The Pit of despair

I’ve been revisiting Kid Icarus for various reasons over the past day (mostly involving preparing for its incipient sequel), and I’m boggled by just how backward its sense of difficult seems to be by contemporary standards. All the challenge is front-loaded: The game begins as one of the most vicious, unrelenting acts of brutality ever programmed and steadily becomes easier and easier as you power-up. By the end of it, they’re throwing dudes at you who steal your stuff or turn you into fruit because it’s the only way to pose any sort of challenge. The last stage is as toothless as the first stage is brutal. It’s kind of crazy.

Are there any games these days that use a similar difficulty curve, or is this something that’s been stamped out as developers come to realize that maybe starting off by discouraging players isn’t necessarily the best way to win fans?

23 thoughts on “The Pit of despair

  1. I think this game is overrated, even though I’m a huge Metroid fan and love Gunpei Yokoi. The difficulty didn’t help.

  2. Sounds like FF Tactics, the most prominent example in my mind of ‘lopsided difficulty’ (which many gamers mistake for genuine challenge).

    Kid Icarus’ early difficulty is exactly the kind of thing that makes me click ‘load new ROM’ when I’m randomly playing NES emulators.

    I was hoping Uprising would be something in the vein of a more action-oriented Zelda, but with a Classical flavor that isn’t quote as on the nose as God of War. I guess I’ll just have to play Rygar again.

    (As a Classics major, it’s probably not hard to imagine me shaking my head at so much lost potential of games using a classical setting, RTS games notwithstanding.)

  3. It’s not intentional but Bioshock simply refuses to be difficult once you reach Hephaestus. No matter what kinds of limitations I put on myself I always become a god at that point.

    • Agreed. The first few areas you go through are ruthless but once you get a better feel for how the game works it gets a lot smoother.

  4. Bionic Commando starts off pretty hard because you don’t have any hit points. The levels are designed to be more difficult later as far as navigation is concerned, but once you’ve got the rocket launcher and a decent amount of health, the endgame isn’t much of a challenge.

  5. Your hatred of Kid Icarus has always baffled me due to your love of Bionic Commando and Metroidvanias.

    • I imagine a wine connoisseur would have a much harsher opinion of a crappy wine than someone who wouldn’t know a Merlot from a cough syrup.

  6. Darksiders is similar. You die a lot at the first Boss-stages. But you finish the final boss in the first attempt. (And it’s not even close…)

  7. Since Nintendo is now reviving Kid Icarus, I wonder if they have any other 8-bit franchise that they can then revive after years of fan-demand. What’s next? Urban Champion? Balloon Fight? Devil World?

    • I sure hope so!

      And Kid Icarus… I always loved everything about the game, except actually playing it. I’ve considered downloading it on Virtual Console and finding some passwords to help ease up the challenge.

      Doesn’t it also have a New Game + type of feature, in which you start at the beginning with everything, thus making that part easier?

  8. I still love this game, but you’re right about the difficulty. Level 1-3 is the longest and hardest in the game.

    I used to get stuck there all the time until I found a spot in 1-1 (maybe 1-2…it has been a while) where you can farm “Reaperettes” and level grind the health bar up to its max. Of course you have to do it while standing on a single block perched over a bottomless pit and one mistake means all your progress is lost, but hey that’s 8-bit “fun,” right? :-/

  9. I would argue that many complex strategy games exhibit this same kind of difficulty curve. The novice player is thrown in with a dizzying array of commands and is expected to sort out just what exactly each one does.
    By the middle of the game, the player has a handle on what exactly he or she can do and becomes more focused on building a strategy, which can be easier than deciphering the nuances of the game.
    Usually by the end of the game, your victory is assured and it’s just a case of mopping up the remnants of broken opponents. In fact a lot of games now will let you declare a victory at this point and not bother yourself with the trivialities of hunting down every last surviving unit.

  10. I think Castlevania Order of Ecclesia suffers from a bit of the same problem. The enemies are all more durable to encourage the player to experiment and find their weaknesses, but that doesn’t work very well before the player has a big enough arsenal to try a variety of approaches. They really should’ve toned down the damage-sponge factor in the first half-dozen levels to let the player ramp up with less frustration.

    (And to a lesser extent, pretty much *all* Igavanias let you trivialize exploration via uber-weaponry by maybe 3/4 of the way through the game, but most of them don’t hit you so hard in the opening hours.)

    • This is true of most of the Symphony-style games, but usually they start out kind of average in difficulty and end a complete joke. Ecclesia’s definitely the one that everyone cites as impossible in the beginning. How many people bang their head fruitlessly against that crab boss?

      • You mean that boss that sends me back to DQ IX every time I think it might be a good idea to pick up that game again.

