So, the posts have kind of slowed down a bit, haven’t they? Yeah, about that… Life’s been kicking my ass pretty good lately, and I haven’t had much in the way of time. What time I did have for the blog, I’ve been devoting to the next post in my Saints Row Retrospective series, which, as you may guess, take a little while to finish up. With luck, that should be coming down the pipe sometime this month. I know that’s not going to be good enough for you, though. I know you’re just pleading “Please, Aether! I love your wit and intelligence and beauty! Please give me some or your glorious content!” Well, don’t worry. I haven’t forgotten you. In fact, I wrote this entire post, all just for you. Yes, you personally. This one’s yours.
I beat the Xbox Ninja Gaiden recently. It’s kind of a hard game, you may have heard. And it expects you to be just as hard in return. However, there’s a lot of hard games out there. That’s not unique. What is unique is that Ninja Gaiden actually makes its difficulty fun. It’s easy to make something hard, making that difficulty engaging takes a lot more work. In this world of video games, there’s good difficulty, and there’s bad difficulty. But what makes that difficulty good or bad? Well, there’s a lot of ways to do it. Let’s dive into Ninja Gaiden, and figure out how they made it work.
One thing that a lot of these games that are known and beloved for being difficult have in common is that they seem have a consistent concept behind their difficulty. This concept is usually different for each game, but it’s applied evenly throughout. For example, the Megami Tensei series’ difficulty is usually about always staying on your toes, taking advantage of weaknesses while minimizing your own, and building strategies to counteract your opponents’. Contra’s all about balancing your offense and defense and figuring out when to attack and when to dodge. Ninja Gaiden’s all about dealing with gangs of enemies and picking your moments to attack.
Not every good hard game is going to have a difficulty that can be broken down into such simple concepts, but it’s a definite benefit for the ones that can. It makes the challenge seem a lot more deliberate, like it was built into the game as a purposeful experience rather than being there just ‘cuz. Ninja Gaiden was mostly solid with its concept around general gameplay, but not quite so much with its bosses. Perhaps that’s part of the reason the boss fights just weren’t as good as mowing down hordes of fiends was. Luckily, the bosses don’t take up that much of the game.
Challenge vs. Punishment
This is the absolute hallmark of a quality difficult game. Sure, you can make your game hard by making it merciless, laying nasty consequences on a player for the slightest slip ups. You’re not going to make a good game that way, though. If you make the player lose all their resources and spend half an hour getting back to where they were every time they fail at some, yeah, that’s going to make it hard. But it’s going to make it frustrating, not entertaining. The entertainment is going to come from conquering adversity, from putting up a good fight against opponents, from breaking through a difficult puzzle. You want to give your players plenty of opportunity to make mistakes, but you don’t want those mistakes to cost them greatly. You want your difficulty to be positive, to add to the game. And what does punishment add but wasted time regaining what you once had and doing what you’ve already done. Moreover, you want your difficulty to challenge the player’s skill, not their patience.
Ninja Gaiden was really good at this factor, for its time at least. Health potions are cheap, dying simply restarts you at the last save point, and you can reload with just one button press. It does seem a little dated now, though, and pushing you all the way back to the save point seems unnecessary in comparison with modern games, especially once you get to the endgame and save points become much less frequent.
Organic vs. Mechanical
When you’re playing a game, you want to be competing with the in-game enemy, not the developers. You’re fighting against your antagonists, not the systems that make up the game. This is one sin that Ninja Gaiden is particularly guilty of; I lost several lives in this game due to good old fashioned camera screw. Basically, you want the mechanics of the game to be working with you; if you’re losing because of the gameplay systems rather than what skills your enemy may have, or if you’re winning in spite of the mechanics unreasonably working against you, there’s a problem. A game with sluggish controls and a poor camera would be difficult, yes, but it wouldn’t be fun. Dying because some rule or other suddenly changes on you is just a recipe for frustration. Instead, you want your challenge to come from something outside the player’s direct control, something that goes up against their skills rather than taking advantage of some quirk in the code.
The player needs to have the tools to deal with anything thrown at them. That means they need to have the mechanisms in gameplay to meet that challenge, the information necessary to make some kind of judgement on it, and the controls suitable for putting it in action. For example, the final boss of FTL has a shield that requires a certain type of weapon to break through. The universe is randomly generated, though, so it’s entirely possible you won’t even see that weapon by the time you get to the end. So you don’t have the gameplay mechanism to meet the challenge. That’s bad difficulty. If an enemy can use attacks without telegraphing or giving the player time to react when the systems rely on that to work, that’s bad difficulty. If you have a move perfect for dealing with an enemy but it requires a button combination that’s difficult to pull off consistently so you can’t use it when you need to, that’s bad difficulty.
Ninja Gaiden actually fulfills this factor rather perfectly, in combat. That’s probably one of the game’s biggest strengths, and why it’s able to pull its difficulty off so well. The combat controls are silky smooth, you always have just the right weapons and abilities to deal with your opponents, and you’ve got a split second to make the decisions you need to in dealing with any enemy. It does fall apart in the platforming sections, however. The controls that were previously great for combat just aren’t precise enough for the platforming, giving rise to a lot of frustration and bad difficulty. Those parts of the game just aren’t fair, and as a result, they just aren’t fun.