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The Decay of Difficulty - Why Dark Souls is Not the Hardest Game Ever

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GrayRemnant's Avatar GrayRemnant
Level 64 : High Grandmaster Senpai
Hello there everybody!  Gray Remnant here.  So, I was thinking about what to do about the whole '2k sub milestone' thing, and I've decided that a simple build isn't enough to reciprocate such a momentous sign of support.  Therefore, I thought that in addition to the special project I've been working on, I could write a special blog.  Long story short: this is that blog.  Go figure.  :P

The topic of this blog (not surprisingly) is video games and I hope that you find the subject material intriguing.  I put a lot of effort into this 9-Chapter behemoth, in part, to thank you guys for being so supportive of my work.  Please enjoy.  ;)

Chapter I - The 25-Cent Standard


I don’t think anybody would argue with me if I made the claim that an overwhelming majority of people on the internet constantly say that Dark Souls (or it’s predecessor: Demon’s Souls) is the hardest, or amongst the hardest video games ever made.  It’s a message regurgitated ad nauseam on forums, blogs, and social media platforms (See proof below).  Is Dark Souls really the most difficult video game ever conceived?  I won’t tease you; the answer is no.  In fact, it doesn’t even come remotely close.

-What Culture named Demon's Souls the 4th hardest video game of all time, complaining about the "Brutally insane boss fights, and a lack of checkpoints."

-Askmen named Demon's Souls the 3rd hardest video game of all time, taking note that "The game doesn’t even have a pause feature, so you can forget about trying to stop a rough boss battle to get some tips from the internet.

-Mitch Dyer of IGN named Dark Souls amongst the hardest video games he's ever played, saying that "It's the most challenged I've ever felt by a game.” and complaining about the fact that "From Software actively fights against its players, forcing them to learn from their failure.

-Kyle Lowe of Complex named Dark Souls one of the top ten hardest video games ever made, noting that “The players must teach themselves how to fight and learn quickly from enemies to stay alive.

-The Telegraph named Dark Souls amongst the top 15 hardest video games ever, calling it “Notoriously challenging at every turn, with enemies shockingly eager to maim and bosses finishing players in as few as two hits.

-Youtuber WatchMojo named Dark Souls the 2nd hardest video game ever made, warning that “Not only do you have to deal with enemies that can turn you into wallpaper with just a few hits, but also with other players who are able to invade your world just to troll you.

-Kristan Reed of VG247 crowned Dark Souls the hardest game she's ever played, saying that “The grim reality hits home the moment you face the game’s second boss, the infamous Taurus Demon.

-Rob Waugh of Daily Mail deemed Dark Souls the hardest videogame of all time, stressing that “You have no 'lives', there are no checkpoints, and almost every opponent is deadly.

But what is the hardest video game?  To answer that question, we must look back at the origins of the industry.  No, not the 1980’s; before that.  Back in the 1920’s, amusement parks created arcade activities such as shooting galleries, and ball toss games.  These are the earliest known form of arcade games.

Later, in the 30’s, Pinball was invented, which added another aspect to the gaming industry: coin-operated functionality. [1]  This provided a mechanical means of charging a set fee, in exchange for a number of plays.  This was the dawn of life-limitation, an aspect of gaming where the player is only allowed a limited number of lives before the archetypal ‘Game Over’.

However, the first electro-mechanical arcade game would not emerge until much later.  In the late 60’s and 70’s, electro-mechanical gaming arrived in the form of Periscope, Duck Hunt, and Grand Prix. [2]  It was here that an important evolution of gaming occurred: the 25-cent standard. From here until the 90’s, most arcade games would cost a quarter to play.

Then, in 1971 and 72, coin-operated arcade video games were created.  This would be the birth of Pong, one of the earliest known electronic games. [3]  These arcade games evolved over the years and included Galaxian, Pac-Man, Street Fighter, Virtua Cop, and many more.

But even with all the diversity, one thing always remained constant: the 25-cent standard.  This was the key to understanding the ethos of early video games.  Developers and arcade owners made money based on one thing and one thing only: failure.  Nobody bought cartridges, disks, or digital media.  They just walked up to the arcade cabinet and put in a quarter.

