A couple of years back I picked up a game called Metroid: Zero Mission for the Game Boy Advance.

Metroid: Zero Mission is based off of the same game engine as Metroid: Fusion which for all intents and purposes was “Metroid 4”.

When the first screenshots of Metroid: Zero Mission came out everyone just sort of assumed that it was a remake of the original Metroid game. Nintendo had done this before – 1993’s Super Mario All-Stars for the SNES had the Super Mario Bros. trilogy from the NES (including the Japanese version of SMB2) and “tightened up” the graphics to 16-bit SNES standards. So people assumed that Metroid: Zero Mission was Metroid with the “All-Stars” treatment.

However it later was revealed that Zero Mission was something of a “reimagining” of Metroid. They had taken several of the facets of Metroid, like enemies leaving missiles, and some of the level layouts, and then taken a hard left. It was more like a “remix” of the original game.

As a bonus, it contained the original Metroid game, emulated from the NES, as an unlockable bonus when you beat the game (which was sort of weird since Nintendo was selling this game for $30 and also selling a ported cartridge with Metroid alone for $20 at the time).

So I got this game and started playing Metroid: Zero Mission. And it’s really good, and I’m really good at playing the game. And the whole time I’m thinking about how this game is so much like the original Metroid.

Thing is, while I love Metroid, I was never that good at it. I never beat it (though I saw others beat it) and actually I’m not 100% sure if I ever even beat the first boss. But before too long I had beat almost all the bosses in Metroid: Zero Mission and was on my way to the Mother Brain.

So I’m thinking to myself, “well, I bet it’s that in the last ten years or whatever since I played this game last I got a lot better”. And I don’t doubt on some level that’s true.

And at some point I finally beat the game and unlocked Metroid. I immediately fired up the game and played a few rounds.

Now I remember why I never got far in that game. It wasn’t because I wasn’t as good a gamer back then – it was because Metroid is fucking hard

Somewhere around the same timeframe, I got a disc for the GameCube called Mega Man: Anniversary Collection. This was a collection of the eight “Mega Man” games (as opposed to “Mega Man X”, “Mega Man Zero” or “Mega Man Purple Monkey Dishwasher”), the first six of which were on the NES and had more or less the same engine, the seventh was on the SNES, and the eighth was on the PSX/Saturn. I started playing the original games and yup – those games were fucking hard. Like, really really hard.

At this point I have a flashback of having to run down the hallway because my little sister decided after getting killed in Super Mario Bros the answer was to go to the NES console and start beating on it. A neighbor of mine’s younger sister had beat their NES so hard that it required a second cartridge to be shoved in to keep the first cartridge down – she had broken the “toaster oven” mechanism, it seems.

Now, Metroid was hard for various reasons, but one of them was that – the hardware (the NES) was limited and was so new that no one knew what they were doing with it yet. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great game and a classic, but a lot of the gameplay mechanics were due to the fact that they were so limited with regards to experience with the hardware and with what it could do.

But it didn’t take them too long to figure out what they were doing – The Legend of Zelda is still a masterpiece and I think even a tiny change to its graphics or gameplay would have ruined it.

And the NES was groundbreaking in this way – for the first time, what you were playing actually sort of looked like what it was supposed to be representing. In this era of 3D graphics we take this for granted but at the time, the NES was the first game system where you were controlling an actual sprite that looked like what the character was supposed to look like, not some green square that you had to “pretend” was carring a sword (which was a green line)

But I can’t help but be amazed at, in hindsight, how hard those games were. In May, a game called SiN Episodes: Emergence was released by a developer named Ritual. It used a “dynamic difficulty” feature to adjust the difficulty of the game to your gameplay style (or lack thereof). There was a bug in the game when it shipped originally and as a result, one section of the game was excrutiatingly difficult. I kept up with the feedback on message boards (some of which were frequented by Ritual employees) and I don’t think I’ve ever seen or heard so much bitching and outcry in my life, and I’ve seen people literally beat on consoles before. And most of these people were the kinds who played old NES games, back when games were really hard.

