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What are the Hardest Video Games?

These are the games that drove you to chuck your controller through your TV.

Article by Nadia Oxford, .

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?

Battletoads (NES)

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.

NetHack (PC)

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.

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  • Avatar for inkybutt #1 inkybutt 3 years ago
    Old school mentions: Defender and Robotron are brutally difficult. And then there's "schmups in general" like Battle Garegga or Gradius.
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #2 SargeSmash 3 years ago
    I'd never been able to put a win to my name in Battletoads until recently. The Turbo Tunnel is actually quite easy overall, it's those later stages that, as you say, get really brutal. The Rat Race? The swimming level? The last level climbing the tower? Oof. Rough stuff.

    I also took on the Ninja Gaiden series, and finally beat Ninja Gaiden III. There are things about it that are easier, but removing the infinite continues makes it much tougher overall than the other two releases. The original XBOX game gets easier once you get Izuna Drop, but it's still really, really tough.

    Castlevania III is indeed a bear. I've beaten it, but it's rough going. I played the Japanese version in close succession, and it's interesting to see how they've upped the difficulty in myriad ways, from more shots from the Bone Pillars to smaller beams against Dracula at the end. And don't even get me started on the Doppleganger battle. Especially if you're going for a solo Alucard run. Ack.

    I never did well ranking-wise with Mega Man Zero. That whole thing just made me feel bad about myself as I went through the game. :(
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #3 brionfoulke91 3 years ago
    I love this topic! Hard games are kind of a passion of mine. Video games are all about conquering a challenge, climbing a mountain because it's there. There's a mystique to super-hard games, an irresistable allure that elevates them above other games. Not everyone can beat them, and that's precisely what makes them so cool, and for people who love playing video games I think it's wonderful to take pride in your accomplishments.

    So, let's talk about the NES, home to many of the hardest games ever made. What are REALLY the hardest games on the NES? Here's a very good list of the top 30 hardest NES games, which I think is fairly accurate (although Bump n Jump should be on this list): http://www.electricfrankfurter.com/2011/07/top-30-hardest-nes-games-ever.html

    From that list, here is the top 10:

    1. Ikari Warriors (SNK)
    2. Starship Hector (Hudson)
    3. Q*Bert (Ultra)
    4. Star Voyager (Akklaim)
    5. Gauntlet (Tengen)
    6. Battletoads (Tradewest/Nintendo)
    7. Castlequest (Nexoft)
    8. Solomon's Key (Tecmo)
    9. Mutant Virus (ASC)
    10. Overlord (Virgin)

    Notice that Battletoads is only #6! Indeed, if you've ever tried to beat Gauntlet, or play Ikari Warriors without the ABBA code, I think you would agree with this placement. Ghosts n Goblins comes in at #24, and Ninja Gaiden is not even on this list! (Although Ninja Gaiden 3 is, and deservedly so.)

    But for every hard game, there is a person out there trying to beat it. There is a streamer called The Mexican Runner who is trying to beat every NES game on stream, and to date he has beaten many of the hardest NES games, including Q-Bert, Star Voyager, and even Ikari Warriors without the ABBA code! Beating Ikari alone took 37 hours, all live on stream! The excitement when he beat the game culminated in a huge string of donations... it was pretty amazing.

    Like I said, I love hard games. Personally, I get a bit offended when people use negative language like "masochism" about the players, or say that the people who made these games "hate" you. Difficulty is a positive thing, people ultimately love challenging games because they feel more rewarded. And the people who make difficult games aren't doing it because they hate you, ultimately it comes from a place of loving games and respecting the players.

    I have no doubt that more superhard games will be made... I just hope that in the future, gamers will celebrate them a bit more!
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  • Avatar for Kadrom #4 Kadrom 3 years ago
    Ikari Warriors without ABBA is definitely up there. So is Q*Bert. Incredibly, I've seen TheMexicanRunner beat both of these on Twitch, which is one reason why he gets my subscription dollars.
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  • Avatar for Monkey-Tamer #5 Monkey-Tamer 3 years ago
    Dark Souls may be hard by today's standards, but it still isn't truly Nintendo hard. It's a more refined hard as demonstrated by its fairness and how it encourages improvement, which is a good thing. Some of the games on this list I've only beaten once back when I was a jedi reflexed ten year old. Even with the aid of a game genie I couldn't beat Battletoads. And the article does point out a certain sad aspect: you'll never see half of this game's offerings due to that difficulty.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #6 brionfoulke91 3 years ago
    @Monkey-Tamer Yeah, but that's also kind of what's cool about Battletoads. Many people won't see the later levels. Which means that if you ARE good enough to see those later levels, it feels so rewarding. Partly why Battletoads is one of my favorite NES games, if not my favorite.
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  • Avatar for kidgorilla #7 kidgorilla 3 years ago
    Ninja Gaiden III is the hardest of the series by several orders of magnitude. If pure, white hot hate was made manifest as a video game, it would Ninja Gaiden III
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  • Avatar for trainface #8 trainface 3 years ago
    I seem to be the only person who thinks Dark Souls 2 is harder. Mostly because the combat is kind of bad. Just something about the character animations make it way harder to control than the first game or Bloodborne. Maybe it's just me...
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  • Avatar for Captain-Gonru #9 Captain-Gonru 3 years ago
    I'm surprised NES Batman didn't get mentioned yet. It was one of the first that came to mind when I saw the title.
    For something less mentioned, there was a Genesis game called War Monger (don't quote me on the name, but it's close) that always kicked my ass. It's a real-time strategy/ resource management game. And every time I thought I had finally struck the right balance, the computer would crush me.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #10 brionfoulke91 3 years ago
    @Captain-Gonru NES Batman is pretty tough, indeed. I think it's far from the hardest NES game, and I think most people could beat it with a little patience. The toughest thing about the game is just figuring out some of the boss strategies which are a little unintuitive.
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  • Avatar for SuperShinobi #11 SuperShinobi 3 years ago
    Kolibri (32X) and Ecco the Dolphin made me throw the controller at the wall - and I never do that. Both are by the developer Novotrade and in both games your character is a weakling up against gruellingly tough enemies. Kolibri should really be a hawk and Ecco a shark and then you'd have a chance.

