As the tropes go, there’s hard, and then there’s Nintendo Hard. The distinction is easily understood by anyone who grew up in the 8-bit era, but the tradition continues to this day with games like Super Meat Boy and I Wanna Be The Guy. Nintendo Hard games aren’t made that way by flipping a difficulty switch, they’re born from the disturbed psyche of developers who grew up lacking positive role models. They’re created by sociopaths who don’t understand the concept of rage, or psychopaths who have no problem making children cry. What we’re looking at today are decent NES games which were also deliberately constructed to challenge the player, not games hamstrung due to poor controls or improper documentation. Friday the 13th seems impossible because the game never explains the victory conditions or points you in the right direction, but once you understand the mechanics you can beat it in ten minutes. Likewise, LJN’s X-Men curses the single player with an AI partner so bad the game gets easier if you let them die. Games like that didn’t make this list, and Battletoads was just too obvious. When you’re ready to see what did (in no particular order), hit the jump. And if you managed to beat any of these difficult NES games–without cheating, Scott–let us know in the comments.
15) Legacy of the Wizard
What is it?: Legacy of the Wizard is the fourth game in the Dragon Slayer series. It makes one question the abilities of said Slayer if the Dragon is still alive after three prior attempts. It’s also the only one to see a US release. It tasks you with guiding five different members of the Drasle family through an enormous dungeon conveniently located right under their house. Navigating the dungeon requires the use of artifacts which can be found or bought along the way, but not all members of the family can use every item. It’s like Metroid if Samus was split into five differently-abled bounty hunters all of whom could only carry three upgrades at a time.
Why it’s on this list: Legacy of the Wizard‘s challenge comes not from being overly difficult, although some of the bosses are a pain, but from requiring a colossal time-sink in exploration paired with good puzzle solving skills and a whole heap of luck. The dungeon is utterly massive, and it’s up to the player to determine which member of the family is best-suited for each section. If there’s a lot of high-jumping involved, Lyll the daughter is the best choice. If you need to smash or push blocks around to make progress, then you’ll need Xemm, the father, for his pick-axe and strength. Trial-and-error will be your only friend on this quest, because to swap out family members you have to go all the way back to your house. In addition to your standard health and magic meters, you also have to manage money, keys, and the afore-mentioned three-item limit to your inventory. There are also power-downs which will drain your life or magic bars if you’re not careful. There’s no save option, but the game gives you an easy-to-screw-up string of letters and numbers for a password so you need not conquer the entire dungeon in one try.
Difficulty rating: 7/10. The game is forgiving when it comes to giving your characters plenty of magic and health, and it’s best taken in slow doses. Explore the dungeon, find a new area, figure out who you need to get past it, go back and get them, explore some more, and repeat. Enemies drop tons of items (for better or for worse), and respawn frequently so you can farm if you need more of a particular good. But without a map, and the understanding of how to use the Glove effectively, you’re in for one miserable experience. Simple design mechanics combined with wickedly obnoxious puzzles made this one an easy choice for the list.
14) Air Fortress
What is it?: Part side-scrolling shoot ’em up, part maze-based exploration game. Air Fortress tasks you with guiding your lone commando, a man named Hal, through a gauntlet of eight Air Fortresses. Each stage has two parts: approach and assault. During the approach phase, you pilot your jet sled through a morass of enemies and obstacles so you can collect energy tanks and Crash Beam bullets. Assuming you successfully navigate the approach section, you dismount and enter the fortress to destroy the core. Once the core is destroyed, you have a limited amount of time to find your jet sled and get out before the place goes up like a Chinese New Year fireworks celebration.
