We play video games to relax. We play video games to be moved and inspired. And sometimes when we want a challenge (or when our faith in humanity and ourselves lapses), we seek out games engineered to punish us.
"Hard games" are rarely insurmountable. They can be conquered, though it often takes a couple (hundred) tries. But triumphing over a hard adventure, especially an infamously difficult one, grants us a sweet sense of relief and satisfaction, as well as bragging rights.
If you feel the need to wrestle to the death with a challenging game, there are more than a few to choose from:
Castlevania III (US Version - NES)
None of the NES Castlevania titles are cakewalks; the original game is still hard, and the vagueness of Castlevania II: Simon's Quest makes it tough to navigate.
But Castlevania III's brutality is worth a special mention because much of it was manufactured for the US version of the game. Enemies hit much harder, for instance. More bafflingly, Trevor's pirate ghost pal, Grant, had his throwing dagger nerfed. In the Japanese version of the game, Grant wields an effective long-distance attack. In the English version of the game, the pirate gets a toothpick and a prayer.
Worst of all, if you die in your fight against one of Dracula's three forms -- and you will -- The US chucks you back to the very beginning of his stage, whereas Japan graciously starts you at the foot of the Count's now-iconic staircase.
All this artificial difficulty-boosting is confusing, to say the least. It's not as if Castlevania III is a breeze on its own.
Super Mario Bros 2 / Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels ( Famicom / SNES)
It's 1985. The NES and Super Mario Bros are just starting to turn some heads in North America, but Japanese fans have long since mopped the floor with the portly plumber and turned his game inside out. Even the glitched-out Minus World, which is far more extensive in the Famicom Disk System version of the game, got a through going-over by Japanese players.
Nintendo subsequently engineered Super Mario Bros 2 for Japan by taking the mechanics from the first game and adding a pinch of Satan. Super Mario Bros 2 isn't just hard; it's devious. Anyone who's played the game remembers their first disastrous encounter with a poison mushroom -- and it's all downhill from there. Every jump you survive feels like a victory, every enemy you stomp is a triumph.
And while the original Super Mario Bros rewards you for exploring off the beaten path, Super Mario Bros 2 punishes you for it, more often than not. Backwards Warp Zones, anyone?
Maybe Battletoads is a predictable entry, but let's be reasonable: There are many good reasons why Rare's radical amphibian adventure is often cited as one of the hardest games of all time, if not the hardest.
To Rare's credit, Battletoads squeezes every drop of potential out of the NES's hardware, and there are some very clever level ideas. You just might not wind up seeing everything the game has to offer because there's a 90% chance you'll give up on the game after getting supremely frustrated with the infamous auto-scrolling hell hole that is the "Turbo Tunnel" level.
Don't expect any quarter if you manage to clear the Turbo Tunnel, either. Unlike, say, Kid Icarus, which gets easier as you power up, Battletoads only descends into mad brutality. Remember the Snake Pit? Maybe not. Maybe your mind went blank with rage and your brain erased that memory in an act of self-preservation. You should thank your brain for its mercy.
Mega Man Zero (Game Boy Advance)
Mega Man co-designer Keiji Inafune has never made a secret out of the fact he's a big fan of Mega Man X's Maverick-hunting partner, Zero. Maybe that's why Zero's first solo adventure, Mega Man Zero, is so difficult: Inafune believes his favorite child can handle the heat.
Whatever the reason, Mega Man Zero is one tough platformer. In addition to the usual level of Mega-challenge, the first Zero game also grants you a single life. Once it's gone, it's Game Over. Moreover, you won't find series staples like heart tanks, energy tanks, or sub-tanks. Instead, all your power-ups are doled out to you via the "cyber-elves" you find throughout levels -- but if you use them, the game metaphorically frowns upon you by lowering your Hunter rank.
Your rank doesn't affect Mega Man Zero's gameplay in any hugely significant way, but watching it lower gives you a big case of sad. Getting through a Mega Man game is hard enough, Inafune. Is the psychological torture really necessary?
Dark Souls (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)
All of FromSoftware's Souls games are intense and extremely difficult, but provide a deep sense of satisfaction when you conquer them. In fact, one reason for Souls' popularity is the fact the series purposefully reminds you of a time when games were "Nintendo hard" -- Unforgiving and unyielding. If you're feeling a bit coddled by modern games' lengthy tutorials and myriad second chances, a Souls game should perk you right up. It will flog you until you weep for more.
Though any Souls game comes highly recommended for challenge freaks, the question is, which one is the most difficult? Reddit's Bloodborne community gives the nod to 2011's Dark Souls, though redditor Dark0child offers an insightful alternative answer: The hardest Souls game is the first one you try.
Roguelike games are typically marked as some of the industry's more difficult offerings, and NetHack is one of the oldest and most difficult roguelike titles of all time. This grandfather of the genre was born in 1987, and is still widely enjoyed today. New content even trickles in from the development team from time to time.
Dying once in NetHack means dying for good, and NetHack isn't shy about filling its ASCII chambers with horrors of every kind. You can drown if you're careless, poison yourself by eating bad food, get bitten by a water snake while trying to take a drink, or become paralyzed and then eaten alive slowly by a newt.
There are so many dumb ways to die in NetHack that the community has a term / acronym for it: Yet Another Stupid Death (YASD). Let's face it: If you were to personally try and infiltrate a dungeon in search of a lost treasure, you'd probably die in record time, and without a chance to try again. NetHack simply reflects reality in that regard.
Super Meat Boy
Team Meat's Super Meat Boy is another game that was developed with the intention of testing players who'd grown up with the merciless platformers of the NES era. Each level is packed with traps, including spikes, buzzsaws, falling objects --the kind of stuff that's generally incompatible with meat-based life forms.
Super Meat Boy is all about split-second timing and sharp reflexes. Offer up anything less, and you'll become a puddle of pureed meat stretched across the teeth of a rotating saw. In fact, when you inevitably screw up, you leave behind your "mark," a long smear of meaty blood. Needless to say, a worked-over level can wind up looking pretty gross before you finally conquer it and move on, but the mess is good motivation for perfecting your movements and getting the heck out of there.
Ninja Gaiden (NES, Xbox)
The beautiful thing about Ninja Gaiden, if you want to use the word "beautiful," is how there's no need to differentiate between the NES and Xbox versions of the game when describing how hard it is. They're both kind of insane.
The horrors of the 8-bit title are well-known, especially the birds that have an unexplained vendetta against Ryu and therefore live only to knock him backwards into a bottomless pit. The 3D Xbox re-imagining of Ninja Gaiden relies less on level memorization and instead tests your reflexes by throwing you against updated versions of old enemies -- all of whom have attack patterns that are miles beyond the original game's war plan of "jump around and swipe / shoot."
Playing a typical hard game runs the risk of having you destroy your controller in a fit of frustration. Either Ninja Gaiden game may propel you to levels of rage that prompt you to wreck your game console. With a katana.