    Bullet hell shooters (for example the DoDonPachi series) and old Atari coin-ops are good places to look if you're into tough games. Classic computers like the Amiga (Shadow of the Beast, Obliterator) C64 (Boulder Dash, Skate Rock, Uridium) and the ZX Spectrum (Jet Set Willy) also have lots of ridiculously tough games.

    My final recommended category is Genesis shoot'em-ups. Hellfire, Gaiares, Bio Hazard Battle, Elemental Master, Gynoug, Truxton, Twinkle Tale - a rather cold and unwelcoming line-up in terms of the difficulty level...Edited July 2015 by SuperShinobi
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  • Avatar for NateDizzy #12 NateDizzy 3 years ago
    Ah, Ninja Gaiden (Xbox). I played it so much I could go through the game on the hardest difficulty without dying. So many hours lost, not a shred of regret.
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  • Avatar for Truant #13 Truant 3 years ago
    Only ever played Battletoads on the game boy but I remember that speeder level. Urgh.
    I remember games like Gargoyles Quest and Krusty's Fun House been real difficult.
    And as always there's a fine line between hard and cheap too.
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  • Avatar for amightysquall958 #14 amightysquall958 3 years ago
    Any final boss in an SNK fighting game, of course. I nearly broke my Vita multiple times playing Samurai Shodown 2.
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  • Avatar for KaiserDurdenEX #15 KaiserDurdenEX 3 years ago
    Ninja Gaiden - NES ("Damn birds!")
    Contra Hard Corps - Sega Genesis (But sooo good.)
    God Hand - PS2 (I was never bored.)
    The Red Star - PS2 (One of my top 5 favorite games.)
    Monster Hunter Freedom Unite - PSP (My introduction to the series.)
    Mega Man 9 - Xbox 360 (I did'nt heed the warnings.)
    Demon Souls/Dark Souls - PS3 (I still love 'em.)
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #16 brionfoulke91 3 years ago
    How about Gauntlet 1 for the NES. This is a game with 100 levels, all kinds of hidden exits, traps, and tough difficulty. But here's the kicker: there are passwords in hidden levels throughout the game. You need to find them ALL before the last level... otherwise you just can't proceed and have to start the entire game over! Talk about cruel. Ninja Gaiden 1 is kind in comparison.