Why it’s on this list: Air Fortress earns its place for being brutally unforgiving and capable of annihilating the best NES players without breaking a sweat. Hal’s especially vulnerable during the approach phase of each stage, where a single bullet, contact with an enemy, or even touching the ground will blow his sled to bits (Silver Surfer‘s a poor role model to channel here, Hal). Assuming he survives, the real game begins as Hal works his way through the Fortress, dealing with limited energy, small Crash Beam bullet supply, and merciless enemies. While the first stage is relatively straightforward, each subsequent Air Fortress gets more complex, with one-way tubes leading to different areas, hordes of gun emplacements that fire homing bullets, and more dead-ends than a road through rural Arkansas.
Difficulty rating: 9/10. Did we mention every action Hal takes while inside a fortress including using his jet pack, shooting his gun, and even walking around, saps his energy? Because…yeah. Sitting still for a little while fills you back to maximum capacity, but every hit you take depletes that max, so it’s in your best interest to nab as much extra energy during approach as possible. While the first stage gives you 200 energy to start off with, later stages throw you into the mix with 1500 or more points at the start of the approach phase. That’s right: the game knows you’ll get so boned during fortress assaults that it hands you seven times as much energy to begin with, knowing you’ll pick up more on the way.
Just kicking a solid amount of butt isn’t enough for you to win either. Destroying the core of a fortress starts a countdown, and if you’ve not found your jet sled by the time that sucker reaches zero, it’s game over. PLOT TWIST: The timer’s not on-screen. You have to watch the background to determine how close the fortress is to self-destruction. Your jet sled is never where you parked it either, because these aliens employ galactic towing services just to screw with you. Air Fortress‘s lone saving grace is a password system which lets you start at the approach phase of the last Fortress you failed to detonate, which means you need not beat it all in one sitting and the humiliation can stretch on for weeks at a time. Thanks, Air Fortress!
13) The Guardian Legend
What is it?: Part vertical-scrolling shooter, part action RPG, The Guardian Legend is the love child of Zelda‘s drunken three-way with Metroid and Gradius. You’re the Guardian, a female Transformer hybrid who jets into the center of a rogue planetoid named Naju which just so happens to be on a collision course with Earth. Shutting this menace down is a matter of fighting through the alien-infested interior and flying down a number of corridors, each patrolled by a stage boss, blowing up everything you find. Along the way you pick up a plethora of special weapons, shields, health increases, gun power-ups, and keys which allow you access to new areas of Naju. An amazingly competent hybrid of genres that have no business working together as well as they do.
Why it’s on the list: Guardian Legend does many things, and it does them all well, but it will make you pay and pay for every advance you make. While the early flying stages (called Corridors) aren’t difficult, the later ones would be right at home in any bullet-hell shooter you care to name. It provides you with a basic map, which is nice, but that and a few hints you learn entering different rooms and reading entries left by the last person who tried (and failed) to destroy Naju are the only bones the game throws your way. There are shops which will sell you items and upgrades in exchange for power chips, but power chips also determine the strength of your main gun, so you’ll be at a reduced capacity until you restock. You also consume power chips by using your special weapons, so every battle is a balancing act between using your more powerful attacks without weakening your primary gun to the point it becomes worthless.
Difficulty rating: 7.5/10. While it’s a game that throws a lot at the player, pattern memorization will get you through a significant chunk if you find yourself getting stomped. It includes a password system so you can pick up and resume roughly where you left off, and it’s fairly nice at throwing out power ups when you really need them, so if you’re low on energy you’re much more likely to get a Heart. Outside of that though, the late-game bosses are ridiculously powerful, progressing through multiple phases which cause them to fill the screen with more and more bullets, most of which you can’t destroy. The end-game boss is over-powered to an absurd degree, and it’s not uncommon to completely destroy Naju only to get wiped out by the cheap reach of this guy’s arms. Not the most difficult game on this list by far, but still up there in terms of skill required to successfully beat it. Killer soundtrack though.
