While getting hold of Skullgirls for Sian to review, I found myself giving it a try on single-player just to see what all the fuss was about. Being not-too-terrible at gaming, I figured that starting off on the Normal difficulty setting would be about right – challenging, but not too much for me to handle. What I found instead was that come the first fight, I got my arse kicked so hard it started to emerge from my nose. What happened to us? I remember the days when one trip-up meant a return to the start of the level. When did gaming get so, well, easy?
It all started back in the mid 90s. Polygonal graphics were starting to become something that actually mattered and developers were eager to flex their 3D muscles on the brand new PlayStation and Saturn. PCs were starting to get 3D graphics cards and games like Doom were showing us that games could actually be first-person experiences. On the other end of the scale, adventure games were in their prime with titles like Sam and Max and Day of the Tentacle which focused on puzzles more than combat challenge and didn’t actually allow the player to fail. Gradually and increasingly, the emphasis moved towards spectacle and presentation, because they kept players engaged so much better than frustratingly hard bosses.
Game budgets didn’t used to be able to support anything longer than a couple of hours, and for a long time it wasn’t possible to save. To stretch out the longevity of each title, developers would need to make it as difficult as possible for a player to reach the end. This is why we had such difficulty in games like Super Mario Bros. – the point was never to finish, but to simply get as far as you could.
When a game is difficult, it will inevitably put some players off. With older games that didn’t have demos and trailers and user ‘reviews’ all over the place, this wasn’t a problem, since if they’d bought the game they were essentially stuck with it anyway. Unfortunately, the internet has made gamers picky and unlikely to buy anything they don’t like the demo for. When a game’s development budget can easily run into the tens or even hundreds of millions, it’s important to let the player see as much as they possibly can. If as much as they possibly can requires that the game be built for morons, then so be it.
When was the last time you played a truly difficult game that wasn’t a little indie title or part of a niche genre? For me it was Super Mario Sunshine, way back in the GameCube days. Specifically I’m talking about the Manta Ray level, which was a tricky test of platforming ability that culminated with a frantic battle against 64 little electric buggers. That’s what gaming was like then. AND IT WAS AWESOME. There were also the FLUDD-less levels, where Mario’s glorified water pistol took a hike and let platforming skill determine the outcome. They were fantastically made and if Nintendo decides to release a Super Mario Sunshine 2 (please God, let it happen) then I’d love to see even more. But you know how old that game is now? Nine and a half years. It’s been nearly a decade since the last mainstream game to really challenge me and I feel a bit disheartened. Granted, I haven’t played Dark Souls, but I beat the Luigi Purple Coin challenge, so that qualifies me for something right? Right?
In any case, we should be looking forward and seeing where we can create games that challenge again. We don’t all need to be playing Skullgirls, of course, but a gradual increase in toughness over time can only do us good. Now I want every person reading this to go away and not come back until they’ve finished MOTHER without the Easy Ring. Go.