In their move from the NES to the SNES, Nintendo and its development partners often relied on using 8-bit games as the basis for 16-bit innovations. While that approach helped move us towards the future of gaming, it also meant that many SNES games felt spiritually similar to NES titles.
That also means that many SNES games retained that arcade-like difficulty that would, in some ways, define over a decade of gaming. While the average SNES game didn’t feature nearly as many of the technical and design hurdles that contributed to some of the most difficult NES games ever made, the console is still the proud home of some of the most enjoyable challenges in video game history.
Whether you fondly remember them when you look back on this era or whether they’ve become the star of your worst gaming nightmares, these are the 15 hardest SNES games ever made:
15. The Lion King
Much like how Disney tucked Mufasa’s devastating death scene into a children’s movie, the SNES version of The Lion King lures you in with the promise of a whimsical adventure and then stabs you in the back as soon as you let your guard down.
The Lion King starts off easy enough (at least relative to other games of this era) and even impresses with its colorful visuals and surprisingly faithful soundtrack. However, most new levels introduce a vicious spike in difficulty that will undoubtedly leave you wondering why you suddenly suck. Then, about halfway through, you’re blindsided by an escape level that’s arguably as challenging as the speeder bike segment in Battletoads due to its use of both front and rear threats rendered in not quite ready 3D technology that makes controls frustratingly unresponsive.
While the latter half of the game steps off the gas just a bit, The Lion King’s challenge roadblocks ensure most young gamers never made it that far.
14. Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts
It’s amazing that Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is at least as difficult as its predecessor considering that its controls are vastly improved and the action is significantly smoother overall.
However, it appears that Capcom felt that since Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts was much more “playable” than Ghosts ‘n Goblins on NES, that meant that they could make the game noticeably more difficult. This sequel features more on-screen enemies and more environmental hazards but the same iconic health system that essentially leaves you with a razor-thin margin for error that might as well be non-existent due to how difficult it is to progress after a single hit.
While this game’s hard mode may be the most difficult challenge on the SNES, I’ll “split the difference” slightly and rightfully refer to this title’s normal mode as one of the most punishing experiences in the history of Nintendo consoles.
13. Battletoads in Battlemaniacs
Truth be told, I debated whether or not to include Battletoads in Battlemaniacs given that the game is probably slightly easier than the NES original. At the very least, it repeats a lot of the original’s best tricks.
However, familiarity does little to diminish just how difficult this game truly is. Once again, the “highlight” of this game’s difficulty is the various vehicle sections that require you to avoid various obstacles while moving at high speeds. The infamous speeder bike section in this sequel is as hard as it ever was, but I have to give a special shout-out to that vertical scroller level that requires you to maneuver between wall spikes that force you into a “safe zone” that’s only about as wide as your character.
I’d consider this the best way to experience Battletoads due to its visual and control improvements, but the game is so difficult that it rides that line between being addictively challengingly and frustratingly cruel.
12. The Simpsons: Bart’s Nightmare
Yes, Bart’s Nightmare is a pretty bad game that suffers from some often awful controls, but it would likely still be remembered as one of the most frustrating SNES games ever made even if it was a bit more refined.
Essentially a collection of “minigame” levels, Bart’s Nightmare forces you to quickly master a series of entirely new scenarios with their own rules. That’s annoying, but what makes this game so noteworthy is that some of the individual levels in this game are as mechanically challenging as they are conceptually confusing. There’s no better example of those concepts than the game’s Indiana Jones tribute level: a bewildering collection of platforms and traps that would still be difficult to figure out even if things weren’t constantly trying to kill you.
This is one of the SNES’ best examples of a game that lures you in with its familiar name and then compensates for a relatively short amount of content by making everything as hard as possible.
11. Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest
Growing up, I don’t really remember hearing many kids talk about how hard the Donkey Kong Country series is. It wasn’t until years later I really started to see more people give this franchise the respect it deserves as the home of some of the most infuriating platformers ever crafted.
Donkey Kong Country 2 is the arguable apex of this franchise’s difficulty curve. Once again, the “problem” here is the variety of the game’s stages. Even if you’re able to keep up with a series of (certainly creative) new challenges, you’ll eventually encounter a new stage that uses an old mechanic but makes things roughly twice as difficult as before. To make matters worse, the mechanics are spaced out in such a way that you basically need to re-learn them while now battling a much more difficult version of the concept.