12) Cybernoid: The Fighting Machine
What is it?: A short action game ported to the NES from the Commodore 64 that plays an awful lot like the interior parts of Air Fortress. Guide your weapon platform through a series of three levels, each of which features a number of different screens, with each screen requiring a different technique or power-up to solve. Every level has an overall time limit, and each screen also has a time limit, which is not displayed anywhere and is different for every room. Fail to get to the next screen fast enough, and the screen will start to flash. At that point you’ve got about ten seconds before the bomb goes off and you can kiss your game goodbye. It’s extremely linear, not very long, but it has the challenge cranked to the maximum.
Why it’s on the list: Cybernoid is kind enough to offer you three difficulty options when you first boot up the game: Easy, Hard, and Lethal. Clearly whoever put Cybernoid together was feeling sarcastic, because we’d rate these difficulty levels as, “Ridiculous”, “Obscene”, and “Greetings, Fellow Masochist!” The game gives you nine lives to start off with, because it knows you’re going to die, and die, and die. It’s not uncommon for first-time players to lose all of them on the second screen of the game, and they only make it that far because the first screen contains no hazards of any kind. Cybernoid requires not just really good reflexes, but also the ability to memorize patterns, understand exactly when each of your special weapons is meant to be used, and when you need to deliberately sacrifice a life to reload your special weapon arsenal. The ability to resist throwing your controller through the screen and screaming words that would embarrass your grandmother won’t hurt either. There are no save points, passwords, cheat codes or warp zones. Every screen you advance through will be earned with your own heart’s blood, and every blister you rack up on your thumbs will feel like a chest full of medals should you succeed in passing the first level.
Difficulty rating: 9.5/10. Playing Cybernoid is the gaming equivalent of trying to please a Marine Corps drill instructor: it demands nothing from you except perfection. Every so often you will accidentally do the right thing, but when you don’t, expect a swift ass-kicking in response. Surviving Cybernoid qualifies you for instant placement in the ranks of the 8-bit elite, although the ending you’ll get for doing so is just one more insult rubbed into your face. But at that point you’ll smile and take it, because Cybernoid made a gamer out of you. Hands down, one of the most unrepentantly difficult NES games ever released.
11) Ghosts ‘N Goblins
What is it?: A side-scrolling platformer starring Arthur and his boxer shorts, out to rescue the fair princess who was abducted by Satan at the behest of Lucifer, and now we’re just as confused as the rest of you. Arthur runs, jumps, and tosses a variety of weapons at the faces of everything that gets in his way.
Why it’s on the list: Level effing six. The sixth level of Ghosts ‘N Goblins is one of the most ass-clenchingly difficult stages of any NES game you care to name. It’s hideous not only for featuring twin Satans as the end boss, but also for giving you an endless number of ways to completely cock up your game and lose the Cross, the weapon you must have in order to beat Lucifer. If you pick up any other weapon before beating the pair of Satans, you’ll get told (via some awful Engrish) that only the Cross can harm Lucifer. The game then unceremoniously dumps you back at the beginning of stage five so you can find it again, and keeps doing it until you manage to hold on to it. There’s also a minor quibble about having to beat the game twice in a row to see the real ending, but everyone knows that already, so it’s hardly worth mentioning. Forget I even brought it up.
Difficulty rating: 8.75/10. Ghosts ‘N Goblins treats you like a baby treats a diaper, true, but it’s more a test of endurance than of pure gaming skill. It sucks beating the final boss only to get told that, literally, your princess is in another castle, but the same strategies that got you through the first run serve you well enough to slay your way through the second. It also gives you unlimited continues, so a player with a full day of nothing better to do can brute force it with enough patience. Still, having to beat a game twice just to see the real ending? Not even Battletoads stoops that low.
10) The Adventures of Bayou Billy
What is it?: Double Dragon in the swamps of Louisiana, where the alligators and snakes are just as deadly as the human enemies you’ll be bashing your fists against. With a driving mechanic. And the use of the Zapper light gun. There’s really nothing else quite like Bayou Billy, although that might be a good thing based on how many busted controllers this title has been responsible for over the years.
