There are a lot of reasons to love the Sega Genesis, but in my mind, the console’s best feature was its library of arcade-like titles. At a time when the idea of playing arcade games at home involved winning the lottery, the Genesis gifted gamers with title after title that captured the spirit of those unforgettable experiences.
As Genesis fans know, though, that library of arcade-like games meant that the average Genesis title was often as brutally difficult as the arcade games of that era that set standards for hard video games that some fans argue (much like the games themselves) haven’t been beat. I won’t reignite a console war here, but if you were a ’90s gamer looking for the biggest challenges, you usually found them on the Genesis.
But which Genesis game was the toughest of them all? Well, there’s a good chance retro gamers everywhere know exactly what our number one pick is, but it’s joined by a host of titles that most of us probably wouldn’t stand a chance of beating to this day.
15. The Adventures of Batman and Robin
Not to be confused with the excellent SNES game of the same name, Adventures of Batman and Robin for Sega Genesis was actually a fast-paced side-scroller similar to the Metal Slug series. It’s about as awesome as that description makes it sound, and I highly recommend you play it if you’ve never done so.
Just know that this game’s difficulty level is as surprising as the quality of the game itself. What you’re basically dealing with here is a side-scrolling shooter that incorporates the hardest elements of a particularly tough side-scroller beat-em-up. Remarkably, the game proves to be even more difficult than that description may lead you to believe thanks to some surprisingly long levels that often require you to memorize complex patterns. Oh, and the bosses are absurdly tough across the board.
I would love to see a sequel to this idea, but maybe that game could turn down the difficulty just a couple of notches.
14. Robocop vs. The Terminator
While this game is arguably best remembered for its gore (enemies explode in a way that would make Paul Verhoeven’s squibs guy proud), I feel like its true legacy should be its simply ridiculous difficulty level.
Much like the Super Star Wars series, the problem with this one is that enemies can absorb a hilarious amount of damage before dying. I have no idea how even basic thugs can eat so many bullets, but the fact that they die in comically violent ways is often the only thing keeping you from throwing your controller out of the window in frustration at the sight of another goon with the health pool of a miniboss.
If this game wasn’t such a fun love letter to two great action franchises, I highly doubt anyone would find the patience to finish it.
13. Phantasy Star 2
I struggled with whether or not to include this one. It’s not challenging in that “arcade” way that so many Sega Genesis games are, so there’s a chance you could play it for a while without realizing what you’ve gotten yourself into.
You’re in for a rude awakening the first time you enter a dungeon, though. Phantasy Star 2’s dungeons have to rank high among the most confusing labyrinths ever constructed in an RPG. Most dungeons are either shaped like Final Fantasy X’s skill tree or something MC Escher might sketch on opium. It’s not like you really have time to figure them out organically either as enemies are tough enough to wipe you out while you’re just trying to understand where to go next. It makes grinding for levels a near necessity simply so you’re able to survive long enough to find a dungeon’s exit through trial and error.
While modern walkthroughs make this game much more manageable, trying to beat this one the “original” way with or without the cryptic hints in some of the game’s instruction books will wear you down and drive you mad.
12. Streets Of Rage 3
We’re going to talk about this a few times during this countdown (just you wait), but one of the most interesting things about the Sega Genesis era is how often Sega decided to make a Genesis game more difficult for its U.S. release. The reasons varied, but many major U.S. Genesis titles were significantly more difficult than their international counterparts.
Few games suffered (or benefited, based on your perspective) from that difficulty bump as noticeably as Streets of Rage 3. I can only imagine how confused Sega Genesis fans were when they discovered that the third Streets of Rage game was noticeably harder than the games that came before it. The developers basically utilized every difficulty bump trick in the book for this one, and it makes the game nearly unenjoyable at times.
You can’t even beat this game if you play it on “Easy” as it just ends on Stage 5! It’s a hilarious reminder of how unforgiving old-school game developers could be.
11. Fatal Labyrinth
The pure dungeon crawler genre fell in and out of popularity during the 8 and 16-bit console days, but if you do find a console dungeon crawler from that era, you can pretty much guarantee that it’s going to be ridiculously difficult.
Few games embody that philosophy as well as Fatal Labyrinth. Essentially an early roguelike, Fatal Labyrinth confused many players with its complex mechanics that often left your hero feeling woefully unprepared for the challenges ahead and left the player feeling uncertain as to why they just couldn’t seem to kill even basic enemies.
