10 punishing games that are totally worth the pain

Gluttons for punishment...

Tenacity. Discipline. Such things will serve you well in life. But youre not here to read about life; youre here for the games. And why would anyone ever want to apply words that sound an awful lot like work to your precious game time? With the fervent following behind the Souls franchise, our increasing penchant for precision platformers, and the revival of the roguelike genre, its clear that there are gamers out there who (much like myself) are gluttons for punishment. And who can blame them? There is true satisfaction to be had by earning your victory and overcoming adversity.

The following games are hard, sure, but their difficulty does not define them. Complementing each of these challenging titles is a rock-solid foundation of perfect controls, fresh gameplay mechanics, or an unforgettable story. Best of all, these games are readily available--no used game scavenger hunts or exorbitant collector's costs required. If youre like me, constantly chasing the high of felling an impossible foe or the adrenaline rush of telling gravity to go shove it, welcome home.


It's unlikely that the first hour you spend with OlliOlli will be pleasant. The difficulty ramps up very quickly, and the control scheme, while excellent once you get the hang of it, initially feels like trying to arm wrestle an octopus. Timing is everything here--its not as simple as jumping, doing a trick, and landing straight. You have to stick every landing by pushing X just as you touch down. Didnt do it? Sloppy. Next to no points for you. Go back to skateboarding school, nerd.

OlliOllis gameplay is hyper-focused on one thing: combos. Many of the levels can be completed without ever touching the ground, and achieving a string of tricks that rockets your score into the stratosphere is a joy. Even better is the Daily Grind, a randomly chosen level every 24 hours. You can practice as many times as you like, but once youre ready, you only have one attempt at a high score to top the worldwide leaderboards. Dont worry if you mess up--theres always tomorrow.

XCOM: Enemy Within

I made the same mistake most people make: naming my XCOM squad after my friends and family. I knew that the game featured permadeath, but figured it wouldnt be a problem because I'd be careful. When a friend missed a shot with a 77 percent chance against a Chryssalid and was subsequently ripped to shreds, I called him and explained what happened. I told him he would be missed. I demanded an apology for missing such an easy shot. When a soldier dies, theyre gone for good, so you'll have to train their replacement up from a pool of new recruits. Simply put: you will FEEL your losses.

As heartbreaking as it is to watch one of your officers die in the line of duty, its even more exciting to watch a fully-trained super-soldier kicking in alien teeth (if they even have those). The tactical combat is fun and fair, and responding to extraterrestrial threats on a global scale ensures that every decision you make has a consequence.

Super Meat Boy

Buzzsaws, rocket launchers, and piles of used syringes--you name it, its here, and it wants you dead. Super Meat Boy is a precision platformer in its purest form. Theres no health--if you slip, trip, tumble, or so much as touch anything that looks remotely dangerous, youll see your poor meat boy splattered into a (persistent) puddle of red goo.

Fortunately, Team Meat kept the focus on short levels and quick gameplay. Almost every stage takes less than 30 seconds to complete once you know what youre doing, and when you die (and you will die), you start the stage over instantly with no load time. Super Meat Boys bite-sized levels become miniature training grounds. After some practice, return to a level that once gave you trouble, and you'll be amazed how easy it's become. Theres a pretty high skill cap on this one.

Ninja Gaiden Sigma

Ninja Gaiden Sigma broke me. After repeated unsuccessful attempts on an early boss fight, it offered me a way out: Abandon the way of the ninja, the game taunted me. I was not worthy--not yet anyway--and I dropped down to the humiliating Ninja Dog difficulty. This game is seriously tough. You will wonder how youre supposed to fight so many enemies at once, or overcome such hulking and powerful bosses. Button mashers need not apply. Ninja Gaiden Sigma requires calculated strikes and graceful precision.

In spite of my shame, Ninja Dog difficulty was my crucible--it showed me (albeit with a gentler touch than normal) how to approach combat. It taught me when to attack, and when to evade or defend. And once the teachings were complete, I was unstoppable. Ninja Gaiden Sigma is certainly punishing for the uninitiated, but it becomes a bloody ballet for more accomplished ninjas. The controls are tight and responsive, and combat is quick and gruesome. This game actually turns you into a ninja.


So many games on this list are about learning how to overcome a difficult enemy or obstacle. This is true of Spelunky as well, but the game is procedurally generated, so your knowledge will only get you so far. In Spelunky, anything can kill you--even your own bombs--and the random nature of the game ensures that youre always reacting instead of anticipating. Depending on what shops and items you encounter, you may have a vastly easier or more difficult playthrough. Skill, foresight, and a little luck are all determining factors to your survival.