Why it’s on the list: Bayou Billy starts out merciless and only gets harder. Failing to keep both a weapon and the bullet-proof vest for the final stage means you are destined to fail and might as well punch Reset. Most games don’t ask you to master three wildly different game mechanics in order to beat it, but master them you must. Screwing up in any of the game’s stages means you’re on your way to becoming the main ingredient in some back-water hick’s pot of gumbo.
Difficulty rating: 8.5/10. The Adventures of Bayou Billy does not take prisoners. It cares nothing for your feelings and seeks only to grow the ranks of the Dark Side by humiliating you until you are no longer capable of feeling love. It taunts you with your kidnapped girlfriend, pounces on any weakness it can find, and forces you to drive, avoid obstacles, and hurl dynamite at oncoming helicopters simultaneously. While not as unrepentantly sadistic as, say, Cybernoid, it has no problem feeding you your own teeth if you give it half a chance. Unfortunately you gave it half a chance by pressing Start at the main menu. Sorry ’bout that…
09) ICOM Trilogy (Shadowgate/Deja Vu/Uninvited)
What are they?: After heated argument, we couldn’t pick just one. These three graphical adventure games started out as Mac titles, but were later ported to the NES with a few tweaks and changes, mainly for censorship purposes to remove religious icons, references to alcohol, and the like. They’re point-and-click games similar to Maniac Mansion, but patterned after the infamous Fighting Fantasy game book series. Fighting Fantasy books are like Choose Your Own Adventure, but with gaming mechanics added in which allowed you to fight monsters, test your luck against traps, and do other simple, conventional RPG actions. Picking the wrong choice in a certain area frequently meant injury if not instant death. Shadowgate is probably the best known of this series, casting you as an explorer of an ancient castle. Deja Vu is a 1940’s mystery set in Illinois, where you play an amnesiac set up to take the fall for a murder he didn’t commit. Uninvited is an unnerving trek through a house so haunted it would make the demon from ‘Paranormal Activity’ think twice about moving in.
Why they’re on the list: Anyone you meet claiming to have beaten any of these games without dying or resorting to a walkthrough is lying so hard you can expect a Wikileaks controversy about them in the future. Nearly every screen in these games is capable of killing you, in multiple ways, without warning. Deja Vu will end you just as handily for actions you don’t take in addition to ones you do–forget to dispose of stuff that implicates you as the killer, and the police will still send your ass to prison as an accomplice even if you gather enough evidence to pin the crimes on someone else. Uninvited is dirty enough to give you an item that kills you after so much time has gone by you forget you had it in your inventory. Reloading your last save won’t get rid of the offending object either, leading to no end of frustration. Shadowgate has so many puzzles which require obtuse thinking as well as good old trial-and-error and “Reload, dammit!” that Nintendo Power was still answering gamers’ questions about it in their Counselor’s Corner column years after its release. Anybody who’s played this will twitch at the very mention of the mirror puzzle, and that’s one of the nicer ones.
Difficulty rating: 9/10. It doesn’t matter which of the three you pick. Without a FAQ handy, any one of them is enough to give even the most hardcore adventure gamer a case of rage that would make Hulk proud. From puzzles requiring ridiculous timing to potential dead ends where luck alone ensures your survival, every one of ICOM’s graphical adventures is guaranteed to raise your blood pressure, and if you beat any of them without smashing a controller, your television, or your closest friend (my bad, Steve), then you’re a better gamer than I’ll ever be.
08) Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
What is it?: The sequel to The Legend of Zelda, only with a different layout of Hyrule, a different control scheme, a different grouping of dungeons, and an increased emphasis on platforming as opposed to adventuring. This time Link’s out to find the Triforce of Courage so as to wake Princess Zelda from her eternal slumber. To do so, he’ll have to master a number of magic spells and avoid falling into innumerable bottomless pits, lava lakes, and other hazards to his health while exploring eight palaces, each with its own savage guardian monster. (Collect them all!)
