Were video games more difficult before? 6 reasons to understand the difficulty of retro games


Are the retro games of the 80s and 90s more difficult than the current ones? A question of such depth does not give rise to a single answer, but to several. In this article we present six of the reasons why in the past there were a greater number of challenging, challenging and (sometimes) maddening games.

Sometimes there is a tendency to boast of the past and belittle the present. With video games this usually happens quite often, especially when we talk about an aspect as important as it is The difficulty. We all have in our minds some title that used to drive us crazy, that it cost us horrors to overcome or that we directly had to leave it parked because it was impossible for us.

Today there are a good handful of titles that are reminiscent of the old school: Sekiro, Spelunky, Celeste, The Binding of Isaac, Dead Cells, Nioh… However, while today finding a particularly difficult game is not the more common, three or four decades ago it was for various reasons. Which? It is the objective of this article to outline some of them. All without the intention of teaching, but to point out some interesting aspects while some representative games are exposed.

Therefore, it seems very valuable to me that apart from the causes that I expose here, you take a leading role and say in the comments what do you think has happened with this phenomenon. Are the games easier than before? Is it because we have less time? Do we tolerate frustration less? Make your contribution and by the way tell us which video games, both past and present, have you “suffered” the most in your life as a player.

Because if you didn’t finish them in a sigh

Were video games more difficult before?  6 reasons to understand the difficulty of retro games

Today we have video games with many hours of play. A title located in the five-hour slot already seems short to us, but in the 80s and 90s many developers would have dreamed of creating games like this. Development resources were scarce, titles were made by very few people and that meant not being able to add all the enemies, stages and levels that they would have wanted. The possibility of making a more or less varied game determined that it could have more hours of play.

You may ask me what the hell duration has to do with difficulty. Everything. Being forced to make games with fewer hours, the gameplay was built with difficulty in mind. No one got past Sonic the Hedgehog or Super Mario Bros in their first hour of play (although today there are speed-runners who do). The games were designed so that you would run out of lives and see the continue screen… or in the worst case the game over screen and have to do everything from the beginning.

Because they had a playable design from another era

Were video games more difficult before?  6 reasons to understand the difficulty of retro games

Before the games were made with another pattern. The accessibility It was a term far removed from what we currently know. Having a game that was reasonably responsive to controls was already an achievement. Many 8-bit microcomputer games (Spectrum or Amstrad) responded with a considerable delay to our commands, something the player had to inevitably live with.

But that was not important. Video games in the style of The Legend of Zelda for NES had some other puzzle that was difficult to solve if you didn’t consult a guide. Something similar happened with the Monkey Island saga, with tests that were sometimes not at all intuitive and that were more based on the classic trial and error. Does this mean they had bad game design? Absolutely. In fact, they are true masterpieces. What happens is that times change and things evolve. For example, in the past it could easily happen that developers, from playing the game over and over again, ended up believing that a game was simple when in fact it was tremendously difficult to beat.

Because they had to justify what they had cost you

Were video games more difficult before?  6 reasons to understand the difficulty of retro games

This is pretty obvious. A launch video game could be quite expensive, and users had to weigh the pros and cons before purchasing it. You probably remember the phenomenon of game rental establishments (the Blockbuster chain offered this service, for example). If you knew that you could play a game in a couple of afternoons, renting was a very profitable option. If you thought that game could give you much more playing time, then you thought about buying it.

This explains why the games had, in many cases, a high difficulty. The Megaman video game saga is well known, with a degree of challenge that made you spend afternoons and afternoons trying to reach Dr. Wily. The well-known Ghoul’s n Goblins was a real pain that you could never get over. Of course, here we cannot fail to mention other titles such as Castlevania, Contra or Battletoads, which fully justified their acquisition because apart from being great games of their time, weeks could go by and they would not finish hitting the key to pass them on to you.

Because we have less time and more experience

Were video games more difficult before?  6 reasons to understand the difficulty of retro games

When you are a child or a teenager you have all the time in the world (those wonderful years). If you had a video game, even if it was as brutally difficult as Ninja Gaiden, Shinobi or R-Type, you tried the levels over and over again until you practically learned them by heart. You knew where each trap was, placed there by the developers to test you… In the end, few managed to overcome all the challenges, but those who did, obtained an immense feeling of overcoming.

The players of that time have grown and we have less time. There are still games like Dark Souls or Bloodborne that precisely trace that structure of yesteryear, but they are not the most abundant. Then there is another important factor, and that is that the inexperienced boys of that time (who learned from their mistakes) have become the experienced boys of the present. Basically, playing for years gives rise to a training that makes the programmers have to keep working hard to offer challenges, as it happens in titles like Cuphead or Super Meat Boy.

because there was no internet

Were video games more difficult before?  6 reasons to understand the difficulty of retro games

Nowadays, if you get stuck in a game, you access the Internet and consult one of the several help guides that exist, or you directly put on one of the many walkthroughs that abound on YouTube. Before the turn of the century, everything was a bit more complicated in this regard. You could go down to the newsstand on the corner and buy one of the magazines that offered tips and tricks, but it wasn’t that close at hand.

After all, the feeling of being alone in the face of adversity wasn’t so bad. It was a very important factor in making the difficulty of many video games skyrocket. Do you remember some of them? Personally, I remember that graphic adventures like Grim Fandango or Hollywood Monsters led me to moments of real blockage in which it was impossible for me to advance. Today things have changed a lot. We all have the possibility to connect and see the solution, which means that developers are no longer betting so much on those design tricks that once worked.

Why did arcades exist?

Were video games more difficult before?  6 reasons to understand the difficulty of retro games

In the 1980s and 1990s, arcades were booming. They were an absolutely round business for the main video game companies. Atari, Capcom, Konami, Namco, Sega, Taito… There were many companies that rubbed their hands when young people (and not so young) flocked to throw a coin in their arcade booths. The key was very clear in this case: offer a good gaming experience for a short time.

This was where a key factor came into play: difficulty. Pac-Man is a paradigm in this sense, with an artificial intelligence that worked in such a way that it reached a point where it was almost impossible not to lose. But there were many more cases. Out-Run and its highly studied race against the clock. The increasing difficulty offered by each stage in Rampage. The one-shot death that is proposed in games like Metal Slug. Everything was calculated so that you would not spend too much time in front of the screen without first having to throw another coin.


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