Friday, July 1, 2011

The Top 30 Hardest NES Games Ever. Day 1

You heard me.  For the entire month of July, I am going to be counting down the top 30 (29 actually) hardest NES games ever played.

Says who?

Glad you asked.  Over a year ago over at NintendoAge it was proposed that a list be made of the NES games that were the hardest to beat.  Through many a discussion, it was decided that a user poll would determine the top 30 most difficult NES games, then from that pool of 30 games an elite band of video game players (volunteers with lots of free time, what are the chances?) would devote a minimum of 5 hours to playing each game on the list and from that develop a ranking of those 30 games.  These lists would be pooled and a definitive list would finally show the world just how the hardest NES games stacked up.

Time passed.  The elite band lost members, the real world got in the way of progress and the project ground to a crawl.  Being the overachiever, I completed my list in about 4 months.  I was hoping the project would wrap by Christmas and I could publish my personal list here for the world to see and jeer.  After a year had passed, I went back to the members of the elite team and asked if it would be ok for me to go ahead and publish my list.  It was the general consensus among the remaining active members that my doing so would have little impact on the project assuming it went forward (I think they had an idea about how many people actual read my blog...), and that I was free to go ahead.

So, in the interest of giving you people a summer time treat, and me getting to finally geek out about this list (I've been really excited), I present to you the Hot and Heavy, Top 30 (29 really) Hardest NES games.

Maybe one of these games is the hardest NES game to beat?
The first real question we have to answer, before we can start revealing this list, is how do you determine what makes a game hard to beat?  There are really only two criteria:  the game must have a definite ending and it must be extraordinarily hard to reach it.  Why it is so hard to reach could be a factor of level design, enemy strength, learning patterns, solving puzzles, reflex requirements, and so on.
In the interest of keeping things fair, our elite group decided to level the playing field by only admitting games that could be played with the standard NES controller.  We excluded light gun games, ROB games, Power Glove games, Power Pad games, and Arkanoid (because of that damn Vaus controller), because part of the challenge of playing those games was inherent in mastering the persnickety (yeah I said persnickety AND the spell checker knew what it was!) controller, and that alone could make some games nearly impossible.  So all of the games on this list will be games that can be played with a standard NES game pad.
The only other caveat was that you could not use any "cheats" to defeat the game.  "Cheats" were defined as any tricks or exploits that were not explicitly stated in the games instruction manual.  So no Konami Code for Contra, no level select on Solomon's Key, and no ABBA codes on Ikari Warriors.  You get the idea. This doesn't rule out strategies that you could develop through game play, but it did rule out things like the pause exploit that kills many of the bosses in Blaster Master.  So if you couldn't learn it from the instruction manual, you could not use it.

That bring us to the first entry in this list: the honorable mentions.  This slot exists because it took us a very long time to determine that Arkanoid was simply impossible to beat with a standard controller (more below), so our list of 30 shrunk to 29.  I am using the 30th slot to mention two games that are virtually impossible, but do not make the cut because of their need for additional equipment.
The first game is the aforementioned Arkanoid.  This game is basically Breakout on steroids.  Arkanoid is just mean. There are a finite number of levels and that number is actually surprisingly low: 33, but getting farther than 18 pretty much requires god reflexes.  I played this game for far more than the allotted 5 hours and broke level 16 twice.  The standard controller is good until about level 13.  After that it simply cannot respond fast enough to keep the ball in play.  The Vaus controller is a must if you are going to play in the upper 20's and even then there is no promise of consistent success.  If you are lucky you can warp up by catching the warp power-up, but you cannot count on it as a road to victory.  The action is fast, the level design is insidious and the challenge is brutal.  Had this game stayed in the list, it would be top 5 material, easy.

The second honorable mention game is Gumshoe.  Most light gun games are quirky and fun or just dull, but Gumshoe is something all its own.  Similar to Crossbow, your hero walks lemmingly (pay me if you are going to use that one...) across the screen to apprehend a wanted criminal.  It is your job to protect him by shooting at oncoming attackers, cars, bottles, and other various threats.  You must also make him jump over obstacles and pits by, get this, shooting his feet!  If he grabs a balloon you'll get more bullets to keep the adventure going.  And you have to do all of this with the NES light gun.  That's right.  As veterans of Wild Gunman and Duck Hunt can attest, the NES Zapper ain't exactly a sniper rifle.  Accuracy is a function of blind luck at best, random chaos at the worst.  Either way, hitting your target consistently is 85% of the challenge in this game. And with so many enemies to shoot, plus trying to keep the mighty detective from plummeting to his doom or touching other deadly obstacles, you are going to need to be ridiculously accurate.  To that point, I never cleared level one.  I kept getting further, so I think eventually, if you stand right up next the to the TV screen and shoot a lot, you can eventually beat this game, but it really shouldn't be that hard.  Damn shame too, the concept is unique and fun.  I wish the controls were better.  I could definitely see playing this game a lot more.

Gumshoe and Arkanoid are two games that belong on any list of difficult NES games. They don't qualify for my list because of the controller restrictions, but rest assured they are tough customers!  As for the rest of the project, come back every day this month as I count down a different ball-busting NES game as we work our way toward the absolute most beat-your-face-in-the-dirt, hate-your-grandmother, kill-kitties-for-fun game in the NES library.  And I can already tell you, spending 5 hours with that game drove me to the point of primordial rage (not the dinosaur fighting game, real rage, you nerd).

See you every day this month, what else have you got to do?

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