In the early days of gaming, games were often designed to be super difficult. They were a true test of a player’s skill. Developers wanted you to have trouble, and they wanted you to get frustrated – it’s what would keep you firing quarters into the arcade machine in hopes of nabbing the coveted high score for all to witness.
These days, while throwback games with qualities similar to the classic days still exist, most games focus more on the narrative. They are an experience, play off of the suspension of disbelief, and take you along for a story instead of sending you equipped with three lives into hours of bullet hell. This isn’t to say games today are not difficult and need to be made easier; it signifies a shift and development in what the industry has become, and what gamers expect.
The other element of modern gaming is the ability to choose one’s own difficulty level and play the game to their personal design and skill level. It is a very common feature of gaming, and something almost nonexistent with consoles of the past. No games with multiple difficulty options will be included on this list – only ones that offered the same pure treachery to all players.
So, we decided the Test Freaks Blog needed a list of some of the hardest video games of all time, as voted by readers, gamers on other video game websites and forums, Twitter, and other resources. The opinions were gathered from all sorts of folks from all over the world through various methods. We asked what games were responsible for readers developing cursing habits as children, smashing controllers, breaking TVs, or otherwise becoming infuriated. The games with the top results will be highlighted, with those who didn’t make the cut giving an honorable mention. A lot of what you’ll see on this list are older games, particularly NES, given the above reasoning. But that’s not to say there won’t be a few from more current days.
Naturally this list, as with any list of games, will not reflect every gamer in the world. Some may have beaten these titles with ease, while others will be forced to relive what was a traumatic gaming experience. The games included are in no particular order – We’re not trying to establish the “hardest game of all time,” just collect people’s thoughts. There will also be some missing, as this is based on an opinion poll – so feel free to contribute your own via the comments.
The Adventures of Bayou Billy
(Mad City in Japan, though it wasn’t nearly as hard)
Konami, 1988 (NES)
This game was insanely difficult as a result of terrible design. The control system was atrocious; every single enemy in the game had about the same amount of health as you, and the levels were way long. Seriously, when you look at the video below, look how long it takes to do away with common enemies seconds into the game. They just won’t die.
Billy West needs to save Annabelle Lane from Godfather Gordon’s gang. You had punches, kicks, a knife, a whip, a stick, and a gun. You also had chicken drumsticks that would heal you, like any old classic game ought to have.
Even if you got good at the fighting and made progress, you’d get to the driving levels which were a million years long and more difficult than convincing Michael Douglas to eat a bottle of Flintstones vitamins while slapping a gorilla with a rolled-up Rick Astley poster. One thing is for sure – Bayou Billy must have really loved Annabelle Lane to go through all this trouble for her.
The soundtrack has become a popular funk collection that has numerous remixes floating around the net, and the game even inspired a comic book for a few minutes in 1989-1990.
Mike Tyson’s Punchout
Nintendo, 1987 (NES)
This game is famous for its difficulty, and few have seen the ending. Those who have completed Punchout enjoy gloating about their accomplishment, and rightly so. The game itself is not entirely difficult the whole way through, thanks to the insanely similar attack patterns each character demonstrates against your itty bitty fighter.
But the final fight against Mr. Tyson stands still for many as their most worthless attempt at video gaming success. One punch could tear your head off, so you had to learn to time them and counter. This is a good place to insert your own favorite ear-biting joke. There were no saves, no continues, and when Tyson inevitably beat you, it was time to go through the entire series of fighters once more.
If nothing else, Punchout is a prime example of an entire game slaughtered by an extremely uneven final boss. Like trying to take down a buffalo with a fart, Tyson was a monster.
Rare, 1991 (NES)
The Battletoads are fighting toads that battle evil. Named Rash and Zitz, they use their anthromorphic superhero fighting powers to save their friends Pimple and Princess Angelica from the Dark Queen. Their methods of finishing off enemies range from spawning ram horns to clubbing baddies with a giant fist. Side-scrolling their way through the Planet Ragnarok was a painful task, and few have done it completely.
