Somewhere around 2008, a shadowy council of indie game developers gathered under cover of nightfall, their faces etched with deep squint-lines from staring into their ColecoVisions way past their bedtimes. “These gamer kids,” one of them intoned with a voice like wet gravel, “have it too goddamned easy. Somebody needs to make ’em remember when games were the face of a cold, hostile universe that hated them, personally, and wanted them to go to bed stressed.”
And so a flood of platformers, the primary function of which was to make you unhappy, hit the market. They had no difficulty setting aside from “tears of impotent rage”; these indie nightmares ratcheted the Nintendo Hard trope up to eleven, combining 8-bit nostalgia with sadomasochism. YouTubers uploaded ragequit videos of whichever game they were playing that week, gleefully howling about how unfair the game was being. This created an ouroboros of consumer and developer; gamers snapped these abominations up as quickly as crusty game developers could churn them out.
The point of games like Super Meat Boy, I Wanna Be The Guy and Stealth Bastard is not to be good–they just have to be hard enough to earn you Important Gaming Cred if you spend enough hours screaming at them. This is based on the supposition that modern gaming has become too cushy, that you’re not supposed to enjoy playing them because enjoying games is for people who play Candy Crush.
There’s a reason we tolerated impossibly hard games as children, and it’s nothing to be nostalgic about. We had seemingly infinite free time and could spend untold hours hovering in front of our consoles like sad poltergeists until we’d finally memorized the layout of each level and could avoid their cascades of bats and spikes. It was a bragging point that meant something as a kid, because kids are easily impressed, and everybody had a cousin who “totally beat Battletoads without dying on the hoverbike stage.” And you couldn’t just permanently ragequit one of the seven games you owned, because you never knew when you’d be able to pick up another game. You had to make The Karate Kid worth the purchase no matter how many times you fell to your death.
In order to look back fondly on the halcyon days of 8-bit gaming, we necessarily have to divorce them from the circumstances under which they happened. Game developers didn’t particularly have to worry about quality, because they knew that parents were going to buy these games without checking for critical acclaim (“Boogerman, eh? Well, we’ll just see what NINTENDO POWER MAGAZINE HAS TO SAY ABOUT THAT.”) Publisher LJN, in particular, hastily released a slew of profoundly shitty and impossible movie tie-ins like Friday the 13th and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and made good money doing it. The ancient, tough-as-old-oatmeal games that modern indie developers lionize were so difficult because developers were under the gun to produce them as quickly as possible, never mind produce something people would want to play. And the players ate it up because they didn’t know better. If a kid can’t land the plane in Top Gun, they don’t blame the developers for giving them a slapdash product; they assume it’s their fault for not being clever enough to jiggle the controls just so.
As adults, we have so many more gaming options and so much less free time. This isn’t to say that games shouldn’t be difficult, even maddening at points. So many great games have That One Level that fans talk about with a mixture of frustration and awe (so many members of Generation Y will probably mumble “water temple” as their death rattle decades from now), and games that just happen to be difficult are perfectly fine. When there’s such a huge degree of fetishization about difficulty, however, and the whole point of the game is How Hard It Is, that isn’t the same thing as being Good or, more importantly, Actually Fun.
It’s like hot sauce. If it makes your nose hairs curl in fear, that’s perfectly fine as long as it actually, you know, tastes good. If the whole point of a hot sauce is “lolol chewin’ on my own seared mouth flesh doodle doo” instead of using it to enhance the taste of the dish itself, you’re not even eating; it’s just a vehicle for suffering. All heat, no flavor, mostly done to impress other people. The main thing I’m trying to get across here is that nobody cares about how many habaneros you can cram into your eye sockets without crying, and nobody is staring longingly at your speed run of Super Meat Boy, wishing they were you.