Why it’s on the list: Zelda II is so massively different from the first game that much of the difficulty stems from players’ inability to adapt to the new presentation, which is why Nintendo went back to the original formula for A Link to the Past. The Zelda series always relied on some twitch in terms of combat, but this one cranked that up to eleven and laughed when a player had trouble with the jumping mechanic or avoiding the random monster encounters in the overworld. One portion of the game, which consists of Link traveling through a maze comprising seventeen different interconnected caverns littered with traps, lava, and monsters in the search for Spectacle Rock, is filled with so many powerful enemies and dead-ends that many gamers of the time could not complete it without resorting to the Nintendo Hotline–a beautiful “cha-ching!” to Nintendo’s ears and a parental lecture just waiting to happen to yours.
Difficulty rating: 8.25/10. Zelda II is difficult, but for all the right reasons. Once you’re used to the new play mechanics and have mastered the downward thrust attack, you’re set for tackling 75% of the enemies in the game. Figuring out when and how best to use your spells takes care of the remaining 25%, and by that point you should be well-versed enough as an explorer to get through the Death Mountain maze without sacrificing too many lives. And let’s be honest, I’d rather tackle Zelda II’s version of Death Mountain than mess with the damn Water Temple from Ocarina of Time any day of the week.
07) Double Dragon III: The Sacred Stones
What is it?: If you don’t know what Double Dragon is, hand over your gamer card, click the back button, and go consider your misspent youth. How did you even make it so far down this list? But in case you somehow arrived at this point in your life without learning the secrets of Sou Setsou Ken: Double Dragon is the story of Billy and Jimmy Lee, martial artist brothers who have continual problems with gangs kidnapping and/or killing their loved ones. Double Dragon III is no different. Once again, Billy’s love interest Marion has been carted off by a gang of thugs. This time the bad guys demand three sacred stones as ransom. Fortunately for the Lee brothers, a fortune teller named Hiruko knows where all the stones can be found and offers to help Billy and Jimmy on their quest around the world. Dozens of screens of face-punching, hair-pulling, elbow-jabbing, jump-kicking, nunchuck-twirling, katana-slicing, and cyclone-spinning are all that stand between them and the return of Marion.
Why it’s on the list: The Double Dragon series has a reputation for being hard on your average gamer, but its third incarnation is easily the worst offender despite having fewer stages than the second game. The enemies in DDIII hit harder and dodge better than any of the mooks from the first two games, and while the Lee brothers have some new moves and weapons in their arsenal it’s not uncommon for unprepared players to get completely wiped out by the first stage boss. It doesn’t help that you only get one life per character, don’t earn other characters until you beat the bosses of stages 2 and 3, and don’t earn a continue until you reach the fourth stage, nor does it help that the final boss of the game is one of the cheapest, dirtiest-fighting enemies of any beat ’em up you’ve ever encountered. Long is the list of gamers who made it to Egypt only to expire at the hands of Queen Noiram and her flaming-snake-teleporting, fireball-flinging, telekinetic-Jedi-lifting ass.
Difficulty rating: 8.5/10. Between the shorter life bar, single-life-per-character game mechanic, and better enemy AI, Double Dragon III smacked the ever-loving snot out of gamers who mistakenly assumed they were ready for anything. It’s marginally easier if you play with a partner, as it gives you access to the strongest move in the game (the simultaneous cyclone spin kick) and gives the enemies two targets to concentrate on instead of one, but no matter what the game never stops delivering on its threat to stomp your skull into your spleen. Take down the final boss with all of your buddies intact and you’ve more than earned that notch on your controller.
06) Solomon’s Key
What is it?: An arcade-style adventure game which tasks the main character, a sorcerer named Dana (who is a guy) with navigating through a sixty-four-room maze of terror in search for Solomon’s Key. The key can close the portal to a demonic realm which is currently spewing forth all manner of hellspawn and making life miserable for everybody. Solomon’s Key debuted in arcades in 1986 but was ported to the NES in 1987, presumably because by that point people were tired of dumping quarters into a game that was nearly unwinnable and spending $40 on the NES version seemed like a deal at the time.
