There seems to be a lot of opinions about difficulty in games these days, especially in terms of comparing it to how hard games used to be in the “good old days.” The general consensus, especially among gamers of a certain age – of which my crusty 34 year old self is part of, before you think I’m being ageist – is that things were better back when games were more challenging, and games today are just far too easy. Are games today largely easier than the games of 30, 20, even 10 years ago? Sure. Is that a bad thing? I say no. In fact, I say that rather than looking at it as modern games being dumbed down, I see it is modern games being more streamlined, more user friendly, and more designed for modern gamers in mind – gamers who are largely adults and have far less time to spend playing games than they used to and far less patience for the often obtuse nature of old-school video games.
By and large, video games were based in the world of arcades for much of their infancy. They were either actual arcade games, home ports of arcade games, or home games designed with an arcade mentality. And what was the actual business side of an arcade machine? To try to get you to keep pumping quarter after quarter into it, which was accomplished by killing you repeatedly and as quickly as possible. That’s essentially how games were designed – to work against you. Game companies wouldn’t make much money if arcade games were too easy or even too “fair.” You would eventually get better at them and not have to continue quite as much as time went on, but it still cost you dearly to get there. When games came home, much of that approach seemed to stay intact, only you couldn’t physically put quarters into your NES – and luckily Hiroshi Yamauchi never came up with a way for that to happen or he most certainly would have implemented it – so when you’d run out of lives in a game, for many games they simply just ended and you’d have to start all over again. Even older games with continues usually limited them pretty severely – unlimited continues without the use of a cheat code or Game Genie was a rare thing before the advent of widespread battery backup in the 16 bit days. And there really wasn’t any “reason” for games to be so hard on you other than that was just how games always were. That’s how they were in the arcades, so it just carried on that way. Much like score tracking carried on in video games long after most of us paid any attention to or competed for high scores, just out of a sense of tradition. Super Mario World had an on-screen score display – how many people ever even noticed it? As the industry shifted from being based around the arcade scene to home gaming being the primary way that most gamers played and most developers created games, things began to change. Games got increasingly less “cheap” as there was no reason to feel compelled to kill players as quickly as possible – they already paid their money, so it didn’t really matter if they beat the game on one live or 500. It was with that shackle being removed that developers were free to actually design their games better, more smartly, more evenly challenging, and could have levels that ramped up in difficulty and actually let you have a level or two to breath and learn the mechanics and get the vibe of the game down without immediately throwing nearly insurmountable odds at you. Again, I see that as a natural evolution of game difficulty rather than being a downgrading of it. Games weren’t getting easier, they were just getting more fair, which I will choose any day of the week.
The other part of this is how most gamers now are adults, and most gamers in the 80’s and 90’s were kids and teenagers. Kids have a lot more patience for difficult games than adults do, but more relevantly, kids have more time for games than adults do. Games like the original installments of Metroid and The Legend of Zelda were built around the idea of these big, open worlds that gave you very little guidance as to where to go or what to do next. In both cases, you had to just wander around aimlessly, and even literally just shoot at or place bombs by every inch of wall, burn every single bush, or even just trying walking into every solid surface until you literally just accidentally stumbled upon the next area you needed to be in. And it wasn’t as if that type of blind exploration was just for secret areas, either – it was frequently what you needed to do to get to the next mandatory part of the game.
All of that was great – when I was 8. Would any of us as adults in our 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and beyond really, truly want to do that in a game anymore? I certainly wouldn’t. Fond as I am of both of those games, they were definitely products of a very specific time, both in gaming history and in the ages of the average player of that time. To have games like that now that have maps, hints, visual cues as to where you might need to place those bombs, and other such things doesn’t scream dumbed down to me. It just feels, again, like evolution of game design. Obviously there is a middle ground between completely blind exploration and games that have bright, blinking arrows highlighting everything, but anything that even approaches a hint I don’t take as an insult to my gaming prowess. My being older isn’t just about having less patience, it’s having less respect for cheap game design with unnecessary padding out of game lengths, and more respect for a really well-designed, streamlined adventure that feels challenging to both my brain and my fingers but still largely keeps me moving forward. And speaking of my age, and the age of gamers in the old days, is that games used to be designed with the assumption that you probably were going to have to play that game for months and months and months, because unless you had rich and/or gamer parents (the latter of which wasn’t the most common thing prior to the last couple of generations), you probably didn’t get 10 new games a year. The game companies knew this, so they designed games that were made to last – and often, that longevity came in the form of that extremely high challenge or those hours of aimless wandering. We don’t need every game we buy to last us for an entire year anymore. That’s fine for the occasional RPG or Minecraft-type game or whatever, but I like most of my games to be beatable in 10-20 hours, and for those 10-20 hours to comprise more actual progress than retries. I know I can only speak for myself here, but I have to imagine most gamers in the neighborhood of my age feel the same way. If I choose to put that much time into a game, it should be because I want to, because there is extra stuff to find or side missions to do or achievements to unlock or I just liked the story enough to experience it again. Not because the game was needlessly difficult and just took me that long to claw my way through it.
Yes, modern games tend to hold our hand a bit. They make us play through tutorials that seem to be designed for people who are playing video games for the very first time in their entire life. They don’t trust us enough to explore and find things on our own and basically drag us from thing to thing. I’m not defending any of that. All I’m saying is that an “easy” game shouldn’t automatically be considered worse than a “hard” game, and that games as a whole being easier than they used to be is as much an improvement in game design as it is a dumbing down of it. It varies from game to game, of course, but I for one am able to see past my nostalgia for the days of games bum-rushing you from the moment you hit start, making you keep starting completely over in order to get just a little farther and a little better each time, and forcing you to stumble around punching and shooting random walls as improvement in game design rather than a step back. The games today that try and hearken back to the supposed good old days of challenge in a video game, your Super Meat Boys and your Dark Souls and the like, I see more as reminders of how far games have come, rather than welcome throwbacks to a “better era.”