I actually went and playtested this game and what I didn’t realize before showing up was – they literally wanted me to sit there and play through the entire game. The idea behind it was that it was the first “episode” in a series of games and so it is shorter and also less expensive than other games. The concept is known as “Episodic Content” and depending on your school of thought, it’s either the best thing since sliced bread, or a horrible way to bleed gamers or more money.

Now I had a couple of problems – first, I’m not the best FPS player. Oh sure, I like them and all but realistically, I suck at them. And the second problem is – I rarely finish games.

Still, I was there already so I figured give it a shot. And I finished the game in a bit over six hours. And this was on one of their “beater” systems with a lackluster video card and long load times.

And I also beat it when it finally came out – before they fixed the bug which caused it to be too hard at one point.

It got me thinking though – I’m not sure how many games I’ve ever actually beaten before. I know back in the NES era I finished Zelda and Mega Man 2 and 3, and back when PC gaming got reborn, I finished Wolfenstein 3-D and DOOM (but mostly because they just ran out of levels)

Actually, I think it’s one of the big problems in the game industry is that people don’t finish games. They finish TV shows and movies (which is easy enough since the movie or show is at max three houts) and they usually finish books (unless it’s War and Peace or some book they can’t stand) but they generally don’t finish games.

And the biggest reason that they don’t finish games is because games are hard. Movies and television don’t require input. Books just require you to turn enough pages. Music just requires you listen. Games require you to play. Which is great of course – it’s the point. But unless you really really like the game you won’t keep playing. And even then, when the stupid boss battle kills you in seventeen seconds over and over because your last save point left you with 11% health, you still won’t finish.

So the game industry is trying some different tactics with regards to difficulty in length. Perhaps the bravest maneuver I saw was in the game Prey. In the game at some point your character earns some powerup (with a Native American name I can’t remember at the moment) and after that point, when you die, you go through this “afterlife” sequence where you’re dumped out back to where you were before. So basically, death has no consequence (other than a short but annoying cutscene). On the one hand, this on some level helped the game since it made it a lot easier to finish and, as a result, most people who bought the game did finish it. On the other hand this tactic may have backfired since it made the game artificially short – when coupled with the fact that the game just wasn’t that long to begin with, some felt ripped off since this game was full priced.

Another tactic is to break up the game into smaller chunks – like they do with episodic content. Of course, this tactic runs afoul of pricing problems – SiN Episodes‘ three pieces will run the end-user $59.97 if they all remain $19.99 and that’s about $10 more than your average PC game. Although you can pull out anecdotal examples from the past (like the $74.99 SNES version of Street Fighter II) or adjust prices for inflation, it doesn’t change the fact that the consumer basically wants to pay no more than $50 for a full-length game and no more. They don’t like that episodic content is trying to make more money in the long run. They don’t like microtransactions and smaller content releases (the tide turned on Oblivion quickly when the developer started releasing add-ons at $2-3 a pop). They don’t like that Xbox 360 games start out at $59.99. This drives them to wait out the cheap bin or go to used game stores.

And for this the user has to wait. I loved SiN Episodes: Emergence but it was released in May and Ritual hasn’t even released the name of the second episode or a single screenshot from the second episode, much less a name. And Valve delayed Half-Life 2: Episode 2 until January. Maybe that’s the other big problem – the movie industry generally makes their timelines, the game industry doesn’t.

Anyway, the original point of this it-took-way-to-long-to-finish rant is that games used to be really hard and somewhere along the way we stopped expecting them to be hard. We started to whine when we couldn’t beat them (and then we started to whine when they were too easy to beat). We used to eat what we were fed and now we’re complaining about the food. I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing. Rebellion is a good thing sometimes, and other times it kills otherwise perfectly good ideas.