The PlayStation is fondly remembered for its classic collection of revolutionary games, advancements in 3D technology, and CD player functionality that let you easily play the Men in Black soundtrack whenever you wanted. As you’ve probably guessed from the title of this article, though, it’s also the home of some of the hardest games of the ’90s.
The PlayStation may have helped move us out of the arcade era and its notorious difficulty levels, but with the challenges of 3D game design came a new set of in-game challenges that tested a generation of gamers in ways that they simply were not prepared for.
Even after we’ve grown accustomed to the machinations and expectations of 3D game design all these years later, I suspect that many modern gamers would struggle to beat the 15 hardest PlayStation One games ever.
15. Crash Bandicoot
One of the funniest things about the release of 2017’s Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy was watching everyone suddenly remember that the Crash Bandicoot games were absurdly difficult.
Despite their linear design, the Crash Bandicoot games demanded a level of platforming perfection that proved to be elusive enough at a time when modern video game graphics, cameras, and controls made the remakes of the Crash Bandicoot games much more accessible but was nearly impossible to achieve in the early days of PlayStation gaming.
The later Crash Bandicoot games made things slightly easier, but the first title’s combination of intentionally challenging obstacles and a few questionable design decisions make it one of the most truly difficult games of its era.
14. Fear Effect
The original Fear Effect games are awkward to play today for a lot of reasons (casual racism and strange “softcore” cutscenes, for instance), but if you find yourself struggling to make it through these titles, it’s not just because they haven’t aged especially well. Fear Effect was an incredibly difficult game even for its time.
Essentially a blend of Resident Evil-like controls, point and click adventure puzzles, and awkward stealth sequences, Fear Effect is like a Hall of Fame for the most challenging and infuriating gameplay concepts of its era.
Fear Effect 2 might even be harder than the first game, but the nod here goes to the original for featuring one of the most uniquely difficult gaming experiences the PlayStation has to offer.
22 years after its release, I’m still convinced that Driver is a prank. How else can you explain developer Reflections Interactive’s decision to make this game’s tutorial mission one of the hardest levels in video game history?
Driver’s first level requires you to complete a series of complex maneuvers in a confined space while racing against a way too short time limit. To make matters worse, the game often fails to recognize when you’ve properly completed a maneuver, which means that you might not pass the test even if you’ve somehow mastered the game’s most complex movies the first time you’re ever asked to perform them.
If you’re one of the many who has never beaten Driver’s opening level, you may be shocked to find that there are difficulty spikes later in the game that are even more difficult than its notorious opener. At least this game is still better than the sequel.
12. Oddworld: Abe’s Odyssey
Oddworld’s unique puzzles and strange core mechanics would have made it challenging enough for players just trying to figure out what’s expected of them, but this game goes one step further by employing some of the most unforgiving level design tactics in PlayStation history.
Your margin for error in this game rarely rises above zero as gunfire and traps constantly threaten to end your fun. While that kind of unforgiving gameplay makes sense in something like a bullet hell title, it can be frustrating to work with in a puzzle game where your trial and error attempts are hindered by an additional series of wrong moves.
Oddworld: Abe’s Odyssey is clearly meant to be a difficult game, but knowing that doesn’t make it feel any less unforgiving.
As strange as it may seem given the evolution of the franchise over the years, the original Rayman is by far one of the hardest games of the ‘90s and arguably one of the hardest platformer games ever made.
Unlike other platformers that challenge you with rewarding gameplay that requires precision movements, most of Rayman’s challenges can be best described as “bulls***.” The slippery slopes and spiked pits spread generously throughout levels might kill you, but the game’s bizarre enemy spawning system that makes it practically impossible to anticipate their placement certainly will.
If Rayman isn’t one of the hardest games ever made its certainty among the most frustrating.
10. Vagrant Story
For years, fans have called Vagrant Story one of the most underrated PlayStation games and one of the most overlooked RPGs ever made. It deserves both those titles, but I think Vagrant Story also deserves to be remembered as an absurdly difficult epic.
Initially, the challenge of Vagrant Story comes from learning its unique combat system that often leaves you feeling helpless. Even after you’ve made sense of the basics, Vagrant Story’s brutal bosses, clever traps, and even “basic” enemies will constantly make you wonder whether or not you can ever really master what this game throws at you.
Like Dark Souls, Vagrant Story’s difficulty is very much part of what makes the game work as well as it does. Appreciating that doesn’t make the game any easier, though.
9. Heart of Darkness
Never heard of Heart of Darkness? I’m not surprised. Even for its time, this was a relatively obscure title that is now fondly remembered for its visuals, excellent story, and interesting gameplay. Mostly, though, Heart of Darkness is remembered for its nearly unrivaled difficulty spikes.
In fact, Heart of Darkness could give Driver a run for its money in the battle between games with the most absurdly difficult opening levels. Enemies swarm you in this opening section like you’re playing a bullet hell shooter, but the game controls like a particularly clunky FMV puzzler. Even if you know what you’re doing, it’s incredibly difficult to respond to the on-screen action in time.
Things get slightly better from there, but I’d still say that most gamers will not have the patience for this game’s labyrinth levels, bewildering puzzles, and often painful controls.
To be fair to Blasto, this PS1 action game was probably released a generation before technology could properly support it. In another timeline, it might have turned out to be as good as the first Ratchet and Clank game. To be even fairer to Blasto, it starred the late Phil Hartman who always went above and beyond for everything he did, including the voice work for this game.