    But that cruelty is what adds to it's allure. The more difficult a game, the more you want to crack it open, uncover it's secrets, and conquer it. That's what being a gamer is all about, to me.
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  • Avatar for touchofkiel #17 touchofkiel 3 years ago
    A list like this should be limited to GOOD hard games... which discounts Battletoads. It's just unfair and no fun after the first few levels.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #18 brionfoulke91 3 years ago
    @touchofkiel Sorry, but you're just plain wrong. Battletoads is more than just a good hard game, it's a FANTASTIC one! By every metric, Battletoads is excellent: excellent graphics, catchy music. The levels are ridiculously varied and full of creativity. As far as challenge goes, the game is extremely punishing, but for people who want that sort of challenge there are few games as high quality as Battletoads. You may not enjoy it because of the difficulty, but you have to at least give it credit for the many things it does right.
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  • Avatar for SigurdVolsung #19 SigurdVolsung 3 years ago
    Ninja Gaiden 1-3 and Battletoads on NES are the games that I will probably always site as my most difficult games of all time. But I loved them all.
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  • Avatar for Voncaster #20 Voncaster 3 years ago
    Story mode of F-Zero GX is pretty tough.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #21 SatelliteOfLove 3 years ago
    La-Mulana. It rarely has the mercy to kill you, but instead often makes you linger...
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  • Avatar for Captain-Gonru #22 Captain-Gonru 3 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 Good point. I was more referencing that it frequently gets cited in these sorts of discussions.
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  • Avatar for Lane #23 Lane 3 years ago
    The Last V8, a Mastertronic title for the Commodore 64 and other 8-bit home computers, was virtually impossible to win. Just ridiculously, unfairly difficult.
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  • Avatar for InsertTokenz #24 InsertTokenz 3 years ago
    I would also add Super Ghouls n' Ghosts to this list, as even going through the game a single time can be tough (as opposed to playing it through twice over for the proper ending). Not to mention a good number of Platinum Games' titles can offer some crazy challenge (The Bayonetta series and The Wonderful 101 in particular).
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  • Avatar for MetManMas #25 MetManMas 3 years ago
    @retr0gamer@InsertTokenz Heck, you could put the whole Ghosts 'n Goblins series on the list...a little less so the Gargoyle's Quest spinoffs, but they still ain't exactly a walk in the park themselves either.
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  • Avatar for Confidence_Trick #26 Confidence_Trick 3 years ago
    I don't mind the occasional challenge so long as it comes with lots and lots of checkpoints.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #27 VotesForCows 3 years ago
    @trainface I agree with you. I've done multiple playthroughs of each of the three Souls games, and DS2 feels more difficult. I think people don't notice it because by the time it came out they were already good at Souls games. The movement is odd, and the enemy design isn't as well refine (too much reliance on boss fights with multiple copies of the same boss, rather than a single well-designed boss).
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  • Avatar for SomeKindaWizard #28 SomeKindaWizard 3 years ago
    The US version of Shadow of the Beast on Genesis runs 16.7% faster than it's supposed to, and isn't the most technically sound or easiest game in the the first place.....
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  • Avatar for JJtheTexan #29 JJtheTexan 3 years ago
    Proud to say I've beaten about half of these. Conspicuously missing: Ghosts'n Goblins and Shadow of the Beast, the latter of which being nearly impossible due to horrendously unfair situations.
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  • Avatar for FalcoT #30 FalcoT 3 years ago
    Thank you for switching these articles to a single page format.

    On-topic, I found the XBox Ninja Gaiden crazy hard until you get the Flying Swallow technique, which lets you zip around like a jet as you improbably accelerate in mid-air.

    Returning to play Castlevania in the past couple years, I'm amazed at how precise you must be to advance. It's a reversal of the Mario games, where you're a zippy, agile sprite aiming for tiny, fast-moving platforms: in Castlevania, the objectives are always large and obvious, but lead-booted Simon can barely get off the ground.
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #31 SargeSmash 3 years ago
    @FalcoT : Oh, right. The Flying Swallow is the other move you really need along with the Izuna Drop. Those two will get you through the game pretty well. Izuna more for the mooks, and Swallow for bosses.
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  • Avatar for presidentcamacho #32 presidentcamacho 3 years ago
    I would like to know what percentage of players actually managed to beat Hiruko on the PS2 Shinobi.
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  • Avatar for Jeux #33 Jeux 3 years ago
    @InsertTokenz I imported Super Ghouls N Ghosts from Japan back in the day and managed to get to the final boss on the first lap, but never beat him (the details are a little hazy as it has been 25 years).

    I bought the game again in Japan a couple of years ago with the intent on giving it a go again, but I gave up a couple of levels in. I just don't have the patience for some of these games anymore.

    That being said, I am looking forward to giving Battletoads another go with the Rare Replay collection in a few weeks!
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #34 riderkicker 3 years ago
    Uncharted. I have not gotten past the level where you just found the wreckage of your plane. Why do I have to shoot all these people? Who is hiring them?
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  • Avatar for nadiaoxford #35 nadiaoxford 3 years ago
    @SuperShinobi "Ecco the Dolphin"

    Welcome, my son

    Welcome to The Machine
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  • Avatar for markokosnić13 #36 markokosnić13 3 years ago
    "Difficulty" in games is actually hard to define. I mean, you can make the easiest game in the world difficult simply by inserting perma-death in it. You can also make an insanely hard game easy just by putting quicksaves in it. Almost any old game remembered for its difficulty become laughably easy once you include the ability to "save states".

    That's why I think instead of searching for "hardest video games" one should search for games that implemented this "difficulty" in the most succesful fashion, meaning that they introduced a constant learning curve which rewarded investment and creativity but didn't frustrate with unnecessary repetition. Dark Souls is a prime example of that - regardless of its reputation, it's actually a rather easy game (almost anyone who actually makes an effort to learn its mechanics ultimately beats the game, which cannot be said for many other games with a similar reputation). But DS carefully balances its game mechanics to provide player with a great sense of reward - something today's games lack because they require very little investment and risk from the players - that it instantly gets branded "insanely difficult". Which I'm ok with, but in my opinion - DS simply "gets" it what video games should be about more then plenty of other today's games who strive to be more an interactive movie then anything else (check out Crysis 2 for example, a game which you can literally casually stroll through if you want, even on hardest difficulty).

    So yeah.. my pick would be the most "rewardingly difficult" games instead of merely "difficult". It's easy to artificially bump the difficulty in any direction, it's hard to do it in such a way for people to feel satisfied by it.Edited August 2015 by markokosnić13
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