The thing about this game, though, is that enemies swarm you so consistently and aggressively that you really don’t have time to figure out what’s happening before you’re quickly overwhelmed. For that matter, I’m pretty sure you could have designed this game’s mechanics and still struggled to master the unique dances required to even survive even early encounters.
10. Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi
While I don’t believe I’m going to settle the debate over which Shinobi game is hardest here today, I’d like to suggest that we all agree that Shadow Dancer at its hardest difficulty levels is easily one of the most punishing action games of its era.
Technically an adaptation of an unrelated arcade game called Shadow Dancer, this title advances the spirit of Shinobi’s punishing difficulty thanks to some customizable difficulty levels that allow you to make this game nearly impossible. Think Shinobi is hard? Well, imagine trying to beat Shinobi without shurikens while facing a small army of enemies as challenging as some bosses in other games.
I’ll go with Revenge of Shinobi if we’re talking about the best Shinobi game, but this one deserves a nod as the hardest.
9. Ecco the Dolphin
I grew up a Nintendo kid, but I love Sega, and I’ll always respect the way that they made the early days of gaming a much more interesting place. That being said, I will always hold a grudge against them for making Ecco the Dolphin one of the most promoted Genesis games and how that promotion encouraged young Nintendo fans everywhere to test the Genesis waters by playing this absolute nightmare.
Ecco the Dolphin highlights most of the elements that make underwater levels so annoying in the first place. You’ve constantly got to manage your character’s breath while navigating maze-like levels that Phantasy Star 2 thinks are unintuitive. In case you weren’t certain this game’s developers hate you, some levels even throw in a time limit so suffocating that I’m pretty sure you can hear the designers laughing on this title’s excellent soundtrack.
Simply put, Ecco should be on any shortlist of the most frustrating games ever made even if you don’t define it as “hard” based on what that word means to you.
I suspect that the developers of Gaiares looked at every other nearly impossible shooter title of this era and thought “What can we do to really make fans hate us?” Enter the “TOZ System.”
TOZ basically replaces traditional powerups in these games with a mechanic that requires you to “siphon” abilities from enemies. That means that the abilities you rely on to kill many of those enemies in the first place have to be gathered from the enemies you’re trying to kill. Mind you, acquiring these powerups leaves you somewhat vulnerable, so you’re constantly required to keep track of your current and desired power while trying to stay alive through waves of projectiles.
Even without that system, the speed and design of Gaiares would make it one of the most difficult entries into a genre synonymous with experiences that demand superhuman reflexes.
7. Kid Chameleon
Any game can throw a tidal wave of enemies at you and call themselves difficult. It takes a special kind of game to break you on a spiritual level while offering an otherwise standard (and quite good) platforming experience. That’s what Kid Chameleon brings to the table.
Kid Chameleon‘s 100+ levels would be objectively impressive if it weren’t for the fact that there is no password or save system in the original title. That means you’ve somehow got to beat this absolutely massive game in one long sitting. While there are ways to skip large segments of the game (you only need to beat about half its levels), the fact that there’s almost no in-game indication of the best path forward (aside from confusing instruction book guides) means that most gamers just assumed that something had gone horribly wrong and they just bought a game they couldn’t actually beat.
What’s really impressive is that even modern walkthroughs do little to diminish the spectacle of this game’s confusing structure and the mechanical challenges of its most demanding levels.
6. MUSHA: Metallic Uniframe Super Hybrid Armor
Along with having one of the best names in Sega Genesis history, MUSHA is widely considered to be one of the rarest Genesis titles ever made. Unless you’re a glutton for pain on the level of a human in the Hellraiser universe, though, I can safely advise you to save your money and resist the urge to seek out an original copy of this one.
MUSHA is relentless in a way that even the most challenging top-down shooters of the ‘80s and ‘90s have to pay respect to. There aren’t a lot of gimmicks that separate this from other examples of the genre, but you don’t really need gimmicks when you’ve got a game that is fundamentally difficult in ways that only the best entries into this genre can be.
Call this the resident “SHMUP” entry if you must, but I think that there’s something about this game that just feels crueler than even some of its most infamous companions.
