Okay then, a confession: I'm not especially good at videogames. I have my moments, and there are some games that I would say I'm "good" at, but on the whole I'm a lot worse at videogames than you might expect for someone who spends so much of his time playing the damn things. Things used to be different, though. I used to be better. I completed Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts, once upon a memory. I've beaten Salamander without letting my ship blow up once. I did things I can't do now, and that's because I've gotten soft. Modern games are easier than retro games - everyone knows that. Games back then treated the player with nothing but scorn and contempt, and the NES in particular has a reputation as the home of some famously brutal titles.So, a challenge. I'm going to play some NES games - all of which I've played before, but not recently - and see how fast I die. I'll try to get through them quickly but not recklessly, and in a pretty inaccurate and totally unscientific way I'll time how long it takes for me to lose my first life and to reach the Game Over or Continue screen. In the end, I might even figure out which NES game wants me dead the most. Now, where to start...
Super Mario Bros., Nintendo, 1985
Think of this one as the control sample, the baseline, the warm introduction to a world of pain. Everyone's played Super Mario Bros., or at least nearly everyone and certainly most people who would be likely to read this, so it should provide a decent idea about the kind of difficulty level I'm starting out at.
SMB is an easy game, or at least that's what Nintendo want you to believe - it actually gets pretty tough towards the end, but the difficulty curve is so perfectly judged that you barely even notice the gradually increasing challenge.
First Death: 9 minutes, 9 seconds.
The first two worlds flew by as the knowledge of innumerable hours I spent playing this game as a child came flooding back. It helps that SMB's controls are precise and finely-tuned, meaning you can always tell what's going to happen when you press the buttons. Well, almost always. This screenshot from World 3-1 doesn't show Mario, but it does show the thing that killed him. Yep, I misjudged the springboard platform and instead of soaring up to the top of the screen I did a feeble little sproing and fell down a hole. Whoops.
Game Over: 18 minutes, 29 seconds.
I made it all the way to World 5-2 before cockiness, over-familiarity and the business end of an evil turtle's hammer put an end to my mushroom-stomping rampage. I could have made it a lot further if I'd taken more time to collect some extra lives, and further still if I'd been concentrating properly. Notably, of the five or so times I died, this Hammer Bro was the only enemy that managed to kill me - every other death was the result of Mario falling into one of the many bottomless pits that litter the Mushroom Kingdom. It really is a terrifying place.
Ninja Gaiden, Tecmo, 1989
Ninja Gaiden is often mentioned whenever people discuss the NES' most difficult games, and with good reason - after a relatively simple first level, it tries to kick you in the metaphorical balls every time you try to jump over a hole. I'm not too worried, though, because aside from SMB this is the game on this list that I've played the most. I reached the final boss, once. That won't be happening today, and before I've even started playing I'm remembering all the most deadly sections. There will be birds.
First Death: 5 minutes, 25 seconds.
I bloody knew it. After the gentle first stage, Ninja Gaiden's sadistic tendencies kick in by placing enemies on the tiny platforms you need to jump to. Not pictured: the American Football player / camo-wearing soldier who was charging in from the right and forcing me to hurry up. I bounced off the enemy and fell to my death. Dammit Hayabusa, aren't ninjas supposed to have grappling hooks and whatnot?
Game Over: 9 minutes, 16 seconds.
After traversing stage 2 and defeating its surprisingly easy boss, the yawning pits of doom once again proved too much for our ninja hero to handle. You'll notice that he's been clobbered by a hawk, some kind of mountain cat and the same dude with the sword who knocked me down the last hole, all at once.
Ninja Gaiden is difficult, and its difficulty is almost entirely down to one factor: enemies that are specifically placed to knock you down holes. Every hole, every gorge, every chasm, rift and canyon is patrolled by a foe with only one objective: get that ninja down that hole. It's usually a bird. Those goddamn birds.
Gradius, Konami, 1986
I know I say this every time I talk about a scrolling shooter in the Gradius style, but it's still true: I'm really, really bad at scrolling shoot-em-ups. This should be interesting!
First Death: 4 minutes, 59 seconds.