But, as you well know, a quarter was usually just the tip of the iceberg.  After a player had used up all of his/her lives, they had to reimburse the gaming Gods and put in another quarter.  Rinse and repeat a few times, and you can clearly see how the market worked.  The harder the game, the more money it made.

Thus, the gaming industry cranked out incredibly difficult games, knowing full well that the more players struggled, the more quarters they would have to dispense.  Meanwhile, another branch of the video gaming industry was taking shape: the home console.

Starting with the Magnavox Odyssey in 1972, developers were discovering that they could sell their content through other means. [4]  Atari, Magnavox, and Coleco were selling portable devices that could play arcade games on a home television screen. [5]

Then, in 1983, the market exploded with the dawn of the NES, and the rest should be familiar history to you.  However, the nature of these early console games was not even remotely similar to modern day games.  Those games bore the ethos and feel of their arcade predecessors.  It would still be awhile before games shed themselves of the ghostly influence of the 25-cent standard.

Chapter II - The Four Tenets of Toil


Before we get into these excruciatingly difficult games, I think it’s a good idea to talk about what exactly makes a game hard.  There are four features/aspects a game can have that creates an environment of extremely high difficulty.  Let’s just call them the ‘Four Tenets of Toil’.

The first tenet is the mechanical nature of a game.  A video game can be difficult simply based on the precision needed to complete a level successfully.  This can take many different forms such as hit points, movement, enemy AI, or even time constraints.

A game can be difficult by limiting the amount of damage the player can take before losing a life and re-spawning at a checkpoint.  It could also be difficult by forcing the player to press buttons with a high level of precision.  Any mistakes, or mistiming could result in instant death (especially when conjoined with a limited health bar).  Then, of course, there’s the option of incorporating a time limit, which would force the player to execute all of this under time constraints.

The second tenet is the system of checkpoints and the nature of re-spawning.  A game can be difficult by simply denying the player an abundance of checkpoints.  Some games offer literally no checkpoints between levels.  This sends the player back further when they die, which forces the player to memorize and execute more phases to successfully complete a level.

Tenet number three is one of the most essential aspects in determining whether or not a game is truly difficult.  It is an aspect that is either present or absent in a game.  The third tenet is life limitation.  In any game, a player either has a limited number of lives, or an unlimited number of lives.  This determines how many times a player can re-spawn at a checkpoint before facing the ‘Game Over’ screen.

The final tenet is based around a game’s leveling system.  This, like tenet three, is usually either present or absent in a game.  Games that allow the player to ‘grind’ or level up through repetitive, easy, and/or time consuming tasks are usually much less difficult than games that force you to play with fixed stats.

Now that we understand what makes a game difficult, it’s time to apply these tenets to a wide range of video games.  Let’s see how Dark Souls stands amongst the Four Tenets of Toil.

Chapter III - Why Dark Souls is Not the Hardest Game Ever


When you analyze Dark Souls through the lens of the Four Tenets of Toil, it becomes clear that Dark Souls lacks the content to really challenge someone the way truly difficult games do.  First, let’s look at the mechanical nature of Dark Souls.

Dark Souls is a game that requires you to adopt a very disciplined, patient strategy.  You have to be mindful of your stamina bar, your position, and the enemy’s attack patterns.  The amount of room for error when it comes to attacking, blocking, and dodging is very slim.  Any mistakes will be punished with heavy damage.  That said, it’s rare in Dark Souls to find yourself in a one-hit-kill situation.  There’s virtually no enemies that can get in a cheap shot and just kill you when you have a full bar of health.  The health system even allows you to heal yourself a set number of times, which increases your ability to make mistakes, take hits, and still win the battle.

In terms of time constraints, this is an aspect that is completely lacking in Dark Souls.  You can take however much time you need to explore, fight, and wage war against bosses.  There’s no ticking clock at the top of the screen.  Mechanically, Dark Souls requires a high level of execution for success, but not the highest level of execution.  There are many games that are much less forgiving in this regard.

