Why Were Retro Games More Difficult Than Modern Games?

Are developers becoming lazy with simplistic game designs or are there factors to consider?

Many adult gamers say that modern video games are easier than the classic retro games we played when we were younger.  Some feel that that joy of overcoming the odds and finally completing a difficult level is a thing of the past.  Are developers becoming lazy with simplistic game designs or are there factors to consider?

Join me as we look at some of the reasons that retro games were more difficult than modern video games.

Poor Game Design Decisions Due to No Experience

The truth is that many classic games were difficult for the wrong reasons.  As video games have evolved, many of the poor decisions that increased the difficulty by frustrating players have been eradicated.

These days, many people have a pre-defined idea of what a video game should be.  Back when the video game industry was in its infancy, however, there were no generally accepted best-practices to take into account when developing a game.  Everything was new and developers did not have game design experience, experience of playing many games, or education resources to teach the fundamentals. Developers basically tested a variety of concepts and designs to see what felt “right” to them.  Some of their ideas were successes and others were major failures.  Many of those failures were not just irritating but also turned the difficulty dial up to 11.

Over the years, those successes and failures have been refined and built upon to make gaming what it is today.  While modern games are generally less innovative than what came before (though there are exceptions), they benefit from the lessons learned from the decades of experimentation.

One Hit and It’s Game Over!

Many retro games were unforgiving. Players often lost a life when their character got hit once, meaning that players couldn’t afford to make a single mistake. This was accepted as being “normal” back in the day, and it greatly increased the difficulty of many games as players could lose hours of progress due to one mistake.

Rush’n Attack and Silver Surfer are two notorious examples of this horrible system. Silver Surfer takes it to the next level because Silver Surfer dies when he touches anything – even a wall.  Yes, a wall.

This was made worse when arcades were king.  Some companies ported their arcade games to consoles with very few changes tailor them to their new audience. These ports were, more often than not, poorly received.  Owners of arcades wanted one-hit deaths to lure youngsters to spend all of their quarters, and it was a smart business decision. However, players with video game consoles were not paying with quarters, and that system did not translate to an enjoyable experience on a home console.

Most modern games don’t feature one-hit kills, and those that do are normally catering to a niche, diehard audience.  Modern games usually allow players to take some punishment and dish it out in return. There is more room for error in most cases.

Lack of Direction

Some retro games didn’t directly tell players where to go or give hints for the next steps to take. Players often got lost with no obvious way forward. The best example of this flawed approach is The Legend of Zelda, which provides ambiguous hints which lead to total confusion. Most gamers needed a guide to discover that the final dungeon was hidden inside a random hill accessible only with a bomb because the game didn’t make it clear enough.

Most modern games give clear and direct instructions for your next mission or at least provide detailed hints. Players usually have a clear understanding of the current objective, even if they need to stop to put together the hints that the game is giving.  Modern games handle this in different ways but show that they have learned from the mistakes made in the past.  For example, Final Fantasy games typically hold players’ hands to the end while The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of The Wild encourages exploration and discovery.  Despite both taking different approaches, they ensure that the experience isn’t one filled with frustration.

Some Retro Games Were Intentionally Difficult

It goes without saying that some retro games were intentionally created to be extremely difficult. Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels (Super Mario Bros. 2 in Japan) was intentionally designed from the ground up to be a very difficult game. It has unfair levels with insane placements for enemies and items. The developers also included a poisonous mushroom which looks similar to the normal mushroom to trick players, leading to instant death if touched.  This was a punishment which befell me and a generation of young and foolish gamers back in the day.

Most modern players don’t enjoy being frustrated by a seemingly impossible game, with those that do falling into a Dark Souls niche.  Modern games at least tend to have difficulty settings, which allow players to choose the experience that they want to have.  Most players are happy with a “normal” difficulty setting, though many also elect for easy modes when they are available.  This is the reason that Capcom added easy modes to recent Mega Man games, despite classic instalments in the franchise having the reputation of being very difficult games.

Modern Games Are Usually Easier for the Right Reasons

Thanks to decades of experience to build upon and developments in technology, modern games generally have higher standards than the games that came before.  Developers understand how to create a playable game, adopting the accepted blueprint of their chosen genre before adding their own spin on the formula.  Many modern game developers experienced the horrors of the difficulty of retro games and have an understanding of how to design enjoyable games that provide a deliberate challenge where appropriate.

Any player with a basic understanding of a game can eventually succeed in modern games.  Most modern games have difficulty spikes, but they present challenges which have been designed to be overcome.  For example, the Lynel is one of the strongest bosses in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild. He challenges the player’s skills, but a player who understands the game and who has the right equipment can handle the challenge.  It isn’t an infuriating experience – everyone knows that the challenges they will face can be overcome.

It’s Also Easier to Get Help Now

The internet has played a major role in making games easier – YouTube in particular, as mentioned in Reflecting on YouTube’s Impact on Gaming. Before we were adult gamers, we used to have to rely on word of mouth from classmates and game guides to beat levels. We did not have the internet for help passing a level, finding the next event, or defeating a boss. A game like Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest was very difficult to complete due to the lack of information and the poor design of kneeling in a corner to create a tornado.

These days, gamers can now just watch a person beat a game before trying it for themselves. This takes away much of the challenge from modern games, as players can watch and copy another player’s strategy to progress, but at least the help is readily available when needed. I personally prefer to beat a game on my terms and embrace the game with a fresh mindset, but accept that many players do not experiment weapons and strategies to overcome challenges.  To each their own.

Video Game Difficulty Will Continue to Change

Classic games are not inherently “bad” just because they feature some frustrating game decision decisions.  It’s important to remember how mind-blowing these experiences were before 4K screens and near photo-realistic visuals were a thing.  To some younger gamers, these retro games are ugly, infuriating messes, but to many adult gamers, they are cherished childhood memories, regardless of their difficulty.

Video game difficulty, and indeed, video games themselves, will continue to change.  New generations of gamers become game developers and use their experience of gaming to take the medium in new directions.  There are certain accepted mechanics from today that we will one day look back on as being unfair, clunky, or just broken.  Likewise, there are mechanics in gaming today that will continue to be used in video games decades from now.  Let’s just enjoy the ride.