
1001 Spikes isn’t just a throwback to the golden era of “NES hard.” It’s a hall-of-fame worthy collection of all the mechanics, ideas, and venomous design decisions that made those games so difficult (with a few new tricks thrown in).
From bottomless pits to invisible blocks (and yes, a couple of spikes), 1001 Spikes is an angel to some and a demon to others. It really all depends on how fondly you remember the years of your youth that you spent dying to the cruelest 8-bit titles ever made.
10. Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines
In a previous article about a nearly impossible dungeon crawler called The Immortal, I talked about how that game tries to make you walk a very specific path to avoid its various death traps. Well, Commandos utilizes a similar trick with one fascinating twist: you have to blaze your own path to victory.
Commandos is a game of inches. Every move you make has to be carefully considered because each could trigger a mistake down the line that is nearly impossible to recover from. That level of freedom is both incredibly frustrating and the thing that keeps you convinced that you can eventually get it right if you hang in long enough.
9. Gabriel Knight 3
This is another case where I’m not actually sure how much Gabriel Knight 3 deserves this “honor” given that it features some of the most illogical, frustrating, confusing, and often downright unenjoyable puzzle designs in adventure game history.
Having said that, I ultimately see this as the final boss for genre fans. No matter how good you think you are at solving the most confounding adventure game puzzles ever crafted, I’m willing to bet that this game will leave you seriously considering downloading a walkthrough and calling it a day. This game’s “cat puzzle” alone has broken the strongest souls.
8. Darkest Dungeon
Moment to moment, Darkest Dungeon is difficult in all of the ways that you’d expect a roguelike dungeon crawler to be difficult. Tough enemies, minimal resources, incredible RNG swings…the gang is all here.
What separates this title are the mechanics you have to deal with in-between those dungeon dives. Properly managing your always ailing party of heroes often requires you to make difficult strategic decisions that simultaneously punish greed and pretty much demand it if you’re going to have any chance of reaching this game’s nearly impossible final dungeon.
7. I Wanna Be The Guy
I Wanna Be the Guy is both a throwback to the golden age of difficult games and a kind of experiment in how difficult you can make a game without it technically being impossible. It succeeds in both endeavors.
There are many PC games like I Wanna Be The Guy, but this is the title that alerted many of us to the wide world of these indie experiences that are designed to bring you to your breaking point. It’s one of the ultimate examples of how the PC gaming community has been pushing the limits of difficult retro gaming experiences for quite some time now.
6. Dwarf Fortress
Any discussion about Dwarf Fortress‘ difficulty has to eventually address the debate over whether or not you should see this as the kind of game you’re meant to “beat.” For millions of players, Dwarf Fortress is really about the process of figuring out how to do your best in one of the most mechanically complicated games ever.
That brutal learning curve certainly makes Dwarf Fortress worthy of consideration for this particular list, but it’s the “endgame” that ultimately makes this experience so special. Much like Kerbal Space Program, it’s when you try to succeed at Dwarf Fortress that you appreciate how challenging this fascinating blend of role-playing and world-building really is. Dwarf Fortress is arguably the deepest rabbit hole in video game history.
5. Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy
There have been quite a few incredibly difficult “meme” games in the past, but for my money, none have come close to topping this masterpiece.
Getting Over It‘s controls are ultimately the source of its legendarily frustrating gameplay, but the thing that will always define this game is that feeling you get when you realize a single wrong move can reset all the progress you’ve made so far. Few other games in history have combined persistence and mechanical challenges quite as well as this one.
4. X-COM: UFO Defense
There’s no denying that modern XCOM games are incredibly difficult, and there’s no denying that those who are able to beat modern XCOM games deserve a firm pat on the back. That being said, no modern XCOM game will ever compare to the difficulty of X-COM: UFO Defense.
The thing that separates UFO Defense from its competition in this category is the way that it demands you master and constantly consider a daunting number of gameplay mechanics. There is almost no room for error in this incredible game, and you probably won’t even know that you’ve made a mistake until it’s far too late to do anything but start over again.
3. Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy
Is Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy a troll game? Yes, yes it is. However, that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be on any shortlist of the most difficult games ever made.
I highly doubt a developer will ever dare to construct puzzles as complicated as the ones featured in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Part of the “appeal” of this game is actually the way that its nearly impossible logic puzzles accentuate the ridiculous, yet despondent, nature of its humor. Just be sure to bring a towel.
I’ll just come out and say that there’s never been a rhythm game as difficult as osu! With no assistance from a required peripheral instrument, osu! manages to challenge your mechanical abilities like no other entry into this genre has ever dreamed to do.
Honestly, the only thing you really need to know about this game is that some of the top FPS players in the world use it to prepare for competitive tournaments and matches. It’s the purest and most challenging video game reflex test that’s ever been constructed, and it’s hard not to love it for that.
1. Wizardry IV: The Return of Werdna
If it seems strange to put an RPG at the top of a list of the hardest PC games ever, that’s because you don’t know Wizardry IV.
Wizardry IV is a unique dungeon crawler where you’re essentially cast as a villain trying to work your way out of Hell. Actually, the best way to describe this game is just that. Hell. From constantly shifting maps to an experience system (or lack thereof) that requires you to beat incredible challenges without being able to consistently rely on your character actually getting stronger, Wizardry IV is quite simply the cruelest game ever made.
Honestly, Wizardry IV’s first room is arguably the most difficult and unintuitive challenge in video game history. From there, things only get worse. It’s an absolute masterpiece in “f*** everything about this” video game design.