  11. Found Devil May Cry 3 a bit lopsided in regards to difficutly. I played the european version. I had nightmares about the first boss Cerberus and took me repeated attempts to kill him and only then by the skin of my teeth. After that the fight with the twins and then Vergil proved challenging but beyond that I found the game challenging but didn’t die much at all and breezed through it. The funny thing was that like most capcom games there was a boss rush at the end and I was wondering how tough Cerberus would be with so much more health, new and improved weapons and skills and my own skill which had improved substantially from playing the game. He ended up kicking my ass again and was far and away the hardest boss to beat.

  12. This style of challenge is alive and well in mediocre Flash games. It’s the basis of almost all browser-based games that incorporate RPG elements in place of actual design.

    • Jake, I fear you misunderstand the meaning of ‘difficulty’. The challenge in games like ‘Learn to Fly’ is to get as much as could reasonably be expected out of a single jump. Just because the final jumps go further does not mean they are ‘easy’ – though, I’d argue that the majority of these games are easy throughout.

      • I tried to be concise, and instead I wrote an oversimplification.

        Completing the first few stages of Kid Icarus takes incredible skill, as well as the willpower to continue playing a pretty lousy game when you could just as easily switch over to Bubble Bobble.

        Completing the first few stages of “Learn to Fly” requires only the latter.

        Especially toward the beginning, Learn to Fly gives you no control. Even by the end, player skill is secondary to skills purchased, and if you continue playing for long enough, even the worst player will be able to unlock every skill. Difficulty never enters the equation.

        Admittedly, my knowledge of the difficulty progression in Kid Icarus is a little shaky because, ya know, Bubble Bobble, but it sounds to me like the reason it gets easier as you progress is because you unlock abilities that make Pit stronger than the challenges he’s facing, rather than the challenges necessarily becoming easier. The game still controls poorly and the layout is still unremarkable, but Pit is better equipped.

        Bringing it back to mediocre Flash games, the beginning of something like Elephant Quest isn’t any more difficult than the end, but if you are going to die at any point, it will be close to the beginning, not because you, the player, lack skill, but because your character’s capabilities are so much less than they become a few upgrades later. By the end, it’s practically impossible for your character to be killed, while enemies that once took a little time to defeat drop in an instant.

        If you aren’t able to display adequate player skill in the first stages of Kid Icarus, you will die until you run out of lives and your game ends, with no gained character skills to help you the next time, so in that regard, Thomas, you are absolutely right. In Learn to fly, failure must come before success, whereas Kid Icarus forces success before progression.

        As I see it, the connection between the two is in the use of limited RPG-style progression in action games to cover poor design.

        In Super Mario Bros., your character is, at his worst, Mario. He’s quick and nimble and quite capable of every action necessary to complete the game. You begin at 1. Get a mushroom and you move to 2, Super Mario. Now you can survive a hit and break bricks – great advantages, but not required. Fire Mario is offensively superior, but defensively the same – at best a 3, but maybe closer to a 2.5.

        Now consider Pit at the start of Kid Icarus: He’s stiff, he’s weak, and aiming his pathetic little shots is far more awkward than it has any right to be. Play a little more and he gets better, but do the upgrades move him from a 1 to a 2, like Mario’s mushroom, or does he start at 1/2, and eventually become a legitimate 1 character?

        (And this is why I opted to be pithy in my original comment.)

  13. I once heard a reviewer argue that the difficulty curve of Kid Icarus parallels the narrative… or whatever sort of narrative you could impose on the game anyway. At the beginning, you’re surrounded by the demons of the underworld and are as far from hope as you could possibly be. Once you’ve emerged from the depths and hope gushes forth like a wellspring, the game’s pretty much a cakewalk.

    As far as your original question, I’m hard-pressed to think of a recent game that has quite the same curve, although it seems like there are plenty of RPGs out there that become way easy once you figure out how to break them. I can think of at least four Final Fantasies in which you can take out the final boss in one hit with the right setup…

  14. It didn’t have it, but I felt that Prototype would have benefited from this sort of design.

    A lot of WRPGs have this sort of feeling.

  15. This is going to sound like a dubious example, but playing Resident Evil 4 for the first time, and then playing it for the first time again on Professional difficulty, was this way for me. Until I got to the castle I felt like I was just hanging on by my fingernails even taking into account it’s a game that makes enemies drop health recovery items when you have none and are low on health. But once you start to get better weapons, or anyway further upgrades, it starts to become cake. It also helps if you realize grenades are incredibly useful.

    As a more interesting example, I always feel like every new Call of Duty’s multiplayer is designed to be this way, probably on purpose. I didn’t start playing Cod4 online until mid 2009, at which point everyone else I played against was either godlike or had made a new name/account to grief newbs. But as you rank up you are also getting better perks and weapons, which is a completely backward progression curve.

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