Why it’s on the list: Did you miss the ‘nearly unwinnable’ bit above? Solomon’s Key requires a player to solve puzzles, find hidden rooms, deal with endlessly respawning enemies (no matter how many fireballs they eat, they come back for more), and do all this without accidentally breaking the win conditions for a given room while a timer inexorably counts down to your extinction. But that’s just the opening act: there are no passwords and no ability to save your game, so you get to do it all in one sitting. Tecmo throws the player a small bone in the form of a secret code which allows one to continue from the last place he or she died, but using it from level 42 on dumps you back at level 41, so good luck with that. Finally, you can beat the game and still lose if you didn’t find the three hidden Seals of Solomon, which allow you access to three hidden bonus rooms. I think it’s safe to say designer Michitaka Tsuruta had some anger issues to work through, and whoever wrote the instructions needs a severe beating. You do not open the manual to a game like Solomon’s Key with a sentence like, “Thank you for selecting the fun-filled [Emphasis ours] ‘SOLOMON’S KEY’ game pak by TECMO, INC.” unless you are a misanthropic troglodyte.
Difficulty rating: 10/10. Solomon’s Key is, hands down, one of the most difficult NES games released in the US. With no maps, passwords, save game feature or way of stopping the timer, progress through Solomon’s Key is attained through Zen-Buddhist-level patience mixed with trial-and-error, and even that will only get you so far. Anyone claiming to have finished Solomon’s Key without resorting to save states or walkthroughs should be kicked in the groin then forced to prove it on an actual console, because some bullshit should not be tolerated.
05) Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom
What is it?: Have you ever uttered the phrase, “Goddamn birds!” without one having just shit on you or your freshly-washed car? Then you know Ninja Gaiden. I’m glad we had this talk.
Why it’s on the list: Because it’s harder than the original, if you can believe such a thing is possible. While the Japanese release was already no walk in the park, Tecmo (who you should recognize as the demonic bungholes they are from the previous entry) took a gigantic dump all over American gamers by removing the password system, beefing up the strength of every enemy in the game, and limiting the number of continues a player could use before facing the dreaded ‘Game Over’ screen. Thanks, Tecmo. All these middle fingers are just our way of saying how much we love you for making Ninja Gaiden III responsible for more on-screen deaths than the siege of Helm’s Deep.
Difficulty rating: 9.5/10. As ridiculous as some things may sound, it is possible to beat Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom. Unfortunately most gamers will never see anything close to the ending cinematic without a trip to YouTube or a Game Genie. If you thought Tecmo started earning its reputation for hard-as-balls gameplay in 2004, you need only look back to 1991 to realize the error of your ways.
04) Starship Hector
What is it?: Hudson Soft’s library of NES games is extremely robust, with the company responsible for, among others, the Adventure Island series, Bomberman, action-RPG Faxanadu, and the anthropomorphic fruit-and-veggie simulator Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom. Hudson’s games are no slouches when it comes to difficulty, but the one time they truly set out to put gamers’ collective gonads in a vise grip was 1990’s Starship Hector, a shoot ’em up similar to Xevious which requires the player to respond to threats both in the air and on the ground. The main difference between the two is Hudson’s apparent belief that Xevious was made for preschoolers.
