Difficulty & Nostalgia

Hey there, Bombpeeps. After finishing the sublime Rayman: Origins, I was struck with how amazingly similar it was to a game that came out almost a year ago, Donkey Kong Country Returns. Not in any sort of accusatory sense, of course. Simply that there was a certain factor that both games seem to share, to the point of it almost being the focus: Their extreme difficulty. So this got me thinking about why these 2D platformers felt the need to challenge their presumably young target audience with such a restrictive level of difficulty. The product of some very focused ratiocination (translation: I thought about it while on the commode) lead to the following:

Super Meat Boy

The harbinger of tough times?

Obviously I can't blame Team Meat's masocore surprise hit for every challenging platformer since. That a small Indie game should influence two of the biggest game developers in the world would be a little unusual. I mean, except for Portal. And DOTA. But that's Valve, and they love the little guys as much as Gabe Newell loves knives and leaving his firewalls turned off. Ubisoft is essentially Euro EA (UPlay points!) and Nintendo almost seems to pride themselves on ignoring all modern trends regardless of their practicality or convenience.

But even so, Super Meat Boy set a precedence that had been strong in the very Indie market - as in, flash games on Newgrounds and Kongregate or five dollar games that are advertised in blogs that few people ever hear about until they inevitably show up in a charity bundle of some kind - where people could enjoy being brutalized by their video game if the controls and everything else were pleasing enough. Like how you'd let a dominatrix get away with anything if their boots were shiny and they used only the highest quality leather in their whips. Goodness, what dark places has this analogy gone? Masochistic games, then, seemed to become an overnight sensation once SMB (not that SMB, though I see what they did there) started selling like tormented hot cakes (Hot Topic cakes?). You have to imagine how much of that ringing success reached the ears of the higher-ups in Ubisoft and Nintendo.

Donkey Kong Country Returns

This game drove me bananas! I hate writing captions!

So we come to DKCR, an eleventh hour entry to the 2010 GOTYs and ostensible reboot of the highly-regarded Rare SNES platformers, an affection that generally doesn't extend to the blurry GB games or hiphop-impaired N64 entry. While the Donkey Kong Country games were considered challenging, largely due to any stage involving brambles or minecarts, they were still on par in that regard with every other platformer around the time. 16-bit was really the last era before the emergence of Super Meat Boy and its ilk where you would be sorely challenged to simply reach the end of any stage. After that, platformers seemed to be reorganized so they could be played and beaten by anyone yet only the best players could find the 300 golden whoosits, adequately opening up the game to casuals and experts alike, provided the latter group liked to arbitrarily collect shiny things.

DKCR, perhaps fallaciously, decided that the original games' difficulty is what made them so successful, rather than the incredible graphics and music (one has perhaps as aged better than the other) and likeable setting. The resulting reboot was this beautiful, cinematically dynamic (or dynamically cinematic? I'm getting less red under-lined words with that arrangement) "2D but with a bit of 3D but not at all 2.5D perish the thought" throwback that kids could enjoy until they got to the "big brother" point (adequately explained in that one Futurama episode I should really hunt down a clip for) far sooner than perhaps should be intended.

DKCR isn't the first reboot to return to the "Nintendo Hard" difficulty standard, obviously. We've had a couple of Bionic Commando XBLA games, the New Super Mario Bros Wii (though to be fair, that was made more difficult by the assholes you chose to play alongside with) and probably plenty of others that I'm not immediately recalling, but DKCR seemed like the first to really press the issue that our nostalgia for these retro games were linked to how frustrated we'd get at becoming intimately familiar with the Game Over screen, not putting two and two together that games were only overly difficult in those times because developers were still in the Arcade machine mindset which dictates that killing the player over and over was the best guarantee of earning oodles of quarters.

Rayman: Origins

Instead of coming up with a Rayman caption, I'm going to draw a little 90s skateboarder guy: qB)
9 Comments
9 Comments
Posted by Mento

Hey there, Bombpeeps. After finishing the sublime Rayman: Origins, I was struck with how amazingly similar it was to a game that came out almost a year ago, Donkey Kong Country Returns. Not in any sort of accusatory sense, of course. Simply that there was a certain factor that both games seem to share, to the point of it almost being the focus: Their extreme difficulty. So this got me thinking about why these 2D platformers felt the need to challenge their presumably young target audience with such a restrictive level of difficulty. The product of some very focused ratiocination (translation: I thought about it while on the commode) lead to the following:

Super Meat Boy

The harbinger of tough times?

Obviously I can't blame Team Meat's masocore surprise hit for every challenging platformer since. That a small Indie game should influence two of the biggest game developers in the world would be a little unusual. I mean, except for Portal. And DOTA. But that's Valve, and they love the little guys as much as Gabe Newell loves knives and leaving his firewalls turned off. Ubisoft is essentially Euro EA (UPlay points!) and Nintendo almost seems to pride themselves on ignoring all modern trends regardless of their practicality or convenience.