With all of that out of the way, let’s focus on Blasto’s real reputation as one of the PS1’s most reliable sources of broken controllers. It’s bad enough that this game’s slow movements and dodgy camera make even basic sections challenging, but the fact that many levels have no barriers to speak of means you spend most of your time falling to your death while trying to complete even simple jumps.
This is a truly painful gaming experience that snared many unsuspecting gamers with its charm and front-loaded good ideas.
While not the most difficult 2D shoot ‘em up ever made, Einhander was high-profile enough to lure in many early PS1 adopters who were completely unprepared for its retro difficulty level.
Rather than throw as many enemies at you as possible and call it a day, Einhander increases the health pool of the average enemy while requiring you to navigate some truly devastating death zones. The impact of that design decision really comes thorugh in the game’s boss fights which task you with taking down massive foes who employ complex and shifting attack strategies.
This is a truly great game that stands the test of time, but don’t let its looks and sounds convince you that Einhander is anything less than a classic example of “NES hard.”
6. Irritating Stick
Yes, the game’s title gives its difficulty level away, but to truly appreciate how frustrating Irritating Stick is, you’ve got to play it for yourself.
Irritating Stick is like a blend of Super Monkey Ball and the board game Operation. It requires you to guide a small ball through a series of themed mazes that leave you almost no room to safely maneuver. To make matters worse, you have to race against a constantly ticking clock that’s absurd restrictions essentially require you to truly master this game within a few levels. Of course, true mastery may not be possible for most players as each level seems to add a new wrinkle that makes you wonder how you will ever get through in time.
Oh, and I have to give a special shout-out to the game’s announcer who screams “Watch out, you’re too close to the edge!” whenever you’re near the game’s barriers. Yes, I know I’m too close to the edge, now kindly leave me the **** alone.
5. Incredible Crisis
Remember that scene in Metal Gear Solid when you had to mash the Circle button to survive the torture device until it felt like your wrist was going to break? Well, imagine that scene stretched out across most of a full game. That’s Incredible Crisis.
Incredible Crisis is a collection of eclectic minigames that often require you to mash buttons as fast as humanly possible. Actually, I take that back. No human can be expected to survive this gauntlet of finger destroying terror. Oh, and if a minigame doesn’t require you to furiously mash buttons, that means it’s only going to destroy you in some other strange way.
The bizarre set of skills required to beat this game means that it may even frustrate gamers who otherwise seek such challenges.
4. Tomb Raider 3
Yes, the first two Tomb Raider games are difficult. However, part of their challenge (especially today) stems from their ambitious design which was often ahead of what you could reasonably expect from video game technology at the time.
Tomb Raider 3 is on a different (difficulty) level, though. Even if the game didn’t add a ridiculous number of spikes, boulders, pits, and traps waiting to end your run before you know they’re there, its bewildering level design that tried to recreate the experience of having no idea what you’re doing in the middle of a dark tomb has broken even diehard series fans.
Despite its better moments and incredible pedigree, it’s genuinely hard to recommend this game to anyone but masochists. I genuinely don’t know if it’s possible to beat this game without a strategy guide or walkthrough.
3. Nightmare Creatures
There’s a degree to which early PlayStation games were fundamentally unprepared to handle the challenges of 3D action/adventure game design. That means that any additional difficulties added to that underlying level of challenge make some games of that era nearly impossible to properly play today.
I guess that’s just my way of saying that Nightmare Creatures is indeed the nightmare it bills itself as. What would already be a challenging romp through a hellish world of monsters is made that much worse by the presence of an adrenaline system that effectively serves as a time limit and forces you to kill enemies as quickly as possible despite often being unprepared for them in every conceivable way.
Some games throw you into the water to teach you how to swim. Nightmare Creatures holds your head under the water as you lean because it fundamentally doesn’t want you to succeed.
2. Tenchu: Stealth Assassins
The “fall” of the stealth genre from mainstream gaming in recent years has long disappointed genre fans who rank such games among their favorites of all-time. Yet, it has to be acknowledged that even the best stealth games were often difficult in a way that could immediately dissuade even tested gamers.
While difficulty is a given in many stealth titles, Tenchu sometimes abuses the privilege by going out of your way to remind you that you are weak. Maybe it’s because many of us were just excited to play a game where we were a badass ninja assassin, but the way that Tenchu required you to play it safe and employ trial-and-error tactics to survive its various challenges left many burying their hands in their face as they tried to understand what they were doing wrong.
Even after you appreciated Tenchu for what it was and even discovered what the game expected of you, it always found a way to force you to make that little mistake that would instantly end a run.
1. King’s Field
Is it cliche to name a game from eventual Dark Souls developer FromSoftware as the hardest PS1 title ever? For the sake of argument, let’s say it is. That doesn’t change the fact that even Dark Souls veterans will find themselves surprised by how difficult this game truly is.
King’s Field was pretty revolutionary for its time, which means that many gamers simply didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing when they booted up this title. What the most patient PS1 gamers discovered, though, is that King’s Field is basically a rough draft of Dark Souls combined with an especially difficult dungeon crawler. Even if the game’s ambitious 3D visuals and the jank they produce didn’t create additional challenges, this title’s brutal combat, a parade of traps, confounding controls, deliberately slow pace, and complete lack of direction even made hardcore PC RPG fans wonder what this game was and why it hated them so much.
King’s Field doesn’t hate you, but it’s a testament to what the game was going for that it’s both clearly an early look at the next 25 years of gaming and a title that will likely still challenge generations to come.