Why it’s on the list: While most shooters ease the player into the action before turning up the heat, Starship Hector tells that idea to bathe in razor blades, and goes straight for the throat. Once you hit the power button, your only option is to be the best pilot the 8-bit galaxy has ever seen, or suffer a defeat more humiliating than every wedgie, swirly, and pantsing you received in grade school combined. Enemies are persistent, unyielding, and most take multiple shots to destroy. Starship Hector requires every part of your brain’s strategy lobe to make on-the-fly decisions about what must be destroyed in what order. It has no problem distracting you with side-tasks like bombing statues to recover your hit points (yes you have a life meter, for all the good it will do you) or searching for the hidden control mechanisms which, when destroyed, will wipe out a large array of ground-based targets at once. But like the world’s longest bukkake video, the enemies never stop coming. Did we mention that getting good at the vertically-scrolling stages is not enough? No? Because Starship Hector unleashes Legendary Wings style, horizontally-scrolling bloodshed periodically as well.
Difficulty rating: 9/10. Stage select codes? Passwords? Mid-stage continue points? HA! Starship Hector has none of these. Get fried on a boss, and find yourself all the way back at the start of the stage. Originally released for the Famicom in 1987, Japan waited three whole years before unleashing Starship Hector on an unsuspecting American audience. Our guess is Hudson Soft wanted gamers to associate their name with titles it was possible to beat instead of games which made players want to crush their consoles with sledgehammers.
03) Bubble Bobble
What is it?: Bubble Bobble is the charming story of two dinosaur buddies, Bub and Bob, who have to rescue their respective girlfriends from the vile Baron von Blubba. Because he’s a total jerk and not at all interested in a fair fight, he’s put one hundred different rooms in his Cave of Monsters between the dynamic dino duo and their prizes. Part action platformer and part puzzle game, Bubble Bobble features a two-player simultaneous mode to double-bubble your chances of brutally breaking the bilious Baron von Blubba’s baculum (please drop the unnecessary alliteration here–ed).
Why it’s on the list: Upon first glance, nothing as cute and adorable as Bubble Bobble should be anywhere near a list of hard NES games. Surely two dinosaurs who blow bubbles to encase their enemies and collect delicious fruits, vegetables, and…er…cocktails(?) for bonus points should be found on a list of ‘games it is appropriate for my seven-year-old to play.’ This is a grave misunderstanding. While it starts off simple enough, this Irem-designed nightmare ramps the difficulty to absurd proportions in short order, with Level 13 being the first exercise in frustration, and Level 57 handing out more cheap deaths than a ‘made for SyFy Channel’ horror marathon. It extends an olive branch in the form of a password system, but won’t hesitate to use that same branch to poke you in the eye if you get too close.
Difficulty level: 9/10. Even assuming you reach the final level and get to face down the boss (a creature named, and I swear I’m not making this up, “Super Drunk”), you’re still going to be in trouble if you got there without a partner. Beating the game in single-player mode earns you the bad ending which admonishes you to get there with a friend next time. In order to get the “Happy End!” you so richly desire, you either have to complete the entire game with a second player, or cheat and hit start on the second controller before you send the drunken one floating off to the nether realm. But even that’s not enough to earn you the game’s best ending, oh no. That requires the use of a password to set the game into Super mode before you begin play–a password, I might add, you earn only by beating the standard game in two-player mode in the first place. This is dirty even by NES game standards, and serves as a cruel face-slap to players who did well enough against the hordes without knowing this trick. Don’t get me wrong: Bubble Bobble is a great puzzle game. But it does not play fair, and if you don’t know any better you have to beat it three different times before you get the best ending. You might note that’s one more than even Ghosts ‘N Goblins requires, and any game that asks more of a gamer than Ghosts ‘N Goblins should at least have the common courtesy to include some lube in the box.
What is it?: A turn-based military sim by Vic Tokai where you’re the commander tasked with destroying the enemy’s flag tank while preventing said enemy from destroying your own. Think some of the classic Avalon Hill board games like Panzer Blitz or Squad Leader, scaled down to 8-bit form, complete with hexagon-based maps.
