Teleroboxer Game Over Screen

Not only did games once take pleasure in beating the player, they weren’t above gloating.

There are games you play, and there are games you beat. Not in the sense that you ‘beat’ Medal of Duty: Modern Recon twice this morning. That game wanted you to win, it wanted you to cruise past the final boss-fight, win some points for your gamerscore and get all the achievements for jumping to your death repeatedly. But it was not always so children, there was an older school of game-design from the crucible of coin-op arcades that used scaling difficulty as a test of skill and to make you insert more coins for a continue. Either way, a completion state was an admittance of defeat – the game had run out of tricks, you had ‘beaten’ it.

Alien Vs Predator Atari Jaguar RebellionSide-scrollers like Contra and Zelda II were the harshest, giving you just 3 weak lives to beat the game with, and the latter would kick you back to the start of the game with no experience points on death. Genres that have better stood the test of time were also challenging though; Rebellion’s FPS Alien Vs. Predator for the Atari Jaguar, or their later ‘AvP game for PC, was of Sisyphean difficulty. Playing as a Marine in particular, you were an fragile bag of fluids and organs, a walking lunchbox for the AI who – frequently unseen – would kill you in a couple of hits or forcibly impregnate your chest cavity, which amounts to the same thing.

This hardcore of games was not too demanding for players to enjoy, there were plenty of very well thought of games too difficult for the majority of their players to complete. Cobra Triangle for instance, an isometric boat-racer with combat and boss-battles. Cobra Triangle combined breakneck speed and precision jumps with frenetic shooting action that beat many players into submission – but it is still 66th on IGN’s Top 100 list of Nes Games.

Such games simply were rewarding for the player in a different way. These games allowed for the elation of a single-minded immersion in gameplay, where by necessity you must harness all your concentration and reflexes to the task at hand. The field of Positive Psychology calls this a ‘flow-state’. Arcade-influenced game design of the past used intense challenges to reward players with this feeling. But the modern way of looking at difficulty seems to be that – as the game should reward players with an experience, not a test of skill – if all players cannot complete a game, then the game is poorly designed.

This situation has been exacerbated by the golden age of casual gaming. Because developers want to appeal to the wider audience of people introduced to gaming through simplistic puzzle games like Peggle which require no commitment or skill-development to play, they try to reproduce the same values in core gaming genres.

Ketsui, where the missiles fire smaller missiles, as it should be.

The genres that have held out the longest against this trend are those with hardcore pedigree like F-Zero GX, or those that have almost zero casual-gamer appeal. For instance, the epileptic bullet-hell of vertical shoot ‘em ups like Ketsui, which often look like an acid trip fighting a fireworks display. Or sword-swinging adventure games like Ninja Gaiden, Maximo and Demon’s Souls which are truly punishing, not through cheap levels or poor design-choices, but through a conscious attempt to embrace a blistering intensity of gameplay.

There is nothing wrong with a more accessible gentle gaming per se, but I am concerned that I own several games where I only know that the player character can die because I have let it happen out of curiosity.

But there is hope in the same flash indie games that powered the casual gaming insurgency. As a reaction to facile puzzlers and platformers, indie developers have been producing games with mechanics of masochistic complexity and difficulty.

i want to be the guy hardest games IWTBTGI’m not talking about the hilarious trick-and-error gameplay of Owata or I Wanna Be the Guy, which creates a false-difficulty by forcing you to reset after deaths you couldn’t possibly foresee. For example, one screen of IWBTG uses the old platformer standard of a falling spike ceiling and one safe floor indentation lower then the rest – but once in that safe spot, the spikes just grow longer to reach you.

Rather I mean the constructive viciousness of indie games like Meatboy, Dead Drunk, or QWOP. These which challenge the player to overcome initially near-impossible tasks by developing a complex and difficult skillset – in QWOP the player must learn to make an athlete run 100 metres, controlling each of his thighs and calves independently.

This resurgence of hardcore-stlye design has slowly been influencing commercial titles. This is good news if you harbour an old-fashioned secret hatred for your fingers, mind and willpower – with last months release of Vertex Dispenser you can break all three.

Vertex Dispenser Indie Games Hardcore Gaming Casual GamingIt’s a game where you guide a robot around a geometric grid, capturing points to mark your territory. As you capture points, they will turn into the worst possible colour without being the same colour as an adjacent point, the more colours you have of any one type will speed up the recharge rate of an associated power – if this doesn’t make much sense, then don’t worry I think that’s what they were going for.

Vertex Dispenser is a formidable puzzle as this stands, but the 2D playing grid is disorientatingly wrapped around a 3D object, there’s a strict time limit for each puzzle and you are competing against an AI player who is better than you and can fire guided missiles.

Thanks to its hardcore influences it’s clever, complex and frantically paced. But most importantly it is a game that is rare in that you don’t just complete it, you have to beat it.

Vertex Dispenser is available on steam now.