Why Are Older Games So Difficult?


Games are not what they were 20 years ago. Gone are the days of blowing N64 cartridges to get them to work, hammering the ‘A’ button in a frustrated frenzy, and facing the same boss over and over. (Well, maybe not for some of us nostalgic ‘90s kids.)

Technology continues to advance and graphics just keep getting better, making it possible for gamers to spend weeks of their lives exploring vast worlds in HD, but at what cost?

Let’s face it – we’re all suckers for a good story, and modern games often have a main story or quest line. This gives the player an incentive to ‘finish’ the game. In a way, this is a good thing – gamers get more for their money, and they can feel a sense of accomplishment at unravelling the mystery.

So what makes older games different? Well, for starters, they often lack the complex narrative structure that newer games are famous for. That isn’t to say they don’t generally have an end goal. For Super Mario 64, it’s defeating Bowser and rescuing Princess Peach. For Banjo Kazooie, it’s saving Tooty from the evil witch Gruntilda.

Banjo Kazooie

The difference is the way the player would go about achieving this goal. Older games often required beating levels and collecting objects along the way in order to progress. Usually, if you lost all your lives, it’s back to square one of that level. (Enter frustrated smashing of the ‘A’ button.) A lot of newer games are more story-driven, giving you a map marker to follow to get wherever you’re going. There’s no guesswork there.

Of course, this can be attributed to the differences in genre. RPGs tend to provide map markers, while puzzle games like Grim Fandango: Remastered provide next to no guidance on what you should be doing. But we should consider the amount of content each of these games have. Grim Fandango takes about 10-12 hours to complete on average, maxing out at about 18 hours if one plays slowly. Many modern RPGs would laugh at an 18 hour completion time. Then again, the more linear RPG Bioshock Infinite only takes 15 hours on average. But Bioshock Infinite isn’t particularly difficult, especially if you’re a Bioshock veteran; it’s just not a free-roam world, and it has a main quest line.

Let’s not forget about the impact saving options once had on game difficulty. Before built-in save files were commonplace, some games, like Timesplitters 2, could only be saved at checkpoints. If you died before the checkpoint, you went back to the most recent one. (And in Timesplitters 2, there’s only 1 per level, and it’s right in the middle.) Even worse, you’d only reach a save point in Crash Bandicoot after completing a mini game without dying or else you’d risk losing hours of gameplay. These days, all you’ve gotta do is enable autosave and make sure you save fairly regularly between autosaves so you won’t lose any progress.


And don’t even get me started on walkthroughs. I’m gonna sound like a crotchety old lady here, but back in my day, we didn’t have access to walkthroughs. You had to figure out how to beat the game yourself! Nowadays, if the player gets stuck, they can search for a walkthrough that will take them through the game step-by-step. I won’t lie – I’ve used walkthroughs for a couple of different games, mostly for Tomb Raider: Underworld. But that game falls into the category of ‘I tried to beat this as a kid and got stuck at this level and now I’m gonna go back and beat it like the adult I am.’ That happens a lot in older games.

But why? Why do we get stuck and play the same level for hours on end and never get anywhere? The answer is simple – older games required more strategising and problem solving. That’s not to say that some newer games don’t, especially PS4’s remaster of Grim Fandango. It’s just that we’ve moved away from that as a main model for games. We want huge worlds, real-life graphics, 700 different weapons to choose from. (And hey, there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s pretty badass.)

 Grim Fandango Remastered

But it all comes at a price. Often, we’re not left to figure anything out for ourselves. Instead, we’re told what to do and where to go. We follow the map marker to the person who gives us the quest, then we follow another to find the item we need, then another to get back to whoever needs it – you get my drift. We’re not left with that sense of accomplishment, that ‘I figured it out by myself!’ feeling.

