The Wrong Kind of Difficulty


The alternate title of this article was Â"Japan Enjoys Your PainÂ". That's really what I'm feelin on this side of the pond. After giving up on Viewtiful Joe because of frustration with the save point system and occasionally ridiculous bosses I jumped head first into Castlevania: Lament of Innocence. It probably would have been a better idea to jump head first into an empty pool. At least that would have involved fewer convulsions and less blood squirting from my eyes.

At several points in both games I asked myself Â"Why? Why did they just make me do that?Â" The only answer that seemed to explain the facts was that all Japanese game developers were in a conspiracy to force me to commit suicide by subjecting me to cockteasing game after cockteasing game. It seemed pretty reasonable to me at the time. However, I came up with another theory after the liquor wore off. Click "Read More" if you want to, you know, read more.You see there for a while games were getting pretty easy. The big trend a couple of years ago was Â"lure in the massesÂ". Get everybody and your mother playing your game. Not everybody followed this to the letter, but from the cheap seats it looked like the crowd of developers was taking it easy on us. After all, some newbie gamer might come in and actually lose, which would make them stop playing.

Then there's the matter of increasing cost of production. Games are getting too expensive to produce, so the solution was to make the game shorter. Â"Short but sweetÂ" was another trend a year or two ago. Not that they were all sweet, but that was the idea. Make the game graphically rich and have very few levels. The end result was the average game got shorter and shorter and easier to get through.

Then the backlash. Gamers get upset, nostalgic. Â"Remember the good ol days?Â" we'd all begin muttering around our various internet forums. Â"Why, when I was but knee high to a grasshopper it'd take us forever to beat a game. Remember ? That was the best. The puzzles were hard back then, I must've fallen into the lava 300 times on that one! And you only had 3kb to save in damnit! You were lucky if you got to save at all!Â"

For some strange reason, developers listened. Why the hell they decided to listen to that particular snippet I'll never know, perhaps karma is a bitch. All the gamers whining and moaning about games being delayed, then whining about the patches for the games that weren't delayed - well, they probably had it coming.

So developers went to their developer caves and asked their chieftain what they should do. Â"I'll show them the good old days,Â" the chieftain said, Â"I'll bring back side scrollers! I'll even bring back Castlevania! Though I can't combine them because that would make too much sense.Â" The developers would all stroke their beards as if that was a wise thing to say. Â"We'll give them jumping puzzles like they've never seen! And save points! Oh the save points! We might let them save, if we're feeling merciful.Â" The entire cave erupts in comically evil laughter as the shadows behind the developer chieftain grow taller and more ominous. There was much beard stroking that night let me tell you.

So, back to our story. Well the result of that night was the current crop of games. Viewtiful Joe has several problems like this despite the fact that it's an otherwise excellent game. The save points have already been lamented by several gamers, around here they're generally not liked. Usually my main contention with them is that if it's not a cheap attempt at forcing you to play their game many times over it's just laziness at not coding in a Â"save anywhereÂ" feature. Since Viewtiful Joe is so well done it's probably the former. Here's a hint, if I want to play your game again I'll hit that handy little button on the main menu that says Â"New GameÂ". Until I do that I only want to play the game once, quit trying to force me to play it again simply to sate your taste for my pain.

Castlevania has so many problems I don't know where to start, though I'll get into them a bit later with some first impressions. Suffice to say jumping puzzles are plentiful and they use save points. Now the save points are frequent, but annoying because they are the only way to get health in the game. Then there's the repetition of the levels. Every other room looks the same. These similar looking rooms are separated by more varied but still repetitious rooms. However bad those are, they're all topped by the jumping puzzles. Your timing has to be perfect, and I mean perfect. Of course if you screw up, just start over right? I mean it makes the game longer, that has to be good. Final Fantasy and Baldur's Gate has like 80 bazillion hours of gameplay and everyone loves it. Right? Right?

