Difficulty in games has been a swinging pendulum. Back in the earliest days of gaming there was next to no hand-holding, tutorials were completely unheard of, and even toggleable difficulty settings were extremely rare. Miss an item in level one that you need to progress in level eight? Whoops, sorry, guess you’ll have to start over. And continues were for arcades, purely an incentive to force you to slot in another quarter if you wanted to preserve your progress.
But then games went mass market, and designers realized that greater accessibility could translate into greater sales, leading to the birth of the modern tutorial and an emphasis on user-friendliness and offering experiences anyone could enjoy. For years games coddled us, we grew soft, and the days of brutal, unforgiving difficulty and real challenge faded into memory. Lately, there’s been a welcome renaissance in truly challenging games; games that embrace the idea that the harder the climb, the better the summit. These are the toughest of the tough.
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Doom - Ultra Nightmare
The original Doom was one of those games born out of that legacy I refer to in the opening, a game that didn’t hold your hand and that, on higher difficulty levels, was an absolute beast, requiring sharp reflexes, intense resource management, and an iron will to best. 2016’s Doom, on Ultra Nightmare, makes the first game look like child’s play. A mode the devs at ID famously proclaimed even they couldn’t beat, Ultra Nightmare isn’t satisfied just throwing mobs of lethal enemies at you and cranking up their damage to completely unreasonable levels, it also adds another rather significant wrinkle: permadeath. That’s right, die just once and the game permanently deletes your save, punting you unceremoniously back to the main menu to soak in a pool of your own salty human tears and indelible shame.
FTL - Hard Mode
FTL is not an easy game. Even the lowest setting, Easy, is a bit of a misnomer -- a more appropriate name would be, perhaps, Possible. Normal mode is extremely challenging, a gauntlet that tests your ability to survive until the final, brutal boss, and pray that you’ve got enough left in the tank (and the blessing of various pixel gods and goddesses) to somehow scrape out a victory. Then there’s Hard mode. Hard mode is also a misnomer, though the terms I’d suggest to replace aren’t fit for polite society (and are in fact illegal to print, even online, in several countries). Hard mode takes what is already an almost impossible trip through a savage galaxy and populates it with much more difficult (and seemingly trigger-happy) enemies, while also reducing the precious rewards that power your journey. It’s a soul-crushing vice of a mode, and makes me happy that FTL doesn’t have controller support, as it would surely lead to the rage-induced shattering of any number of them.
Resident Evil 7 - Ethan Must Die Mode
Well, this one is appropriately named. Difficult as it is to imagine, you’ll actually spend the majority of your time with Ethan Must Die doing just that: dying, over and over and over again. It’s the one game mode in Resident Evil 7 where the real terror comes not from the monstrous nature of the Baker family and their twisted history or from the main campaign’s numerous jump scares, but from the constant tension of being hunted and knowing any small mistake could be your last. Ethan Must Die mode is a section of the main campaign culminating with the boss battle against Marguerite in the greenhouse. It sprinkles a number of loot crates through the level filled with critical items like ammo and weapons, but also booby traps a number of these crates with explosives, instantly killing you if you’re caught in the blast. Since your fragile Ethan (who in this mode can only take a sliver of the damage he can normally absorb) starts equipped with only a sad little knife, survival becomes a deadly game of balancing the need for gear and ammo against the constant spectre of horrific death.
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XCOM: Enemy Unknown - Impossible
XCOM is the kind of game where you can be cruising along enjoying round after round of flawless success, cashing in missions with no fatalities and a skyranger full of alien loot, when suddenly, BAM! Disaster strikes. One of your soldiers, who you’ve invested so much time and so many resources into ranking up and outfitting with powerful, is dropped by a single, brutal strike. In the ensuing chaos and the scramble to exfil, more of your soldiers are ruthlessly gunned down, until you’re left with nothing but an empty transport and a whole bunch of new entries on the memorial wall. Playing on Impossible raises the stakes for every decision up to 11. Rewards are smaller, costs are greater, and every choice 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.” Perhaps the speediest and most demoralizing reaction from the international community to any crisis ever, and the net result is a bankrupt XCOM and global alien domination.
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? No such luck. And this is just Ranger Easy mode. Ranger Hardcore ups the ante even further. You are extremely fragile, which means stealth is basically your only shot at survival. And you can forget about having a reasonable supply of ammo. While enemies will go down from a few well-placed rounds, every bullet you fire feels like a loved one lost.
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. But for the truly masochistic, Awakening lets you ratchet up 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, a twist not unlike that of a hooked knife sunk deep into your torso. 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 with similar demoralizing effects. 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.
F-Zero GX - Very Hard
F-Zero GX is one of the unsung greats of the GameCube era. It offers an incredible sense of speed on par with the best in racing while keeping the F-Zero basics of vehicular combat and track memorization intact. It's a demanding, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride, and one of the most challenging racing games ever created. It’s a game gives you very little but demands a great deal in return. Learning the layout of each track, the nuances of every racer, and practicing every track over and over until they’re scorched permanently into your brain are the bare minimum requirements. But putting in the time 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 seconds before you cross the finish line.
Guitar Hero 3: Legends of Rock - Expert
Video games often make complicated tasks look easy, whether it's piloting a spaceship or firing a gun. The Guitar Hero series in particular is notorious for this, simplifying mastery of a guitar down to the press of a few colorful buttons and a plastic switch. That is until you round the bend with Legends of Rock on expert mode: suddenly, playing a pretend guitar becomes as difficult or harder than playing the same song on a real guitar. When you watch someone play a song like The Devil Went Down To Georgia on expert is an orgy of lights and shapes and colors reminiscent of a children’s cartoon remixed for ravers. Only rote memorization and twitchy muscle memory will see you through here; trying to sight-read one of these monstrosities is a recipe for a quick failure screen. And in case expert isn't tough enough, the game offers a "Precision Mode" which makes the window for hitting a note even tighter.
Dark Souls - New Game ++++++
So, and I understand why this may come as a shock to many of you, apparently there exists a world where people’s reaction to Dark Souls was 'Sure it’s fun, but I just wish it was much, much harder'. Perhaps unsurprisingly, From Software has an answer for those people, and it comes in the form of a ridiculous number of new game plus modes, each of which ramps up the difficulty of one of the hardest games released in the last decade or so. By new game plus six (you seventh playthrough, for those keeping score), Dark Souls has ceased to be a video game and instead a digital iron maiden, a torture device so exquisite and terrible they’re normally reserved for history’s worst criminals. The most mundane, common enemies have become living gods, endless pain made flesh, and will reduce even the hardiest adventurers to soupy plasma in just a few hits. Bosses are world-shattering primordial forces whose footsteps topple empires and whose gaze is genocide.
So, yeah, it’s pretty tough.
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, and it’s a legacy that Ninja Gaiden 2 gleefully celebrates and expands upon. Master Ninja mode in Ninja Gaiden 2 is by far one of the series' greatest challenges, and it tasks you to your wit’s end without resorting to dirty, underhanded 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 get quickly 'solved' soon after their release; it’s the bedrock on which the entire speedrunning community is built. This means, just days or weeks (or sometimes hours) after a game drops, someone uploads 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 off.