Yesterday I touched upon the fact that No More Heroes, while a good game in its own right - wasn’t really as challenging as I expected it to be. That got me to thinking: just what defines a challenge in games? We talk about games as being easy, or being too hard because of cheap tactics, but what do these terms really mean?
Again looking at NMH because it’s what is freshest in my memory: I played on the hardest mode last night “Bitter” difficulty, which is only unlocked after beating the game once. Using the option to fight the bosses again without going through the levels, I took a stab at some of the bosses that were considered the difficult ones. One notable change I found was that every boss now attacked at a rate that made it harder to trigger the dark step, and would even dodge away when I entered dark step mode, thus depriving me of an opportunity to get a good combo in. This, in and of itself, was something that I believe increases the challenge without being “cheap”. But in order to move forward I have to first set a baseline for what cheapness is.
We’ve all played a game like this: often times racing and fighting games are the worst offenders. A lot of the recent complaints about the Mario Kart series for example, revolve around the fact that the computer often seems to go out of its way to ensure that you don’t make first place; incidents like that last second blue shell shoved up your tailpipe right before the finish line have caused many a gamer to nearly break controllers in a rage. This is an example of so-called rubber band A.I.: wherein the computer exceeds the probable limits of possible gameplay in order to stay on par with the player. In Mario Kart it comes in the fact that no matter how well you play the opponents will always be breathing down your neck, and any mistake (or random “lucky” stroke from the computer) will mean that you lose. Interestingly, the first Mario Kart game for the SNES was notable for its lack of rubber banding, as such things as lapping opponents on some tracks was possible.
That’s of course not the only kind of cheap gameplay gimmick. For example, rationally it would be possible to have a fighting game where the highest difficulty is literally unwinnable, because the player controlled character still has to route their commands through the computer, which the A.I. opponent can then perfectly counter with a higher priority move. There’s also the fact that an A.I. opponent will never have to remember any combinations for move sets or super triggers, they can process a ridiculously long combo in the time it takes you to start the first input for the first move. This results in the literal unwinnable (at least without exploiting weakness in the A.I. itself) matches. Of course, no one would play on that level of difficulty because of the almost pointless amount of frustration it would engender. Even using A.I. exploits to beat it wouldn’t be as fun as simply playing against a challenging but still balanced computer opponent.
Of course, those two aren’t the only genres of games, but it’s still easy to recognize the problems that occur in other games. Having extensively played both series, I can easily say that Ninja Gaiden is cheaper than Devil May Cry. Both games are utterly punishing and have difficult opponents, but Ninja Gaiden has situations where some attacks are relentlessly spammed - I’m looking at you explosive shuriken throwing ninja - and there are times when the camera makes already frustrating battles nearly impossible. Now, this isn’t to say that DMC is without problems, but it’s a case where if I take damage in the latter, I know that it’s my fault, whereas with the former game, it seems that even if you play to the utmost perfection that a human could possibly hope to achieve, that you’re still going to take some hits “just because” which is something that doesn’t need to happen in order to challenge the player.
To call upon NMH one last time, I can give examples of both “cheap” ways that the game makes itself difficult, and ways that it makes itself legitimately challenging. One of the last fights in the game has the boss - Bad Girl (no seriously) - that has a lot of hp and extremely damaging attacks. That in itself is fine, because she’s one of the last bosses in the entire game; she does however, have an attack where she sends lesser enemies flying at you with her baseball bat. While you can send these enemies back at her, it requires fairly precise timing, and while she does this you’re not really in a position to attack her, not to mention that this attack “spawns” at least three minor enemies to deal with. This wouldn’t be so bad if she only did it at certain points rather than randomly; but the fact that she does do it randomly means that she might start doing it three, four, or five times in a row, which gets extremely annoying because it prevents you from fighting her and is a potentially extremely damaging attack. This I would consider cheap because it’s spamming a hard to counter, highly damaging move. This same boss does have an instant kill attack, but strangely enough I don’t consider that cheap, because it’s sort of a bait and switch technique, and if you fall for it it’s your own fault.
The true last boss of the game, though, is perhaps the pinnacle of true difficulty in the game. He’s got a ton of hp, and most of his attacks are fairly straightforward but incredibly damaging if you screw up, get too greedy or cocky. Especially on the highest difficulty, he’s a challenge that is a good test of how well you’ve mastered the game, as any final boss - particularly in an action game - should be. The fight can last anywhere from 10 minutes to a full half hour, but it’s not ever something that you can accuse of being cheap, because whether you win or lose is completely on you, not whether he spams one particular attack or not.
Now, some people might think that the fact that the final boss has a lot of hp and damaging attacks in itself to be cheap. But I would counter that since none of those attacks are taking off half your life, and that the only arguably cheap attack he has is an instant kill move that is incredibly telegraphed and easy to dodge, I say if you die, it’s your own fault. That, to me, is the difference between a game being cheap and a game being actually difficult. If you throw a controller down in frustration knowing that there was nothing you could have done to prevent your untimely demise, even if you were some sort of demigod of the game, then that’s the game being cheap for the sake of difficulty. If you die and you go “you know what, that was my fault” then that’s not cheap, that’s just a difficult game giving you exactly the challenge you want