Here's the problem from where I sit, again in the cheap seats. Making something difficult means the player spends more time on it. The problem is, you want them to spend that time doing something fun. Somehow that last sentence got lost in the noise and developers are thinking Longer == Better. So you get stuff like Castlevania and to a lesser extent Viewtiful Joe, they make the game longer by forcing you to do sh*t you have already done. Make the game longer by making the puzzles intellectually challenging, the enemies smart and varied, the levels interesting and detailed. Make me want to play the game again or play the game longer, don't force me to.

I know it's easy to jeer and catcall from the cheap seats. It's easier said than done. That said I'd still gladly pay money to anyone who makes a game that doesn't try to force me to play it. In fact I quite often do. So please, let me give you money. I'll even cook you dinner. Maybe even a movie afterwards but no touching below the equator, Mister.



Great post.  I agree completely.  I see some potential quotes in there for my personal sig

Bah, whatever.  I like Viewtiful Joe's save points. When you can save anytime or there are save points all over the place it makes the game much less difficult and tense.

If you like to only be allowed to save every few areas, that's fine. It still doesn't change the fact that it's forced on people who don't want to play that way.

It's akin to implementing the entire 3rd edition D&D rules and making everyone play a Wizard. Some people don't like it that way and it's trivial to allow them to be another class, however the developer enjoys being a Wizard and thinks it makes the game more enjoyable. So it becomes a "design decision", nobody can be anything but a Wizard.

There's nothing wrong with letting you turn on save points and letting other people turn it off. Most of the time we're never given the choice however.

I disagree on the "tenseness" of the game with few save points.  It's been my experience that fewer save points means a hell of a lot of repeating and, since I suck at console games, it takes so damn long that eventually I know what's coming in my sleep (I still suck at it even when I do know what's around the corner).  People that need to save their game often are the ones who have to go to work, take out the trash, or just have a life outside of the game.

It's the main reason I gave up console gaming all together (that and the fact that I suck at most of the genres associated with consoles, did I mention that already?).

Your timing has to be perfect, and I mean perfect. Of course if you screw up, just start over right? I mean it makes the game longer, that has to be good. Final Fantasy and Baldur's Gate has like 80 bazillion hours of gameplay and everyone loves it. Right?

I think cross-genre comparisons don't work that well in this case. Those titles last that long because you spend most of the time wandering around, working on your stats or talking to NPCs. That's something action games naturally can't offer.

Yes, difficulty is being used to stretch a game. Contra can be beaten in like 10-20 minutes (seen that video?), but took most of us several sessions to beat the game. And many of these games didn't offer passwords or save games at all. Viewtiful Joe is actually generous that way. And while it gets tough in the last two levels, I personally find it to be done right. The only real complaint I have about the game would be that it lacks an easy mode for the 'less skilled' players among us. Kids = what 'Normal' is on other games, Adult = Hard, V-Rated = Better Don't Use a Wavebird. And I think there's even one more setting to be unlocked. I agree that there are games where difficulty is being used inappropriatly, but I personally don't consider VJ as one of them.

I think cross-genre comparisons don't work that well in this case. Those titles last that long because you spend most of the time wandering around, working on your stats or talking to NPCs. That's something action games naturally can't offer.

That was sorta the point, it was sarcasm. Poking fun at the whole Longer == Better equation. I probably shoulda had the developer chieftan say it.

Contra can be beaten in like 10-20 minutes (seen that video?), but took most of us several sessions to beat the game. And many of these games didn't offer passwords or save games at all.

That's sorta the point, I don't want to go back to that. Why would doing what Contra did be acceptable now? Most NES games suck if you play them now without rose-colored glasses. I sure as hell wouldn't have the patience to play through Viewtiful Joe now if it only let me save at the end of every chapter and after 3 lives I had to start at the save point. The only reason NES games are tolerable to me now is because emulators let you save state anywhere.

Of course, it's like I said above, if you enjoy that it's fine. I just don't want it forced on me. Something akin to Soldier of Fortune, limited saves on harder difficulty settings, is fine with me. I just want a choice.