I don't know what gaming gods were smiling down on me, but I managed to get past the first stage's volcano section without dying. I... I don't think I've ever managed that before. If there was someone around who was weird enough to take the bet, I would have wagered a lot of money on the volcano providing my first death, but it wasn't to be and I reached stage two with a full complement of power-ups. Then I got to the repeatedly-spawning square robots and promptly flew into one.
Game Over: 7 minutes, 42 seconds.
Normally dying in Gradius is the beginning of the rapidly-approaching end, because you lose all your power-ups. That section that just killed you? Do it again, but with your firepower reduced to that of the Luxembourgian Navy. Somehow I managed to break past the square ships, only to let the Big Core fill me full of missiles.
Mega Man, Capcom, 1987
Mega Man? Pssh, I can do this. Easy. Piece of cake.
First Death: 22 seconds.
I missed the platform at the start of Gutsman's stage and once more fell to my death. Never mind, it's easily done. I'll just try it again...
Game Over: 1 minute, 51 seconds.
I didn't make it past those first three platforms, with their flipping and the holes in the track and arrggh man it was frustrating. If only this was Mega Man 3, then I'd show you all! In fact, I'm going to give myself another chance and try Mega Man again, this time selecting Iceman as the first stage instead of Gutsman.
First Death 2: 4 minutes, 50 seconds.
That's more like it - I actually got to Iceman! Sure, he annihilated me within seconds of the fight starting, but it still beats my humiliating attempt to reach Gutsman.
Game Over 2: 10 minutes, 34 seconds.
I even managed to defeat Iceman, steal his weapon and head for Fireman's stage. Unfortunately I only had one life left and Dr. Wily's plan to take some robotic floor waxing machines and cover them in spikes turns out to be much more effective than it sounds. Megaman's ankles are diced, causing him to explode. He should wear leg-warmers or something.
Contra, Konami, 1988
Okay, now we're getting into the tough stuff. Konami's run-and-gun classic is probably more famous for its difficulty than any other single factor, and I'm really bad at keeping track of all the tiny projectiles floating around the screen. Still, at least I know that picking up the Spread Gun is the best thing to do, so I'm not totally in the dark.
First Death: 2 minutes, 9 seconds.
Well, I made it to the boss. Did the boss kill me? Of course not, it was that turret lurking underneath me that I completely failed to notice. I've heard of the fog of war, but that's ridiculous. I think I was distracted by the way that wall was launching tomatoes at me, but whatever the reason a stray bullet grazed his foot and Bill Rizer dropped dead.
Game Over: 3 minutes, 24 seconds.
I never could do these pseudo-3D sections when I was a kid, and I haven't improved any with age. I just don't have the required depth perception, plus I kept accidentally making Bill walk into the electric barrier. He was probably glad for it to all be over, really, although I am a bit aggrieved that the wall seemed to kill me after I'd blown it up.
Dragon's Lair, CSG Imagesoft, 1990
Ah, and here I hoped I'd never have to play Dragon's Lair again, but if I'm talking about gruellingly difficult NES games that can kill you at the drop of a hat I couldn't really leave it out. This is probably my most hated videogame of all time; I've written about it at length, I've played through the entire game and just remembering the experience is making me angry. One of the many reason it inspires such vast oceans of bile within me is that trying to control Dirk the Daring, the sluggish dullard that Dragon's Lair dares to call a "hero," is an arduous and painful task that calls to mind trying to navigate a supertanker through the dairy aisle of a small supermarket.
First Death: 11 seconds.
On the very first screen, I managed to fall through the drawbridge because Dirk jumps when Dirk wants to jump, never mind what button I'm pressing. I'd like to point out that I've done this screen before. A lot. Many, many times during a childhood in which receiving any new game meant said game had to be played for weeks on end. I've even finished the whole game. I knew when, what and how everything on this screen was going to happen and I still died because this game has some truly abysmal controls. My only regret is that Dirk has more than one life, so I have to do it again.
Game Over: 2 minutes, 4 seconds.
I made it a little further! A whole three screens further, where a snake suddenly appeared out of a solid rock wall and killed me instantly, completely ignoring Dirk's health bar. To be fair, almost all the enemies in this game ignore your health bar and kill you instantly. It's almost like the people who designed this game didn't have a clue what they were doing.