Why it’s on this list: Because great snapping arseholes, is it ever unfair. Conflict is programmed to unhesitatingly shatter the morale of all but the most strident tacticians in single-player mode, because no matter what settings you choose or stage you elect to play, the AI always has more resources than you at its disposal. While you’re trying to scrape together enough Fame points to construct a jeep, your red opponent is grinding out surface-to-air missiles, ground attack choppers, and MiG fighter planes. What’s more, while you can pick any of fifteen stages to play, you can’t access the final battle until you’ve beaten all of the others and earned the password to the final conflict…one letter at a time. In a small concession to sanity, it includes a two-player mode which allows you and a friend to fight it out with equal resources on a variety of different maps. It makes for a nice change from the continuous curb-stomping the AI delivers to your testicles.
Difficulty rating: 9.5/10. Every battle in Conflict is a slog as you work not only to deplete your enemy’s fame points, but also win battles, capture cities and commandeer airfields to boost your own so you can get close to competing. Fights between units are turn-based and tactical, but with a healthy dose of luck (because screw you, that’s why), and until you understand what each command does, when it’s most successful, and when it’s least effective you can forget about winning anything but a dishonorable discharge for gross negligence on the battlefield. In addition you must keep track of how far your units can travel on a given turn and make sure they’re kept well-supplied, otherwise you find yourself with tanks that won’t move and jets that can’t re-arm their missiles. There aren’t many military simulations available for the NES, but if you can conquer Conflict unaided, perhaps you should consider Officer Candidacy School in real life.
What is it?: ASCII Corporation’s attempt to single-handedly inflate video gamer suicide rates in the 8-bit era. Castlequest is an action/puzzle hybrid which tasks the player, in the role of Prince Rafael, to travel through the obtuse maze of Groken Castle in search of the Princess Margarita. Along the way, Rafael must contend with all manner of traps and monsters intent on doing him grievous injury as well as a limited supply of keys necessary to open the various doors throughout the castle. Suddenly Jimmy Buffet’s line about ‘wasting away again in Margaritaville’ takes on a whole new meaning.
Why it’s on the list: Because no other NES game better lives by the adage “Give the player enough rope and he’ll hang himself.” Castlequest tries to warn you that you’re getting in over your head before you even turn on the game. The instruction manual flat-out orders you to start the game over if you run out of keys. The game comes with a map that details the layout of the castle, the location of every door, where it takes you, and what color of key is required to open it. It also starts you with 50 lives, in order to lull you into a false sense of security. Armed with so many chances and a map that lays out the entire game like a cheese tray at Sunday brunch, what worries could you possibly have? Then you hit the power button only to discover, like an unprepared squad of Colonial Marines in the bowels of LV-426, how well and truly hosed you are. With one hundred rooms to explore, nowhere near enough keys to open every door, and approximately eleventy-six ways of killing you at each turn, Castlequest taunts you with the potential of victory and laughs once it has your neck firmly ensconced in the noose you didn’t even know you were tying. Then it kicks out the stool, and claims a new victim.
Difficulty rating: 14.5/10. Simply hearing someone claim Castlequest is hard and leaving it at that is like finding a buttplug on the floor of your workplace bathroom: something terrible happened, but you lack the frame of reference necessary to understand how and why. The instructions opine you should play the game first without reading or looking at the map, then only a couple pages later mock you for doing so and suggest using the map to properly plan your route. The in-game map even highlights the very room where the Princess is being held, which only serves to make the subsequent beating it hands down that much more cruel. The save feature in the Famicom version was removed from the US edition due to the NES lacking a particular piece of hardware, though this is the main reason players are given 50 lives; the Famicom version expected you to make do with four. If completing Castlequest was a rite of passage into adulthood, the US would have been reduced to an adolescent state a decade after it’s 1989 release and every one of us would be begging to do that whole bullet ant glove thing if it meant we could finally be men. Screw. This. Game.
If you can tolerate more profanity and want to continue reaping the fruits of my agony, feel free to enjoy(?) my thoughts on the 15 most difficult Genesis/Mega Drive games (that aren’t Battletoads).