But even so, Super Meat Boy set a precedence that had been strong in the very Indie market - as in, flash games on Newgrounds and Kongregate or five dollar games that are advertised in blogs that few people ever hear about until they inevitably show up in a charity bundle of some kind - where people could enjoy being brutalized by their video game if the controls and everything else were pleasing enough. Like how you'd let a dominatrix get away with anything if their boots were shiny and they used only the highest quality leather in their whips. Goodness, what dark places has this analogy gone? Masochistic games, then, seemed to become an overnight sensation once SMB (not that SMB, though I see what they did there) started selling like tormented hot cakes (Hot Topic cakes?). You have to imagine how much of that ringing success reached the ears of the higher-ups in Ubisoft and Nintendo.

Donkey Kong Country Returns

This game drove me bananas! I hate writing captions!

So we come to DKCR, an eleventh hour entry to the 2010 GOTYs and ostensible reboot of the highly-regarded Rare SNES platformers, an affection that generally doesn't extend to the blurry GB games or hiphop-impaired N64 entry. While the Donkey Kong Country games were considered challenging, largely due to any stage involving brambles or minecarts, they were still on par in that regard with every other platformer around the time. 16-bit was really the last era before the emergence of Super Meat Boy and its ilk where you would be sorely challenged to simply reach the end of any stage. After that, platformers seemed to be reorganized so they could be played and beaten by anyone yet only the best players could find the 300 golden whoosits, adequately opening up the game to casuals and experts alike, provided the latter group liked to arbitrarily collect shiny things.

DKCR, perhaps fallaciously, decided that the original games' difficulty is what made them so successful, rather than the incredible graphics and music (one has perhaps as aged better than the other) and likeable setting. The resulting reboot was this beautiful, cinematically dynamic (or dynamically cinematic? I'm getting less red under-lined words with that arrangement) "2D but with a bit of 3D but not at all 2.5D perish the thought" throwback that kids could enjoy until they got to the "big brother" point (adequately explained in that one Futurama episode I should really hunt down a clip for) far sooner than perhaps should be intended.

DKCR isn't the first reboot to return to the "Nintendo Hard" difficulty standard, obviously. We've had a couple of Bionic Commando XBLA games, the New Super Mario Bros Wii (though to be fair, that was made more difficult by the assholes you chose to play alongside with) and probably plenty of others that I'm not immediately recalling, but DKCR seemed like the first to really press the issue that our nostalgia for these retro games were linked to how frustrated we'd get at becoming intimately familiar with the Game Over screen, not putting two and two together that games were only overly difficult in those times because developers were still in the Arcade machine mindset which dictates that killing the player over and over was the best guarantee of earning oodles of quarters.

Rayman: Origins

Instead of coming up with a Rayman caption, I'm going to draw a little 90s skateboarder guy: qB)
Moderator
Posted by McGhee

I don't mind old school difficulty. What I mind is old school game design. Make it hard, but give me check points. There are too many good games out there for me to replay the same shit over and over again just to get to that one part that kills me. That's one of the things that Dark Souls did better than Demon's Souls. The bonfires made it a bit easier to get back to where you died.

Posted by Video_Game_King

@Mento said:

That time of the month again,

You're becoming a woman? (That's really all I had to say for this blog. I read through the Donkey Kong part, but could only nod and say, "OK.")

Posted by Mento

@McGhee: The RPG angle would've been an equally viable path to take. While Japan's mad love of Wizardry led to every JRPG and the various quirks they've acquired many generations later, there's a huge market for games that still directly pander to lovers of brutally uncompromising old-school dungeon crawling. I think Dark Souls is probably the most accessible yet, but Mystery Dungeon and King's Field have been going for ages over there.

@Video_Game_King: Phrasing has never been my strong suit. Maybe that will change as I embark on my new life as Mentorella.

Moderator
Edited by MooseyMcMan

I would ask JC what JC stands for. If it wasn't "Johnny Cool" I would be disappointed.

Posted by ArbitraryWater

I can recall the later levels in DKC2 specifically being a special kind of frustrating, not even counting the bramble ones. Or the rollercoaster ones. Having not touched my Nintendo Wagglebox in a while though, I cannot personally vouch for any sort of difficulty in regards to DKCR. I hear its pretty good, and I'd probably be up for it considering my current Dark Souls state of self loathing. Perhaps during holiday break...

For the most part, kids are better at video games than we give them credit for, thanks to their youthful reflexes and near-infinite amount of free time to figure out stuff. That, and let's face it: Both games you mentioned aren't really aimed at kids. Sure, they have their cutsey characters and great art styles and whatnot, but we all know that the real targets are the people who played a lot of Donkey Kong Country and Rayman 2 back in the day, even if I have no idea how hard Rayman 2 is because I literally have never played it despite the dozens of platforms it has been ported to from its PS1 and N64 debut.

Posted by Sarumarine

The thing I remember most from the SNES Donkey Kong Country games were the mine cart and bramble stages. One had breakneck pacing (as you could never stop to collect yourself with plenty of tricky jumps) while the other offered death in all directions if you didn't jump or barrel blast your way properly. But the music in those stages provided my favorite songs like "Disco Train" and "Stickerbrush Symphony".

I suppose Super Meat Boy has that on both counts with insanely catchy music and difficulty in spades.

Posted by Commisar123

I'm not a huge fan of hard games, but I can appreciate it. It took me bringing in a friend to beat Rayman so your not alone in that.

Posted by big_jon

Great write up, great games.