The good news is that Donkey Kong Country 2 is actually a genuinely well-designed game that encourages you to keep trying even as it mercilessly forces you to doubt your abilities.
10. Earthworm Jim 2
While the original Earthworm Jim is difficult, not even that game can prepare you for how unforgiving Earthworm Jim 2 truly is.
If Earthworm Jim 2 only consisted of its side-scrolling stages, it would still be in the running as one of the harder SNES titles. However, we once again encounter a “Battletoads” scenario where the game’s special vehicle and race sections raise the overall difficulty to such a degree that I honestly can’t say I’ve ever spoken to anyone who managed to beat this game as a kid or adult without at least relying on emulator save scumming.
Oh, and the fact that some of this game’s most infuriating levels also see you, quite literally, let puppies down every time you fail is an exercise in pure cruelty.
9. Jurassic Park
During the 8 and 16-bit eras, it was relatively easy to buy into the idea that a game was simply impossible. While that distinction was sometimes afforded to action titles that demanded perfect reflexes and pattern recognition, you more often heard it used to describe titles of that era that left you wondering “Where am I going, and what am I supposed to do?”
Few games of that mold are more memorable than Jurassic Park. What starts off as a seemingly simple top-down action game quickly reveals itself to be a labyrinth of puzzles, awkward first-person segments, and enemies that can kill you before you have a chance of figuring out where you’re supposed to go next. It honestly reminds me a little of the notoriously difficult Fester’s Quest for NES. What’s worse is that there are no save points or passwords, which means that you’ve got to beat the whole thing in one lengthy sitting.
I’m actually a little impressed that this much creativity went into a relatively early licensed game, but Jurassic Park is a prime example of the kind of game that essentially demands a walkthrough as even figuring out which direction you’re supposed to walk in is often unintuitive.
8. ActRaiser 2
The original ActRaiser was also fairly difficult, but its blend of platforming, action, and town building is so impressive that you kind of forgive it for its difficulty spikes. For ActRaiser 2, developer Quintet seemingly convinced themselves that the reason people loved the original was because of its challenging side-scrolling levels rather than its variety. At least that’s my best explanation for why they abandoned the town building elements and instead focused on crafting the hardest side-scrolling levels imaginable.
Much to the dismay of many young gamers, they accomplished that mission in such a way that ensures the mere mention of ActRaiser 2 can unlock a treasure trove of repressed gaming memories. Some of this game’s challenges are amplified by its sluggish controls and animations, but much of the difficulty comes down to the level design. From floating platforms to the pit of deaths, ActRaiser 2 is like a hall of fame for every controller breaking concept of its era.
The shame of it is that ActRaiser 2 is really just a few tweaks away from being one of the underrated gems of its time. Instead, the game’s only notable legacy is the crushing weight of its difficulty and some great art direction.
7. The 7th Saga
The SNES is rightfully remembered as the home of some of the best RPGs ever made, but few of those RPGs are necessarily remembered among the console’s most difficult games. That being the case, you may go into a game like The 7th Saga feeling pretty confident.
If so, then consider this your fair warning that The 7th Saga is absolutely one of the hardest 16-bit games ever made. For some reason, this game’s developers decided to make the U.S. version of this game even more difficult than it already was. The result is a project with typical RPG challenges that are amplified by the fact that enemies can survive an absurd amount of damage that makes level grinding more important than ever. Sadly, the U.S. version of the game makes leveling even slower than before, which means that already challenging battles feel that much more laborious.
The 7th Saga is actually a very good game, but its already challenging puzzles, dungeons, and bosses are made legendary by virtue of one of the most questionable difficulty bumps in gaming history.
6. Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
I actually love the SNES trilogy of Star Wars games and recently wished that a developer would revisit their core concepts and update them for modern platforms. If that happens, though, then there’s going to be an interesting debate about whether those games should retain the difficulty that has come to define The Empire Strikes Backs.
The other two Super Star Wars games are difficult, but Empire Strikes Back is on another level. While some of the vehicle stages are annoying, they’re not necessarily the reason so many gamers never beat this sequel. That honor instead belongs to the absurd toughness of the average enemy combined with the need to navigate some tricky levels while battling them. How can so many creatures survive so many blows from a lightsaber? Why is absolutely everything in this galaxy (including wild creatures) so hellbent on killing our heroes?