Doing well in any of the games on this list relies, to some extent, on memorisation. Die, come back to life, remember what killed you and avoid it the next time. It's an expected part of NES games. Dragon's Lair takes the concept of necessary memorisation and applies it to every single moment of the game. To stand any chance of getting anywhere, you need to remember not only the location of every single enemy, collapsing platform and booby trap but also what you need to do to avoid them, because you have zero chance of actually reacting to anything as it happens on the screen. Or you could cheat. Or, and here's the best solution, you could round up every copy of Dragon's Lair you can find, bulldoze them into the foundations of large building and cover them with concrete.
Transformers: Convoy no Nazo, ISCO / Takara, 1986
Speaking of terrible games made by people who didn't know what they were doing, here's one that often finds itself on "Worst NES game" ever lists. That's entirely understandable, because Transformers: Convoy no Nazo is a jerky mess of ugly graphics and frustrating gameplay. It's also a run-n-gun game with one hit kills, so it's kinda similar to Contra but without any of the presentation or finesse or fun.
First Death: 3 seconds.
So, I walked face-first into a Decepticon jet. In my defence, aeroplanes do not usually fly that low. I was pressing fire, but I seemed to time it just wrong enough so that the Deception could fly between my shots and smash into Optimus Prime's face. Or is that Ultra Magnus? I'm going with Ultra Magnus, Prime would have never been defeated so easily.
Game Over: 46 seconds.
I did eventually make it past the first couple of jets by transforming into a truck and shooting them from below. Unfortunately, I then encountered a villainous and decidedly ground-based tank. My truck form could only fire straight up. I couldn't figure out how to return to robot mode and regain my ability to shoot horizontally. The tank emerged from our head-on collision completely unscathed, while the fearless (deputy) leader of the Autobots was instantly disintegrated. At least I wasn't playing as Bumblebee.
Kakefu Kimi no Jump Tengoku: Speed Jigoku, Vic Tokai, 1988
Finally, here's an obscure game that might be more familiar under its Western release name of Kid Kool. That's a terrible and extremely early-nineties name, though, so let's see what we can glean from the Japanese title. Looks like this game has jumping and speed in it, okay, so far so predictable. I wonder what "Speed Jigoku" means? I imagine it's something like "Speed Adventure" or "Speed Challenge" or so...
Ah. Well, I can't die any more quickly than I did in that bloody Transformers game, right?
First Death: 1.45 seconds.
Yes, that's "1.45 seconds", as in "less than two seconds." They were not kidding about the speed hell - as soon as you press a direction, your character lurches forward at a ludicrous speed with all the control and grip of a formula one car driving over an ice rink. I didn't even have time to react when the first enemy popped into view, and so I slammed straight into it: that gif doesn't quite capture the speed I was travelling at, although the character's pained expression at least shows he feels bad about the whole ordeal.
Game Over: 37 Seconds.
On my second life I died in almost exactly the same manner, except this time I managed to jump. Sure, I jumped too early and still plowed right into that first little furball, but it was progress. The next life I got even further, until I hit a wall and couldn't leap to safety before some evil monster calmly sidled into me. Some kids, however kool they may think they are, are just not cut out for the hero business.
So, what have we learned from this inexpertly-staged romp though the gamut of NES difficulties? For one thing, it seems that the better a game is, the more likely you are to die from falling down a hole rather than from touching enemies. It also shows just how prevalent the coin-hungry, kill 'em fast mentality of arcade games still was, although there's more to it than that - it's just really hard to make a game with a decent difficulty curve. You also forget just how much almost every NES game forces the player to memorise as much of the game as possible in order to advance, resulting in trial-and-error gameplay that has largely been eradicated from modern titles. Despite the speed with which Transformers and Kakefu Kimi sent me to the digital hereafter, I still think Dragon's Lair is the most difficult game on this list simply because you have to remember everything, and even if you manage that you'll still frequently die because the main character handles like a shopping trolley with housebricks for wheels. I just... I just really hate Dragon's Lair, okay?
Of course, what we've actually learned here is that when I said I wasn't especially good at videogames, I was massively overselling myself.
(P.S. Thanks to reader Joon Choi for sparking this one off.)