I think VJ was just about perfect in its save system.  Sure you have to go back a little if you die, but in doing so you become a better player.  You discover new ways to destroy your opponents more effectively and lose less life so you can take the challenges that come.  I think the game would lose a great deal if you could save after every minor victory.  Its inconvenient at times when real life calls and you have yet to reach a save point, but the game is so entertaining that I don't mind repeating certain parts and look at it as an opportunity to string together more impressive looking combos.

I can't help but think a lot of those that are bitching about the save points (In VJ, I can see the problem with some other games) are relatively new gamers.  I know that doesn't apply to all with that opinion, but maybe some of you should fire up an NES emulator and play some old school games like the original Castlevania, or Battletoads.  That was difficult.  I welcome the return of challenging games where you actually have to develop skill with the game rather than the quicksave key.

Wow, I uh.. Hm. You thought the jumping puzzles in castlevania were hard? I thought they were kind of annoying, but since almost all of them were self contained (ie: a single room, or falling reset you back to the start, with no penalty), I didn't think they were THAT bad.

In fact, I kinda thought the whole game was pretty easy. I rented it, beat it, played around with some of the unlockable stuff, and returned it.

I felt as though it was a decent game, but not worth a $50 purchase price.

I agree with everything Pyro says except the part where he plays Viewtiful Joe and Castlevania.  As a couple of masochists here have demonstrated there's still a market that's quite satisfied with the style of these games, and there was a time where I included myself amonst them.  At some point, I grew tired of the artificial extension, and I didn't really care about getting better at this kind of game.  I was drawn in more by the computer gaming experience, and I grew spoiled by its approach and style.  I just won't put up with save points anymore, and I don't buy for a second the 'it makes it more tense' comment.  I agree some gamers want that ... that's why games include optional modes of play that might limit saves.  Developers: Note the word Optional!

Anyway, Pyro, maybe it's time to admit that you're just not harcore enough for these games anymore.  That you've turned soft and mushy like Sway.  I mean you have an old man with a pipe as your avatar for these articles ... maybe you're not 'hip' anymore.  You should probably just load up solitare.

- Elysium

Gone soft? Why back in my day I'd walk uphill both ways for a little piece of Mega Man action. I'd take you to task right now with my mad jumping puzzle skills if my knees hadn't gone bad from some shrapnel in the Console Wars of twenty-ought-one. Let me tell you, those were the times. Back in ninteen-dickety-six there were consoles and fanboi's, or as we liked to call them "Nerdy McWhiner's Parsnips", but it was nothing compared to the War, or as I like to call it "Old Bitchy". You see in Old Bitchy, I fought in the Microsoft corps. Why I even took shrapnel from a grenade, or as we liked to call them "Angry Pinapple Men", fired by George Brussard himself. It's true I tells ya! Took out 30 Nintendonians with a handgun and a can of tomato paste. Why you little, don't walk away from me! Just let me get my cane and I'll fix you good!

The issues Pyro raises here are the reason I haven't owned a console system since the original NES.  Just too many of the games involve endlessly repeating the same boring levels over and over again if you're even a micron short of some stupid jump.

There is simply no valid reason not to give people the option to save whenever they want.  My question to all the badass console gamers defending save points here is why the hell can't developers make them optional in every game?  If you like them because they make the game more difficult, then choose that option when you fire up the game and let the rest of us save whenever we want.  Or do you lack the self-control to choose the more difficult route if saving any time is an option?

Life is too short.  I could get shot on my way to work, and I don't want the last hours of my life to be spent repeating the last level of Viewtiful Joe 50 times.

That is the beauty of emulation.  Most emulators implement a very basic feature of save states.  They take a snapshot of the game world in memory and save it to the hard drive, allowing infinite continues.  It does nothing to hamper the experience.  As a matter of fact it enhances the nostalgia remembering when I had the twitch skills to successfully beat the stages.  It also gives a chance to see the ending of games that were near impossible to beat.

Personally I am very glad games are getting challenging again. I play games to be challenged. To accomplish difficult goals, thats where the satisfaction in completing them comes from. I was sick to death of wave after wave of stupidly easy games, now its returning to where it should be. If you want a cake walk where you are handed everything, go watch a movie.