The game involved standard 2D beat-em-up levels and suicide-inducing obstacle race levels that the nimblest nimbleton from nimbletonia wouldn’t be able to navigate without an insane memory. Additionally, there was the snake maze, a terrible underwater level, and the tower climb levels. Add to all that the fact that you were given only three continues, no saves, and if playing co-op couldn’t turn off friendly fire, and you’ve got what many gamers and critics have considered one of the hardest games ever created for nearly twenty years.
Software Creations, 1990 (NES)
Oh my God. I used to rent Silver Surfer from the local grocery store’s video department for $1.99 per week, and hate the entire week. This game is pure pain, and many troublesome memories flash back when it gets brought up.
This title received a ton of votes as the game people remember as the most difficult. Silver Surfer is pure masochism that can be summed up as side scrolling through stages filled to the max with crap that flies at you, hoping to nip your character and administer a one-hit-kill. Each long stage has a mini-boss, and the Surfer can acquire upgrades that make your laser blasts more powerful or clear the screen all at once. Too bad you’re usually dead within seconds.
The best part is that if you do manage to harness the power of Satan and finish this game, the ending sequence is the definition of “not worth it.” See below.
Konami, 1988 (NES)
This game has some controversy with its inclusion. Many people voted this as the hardest game ever – so many, in fact, that it was one of the top vote-getters. However, others claim that with some basic memory and after getting used to the patterns, Contra becomes relatively easy. A lot of difficult game lists on the internet include this title, while others will contest. Regardless, as this list was based off of user input, Contra clearly holds a place in many people’s bowels as something they’d rather not ingest. Perhaps the three lives offered to your player simply don’t present enough length of play for many gamers to familiarize themselves with the enemies.
Ghosts & Goblins
Capcom, 1985 (Lots of consoles)
Ahhh, early platformers. Princess Pin Pin is in some real trouble, and it’s up to Arthur to defeat all the zombies, demons and other beasts from the grave in order to aid in her rescue. Not too many people will deny that this is one of the hardest games ever made – and its sequel, Ghouls & Ghosts, wasn’t much easier. Not only did the vast quantity of enemies that could attack you at once make it hard to live long, but you only got two hits before dying. Dying sent you back to the beginning of the entire level, or to the mid-way point if you had crossed that far. If that wasn’t enough, you could also die just for being too slow, as your life expired after about three minutes. Your sword was super crappy and your armor really didn’t want to stay attached to your body.
The game was legendary, even beyond its reputation as mind-numbingly difficult, and was ported from Arcade to the Commodore 64, Amiga, Sinclair Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Commodore 16, PC, Game Boy Color, GBA, NES and even Wii’s Virtual Console. It also inspired the Gargoyle’s Quest and Maximo series.
The person who put the below video online clearly has a lifetime commitment to this game, and hasn’t eaten, slept, or interacted with another human in the past 24 years. Props to them, though…
Tecmo, 1987 (Lots of consoles)
Do you enjoy learning and memorizing every single move required to get through a puzzle game? Do you enjoy puzzle games that don’t offer a variety of methods to complete levels, instead making you do specific, exactly timed movements in proper places without error from the moment the level starts in order to progress? Do you love unlimited enemy spawning and countdown timers? Do you love having the ability to render a level impossible to finish, completely by accident, without ever knowing how you’ve done so? Do you like games with 64 levels an no save feature? Sure you do, that’s why you love Solomon’s Key!
This puzzle game was just ruthless. Demons have been set loose, and you must lock them back up! You run, jump and destroy blocks to reveal other areas, utilize them to grab things, or get killed by them. Oh yeah, and you have to be Miss Cleo and have psychic powers in order to get through the levels – even if you have a map on the computer telling you exactly what to do. Dana has to find a key in every room before moving onto the next, manipulating the environment and surviving all the while. It was just plain hard, and likely required a level of intuitive thought and logical mastery that children at the time had no desire for, and adults would find exasperating.
