Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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New England Gamer
October 2009

A Hard Year

It used to be easier to find hard games. I recall when I was a kid that that was really all there was. There was a reason back then that you could buy a single game and have it last you for months, some of them were so hard they bordered on insanity. Ninja Gaiden (NES), for instance, is a game that despite countless hours spent playing it, I have never been able to beat. In its later levels it becomes so unbelievably hard that it becomes almost impossible.

Things aren't really the same anymore though. "Casual" and "accessible" have become the new buzzwords and with them games have become noticeably easier with time, much to the ire of fellows like me who grew up with games being hard and for the most part, liked it that way. A game being hard doesn't automatically mean that it is devoid of fun. That was the genius of those old games: that while they occasionally made you want to throw your controller against the wall, they were nevertheless entertaining. Honestly, they just don't make them like that anymore.

Only, it seems they do. While 2008, for its part, saw some great hard games hit the market, 2009 has been even better; retro revivals and new IPs have been coming out in fair enough numbers to even call it a trend. While some have tagged this generation as one for the dumbing down of video games, there have been some companies ably pushing forward the idea that a fun game can, in fact, be difficult.

Atlus is a prime example. Never one to shy away from niche titles, Atlus has succeeded in publishing two of the hardest games to come out in 2009. The Dark Spire in April, and most recently Demon's Soul which launched earlier this month. Both are RPGs, both are a ton of fun, and both are brutally hard. They are still markedly different games -- The Dark Spire is a retro styled dungeon crawler while Demon's Soul is a more modern action RPG -- but difficulty is key to both. Difficulty and, to some extent, a degree of fairness. They're both incredibly hard, but they are never cheap. They are grounded in rules and as long as you can learn and adhere to those rules, you can expect that you'll meet with at least a modicum of success.

That really is the key to a great hard game. What really is the point of playing if the only reason it's difficult is because there is so much stacked against you that you can only win by luck? That's a problem I actually have with old Ninja Gaiden. I downloaded it recently onto my Wii, and up until the very end it's great fun. That said, in those last few levels the game starts putting you in situations where skill has nothing to do with it anymore. It doesn't matter how well you play. It puts so many enemies on the screen that it's simply impossible to not take damage. It is at this point in the game that I usually stop having fun and start to get frustrated.

Contrastingly, I also downloaded Castlevania III, another NES game. It is, I would argue, even harder then Ninja Gaiden. But I never feel cheated. While it puts me in increasingly more difficult situations, I can always see a way through them; and when I die, I can clearly place the blame with myself and my own mistakes. That is the kind of difficulty I appreciate, and it's the kind that both The Dark Spire and Demon's Soul adhere to. You're going to die a lot, and you may even get frustrated, but death never feels like a waste. Each time you fail you learn something new, and when you try again you can approach the game's obstacles with that knowledge at hand. They assume you have the capacity to overcome a challenge and as such aren't afraid to up the odds every now and then.

Another effort that I was looking forward to was Codemaster's Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising. Tagged as a military simulator, it is basically the antithesis of everything that first person shooters have come to exemplify in recent years. For instance, while many loved Call of Duty 4 for its excellent narrative and strong multiplayer, the single player game was still criticized for the fact that you could basically breeze through it in a long evening. What some people took the most issue with? Too frequent checkpoints and recharging health. I personally didn't mind the checkpoints all that much, but in general I do find recharging health to be a bit too much help at times. If you're shot, you should stay shot.

Dragon Rising holds that same principle, as generally speaking it is a hyper-realistic war game. A single bullet is often more then enough to put you down, and even if you aren't killed by your wounds you can count on them slowing you down. It's an incredibly different experience from what franchises like Call of Duty have established as the new norm. Instead of charging in guns blazing, you have to be patient and strategic. It's not a game for everyone and honestly it wasn't a game for me.

Not because I disliked the realism, or even the game really. I actually found it to be enjoyable to a point. The biggest problem for me, setting aside some issues with buggy-ness and its system for commanding troops, was that it lacked any heart. Call of Duty 4's biggest success, and one of the reasons why I was so able to forgive its too easy gameplay, was that it did have a fantastic, edgy story. Concise perhaps, but enthralling nonetheless. Dragon Rising lacked this and it really felt like a hole in the game that shouldn't have been there. This is especially true since the original Operation Flashpoint, released in 2001 not only played better, but actually had a moderately interesting plot to guide the experience.

What's odd is that story isn't always an issue for me. Both The Dark Spire and Demon's Soul are much more focused on their gameplay, but then they didn't make many pretensions about having central plots. Dragon Rising actually opens with a slick cinematic to set up the game's story and then does nothing with it. Perhaps, I was just expecting more because the original did so much right. Either way, you know there's a problem when you're a 2009 sequel that compares negatively to a 2001 game.

What it all comes down to essentially is that there is a market for people who like games they actually have to beat. We don't just want adventures that we can participate in, which is what so many modern games wind up being nowadays. We want something that makes us feel like the underdog so we can then pull a Rocky Balboa and go the distance despite the odds. At the end of the day, even if it is just beating a video game it still feels good to accomplish something hard. The more developers that come to understand that in 2009, the better.

Read more by Stewart Shearer

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