This article first appeared on the now-defunct ZUG.com in 2010.
The hardest part of most of today’s videogames is getting them out of the wrapping. With their auto-saves and instant respawns, modern videogames are like going back to preschool. Which is why I’m going to force myself to finish the hardest games in videogame history.
The catch: I’ll be drinking every time I die. Because as an Irishman, I’m culturally required to drink when there’s a death in the family, and you can’t get more family than yourself (unless you’re Alabaman, in which case you’re hopefully drunk already).
Let the games begin!
Manic Miner (C64)
Manic Miner is about an untrained civilian who falls down an abandoned mineshaft, and his survival prospects are exactly as good as that would suggest. If you’re dying of ebola, play this and the virus will flee your body in self-defense.
Playing: Manic Miner is proof that children will put up with anything if you call it a “videogame.” It’s more painful than many full-time jobs, including “bare-handed porcupine plucker and salt-mixer”, and that’s a fictional position I imagined I might do instead of playing this game. It’s more stupidly unfair than a Russian Roulette tournament using machine guns. Every level features at least three stupid deathtraps you can only detect by dying at them, and you only get three lives, and they all send you back to the start of the game. That’s not just pain: that’s an evil electronic inversion of Buddhist philosophy where the only way to proceed is to keep dying, learning a tiny bit more each time until you finally escape. But in Manic Miner you don’t escape. You get another level.
Oh, and to “save memory” there’s no death animation or event; the screen just flashes and you’re back at the start of the level (which will often kill you again in seconds) without any acknowledgement that you died, and no option but to try again. That’s not fun: that’s how they sent people to hell in at least three episodes of The Twilight Zone. In the time I wasted on this game as I kid, I could not only have learned the piano, but taught myself to speak French.
As a kid I could only play this for fifteen minutes before getting pissed off, and that’s including the five minutes to load it from tape. This is but one of many past shortcomings now cured by drinking! But my Valhallan approach of “Drink when you die” almost killed me.
One six-pack isn’t much, but I was drinking so constantly my stomach thought I was back in college, on my birthday, and drowning. “Stone Hammer” seemed like it’d go great with a mining game, and it did: drinking this was painful, dirty work that felt like I was being exposed to dangerous chemicals without insurance. I think this beer is a cunning way to get people to help dispose of used batteries. And I’m still sober, proving that sustained hatred truly does ruin everything good in life, even alcohol.
Super Ghouls’N Ghosts (SNES)
The second sequel to one of the hardest games of all time, and the only change they made was to improve the graphics. Which is like being told the firing squad is using hand-painted bullets.
Playing: This isn’t a game, it’s a paranoid psychosis simulator. There is nothing in SG’NG that doesn’t want to murder you. Wildlife kills you, things rise from the ground to kill you, the power-up chests can kill you, and on the first level the background rises up to kill you, with no way to know it’s even coming. How can you hide from the game’s scenery?
But your most lethal foe is your own legs: King Arthur has a double-jump, but because you can’t steer it after launch it’s less a “useful skill” and more a “self-propelled suicidal catapult.” You’re firing yourself through screens loaded with lethal creatures, using trajectories so impossible to calculate that even a rocket scientist would say, “Screw it, let’s figure out how to travel back in time instead.”
These games come from an era when accessibility was seen as a sign of weakness. It’s like paying to go to prison: the game had to kill the first player they saw, just so the other inmates would respect him. It’s so brutal that beginner players are being murdered in their underpants. And that’s not a gag. The game actually strips you to your underpants before killing you, which is a cunning way for programmers to get “WE’RE BUGGERING YOU” past censors. Since no one will believe I’ve played the game if I don’t say this: I swear to God, I’m going to find out who programmed that Red Demon. I’m going to wait until they’re stepping onto a train, then swoop down and knock them onto the tracks. It isn’t just an enemy, it’s proof that we’ll lose the man-machine war, and it was programmed twenty years ago. After the fortieth time that crimson c-word knocks you off a ledge, you’d sacrifice your own face just to kill the thing once.
This game is such incredible training in patience and lethality, the only reason they don’t use it to train bomb disposal techs is they don’t want those guys to be used to dying.
Result: SANE VICTORY!
There are two ways to beat this game:
a) The “True Ending,” where on beating it you’re told you have to play it through all the way again to get a magic bracelet
b) The “Sane Ending,” where on seeing the True Ending, you invent a way for computers to have sex with themselves, just so you can tell the machine to go do that.