So what do we do? Do we play our favourite childhood games to completion, perhaps with help from a walkthrough, and relish in the victory? Or do we pour days and weeks into following map markers on that 400-hour-long RPG that’s just been released? Me, I like a healthy mix of both, and I think it would be interesting to play a game that incorporates elements from the old and new.

Know any games like that? Have any old games that are still frustrating you to this day? Let us know in the comments!

Written by: mjelledge

21. Writer, gamer, geek, MA student. Thinking outside the (X)box.

  • jmmreivew

    Great article as always Mel, so many games do hold your hand now! I think it is so they can appeal to a much wider and younger audience. Or to put it more bluntly, so they sell more!

    Two modern games that come to mind that are difficult is the Dark Souls games and Alien Isolation 🙂

  • MGNoxa

    (sorry for long post)
    As JMM has mentioned many times this goes back to the whole story vs gameplay debate. Most of the time in order to tell a good story the gameplay will have to be gutted in some way.

    I love the Uncharted games but the gameplay has to be scripted in order to keep everything flowing, this means we get less choice and less chance for exciting dynamic gameplay and as you said this means more checkpoints. Going back to the start of a chapter means going through the same story beats over and over and it gets boring.

    Games that focus on gameplay don’t have this problem because your death means you learn something new and have to play through again. Dark Souls sends you back but now you can put everything you’ve learnt to good use.

    Seeing as you mentioned Tomb Raider that’s a pretty good example of gameplay changing with the times. Tomb Raider Underworld had a hint system, the environments hinted at your goal and it had cutscenes giving you an idea of what you should be doing. After all that you’re left on your own to figure out how to lower the hands of the giant statue.

    In the new Tomb Raider games you get shown nothing and the cutscenes don’t even help you out because the game expects you to just press the right stick in and activate your survival instincts. There’s no challenge because the developers want everyone to see the story.

    Developers/Publishers with big budgets suddenly become very aware of the percentage of players that consume certain gameplay.

    It’s also why Mass Effect 3 and similar RPG’s that claim to have different endings only end up with slightly different endings. They don’t want to waste money and if 90% of players don’t see the bad or good ending then that was a waste of money.

    That’s why the only modern games taking risks with difficult gameplay are the lower budget titles such as the Souls’ series.

    I haven’t played Grim Fandango but it reminds me of the PS4’s “The Witness” because it doesn’t care if you can’t solve the first puzzle and that’s refreshing. Hopefully we’ll see more games be this brave.

    I’m not going to lie though, I’ve got so used to running into combat as a headless chicken I love the checkpoints that are every 30 seconds… I’m my own worst enemy.

  • Josh Erik Bethell

    I think a lot of this boils down to the mainstreaming of ‘AAA’ games and the plethora of media about games now.

    Back in the older generations you rightly mention there were no hint systems, walkthroughs or anything like that. You also paid up front (a lot more considering inflation) for a game you might really know very little about. Games were designed to be difficult to keep you playing and ensure you as a consumer also got value out of the purchase.

    Nowadays mainstream developers are all about engaging the modern gamers of a frankly oversaturated market that demand instant gratification. That’s not to say hard games don’t exist or that some big names can’t also ramp up the difficulty either, Witcher 3 is an example of a massive modern game which has won applause from critics and gamers alike.

    I can sleepwalk through a new COD, Assassins Creed or Uncharted and barely care what’s happened, it’s big money design for the lowest common denominator, much like a Hollywood summer blockbuster. The original BioShock is now a classic but the sequels are stale and stupidly easy in comparison. The same can be said of dead space or the examples above.

    It sounds pretentious but as I’ve got older I’ve refined my tastes in games, much like I have with music and film. If you know where to look there are still plenty of challenging and engaging experiences available and they usually come from smaller studios more interested in making something unique rather than chasing a metacritic 80+ and achieving a specified profit margin to keep the publisher happy. I’ve probably dropped more time and effort into the binding of Isaac (about 12 quid) than anything else in the past few years that came out of a supposed AAA studio.


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