Select your difficulty
Some people like to argue games today are too easy, and that we've forgotten what it means for something to be 'Nintendo hard'. I don't think that's true. The difficulty is still there, but only for those who seek it out. As games seek to reach a wider and wider audience, they have become more flexible. Load up a random, modern game and chances are you'll be asked to pick a difficulty ranging from easy to hard to groin-shot-nightmare-extravaganza. Most people don't pick that last one.
Some of these insane difficulty modes are unlocked straight away, while others are only awarded after you've finished the game on a lesser mode. However you get them, these are the hardest of the hard, capable of transforming otherwise enjoyable games into masochistic exercises of personal torment. They're not for the faint of heart, but they'll fetch you some hefty bragging rights should you persevere.
7. XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Impossible
XCOM is one of those games where everything can go wrong without a moment's notice. One turn you're silently sneaking between the trees, searching for a crashed UFO. And then BAM! you're neck-deep in Floaters who are flying all over the place handing out grenades like party favors while a couple of Sectoids roll up and hit your flank. And it's around now that Rookie Redshirt panics and hunkers down right in the middle of the chaos. Why would you think that's a good idea!?
Playing on impossible difficulty basically raises the stakes for every decision up to 11. Rewards are smaller, costs are greater, and every decision you make has far-reaching consequences. If you're not on top of your game from day one - complete with an overall strategy in mind that'll carry you through to the final mission - things can and will unravel very quickly. As the game's Wiki so helpfully notes, "...every funding nation can be lost during the first month, depending on alien activity and the efficiency of XCOM's response." This might be the speediest response from the international community to any issue in this history of forever.
6. Metro: 2033 Redux, Ranger Hardcore
Playing Metro: 2033 Redux on the Ranger difficulty means you and your knife are going to be close friends. This mode attempts to make the game more realistic - or about as 'realistic' as you'd want a post-nuclear-apocalyptic Russian horror game to be - by removing several modern conveniences. An abundance of health? Gone. A decent supply of ammo? Gone. Literally the entire HUD and all the valuable information contained therein? It's outta' here, baby, and this is just Ranger Easy mode.
Ranger Hardcore ups the ante even further by making you less of a survivor and more of a - shall we say - dead man walking. You are extremely fragile, which means engaging enemies using stealth is basically your only shot at survival. And you can forget about ever having a reasonable supply of ammo. Enemies will fall to one or two gunshots, sure, but if you end up actually using your gun it had better be because the person (or horrible monster) on the other end inflicted some sort of deep, personal offense upon you.
5. Fire Emblem: Awakening, Lunatic+
Fire Emblem is already a tough-as-nails series. When your characters die, they're gone forever; weapons degrade over time, especially the good ones, and stat bonuses are doled out randomly when you level up. Fire Emblem: Awakening lets you mitigate - or enhance - these challenges through various difficulty options, the toughest of which is Lunatic+. This mode packs the same crippling difficulty of Lunatic, but with an added twist found only in this mode.
As it turns out, that "+" stands for a grab bag of brand-new, enemy-exclusive abilities that are randomly assigned to grunts and bosses alike. These include Luna+ (all attacks halve your defense), Pavise+ (all your attacks deal half damage), and several others. Early on, this can make fights flat-out impossible, forcing you to constantly reload the same battle over and over in the hopes you get a more favorable distribution of skills on the enemy team. Don't expect Frederick to bail you out of this one.
4. F-Zero GX, Very Hard
F-Zero GX is one of the unsung greats from the Nintendo GameCube. It offers an incredible sense of speed on par with the best in the racing genre while keeping the F-Zero basics of vehicular combat and track memorization intact. It's an edge-of-your-seat racer that demands a lot of its players, and is easily one of the most challenging racing games ever created.
This game gives you very little, and demands everything in return. Learning the layouts of each track is required. Learning the nuances of each racer is required. Practicing races over and over again is RE-FREAKING-QUIRED. It's not for everyone - which is surprising for a Nintendo release - but putting the time in will reward you with a genuine challenge that feels difficult because it's actually taxing your skills as a player, not because it's hitting you with blue shells moments before you cross the finish line.
3. Guitar Hero 3: Legends of Rock, Expert
Video games often make complicated tasks look easy, whether it's piloting a spaceship or simply firing a gun. The Guitar Hero series does this as well, simplifying the strumming of a guitar down to a few colorful buttons and a plastic switch. That is, until you round the bend with Legends of Rock on expert mode. All of a sudden, playing a pretend guitar becomes, arguably, more difficult than playing the same song on an actual guitar.
When you watch someone play a song like The Devil Went Down To Georgia on expert it looks like a friggin' Lite-Brite threw up all over the screen. There are so many colorful little circles flying all over the place you basically need to have the song memorized. If you try and keep up running on instinct alone the quick tempo will leave you in the dust. Oh, and just in case expert isn't tough enough, turn on "precision mode", which makes the window for hitting a note even tighter. The only things getting shredded here are your fingers.
2. Call of Duty: World at War, Veteran
Grenades. Grenades everywhere. Call of Duty: World at War, when played on Veteran difficulty, presents a fantastical version of World War II in which every soldier was given a dozen grenades per mission and expected to use them all, at risk of court martial. And every one of them is going to land right at your feet at the most inopportune time which is basically ALL the time because this game is crazy hard.
You want to talk about making meaningful choices in video games: how about choosing between getting blown up by a grenade or being cut down by machine gun fire? It's meaningful because it's the only choice you ever get to make and both options are wrong. You spend more time running away from the fight, in an attempt to avoid all the grenades, than you do breaching doors and doing the standard Call of Duty stuff. But then the game just spawns more dudes in your absence, creating a vicious cycle where you're constantly fighting without making any real progress. And then a grenade kills you.
1. Ninja Gaiden 2, Master Ninja
Ninja Gaiden has built a dynasty upon the broken controllers and mournful cries of its followers. Dating back to 1988 with Ninja Gaiden on the Nintendo Entertainment System, this series has been renowned for its brutal difficulty that really puts the screws to you as soon as you press start. Master Ninja mode in Ninja Gaiden 2 is by far one of the series' greatest challenges, without relying on cheap tricks. It's simply a fast-paced game that demands players use the entirety of Ryu Hayabusa's arsenal, make snap judgements, and watch out for exploding turtles.
To give this some context, most action games - such as God of War or Devil May Cry - get "solved" within a few months to a year of their release. This means someone has posted a video of them beating the game with "100% completion, no damage, one arm tied behind their back!!" Ninja Gaiden 2 has one of these videos as well, the only difference being it took the internet SIX YEARS to pull it off. This is especially surprising given that there hasn't been another good Ninja Gaiden game released in that time to distract diehards.
The ultimate test
So there you have it, the hardest hard modes in gaming. How many of these bad boys have you bested over the years? Are there any that you think were even harder? Tell your story in the comments, and share your victories and defeats with fellow readers.
And for even more GR+ excitement, you know you gotta' check out Is there any place for cutesy mascots in modern games? and Top 100: Why Dark Souls is simply the greatest game of all time.