This game took much longer than necessary, because I’ve already reached the point where it’s an alcoholism simulator: things keep going wrong, but it’s not my fault because the world really is unfair, so I drink after every mistake. And I make more mistakes because I’m drinking. Luckily, unlike real alcoholics, the only lives I’m ruining are King Arthur’s. And luckily for my liver, I ran out of beer far before I finished the game.
Sinistar is the twitchiest shooter since Rambo caught tried to throttle a high-voltage wire, and it’s killed more people than both.
Playing: I have a serious hardware problem here. I have a digital d-pad controller, and Sinistar is meant to be played with an analog joystick. So I’m taking on the hardest shooter in existence with only 8 one-degree arcs of fire, exactly one-forty-fifth of the number of degrees I need to stand a chance.
Satan could be real, holding a shotgun, and your prom date’s chaperone, and you still wouldn’t hate and fear him as much as Sinistar. He’s the most terrifyingly murderous opponent in the history of games: literally a giant death-face screaming “COWER, MORTAL”. Sinistar is pure electro-pain, because it’s aggressively impossible work: you have to mine crystals for the bombs to blow up Sinistar, while an infinity of enemies gather the same crystals to rebuild him. Most aren’t even out to get you — they’re just mobile annoyances getting in your way while you try to do your job. It’s an incredible satire of modern office work except your boss is THE DEATH STAR WITH A SCREAMING FACE.
If you try to mine crystals too fast, the asteroids will blow up instead. If you do it right, the crystals will float out the opposite side, because the game hates you. And those crystals can be stolen to build Sinistar, because see previous, and unless you’ve been kicked in the crotch by Dane Cook you will never know the level of hate that engenders.
Result: BEAT LEVEL 1!
I destroyed Sinistar with my compass-point defense system, the equivalent of taking Muhammad Ali down after
a) tying your arms behind your back
b) traveling back in time to 1965 and telling Sony Liston “Sit this one out, kid, I’ll take him.”
c) taking a drink every time he hits you, which is what I’m doing.
Sinistar is best villain in videogaming history, and anyone who disagrees hasn’t played Sinistar. Blowing the bugger up is like winning the Nobel Prize of HELL YEAH. It’s a greater sense of relief than disarming a bomb implanted in your own genitals.
Drinking every time you die is actually faster than an IV of pure alcohol, and more dangerous because I’ve run out of regular bottles and am now drinking random things I’ve found in the bottom of the fridge. Because if I was stuck on a busted mining ship with broken controls and Galactus’s alarm clock was screaming at me, I’d be drinking anything I could find then also.
That’s when the second level revealed that the first level was kidding. An anthill of enemy vessels building Sinistar faster than a documentary on machine gun assembly. I claimed a moral victory, the least effective kind of victory, and moved on.
Battletoads Jetbikes (NES)
You either knew this was coming, or you think “Hard” games are ones where you can’t be Barbie. Either way, you’re about to witness the worst vehicular pain since the end of Mad Max — and at least that was over in five minutes.
This level isn’t just unfair: it’s psychological pain. You only have three options — up, down, or jump — and it’s still impossible. That’s because the hoverbike is incredibly difficult to control, training you to hit up or down the instant a warning flashes up, but the jump warning comes EXACTLY one-jump-and-just-enough-time-to-land-and-crash before the barriers. You’re more guaranteed to crash than an unmanned space shuttle running Windows XP.
It’s a non-stop sequence of death. Sure, you can continue — but you’re dumped at the start of the preceding (and agonizingly slow) beat-em-up section, making sure your brain never stays speeded up enough to have any hope of survival. The section ends in a slalom so ridiculously impossible you’d swear the game was programmed by Winter Olympians as revenge for all the mockery.
I finally beat it because I believed in myself, because I had the faith, and because I remapped my extra buttons to “Quicksave” and “Quickload”. Even with the ability to reset time, it took an idiotically long time. This level is so impossible even the Prince of Persia would still be stuck there. If you ever beat this level without cheating, I would like to honestly and frankly tell you that you’ve wasted your life. I, on the other hand, wasted another batch of beers to soothe my temper because it was either that, or be the first person convicted of murder where the motive was “Battletoads.”
And if anyone out there wants to complain that there are more jetbike levels after that, I reply: the stove stays hot after you pull your hand away too, and I’m not doing that again either.
For more gaming goodness, check out 6 Groundbreaking Ways Video Games Are Screwing Players and If Every Games Were Saints Row IV.
Or for more experimental insanity, behold