It seems a lot of gamers haven’t played this title, as it wasn’t a hugely advertised game back in its day. Those who have played it tend to tell those gamers to consider their ignorance a blessing. It’s fairly evident this game was designed with malicious intent. Perhaps Nintendo required its development hoping that swarms of gamers would destroy their consoles or controllers, forcing them to spend money on new ones.
Solomon’s Key was ported from arcade to Commodore 64, NES, Sega Master System, Famicom and Wii Virtual Console. It also inspired Monster Rancher Explorer.
Sunsoft, 1989 (NES)
Sunsoft, 1988 (NES)
A handful of people voted for Fester’s Quest as their most irritating memory. If you think Fester’s Quest is hard, you also think Blaster Master is equally difficult, as it’s basically the same game. Fester’s Quest ran on Blaster Master’s overhead shooter engine, was developed by the same company, uses some of the same enemies (Hoppers), uses Blaster Master’s sound effects, and is equally as difficult.
Of course, half of Fester’s Quest’s difficulty comes from how absolutely bad the game is, but that’s another argument.
Fester’s Quest pitted you as Uncle Fester from The Addams Family, who would clearly be the perfect choice to save the town from an alien invasion. You go about the levels, come across a boss, and progress. If you can.
Blaster Master had a fantastic soundtrack, if you remembered to listen to it while shattering your NES controller against your mother’s wood-paneling. There were no saves, no passwords, and no ability to get through without requiring one of them. Not one element of the game was easy. You couldn’t kill bosses with normal weapons, you couldn’t navigate areas without hitting a billion dead ends, everything took forever to kill… but it can be finished, if you are the most amazing person ever.
Clearly, someone as Sunsoft was experiencing a really nasty divorce in the late 80’s and wanted to take it out on the world. Or they at least had a bad breakfast. Something was up, that’s for sure…
Tecmo, 1988 (NES)
Ninja Gaiden, like Contra, is one of those titles that got a ton of votes from some, and others say it’s easy if you want it to be. Most every difficult game compilation online will include the title, and the comments will be filled with those saying otherwise. It depends on the person, though most have not finished it. But again, this list shows the results of our poll. Whether you find it to be hard or not, the game is awesome, and few will deny that.
Ninja Gaiden revolutionized gaming as a means of storytelling. It featured cuts-scenes and smooth animation on a level not yet seen in gaming – something we have since learned would become almost a necessity. It also introduced a very solid control structure that made Ryu respond to your moves with great accuracy.
It was also very difficult for many. The bosses were rough, requiring many failed attempts before their patterns could be figured out. The environment was often a real challenge to navigate, with crazy jumps and leaps, each level getting more difficult than the last. What would happen if you made it to the boss, then died? Well, you’d start all the way back at the beginning of the level, of course, not just before the boss fight. You also had to balance your spiritual strength, which would limit your attack abilities.
What’s obvious about Ninja Gaiden is its awesomeness, which is proven by its legacy. The game has inspired a huge number of sequels, many of which are known for their beastly difficulty. However, none will compare with the terror many felt from the original.
Never seen the ending? Now you can:
Williams Electronics, 1982 (Arcade)
My goodness, this one is ancient! It was the first game to use stereo sound, digitized speech, and 49-way joysticks. This “twitch game” existed only on Arcade and was very hard to find,until the mid ‘90s when it was included in the Williams Arcade Greatest Hits compilation for Super NES, Genesis, Saturn, Dreamcast, Playstation and PC. It was also put into Midway Arcade Treasures and thus released on Xbox, Gamecube, PS2 and again for PC. Finally, it was found on Midway Arcade Treasures Extended for PSP.
Twitch gaming refers to games that test your reaction and precision – such as Sinistar, Tempest and Defender. Sinistar certainly does both, and to a degree that will make you cry. It had a huge universe with physics and dozens of aliens all trying to beat your bum. You need to get crystals from rocks so you can build bombs and destroy Sinistar – that’s the point. Collecting crystals was a very subtle task, as were many things in Sinistar. You can’t move too fast, or too slow, or you’ll disrupt the way things are developing and be in big trouble. There is a lot of timing required, and few people ever made it past a few waves of play.