In terms of the second tenet, Dark Souls’ checkpoint system is quite fair.  Dark Souls provides a vast number of bonfires and doors throughout the world that give the player many different places to set up shop and re-spawn at.  I would say (conservatively) that Dark Souls has a fairly high number of checkpoints in comparison to some of the more devious games out there.

As I said before, Tenet number three is one of the most important aspects in determining a game’s difficulty level.  When it comes to life limitation, Dark Souls has none of that.  You can die as many times as needed in Dark Souls, with no fear of ever seeing the ‘Game Over’ screen.  This is because the ‘Game Over’ screen doesn’t exist in Dark Souls.  The closest you’ll ever come to failure is seeing ‘You Died’ flash across the screen, and every time you see it you’ll re-spawn at the exact same place (with the exception of Seath’s little trick later on in the game).

A lot of people contend that while Dark Souls lacks life limitations, it remains punishing based on the fact that it takes your souls away every time you die.  This would be true if not for the fact that Dark Souls doesn’t hold up when you analyze it under the fourth and final tenet.

In Dark Souls you may lose your souls when you die, but there’s nothing stopping you from just getting them back through grinding.  In Dark Souls, most enemies re-spawn indefinitely, which allows the player to obtain literally an infinite amount of souls through simple grinding techniques.  So, you see, there is nothing ‘punishing’ about losing your souls when you die.  You can get as many as you want, wherever you want, whenever you want.

So, how does Dark Souls stand up to the Tenets of Toil?  Not well.  In fact, Dark Souls seems incredibly easy when you look at it under the scope the second, third, and fourth tenets.  In Dark souls you are provided many checkpoints, you can die as much as you want, and you can grind to your heart’s content.

The only tenet that makes Dark Souls seem difficult is the first.  Yes, Dark Souls requires patient strategy and good knowledge of enemy attack patterns.  The only problem is that this is only difficult when you compare it to modern casual video games.  In comparison to old school, hardcore games, Dark Souls is a veritable cake walk.

Chapter IV - The Decay of Difficulty


While Dark Souls is certainly a difficult game, especially when compared to casual games of the twenty first century, Dark Souls does not even come close to emulating the difficulty of old school games.  Why?  Because older games were made with the 25-cent standard in mind.

In the beginning, video games were made difficult to make more money.  When gaming became a portable, home-owned concept, the degree of difficulty began to atrophy.  Why make the game difficult, when failure no longer requires the player to pay for more lives?  It didn’t happen over night, in fact it didn’t even happen in a year.  This decay of difficulty occurred over decades.

The NES era was particularly notorious for producing games with an insane level of difficulty.  Contra, Battletoads, Ninja Gaiden, Ghosts N’ Goblins, Mega Man, and Mike Tyson’s Punch Out were particularly devious.  Why?  Because they were more in line with the Four Tenets of Toil.

These games weren’t like Dark Souls.  They had a satanically low number of lives, a severe lack of checkpoints, and virtually no room for error whatsoever.  Oh, and grinding didn’t even exist back in those days.  There was no such thing as ‘leveling up’.  The game’s difficulty level was fixed, and there was nothing you could do to change it.

Later, in the N64/PS1 era, games became a little bit easier.  Lives were more plentiful (though still limited), checkpoints weren’t as sparse, and there was more room for error.  But that doesn’t mean these games were easy.  There were still quite a few titles more difficult than Dark Souls.  Rayman and Crash Bandicoot were the particular standouts on Playstation.

Which brings us to modern-day games.  Why are games like Super Mario Galaxy, L.A. Noire, Heavy Rain, Far Cry 3, and Call of Duty so easy?  Because, at long last, the 25-cent standard has completely dissipated.  It’s over.  The gaming industry no longer makes games that are challenging.  Instead, they make games that virtually anyone can beat.

But, of course, you’re probably wondering how an easy game can be fun and addictive.  That’s actually pretty simple.  They replaced difficulty with collectability.  Now, instead of focusing on actually beating a game, you’re focused on collecting gems or coins.  Games like Spyro the Dragon, Uncharted, Bioshock, and Skyrim are not meant to challenge.  Instead, you’re only expected to walk around completing easy quests, or collecting a finite number of items, or watching a story unfold.

