I remember being but a wee child, sitting in front of my TV, and releasing the ultimate sigh of relief as I beat Super Mario Bros. for the first time. I was about four years old, and I had seen my sisters do it, but up until that point, I had yet to foil the exploits of the evil King Koopa. I always seemed to get stuck in that final castle, never knowing where to go, and ultimately falling victim to the time limit or my lack of a powered up Mario. But one day, I finally did it, and it was the greatest moment of my life at that point.
I never had too much of a hard time getting through Super Mario Bros. 2, though it did pose a good challenge. It wasn’t until I played Super Mario Bros. 3 that I finally met my match. The game started off accessible enough, and the difficulty was perfect: it gradually increased and threw more obstacles and enemies at me, all the while being fair and in no way cheap. For some reason, though, the game always bested me. At about the age of five, I simply could not beat Super Mario Bros. 3. As a kid, I had only arrived at Bowser’s castle once before the game totally kicked my ass, as if saying, “Nope, not today, bitch.”
I never tried to pass the game again during my youth. My NES was stored away somewhere, and I never got the chance to play Super Mario Bros. 3 again … until a few years ago when it landed on the Wii Virtual Console. I quickly dropped 500 Wii Points for the game that conquered me as a child, and I sat down with it one Saturday night. I played all the way through, and I finally got through that daunting castle. That instance quickly replaced my triumph over Super Mario Bros. as the greatest gamer moment in my life, and to this day, it continues to be one of the most memorable happenings for me as far as video games go.
As I played through Super Mario Bros. 3, I realized that the game was challenging me a hell of a lot more than most offerings by other modern franchises. God of War was freaking amazing, but it wasn’t especially difficult. Shadow of the Colossus was breathtaking, but it sure wasn’t the daunting experience that some of my old NES games were. To this day, games that I love–games like No More Heroes 2, Super Paper Mario, The Legendary Starfy, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and countless others–just don’t offer up the challenge that many of the games that I grew up with did.
Now, I’m not bashing modern game design, and I’m certainly not bashing modern games. I thoroughly enjoy many of today’s hottest franchises, but I’ve noticed that they’re just not that difficult. Rather than leaving you to fend for yourself in a massive world of beauty and danger, today’s games seem to guide you through a spectator-like adventure. As fun as it was to drive around in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and tear shit up, there wasn’t much of a challenge with the exception of a handful of missions. But even then, it wasn’t the type of challenge that used to get my heart racing and my palms sweating as a kid. It was more streamlined, and it was more welcoming.
The decrease in difficulty is, for all intents and purposes, quite possibly one of the best things that could have happened to the medium. Had games continued to be so punishing and so demanding as they were back in the ’80s and ’90s, it’s possible that the phenomenon wouldn’t have blown up the way it did. For that reason, there’s no denying that certain things do happen for a reason. That said, I can’t help but miss the feeling of excitement when I would finally tackle a game’s challenges and see the end credits rolling. It was fun, it was rewarding, and it was blissful.
These days, beating a game is fun, and it’s most definitely rewarding, but it isn’t exactly blissful. I seriously doubt my brain releases the same amount of pleasure chemicals when I beat something modern like Super Mario Galaxy 2 compared to when I first beat Earthbound, which forced me to max out my characters’ levels before I could even think of facing the final boss. And it’s not that I dislike games like Mario Galaxy 2. I mentioned it for a reason. Simply put, Mario Galaxy 2 is one of the best games on the Wii, it’s one of the best games in the current generation, and it’s arguably the greatest Mario game of all time. But when I beat it, when many of you beat it, did it create the same emotion within you that Super Mario World did?
Like a lot of you, I’m thankful that there are still developers who occasionally want to totally kick our butts with their games. Titles such as Demon’s Souls, VVVVVV, Hard Corps: Uprising, and Super Meat Boy blatantly challenge gamers and offer an experience that makes you gasp, curse, and shout, only to ultimately make you utter a cry of sheer joy or raise your fist in victory because you finally got past that obstacle or boss. That devilishly grueling stage is behind you, and you can move on … to something even harder. These are the games that are a throwback to the emotions many of us used to feel when playing on our simple controllers that only had a D-Pad and two or four face buttons.
Again, I’m not bashing modern games. I love modern games, and I openly express this because I realize that the industry could have possibly been in a darker place had developers not toned down the challenge in their games. But I’m a child of the ’90s, and back then, games were so much harder, but it was a good thing. My Nintendo 64 brought me so much joy because platformers like Banjo-Kazooie weren’t afraid to frustrate the hell out of me every time I’d miss a ledge by an inch, only to watch my characters plummet to their deaths. Action-adventure titles like Jet Force Gemini boasted tough bosses and deadly enemies, but getting to the end of a level with a single point of health was the most satisfying experience in the world.
As amazing and beautiful as something like Okami may be, it’s more of an experience than it is a challenge. As impressive as Twilight Princess is, it’s basically a toned down version of the original Legend of Zelda for the NES when you really think about it. As wonderful and hilarious as a quirky little RPG as Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story (which I’m currently playing and absolutely adore) can be, it is certainly not the daunting and dastardly RPG experience that Earthbound was. Yes, these games are all great, but they’re not great in the “Wow, I can’t believe I just passed this game!” way. Games today are great in the “Aww That was a nice ending,” or “That was one heck of an experience” way.
That’s not a bad thing. It’s just different, and it’s easier.