If you’re old enough to have played games in the 80s or early 90s, you’ll remember that they were hard: really damn hard. Why they were they so infuriatingly difficult? The answer presents a fascinating look at the history of video games.
When people talk about how hard old video games were, they use the phrase “Nintendo Hard.” Nintendo wasn’t the only company making early video game consoles (and certainly not the first in the market). But the enormous popularity of the Nintendo Entertainment System and the near ubiquity of it in the 1980s meant that nearly everyone had experience with the NES and with the inherent difficulty of early video games.
So what exactly are people talking about when they throw out the phrase “Nintendo Hard?” What is it about early arcade games, early console games, and even early computer games that was so insanely, intensely, and infuriatingly difficult that children and adult would find themselves kicking arcade cabinets, throwing down controllers, and swearing off games in fits of rage? Let’s take a look at the classic elements of early video games that conspired to make the play experience so maddening.
What Made These Games So Hard?
There are all kinds of elements that made these games difficult, but a few stand out. Here they are.
You know you timed that jump right and you know that bat wasn’t really in the way, but according to the game you just slammed into the bat and missed the ledge you were aiming for. Sure, more than a few of those missed jumps over the years were simply bad timing and coordination on part of the player, but early video games suffered quite a bit from the limitations of their hardware.
Early controller design was on the clunky side. Compounding that were hardware limitations and the hitbox system in games. The hitbox is the area that constitutes the body of an object or enemy on the screen, and what you saw as the outline of the bad guy didn’t always mesh perfectly with the hitbox as understood by the game’s software. As a result, you could swear up and down that you actually shot the guy (or that he missed and didn’t touch you). The game would beg to differ.
Single Hit Death
Speaking of hitboxes, let’s not forget the agony of single hit death. In early arcade games and console games alike, life meters were few and far between. One hit was often all it took to instantly kill you and pull up the stark “GAME OVER” screen.
Even in games where you had rudimentary health (perhaps a meager three hearts), there was always the specter of the one-hit-wonder bad guy that would smash your entire life meter to bits if he detected you nearby.
No Save Progress
The only thing worse than video game death is the pain of replaying everything all over again. In early games with no save progress, no checkpoints to be seen, and no way to return to the point of last play, the only solution was to either marathon your way through the entire game in one sitting or hope if you turned off the TV that your parents or roommates wouldn’t notice the light of the Nintendo and (not so) thoughtfully turn it off.
Life before game saves was a brutal wasteland of eyestrain, sweaty palms, and devoting entire Saturdays to getting to the end of a game.
No Saved Gear
In games where you didn’t get sent all the way back to the title screen upon death, you were often punted back to the beginning of the level. A particularly sinister version of this mechanism found in some games would kick you back to the start of the level you died on, but without your gear.
Frankly, that’s worse than no save progress, because at least if you get sent all the way back to the beginning of the game you have a chance to earn power ups and build up your character’s arsenal. Dying on Dungeon Level 9000 and being reborn with Level 1 gear is just cruel.
No Difficulty Settings
Many modern video games have difficulty settings that let you tailor the gameplay to both your skill level and tastes. You want it super insane with enemies that are three times harder than usual? No problem, flip it to Hell Mode and blast away. You want it super chill so you can spend all the time in the world smelling the virtual Skyrim flowers you added in with yet another pretty graphics mod? No problem there either, set it to the easiest level of difficulty and focus on the stuff that really matters—like hyper-realistic butterflies.
Back in the day, difficulty settings were unheard of. The game was the game (be it hard or easy) and that was that. Video games served as a sort of nerd endurance test, and if it was too hard, too frustrating, or even outright insane, then you just weren’t cut out for the game and maybe it was time for you to shuffle over to the skee-ball machine and leave the brutality of the game to those that could handle the abuse the arcade cabinet dished out.
Spikes, bottomless pits, swinging axes, fire spitting statues—name something that slices, dices, or smashes and it has likely made an appearance in an early video game. What early video games lacked in deep story lines and flashy graphics, they certainly made up for in creative ways to wreck your face.
Although evil architecture remains a long running trope in video game design, even today, what made it particularly dastardly in early video games was the way it overlapped with previous entries in this list like clunky controls, one hit deaths, and no save points.
It’s bad enough when the screen is packed with guys chucking axes at you, bats swooping at your head, and snakes crawling down the walls, but throw in controls that aren’t quite as responsive as they should be, a game engine that plays fast and loose with hitboxes, and a level that is bristling with pits, spikes, falling boulders, and torches that shoot fire at you? It’s more than the patience of even the most dedicated gamer can handle sometimes.
Why Did They Make Games Like That?
Why would anyone design a game this way? Was it on purpose?
Not always. No one sets out to design a game with bad controls, for example. That happened in part because controllers of the age weren’t great, but mostly because designers had basically no idea what they were doing. Game design was a brand new craft, after all, and small teams were charged with making games in relatively short periods of times. Often this meant details weren’t obsessed over. Guns fired with a delay, jumps were impossible to control, or characters fell through platforms that look like they should be solid.
This is the worst kind of Nintendo Hard: games that are difficult because of bad design choices. But bad design doesn’t explain away all of Nintendo hard: much of it really was a deliberate design choice.
Part of this was economics. Games were expensive, and players needed to feel like they were getting their money’s worth. If players could beat a game in a single sitting, or even over the course of a month, they would feel like they were being ripped off. But storage capacity of the era was extremely limited, so designers couldn’t stretch out playtime by adding hundreds of levels. The solution: make the game really really hard, using tactics like single hit death and evil architecture. This meant gamers needed to spend hours practicing a game before they could get to the final level, and even then, they’d probably end up dying. It made beating the game special, and helped justify paying so much for the game and console.
There’s another factor at work here, too. Many game designers of the age learned their craft developing arcade titles, and lots of games were straight-up ports from arcade titles.
Designing games for the arcade means thinking about one factor: economics. Arcade cabinets make money on a per-play basis, so the designers have an incentive to kill you off quickly and force you to spend another quarter. It’s only by playing the game hundreds of times—and spending hundreds of quarters—that you can get to the further levels. Games didn’t need to be designed this way for the Nintendo Entertainment System, but design habits die hard. Habits from building arcade games carried over, basically because that’s how people knew to build games.
Add all of this up and you’ve got a recipe for throwing your controller at the machine on a regular basis. Kids these days have no idea.
Nostalgia and the Return of Nintendo Hard
While reading through this, you were likely awash in memories of the video games of yesteryear that just beat you down. Oh we know the feeling, trust us. Writing this piece drummed up more than a few memories of obscenities hurled, games rage quit, controllers thrown, and curses cast upon the heads of unknown developers at distant video game studios.
If you want to relive this, you’re sick. Seriously: get your head examined. Then check Steam or your console’s online store. Most of the games that made you furious are available for modern platforms. Believe us, Mega Man is just as frustrating as it ever was.
And some contemporary game makers are re-creating that feeling, often with modern twists. Shovel Knight, 1001 Spikes, and Super Meat Boy are a few recent-ish examples, and more games like them are showing up all the time. Find something that makes you furious to play and enjoy yourself.