Difficulty and Video Games

Recently I’ve been replaying The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. I decided to test myself a little bit by playing in Hero Mode, where you take double damage from enemy attacks. Playing this game on a higher difficulty level has me thinking about game difficulty in general, so let’s take a little time to consider the subject.

Historically, I have not played games on high difficulty levels. The idea of “hard mode” never really appealed to me. As a kid, that was because I literally could not beat games on hard mode. My mom can testify to the fact that she helped tiny me to defeat Andross many, many times. She ran circles around me in Mario Kart and collected more stars in Mario Party (yes, the N64 era was good for Mom). So when I was given the option between easy, normal, and hard, I always clicked the easy button.

This practice carried into my teenage years. I never tried to beat Proud Mode on Kingdom Hearts, and even though I played Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance at least seven times I rarely drifted above easy to play on normal mode. I tried hard mode once and basically threw the controller as soon as the first Fog of War drifted in. The first time I really pressed myself and turned up the difficulty on a game was Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones.

I was on vacation with my family to some beach somewhere. I wasn’t super into the whole “beach” scene – problems with my self-image combined with a general hatred of the sun kept me inside a lot. My entertainment of choice was to play Sacred Stones, and after beating it once already over the course of the week, I needed some change. I’d heard of this idea to do a challenge where you beat the game with only the lords (Erika and Ephraim) and the three trainees (Ross, Amelia, and Ewan). Five characters, three of them particularly hard to train, to beat the entire game. I set my mind to beating the challenge, and though it tested my patience at times, I managed to complete it.

I later did some more challenge runs, mostly through Fire Emblem games. In college I added Nuzlockes to my to-do list and those definitely upped the challenge of Pokemon. Suddenly, a guy who always played on easy mode was doing a bunch of challenging game playthroughs. Why is that?

I think the turn off for me when it comes to difficulty levels is this: it doesn’t add anything to the experience. In 90% of games, going to the next level just makes it harder to do the exact same thing. There’s nothing new or interesting about it – you just play the exact same game in a way that makes it more likely that you want to break your television (or monitor, or 3DS, or whatever). Maybe you get better trophies or whatever, but that’s never been much motivation for me. A challenge doesn’t need to be something that makes the game more difficult and nothing else – a challenge should make the game more difficult by making you play a different way.

That’s why I enjoy doing challenge runs of games. Limiting the rules for yourself may require a bit of an honors system, but ultimately it makes the game more challenging in a way that also changes how you play the game. That’s the kind of challenge I enjoy when playing a game. Most of the time this is self-imposed, but there are occasionally games that have challenge runs built-in. My personal favorite version of this is Ocarina of Time’s Master Quest. Originally on Gamecube and later included on the 3DS version, Master Quest is a version of the game where the dungeons are actually changed to increase the difficulty. The puzzles are different from the original game, and much trickier. In the 3DS version, the game is also mirrored and all of the enemies deal double damage. It makes the game more difficult both in combat and through the puzzles, which definitely changes the game while upping the challenge.

Now I turn the conversation to you, adventurers! How do you feel about game difficulty? Should it originate from the game itself by making the same challenge harder? Or do you agree with me and think a game’s difficulty should be increased by changing the way you play? Or should games not be difficult at all? Discuss your thoughts in the comments and be sure to include your favorite examples of games that do difficulty well!

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