This is a far more universally loved model, and one that sells far more effectively than something difficult.  It’s easy to throw Dark Souls into the mix and marvel at its bizarre difficulty.  In comparison to Beyond Two Souls, Dark Souls is mind-numbingly difficult.  But compare Dark Souls to Battletoads, and it becomes clear that Dark Souls isn’t even worthy of being listed amongst the retro juggernaut-difficulty games.

Chapter V - Customizable Difficulty


One of the other reasons that Dark Souls is viewed as insidiously difficulty is the fact that, like retro games, Dark Souls has no custom difficulty level.  Dark Souls comes with one difficulty level: Hard.  That’s the way it used to be, and most modern games have multiple difficulty levels to choose from.

Many people use difficulty levels to ease into a game.  Some might choose to play through a game on easy mode, and then play through again with the difficulty increased.  Dark Souls doesn’t offer that option and, in concordance with the fact that Dark Souls doesn’t offer much hand-holding, it’s easy to see how that could intimidate younger or less experienced gamers.

The result?  Most players get annihilated by the Asylum Demon and just rage quit, while declaring Dark Souls to be the ‘hardest game ever’.  That’s why so many people jump to this conclusion.  They don’t have the patience to learn to play the game, and as a result they quit without giving themselves a chance to adapt.

Dark Souls, like all hardcore games, takes time to acclimate to.  Nobody is going to excel at Dark Souls their first run through.  Once someone learns the ins and outs, it becomes much more manageable, and actually quite fun.

Chapter VI - What About Indie Games?


Even though the majority of the video gaming industry has become predominantly casual, there is still a remnant of the old games on the periphery.  These games usually congregate on the internet, Steam, or are produced by fringe developers.

Games like Super Meat Boy, N+, The Impossible Game, Electronic Super Joy, and Touhou still live on in the spirit of retro games.  They are the few games that still offer a challenge, amongst the hoards of casual first-person shooters, and RPGs.

Chapter VII - Girls that Could Destroy Ornstein and Smough


Which brings us to the topic of Ornstein and Smough.  The only thing I hear more often than ‘Dark Souls is the hardest game ever’ on the internet is ‘Ornstein and Smough is the hardest boss ever’ (See proof below).  Just as Dark Souls is not the hardest game ever, Ornstein and Smough is not the toughest boss battle either.

-Danger Dolan called Ornstein and Smough the 13th hardest video game boss ever, warning to “Make sure to take advantage of the pillars and rely on rolling.

-Eriq Martin of IGN named Ornstein and Smough amongst the most brutal boss fights of all time, adding that “I didn’t break a controller during my 50+ attempts at the fight, but I definitely came close.

-Robin-Leigh Chetty of TechSmart named Ornstein and Smough amongst the top 5 toughest video game bosses ever, noting that “The second stage has both bosses health fully restored and forces players to try and repeat the feat.

-Joe Pring of GameGrin named Ornstein and Smough one of the top 7 hardest bosses in gaming, postulating that “Dark Souls’ bosses can become child’s play once you’ve defeated them half a dozen times. Ornstein & Smough though, are still the only encounter I dread.

-Andrew of Gamers Honest Truth called Ornstein and Smough the 2nd hardest boss of all time, stating that “While you can summon assistance to make things easier with that additional blade by your side, it’s still not a walk in the park.

-Aaron Birch of Den of Geek named Ornstein and Smough the most brutal boss in videogames, saying that “Although you can attack both, wearing down their health, on one of the duo's deaths the remaining member of the tag team gets full health back.

-Dennis Patrick of PlayStation Gang crowned Ornstein and Smough the hardest video game boss ever, warning that “You will die more times then you can count.

Now, I could list a few dozen bosses that are harder than Ornstein and Smough just to prove my point, but I’m not going to do that.  It would be too easy.  Instead, I’m going to list three female bosses that make Ornstein and Smough look puny and weak in comparison.  Take that, Ornstein and Smough!  Beat by girls!