Empire Strikes Back often avoids feeling cheap or especially cruel, but that’s cold comfort for a legion of fans who have still never beaten this game.
5. Contra III: The Alien Wars
I don’t have to tell most of you that Contra 3 is a hard game. It is, after all, a Contra game, which means that it was designed to be frustrating. Even still, there are reasons why Contra 3 stands out to this day as the hardest game that many of us played growing up.
Here again, we have a SNES game where the developers must have thought to themselves “Well, if we’re giving them better graphics and better controls, then we should probably make everything more difficult to compensate for the natural frustration we lost.” As such, Contra 3 ups the ante of the franchise by taking what was already a very difficult action experience and adding a variety of expertly placed environmental hazards that keep you constantly off-balance. It certainly doesn’t help that the bosses are some of the toughest in the series’ history and that the game’s top-down segments offer a uniquely challenging break from the standard side-scrolling action.
This is really just a great action game that so happens to also be maddingly (but appropriately) difficult
4. Hagane: The Final Conflict
Hagane: The Final Conflict wasn’t especially popular when it was released in 1994, but this is one of those games that was “resurrected” by the internet. Those who did play it spent years passionately encouraging everyone to revisit this truly overlooked gem.
Before you do play this game, though, you need to know that Hagane is almost comically difficult. While Hagane’s generous controls and incredible overall design mean that you’re not hindered by fundamentally unfair mechanics, the sheer amount of obstacles this game throws at you will leave you laughing at the game over screen as you try to process what just happened. Imagine Shinobi with even more enemies and environmental hazards. That’s the basic Hagane experience.
That said, Hagane’s incredible controls, lightning speed, and excellent level design make it worth every frustrating moment you encounter along the way.
3. U.N. Squadron
You can’t talk about the hardest SNES games without talking about the console’s collection of side-scrolling shooters. Which shooter is the hardest, though? Super R-Type? Axelay?
Actually, I think that honor belongs to U.N. Squadron. This often underappreciated game initially impresses with its surprising customization options, but it’s perhaps best remembered as a stunningly hard experience. Even though U.N. Squadron isn’t as “cheap” as similar SNES games and doesn’t suffer from as many slowdown problems, this title compensates for its lack of inherent issues in other ways. Actually, U.N. Squadron‘s enemies and levels are cleverly designed to quickly produce some of the tightest death zones you’ll find in any SNES game.
Even genre veterans will find themselves sweating during this game’s final levels. Don’t even get me started on how rough the higher difficulty settings are.
2. Zombies Ate My Neighbors
At a time when zombie games were still a novelty (which feels like a lifetime ago), Zombies Ate My Neighbors allowed players to test their mettle against an undead horde while enjoying creative and colorful visuals complemented by a fairly tight control scheme. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like it would be one of the hardest SNES titles. From moment to moment, I’m not sure it is.
However, Zombies Ate My Neighbors has truly earned that distinction amongst gamers who have actually tried to beat this game. Not only does Zombies Ate My Neighbors feature nearly 50 levels (each of which is more difficult than the last), but the game’s resource system means that even a minor mistake on a level can make every level that comes afterward even more challenging than it would otherwise be. The constant onslaught of resource-demanding bosses can also easily wear down the patience of even the most composed players.
Even amongst the speedrunning community (to which some of the most skilled gamers in the world belong) Zombies Ate My Neighbors is considered to be one of the most difficult games ever made from a completionist perspective. If you really think about it, you’ll probably realize you never actually made it that far into the game no matter how much you played it.
1. Castlevania: Dracula X
With Super Castlevania 4, Konami dialed things back a bit by granting the player more control over their character. The game was still difficult, but the fact that it allowed you to do things such as swing your whip in any direction made it much more accessible than anything that came before.
Castlevania: Dracula X, on the other hand, throws all of that out the window and replaces those expanded controls with more environmental hazards than ever before. Considered to be the “true” successor to Castlevania 3 due to its retro controls and design, Dracula X can also be considered the hardest game in a franchise synonymous with difficulty. There is almost no margin for error in this action title as nearly every jump and swing can end your run if they’re not executed perfectly.
The cherry on top of this one is a final boss fight against Dracula that forces you to jump across tiny platforms as you try to beat what would already be a difficult boss even without the gimmick. It’s an appropriate nightmare of a gaming experience.