I wasn't implying hard games are bad. I want games to be hard in good ways, not hard in "jump over this pole 1800 times until you get lucky". That was my point, that mindless repitition is what sucks, not the difficulty. Hence the "Wrong Kind of Difficulty" title. Difficulty is fine and dandy in the right places.

No one is saying they don't want a challenging game.  We're saying we don't want mindless repetition to replace a challenge.  I love challenging games, games that make me think.  To me (key phrase there) finding the millisecond to jump onto an electrified moving pad is bad enough, but to have to go back ten minutes before that irritation and slog through a part I'd already completed because the lack of a save makes the game 'more tense' is right up there with getting my arm caught in a conveyor belt on the fun-o-meter.

- Elysium

Wow, it's like two mouths on one brain.

I agree, I do not like mindless repitition, and there are some games out there that are nothing but and I agree with you guys on them.  But Viewtiful Joe?  Come on...  Elysium, have you played it?

Yes, finding that narrow window of opportunity to leap between multiple electrified pads can be incredibly frustrating, but if a game has that spot on tight control you can blame no one but yourself.  That's part of the challenge.  Sure you can usually fumble your way past a difficult part by doing it the wrong way and getting hit multiple times, then if the option exists do a quick save, but then you would totally miss discovering the correct way to get through without being harmed.  With games like VJ that is part of the fun in their design for me.  For awhile there I was on a PC only gaming spree and had a lot of the scorn for limited saves (not quite to the degree expressed by some here), but now I've managed to rediscover the fun in console games and have actually been playing them more than PC.

Would you guys who want more save points accept receiving a poorer ending for finishing the game that way?  Or maybe not unlocking a hidden character?  That would be the only way I see including the option would work.  The guy who went through the hard way should be rewarded with something more.

No, and I'm not slamming the game.  I can just tell it's not my cup of tea. 

Wow, it's like two mouths on one brain.

Yes but I type faster.


by Elysium on Nov 03, 2003 - 02:57 PM

by Pyroman[FO] on Nov 03, 2003 - 02:58 PM


You were saying....

HA HA!   </nelson>

I'm sorry but that's just plain wrong.  Just because someone enjoys only having two save points in an entire 20 hour game doesn't mean he should have access to more stuff than me.

By your scenario above, the guy who saves immediately after getting hit multiple times is the one doing it the hard way, because he's hurt and has to continue on that way, while the guy that reapeats the sequence ad nauseum to get it right will have more health by the time he is done and therefore has a greater chance of survival.  That is not considered "tense" in my book.

I was going under the assumption that the guy would restart at his last save point with full health if he died thus making the game terribly easy.

Either way it doesn't really matter.  If a game is fun I'll play it no matter what save system it chooses to implement.  VJ just has a nice old style side scroller vibe to it, and I hope they don't decrease the difficulty in the sequels to appease the naysayers. 

"Now the save points are frequent, but annoying because they are the only way to get health in the game." - Not sure if you just meant it as sarcastic, but just in case, you have to find/buy health potions from the kook in the beginning of the game, the magic ticket teleports you back to him.

I got used to the jumping in Castlevania after a bit, but I'm pretty good at jumping in those type of games... but I also admit I hate repetitious jumping games... its a cheap way of making the game more challenging in my opinion. In this recent Castlevania there isn't too much jumping I think compared to other installments, yet poor camera angles make things rather tricky at times.

I enjoyed the game though all said, I'd give it a B- overall... but I'm also one who enjoys the nostalgia of the Castlevania games as a whole too... one especially lousy game mechanic I felt was having to repeatedly leave and enter a room to refresh and kill a certain type of monster over and over again to obtain relics. Finding relics is optional, but a particularly useful one required me to kill a monster type 240 times before I got the relic and that was with both the coin and raccoon charm equipped that increases your drop rate luck. I have to say that was some of the most pathetic, mind-numbing gaming ( or shall I say - pointless boredom) I have trudged and sadly, persevered through in a while...