Spelunky still surprises me every time I play it, not only because its randomized, but because theres so damn much to see here. A trip to the games Wiki page is all but required to find some of the more remote corners Spelunky's caves, but therein lies the appeal. It's become one of my favorite games to watch streamed by more skilled players than myself, foremost among them being Bananasaurus Rex and his miraculous solo Eggplant run.

Dark Souls

Dark Souls--like its sequel, Dark Souls 2--is an incredibly hard game. Its true. But its also one of the most benevolent games of its generation. The freedom to explore and discover the rules that govern the realm of Lordran is what provides such a challenge. Wander into a high-level area before youre ready? You wont get a warning--you get a lesson in the form of a swift death. You're not some supernatural bad-ass that will make mincemeat of every foe. You're a small fish swimming amongst sharks, and you must use your skill and wits to overcome.

While the lack of traditional hand-holding seen in most modern games creates much of the resistance, Dark Souls also offers incredible depth and endless replayability. The unforgettable triumph over powerful foes, a fresh take on multiplayer, and the fantastic (but poorly explained) Covenant system all come together to create one of the most satisfying and challenging gaming experiences in recent memory.

Rogue Legacy

Like Dark Souls, death in Rogue Legacy is intrinsically tied into gameplay. Dying isnt a punishment--its your progression, and an integral part of the game. With four areas to conquer, each more difficult than the last and all boasting a daunting boss fight, you'll have ample opportunity to get familiar with Rogue Legacys death mechanics. Bite the dust and you get to choose an heir out of three descendants with randomly generated traits. Shortsighted? Anything more than a few feet away from your character is blurry. Vertigo? Your whole world is (quite literally) turned upside-down.

Your first attempt at Rogue Legacy will likely last under five minutes; fortunately, every raid will earn you gold to buy upgrades. Build up your castle enough, and hopefully one of your heirs can eventually do your bloodline proud. The game is certainly difficult, but with a multitude of upgrades and the goofy heirs to look forward to, dying never feels like a penalty.

FTL: Faster Than Light

Sucked into space. Gasping for oxygen. Burned alive. Eviscerated by space mantids. These are but a few of the ways your hapless crew will die in FTL, and theres little you can do to prevent it. The game is not about avoiding or anticipating horrible situations--horrible is coming for you, and its only a matter of time. FTL is about how you deal with the adversity the game throws at you. Its about the Kobayashi Maru.

Impossible space situations are no laughing matter, but let me tell you, the power associated with captaining a starship is intoxicating, and FTL fans invariably have a favorite story about their intergalactic adventures. I frequently found myself outmatched by a vastly superior vessel, but was able to survive through desperate gambits a la James T. Kirk (though my strategies generally involved sending one of my crewmembers to their death; rest in peace, friends). The unpredictable nature of FTL ensures that every playthrough becomes a story worth telling.


Catherine is about getting drunk, then scaling a nightmare tower built from the physical manifestations of your fears. Rinse. Repeat. Relish. The disturbing dream segments are the challenge here--you must ascend a rapidly deteriorating tower by carefully pushing blocks to create a scalable path upwards. As you progress through the game, it introduces traps, blocks with a variety of behaviors, and a suite of horrifying bosses that pursue you relentlessly. Later puzzles require careful planning to avoid creating an impossible situation, as well as quick reflexes to keep yourself from falling off the bottom of the ever-crumbling construct.

Even if you find yourself frustrated by the devious puzzles, you'll want to press on just to see what happens next in the twisted story. The core themes here are infidelity and a fear of commitment--topics scarcely touched on in video games. Accompanying Vincent on his cathartic journey is a joy, simply by the merit of exploring one of the freshest gaming narratives in recent memory.

Hotline Miami

Hotline Miami can be summarized in a single phrase: its either them, or you. Each level is packed to the brim with enemies wielding a melange of colorful weaponry, and your job is to kill them all. The action moves at a breakneck pace, so when youre approaching a new area, particularly in later stages, you'll often find yourself bloodied on the ground before you even know what happened. The only checkpoints happen after the completion of each floor, so if you want to progress, you essentially have to make a perfect run of each level.

The good news is that Hotline Miami handles like a dream. The controls are tight and very conducive to the fast-paced gameplay. Kick a door in to stun the first patrolling guard, throw your weapon at the shotgun-wielding baddie coming to investigate, then pick up his gun to finish the job--this kind of sequences sounds insanely hard to pull off, but isnt. Hotline Miami quickly becomes incredibly chaotic and challenging, requiring both creativity and reflexes to excel.

Back for more

So there you have it. I often find that the games that offer the most resistance are ultimately the most rewarding. Now if youll excuse me, Im off to punish myself in Dark Souls II. What are some of your favorite challenges of the last generation? Let me know in the comments.

If youre looking for more games for masochists, check out our Dark Souls 2 Review or learn why permadeath is alive and well in video games.

Casey Phillips