5. Comix Zone
Can a game be too difficult? The answer to that question is obviously debatable, but in the case of Comix Zone, I feel like we may have one of the rare examples of a title that’s difficulty undermines so many of the things that should make this game legendary.
As much as I love Comix Zone for its unique visual style that sees you jump between comic book panels, I can’t think back on this game without eventually remembering how its difficultly makes it unenjoyable most of the time The idea here is that you’re a regular guy in a comic book world who has to defend themselves however they can. That’s a neat concept in theory, but your paper-thin defenses mean that you can die in an instant despite the fact that you actually do have a health bar. To make matters worse, you actually lose health whenever you attack an enemy. I don’t know who the developers hate more: their protagonist or the people playing this game.
I know some defend this one for its comical difficulty, but I feel like Comix Zone could have been so much more if its relatively short length wasn’t hidden by mechanics designed to quite literally punish you for playing it.
4. Target Earth
Target Earth looks like a standard shooter, but this one earns its high spot on this list by virtue of some truly befuddling (some would say “bad”) controls that make this game harder than it arguably needed to be.
Imagine playing a Contra game where you move much slower, can only jump in certain areas, and tend to have to rely on a weak machine gun that needs to be reloaded from time to time. Before you’re done dreaming up that fresh hell, be sure to roughly double the number of enemies and death traps you’d expect to see in each level. Oh, and there’s a difficulty spike around the second or third level that essentially demands you to have already mastered the game by that point. That’s roughly what Target Earth brings to the table.
While I understand that this game is trying to replicate some of the awkwardness of controlling a giant mech rather than a more agile individual, I also understand that many players will need to rely on the built-in invincibility code just to see the end of this otherwise great game.
3. The Immortal
I really tried to resist talking about The Immortal again after including it on a list of the hardest NES games, but how can you talk about the most difficult Genesis titles without giving this one a nod?
The Immortal is much better on Genesis than it is on NES, but this title’s troll gameplay remains roughly the same. The Immortal is still a game where even the most seemingly innocent step can mean your immediate death. This game recreates the fun of walking through a minefield, and while I appreciate that going through a mythical dungeon would probably not be a walk in the park, there comes a point when you’ve got to ask yourself “Why am I playing this?”
I don’t know if we’ll ever see a game quite like The Immortal again. It practically exists to boil your blood whenever you play or think about it.
2. Chakan: The Forever Man
Any young Genesis fan needs to know the name Ed Annunziata. As a famous producer reportedly obsessed with ensuring kids didn’t beat games too quickly, he’s partially responsible for some of the hardest Sega games ever made.
Chakan is rightfully considered to be his masterpiece in that pursuit. Years later, I can’t quite tell if this game is a brilliant piece of game design or a complete failure. It’s this strange blend of Mega Man-esque action and a more methodical adventure/puzzle title that’s stiff controls and limited defensive options often leave you woefully unprepared to best even the most basic enemies. The game clearly doesn’t want to send you on a power trip, but I’m not sure the developers intended for you to feel quite as helpless as you so often are.
The ways in which Chakan is so difficult make it the likely breaking point for many gamers who otherwise crave such experiences. It’s difficult in ways that have never been replicated, which I both love and hate about it.
1. Contra: Hard Corps
The Contra series is obviously synonymous with difficulty, which I actually feel is a bit of an unfair reputation. Yes, these games are tough, but much like Dark Souls, boiling the series down to that element means you often overlook the ways that difficulty level enhances so many of the other things that this franchise does well.
Then there’s Contra: Hard Corps. That game can jump right into the fire of the rage it inspires in me whenever I think about it.
Hard Corps is a departure from every Contra game that came before (and most that have been released since). It let you carry multiple weapons, it featured four playable characters not previously seen in the series, its story allowed you to choose between branching paths, and it’s actually closer to a bullet hell shooter than a traditional Contra game.
As you’ve probably guessed, it’s that last element that earns Hard Corps a place on this list. I don’t care if the word “hard” is literally in the title: nothing can prepare you for how fast Hard Corps really is. The game’s speed is mind-blowing and requires you to stick to safe zones smaller than anything you’ve likely seen outside of rarely released arcade games built specifically to challenge veteran bullet hell players.
If you’re one of the many who couldn’t beat Contra on NES without cheating, let me tell you that you haven’t seen anything until you’ve played Hard Corps. Even the “Contra isn’t hard” crowd pays homage to this game.