Video Evidence

Video Evidence

Video Evidence

Chapter VIII - The Hardest Video Game Ever


So now that I’ve explained why Dark Souls is certainly not the hardest video game ever made, your question is probably ‘What is the hardest, then?’.  Some people would say that question is too difficult to answer, and is really up to the interpretation and opinion of the player.  I disagree with that.  I think the question is very easy to answer.

There is one game so notoriously difficult, and so unforgivingly unfair, that it makes Ghosts N’ Goblins look like Spyro the Dragon in comparison.  A game so devious, it has left some of the greatest gamers babbling and rocking back and forth in defeat.  Thanos tried putting on the infinity gauntlet and playing it, and you know what happened?  He ended up hanging himself.

The nightmarish, satanic game that I’m talking about is Winnie the Pooh’s Home Run Derby.  Yeah.  Now before you jump to conclusions and start questioning my integrity, please play the game.  It’s an online flash game and it’s free to all.  If you’re still alive and sane in 30 minutes, then come back so you can tell me how right I was.

Honestly, I don’t even want to talk about this game.  I still have nightmares.  It’s a baseball game where you play as Winnie the Pooh, trying to hit home runs against the entire Hundred Acre Wood gang.  At the start, everything is okay.  But once you get to Rabbit, it becomes clear that these guys have some sort of dark, magical abilities.  If you manage to make it all the way to the final boss, then you will experience the brutally agonizing fate of Christopher Robin (who, in this game, is apparently a twisted, demonic demigod from some dark dimension who’s hellbent on causing as much pain and misery as possible) tearing your soul apart over and over again.

Still don’t believe me?  I think these memes will back me up.

Weep for Your Soul!
The Devil's Game
Everything Shall be Consumed
Who You Gonna Call?
The Power of Friendship
The Nightmarish Last Days
The Definition of Insanity
Where is Your God Now?
The Final Battle

Chapter IX - What Dark Souls’ Legacy Should Be


While the idea that Dark Souls is amongst the hardest games ever made is certainly wrong, there is another, more suitable title that Dark Souls is worthy of.  Dark Souls is a game filled with stunning environments, horrifying and creative enemy designs, captivating background lore, a challenging level of difficulty, endless replay value, and one of the best combat systems I’ve ever seen in a video game.

It’s one of the most enjoyable games I’ve ever played, and I will play it again many times in the future.  It’s not a game that holds your hand, and it’s not a game that let’s you by without vigorously pushing your limits.  But it is an incredibly fair game, and it’s a game that anyone can complete as long as they legitimately try to beat it.

Dark Souls shouldn’t go down in history as ‘one of the hardest video games ever’.  Instead, Dark Souls should be forever known as ‘one of the best video games ever’.  That is the title it truly deserves, and it’s the title Dark Souls has been denied due to the wimpy, non-competitive, thoughtless, quitter attitude present in many modern gamers.

The modern gaming environment is a world where ridiculous, glitch-ridden games that have horrible combat systems with no level of difficulty whatsoever get all the acclaim *Cough* Skyrim *Cough*.  People shouldn’t praise a game with 500 quests (that are all exactly the same) with no challenges (other than constant freezing and game-breaking bugs that render quests unfinishable).  What you should be praising is a game like Dark Souls.

We live in a strange time.  A time where people sit, zombified, collecting coins, unlocking easy achievements, and shooting nazi zombies in the face.  And that’s all well and good; I like those games too.  But I like the process of struggling, shouting, and conquering a fairly difficult game even more.  In fact, that’s the kind of game I live for.

Thank you very much for reading!  If you liked this blog, don’t forget to toss me a diamond.  If you were one of the poor souls who actually played Winnie the Pooh’s Home Run Derby, please keep in mind that Gray Remnant is not responsible for any grievous physical or mental injuries you may or may not have sustained while playing it.  Please take your lawsuits to Disney.  It’s their fault.