Sinistar has been an inspiration to tons of games throughout history, unbeknownst to many. Being the first game to use voice digitization, its quotes have made their way into many other titles, including Warcraft, Sam & Max, Team Fortress 2, Kane’s Wrath, and other media including South Park and Yu-Gi-Oh!, the film We Are Strange, songs by Cage and Buckethead and more.
Lots of other games from the old days received a couple nominations, but not enough to truly “make the list.” Some of the games mentioned were:
Gauntlet, 1985 (Atari)
Deadly Duck, 1982 (Fox)
Dragon’s Lair, 1983 (Cinematronics)
Mega Man (All titles), 1987 – Current (Capcom)
Metroid, 1986 (Nintendo)
E.T., 1982 (Atari)
Karnov, 1987 (Data East)
Pong, 1972 (Atari)
Back to the Future, 1985 (Software Images)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, 1989 (Konami)
One modern game, an obscure indie title, received a decent number of recommendations…
I Wanna Be the Guy
Mike O’Reilly, 2007 (Windows)
This game is essentially a parody of 8-bit games from the past. As such, it utilizes everything that made games difficult in the past all at once, multiplied by a few hundred. Most of the environment is designed to kill the player. The stage level designs draw from Tetris, Ghosts n Goblins, Zelda, Mega Man and Metroid. The bosses at the end of each level are pulled straight from other titles, and feature such baddies as Mike Tyson, Mecha Birdo, Dracula, Dr. Wily, Mother Brain, Bowser, Wart and Kraidgief. The sound effects are from Mario Paint.
You play as “The Kid,” and you want to be “The Guy.” To do so, you must kill him and take reign. Very democratic. The Kid, armed with a red cape and a small gun, dies with one hit from any of the many, many death traps. A death results in The Kid exploding into a blood blast. An infinite number of attempts are given, but getting through the levels is pure terror. The game does have difficulty levels, which was a no-no for this list, but most players say that even on its easiest difficulty, I Wanna Be the Guy is insane.
Everything in this game tries to kill you, including save points and the moon. Minor background objects try to kill you. Apples try to kill you.
The game is free. Get it here: http://kayin.pyoko.org/iwbtg/
Read more about it here: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/IWannaBeTheGuy
One more modern title received a large enough number of votes to deserve a profile…
Super Monkey Ball (Series)
Sega, 2001-Current (Arcade, GameCube, GBA, Wii)
This series of games certainly can be hard. It all depends on player dexterity. Technically, the game should be easy – you roll a monkey in a ball along various platforms, bounce the ball, speed up the ball, and try to keep it on the platform. That’s all. The monkey has nothing to do with anything.
The trick is that you’re not actually moving the ball, but moving the level. The space is 3D, and when you move your stick (or your WiiMote), you manipulate the level, which moves the monkey ball. The physics are incredible, and there are a number of obstacles (the terrain itself being one, things like speed-ups and pop-up walls and banana collection being others) that make staying on the path a real test. The game does have difficulty levels, so again we’re breaking the rules, but it’s another that is challenging enough on easy that most people never bother with the higher challenges.
The thing about the Monkey Ball games is that all the difficulty builds within the player. It is stressful, and stress causes you to lose focus and mess up. It requires unfaltering focus, and can therefore be super fun or absolutely irritating.
A few other titles were voted that don’t come from the classic days of gaming. They won’t be profiled in-depth, both because they only got a few votes each, and because most modern games have a much wider range of person-specific difficulty (meaning some will find these games super easy, while others may find them terribly hard).
Tomb Raider, 1996 (Eidos)
Myst, 1993 (Cyan Worlds)
N, 2005 (Metanet)
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon, 2001 (Red Storm)
Ikaruga, 2001 (Treasure)
Devil May Cry, 2001 (Capcom)
Wetrix, 1998 (Zed Two)
Overall, most of the games on this roll take us back to the early days of gaming, where developers focused on challenging the player and getting more quarters into the slot over the modern proposal of crafting a narrative experience and playing to our suspension of disbelief. Please feel free to contribute games that you had trouble with and expand this list via the comments – you’ll make us super happy.