Nintendo Was Hard, Is That Important?

I’ve been playing Metal Gear Solid 4 recently, and I’m quite pleased with the game.  Really, any game that starts off with a fake interview with the actor who voices the main character, dressed up like the main character, but promoting something other than the game…

Oh, and the actor’s name is David, and then later in the game Snake’s “mom” calls HIM David…

It’s all so meta, it gets me all tingly.

Anyway, certain flashbacks during cut scenes in MGS4 feature images from earlier games.  I was especially curious about the flashbacks that feature 8-bit graphics, not having realized that Metal Gear existed before Metal Gear Solid.  So I went out and hunted down the first Metal Gear – for the Nintendo Entertainment System – and tried to play it.  And I discovered something.

It’s fucking hard.

It’s really god damn difficult.  It’s unforgiving.  It offers the player almost zero guidance, no room for error, no notes or maps or way-points.  Take the radio as an example: in MGS4 every time you learn a new frequency for someone you can call, that frequency gets marked on your radio.  In the original you’re simply told the frequency and expected to either write it down or remember it.  And if you miss the frequency, if you just skip through the dialog box, there’s no going back.  That’s it.  You will never be told that frequency again unless you start the game over.

Sure, there are games that are hard now, like Call of Duty on the Veteran difficulty setting.  But those games are hard because you die faster.  Think about it: are you ever at a loss as to where to go or what to do next in CoD?  More than that, if you die in CoD you start from the last checkpoint.  Remember where you started when you ran out of lives in Contra?

Games used to kick your ass and then spit on you.  And then laugh at you when you cried and tell you that if you didn’t hand over your lunch money every damn morning they’d rape your dog.

I know I’m not the first to notice that games used to be much, much harder.  I know that much of the blame for that difficulty lies at the feet of the arcades, where harder games meant more revenue.  I also know that the decline in difficulty comes hand in hand with the expansion of the market, the efforts of game developers to reach out to new, less “hardcore,” consumers.  And there’s a raft of other reasons, mostly revolving around the technology, save files, length of new games, yadda, yadda, yadda.

But is it important?  Or: how important is difficulty to games, and what does the loss of certain kinds of difficulty mean for games as a medium?

I’m going to meditate on these questions for a while and try and get back to you.  Hey, nobody ever said that understanding the artistic implications of difficulty would come easy.



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