-Gray Remnant

1 - http://www.pinrepair.com/arcade/
2 - Steven L. Kent (2000), The First Quarter: A 25-Year History of Video Games, p. 83, BWD Press.
3 - http://www.arcade-museum.com/game_detail.php?game_id=9074
4 - Baer, Ralph H. (2005). Videogames: In The Beginning. Rolenta Press. pp. 52–59.
5 - http://www.ralphbaer.com/how_video_games.htm

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11/15/2015 6:53 am
Level 18 : Journeyman Explorer
RenegadeRad's Avatar
Its a trap!
08/19/2015 6:10 pm
Level 50 : Grandmaster Crafter
mick_5's Avatar
Very true,I remember playing games back on the NES and they were really hard,compared to today's standard
Histor the Noob
08/19/2015 9:10 pm
Level 28 : Expert Geek
Histor the Noob's Avatar
Eh. I play the classic Mario for the NES, and the only thing that's a pain to me is those BUZZY BEATLES ON THE B WORLDS. UGH. Also getting to the Minus world is a pain.
08/16/2015 11:34 am
Level 29 : Expert Narwhal
DarwinYT's Avatar
Now I know where the wither came from...
08/15/2015 8:16 pm
Level 50 : Grandmaster Architect
GhostXavier's Avatar
Excellent analysis. Very solid evidence and examination of the decline! I honestly had a feeling that demonic Pooh game would be one of the forerunners for difficulty haha. Its cult following is very well deserved. It's been a while since i've done difficult video games myself, with probably the last time being the original Killzone for nostalgia's sake last year. I forgot how "difficult" that shooter was just based on the absurd reason that they made everything in the game shake the camera violently: Reloading, looking... walking. haha Sometimes "immersion" adds difficulty too. Keep up the great work!
08/16/2015 1:17 am
Level 64 : High Grandmaster Senpai
GrayRemnant's Avatar
Thank you very much!  I'm so glad you liked it.  I struggled with Killzone's shaky camera as well, but it's been a while since I've played it.  ;)
08/14/2015 9:58 pm
Level 60 : High Grandmaster Senpai
AnimeFanFTW's Avatar
Holy bad word, so detailed and interesting. :o

I played Dark Souls, I can't even play the second level. xD
Personally, I think it is not the hardest game, but it is definatly up there with one of the hardest. Heck, I heard the prequel, Demon Souls is harder.

I've played insanely hard games like Ghosts N Goblins. I played it for only 20 minutes, but those 20 minutes were the most frustrating and anger-inducing 20 minutes of my life. I've played Super Meat Boy, I am so close to beating it, but I can't do the last levels. I've played the original Binding of Isaac, an insane game, which I thankfully got all the endings to. And I've played Touhou 9.5. The hardest fighting game ever. The opponents ALWAYS spam their super moves. (I need to play the top-down-shooter Touhous...)

And lets not forget other insane games like Super Mario Bros 2: the Lost Levels, Reccetear, The Impossible Game, Castlevania 1, Battletoads, Rayman 1, Takeshi's Challenge, the list goes on.

I don't think there will ever be a game that will get the title of "Hardest game ever" because there will always be people that can manage to complete these games with no probs (like the Speedrunners for Dark Souls. I don't even,) and there will always be games that different people will find harder then most.

EDIT: So I searched up Touhou bosses. And WHAT THAT ACTUAL HECK? Touhou makes Dark Souls seem like child's play.
08/15/2015 3:40 pm
Level 64 : High Grandmaster Senpai
GrayRemnant's Avatar
Haha, yeah Touhou is a nightmare.  I've never even managed to beat any of the extra bosses without unlimited lives.  xD
08/15/2015 3:55 pm
Level 60 : High Grandmaster Senpai
AnimeFanFTW's Avatar
Well, regardless, it makes me motivated to play the Touhou games. xD
08/14/2015 5:19 pm
Level 18 : Journeyman Pokemon
spongedog10's Avatar
Ok, i've been ready YOUR comments, saying skyrim has SO many bugs! I'm mad now, skyrim is my favorite game and in my complete plathrough, i've only encountered 3 bugs! Only ONE of them gamebreaking!
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