In the year of 20xx…
One year ago, my daughter forced me to challenge her. She loves to play video games, but she’s far from what I consider to be a gamer. Her experiences are limited; the games she’s played the most are The Sims 3 and Left 4 Dead 2. That’s not a bad thing; I’m happy I can share my love for video games with her in whatever way I can. We even play Left 4 Dead 2 together on occasion. But she performs well enough in the latter game – especially when compared to me – that she feels like she can shit-talk a bit. Since Left 4 Dead 2 is the most difficult game on her resume, I felt I needed to douse her ego with a bit of virtual water. And because I’m a ruthless son of a bitch, my challenge to her was borderline unfair.
The challenge was thus: beat Bomb Man in 19XX’s Mega Man. Bomb Man is the robot boss that is considered the easiest in the game to beat. The reward for defeating him? $50. She bit almost immediately. For her, $50 buys a lot of BTS stuff she can fangirl about.
The following year introduced a new vocabulary of cuss words to her lexicon. Such is the result of an introduction to “Nintendo Hard.” It’s a level of difficulty that will punish gamers well into 20XX!
Back when I was a gamer…
When “hardcore” gamers decide to wax rhapsodic about the days when video games were unforgiving and “didn’t cater to filthy casuals” (I fucking HATE that smarmy talk!), the third generation of video games inevitably comes up. Games on the king of video game consoles at the time – the Nintendo Entertainment System – are considered by many to be among the most difficult games of all time. The games have almost achieved a legend akin to that of the mythical beasts of Greek mythology. Right alongside the Kraken and Medusa in the annals of gamer history, you will find the names of Battletoads, Ninja Gaiden, and Double Dragon III.
Mega Man was the one “Nintendo Hard” game that I have the most history with. It started when I bought my own NES in 19xx. I went to a neighborhood video rental store that I knew rented video games. When I asked the guy behind the counter what difficult games he had, he produced Mega Man and Defender of the Crown.
The latter game is a strategy game, and it has its middle finger fully extended from the moment the game starts. It’s not hard insomuch as it is near-impossible. The former, though…
Once I started Mega Man, I became obsessed with beating it. It was a very tall order. With no save or password features to save progress, the game has to be defeated in one sitting. And the game’s difficulty guarantees that the sitting will be as frustrating as it is fun. I wanted to beat the game so much, I left my NES on overnight so as to not lose my place.
My then-wife, who only sleeps about 45 minutes a month, saw the NES on and turned it off. I awoke, saw the box was off and was crestfallen. I explained to her that I was trying to beat Mega Man and had left the console on overnight so as to not lose my place. She immediately questioned my sanity. To her, it was just a stupid game, and I was crazy for being so invested in it. The fact that I didn’t have her drawn and quartered for merely thinking that blasphemy speaks volumes about how I loved her.
Persistence pays off
After work that day, I went back to Mega Man, determined to best it. My then-wife chided me further, goofing me for my quest to beat a “child’s game.” When my bedtime neared and I mentioned that I would be leaving the NES on again, she ripped me a new asshole. According to her, I was going to set the house on fire by leaving the NES on.
Shit was real, folks. The marriage was seriously threatened. No, seriously. She decided that my near-maniacal desire to beat a video game was so out-of-hand that I was willing to burn the house down. Divorce was on the table.
Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed. My ex gave in, and I was able to beat Mega Man the next day. While playing, she decided to sit with me and see what the fuss was about. While watching, she also became emotionally invested in the game. When I finally beat Dr. Wily, she was legitimately happy for me and exulted with me. It was then that she then decided she wanted to give it a go with a game she would like. She popped in Super Mario Bros., aimed to save the princess, and became obsessed. Oftentimes, I would sit with her and give advice or moral support.
Two weeks later, she finally saved the princess. I was at work when she did, but the moment was too epic to wait till I got home. She called me at work to crow about it. I was legitimately happy for her and exulted with her.
Nintendo Hard brought us closer together. From that moment in 19xx, she was hooked as well.
The origin story
Nintendo Hard games often are seen as unfair. And you would be forgiven if you saw games like Mega Man that way. The game, for example, didn’t need to require one sitting to beat. Capcom seemed to agree, as later sequels had a simple password system that allowed players to pick up from where they left off.
But I consider Mega Man to still be unfair even if it did have passwords. The level design is a bit dickish, with plenty of spike traps and almost-unavoidable damage at every corner. Later games would improve the level design to still be challenging but fairer. Mega Man 2, my personal favorite in the series, exemplifies this. The difficulty in this iteration was more manageable because the levels were more forgiving. That meant the player was responsible for the deaths, not the game.
Other Nintendo Hard, games, however, were purposefully designed to be unfair. Part of that was that many of the games released on the system were arcade ports. Games in arcades are ridiculously punishing by design, as they’re designed to part a player from his or her quarters. Another part was the desire to extend longevity. The Japanese version of The Adventures of Bayou Billy is a rather short game. To increase longevity, Konami decided to double the number of enemies and reduce the main protagonist’s attack power for the North American port. The result is a game that is infuriatingly difficult on purpose.
So even when they were at the top of their craft, Konami abused its customers! The Konami Code gave you 30 lives in Contra? Did that make the game too easy? Then change the code completely in the sequel, Super C, and only dole out 10 lives. Sometimes, if the game ain’t Nintendo Hard enough, you have to ramp it up.
“…nothing less than commercial rape.”
Nintendo’s hatred of the video game rental industry turned out to be a large contributor to the Nintendo Hard phenomenon. In Japan, the rental of all software was banned thanks to the video game industry. Media companies lobbied hard in Japan to ensure rights holders had the final say in what could be rented. The movie industry, riding high on the money rentals brought in, didn’t seek to change the status quo.
Oddly enough, music rentals were a thing in Japan, but the Recording Industry Association of Japan (RIAJ) was able to curb it partway. The amount of music rental shops – as well as all the money electronics vendors, like Sony, made on blank tapes – meant that abolishing the practice would affect too many businesses. But the RIAJ did get to impose a one- to three-week delay on new music releases being rentable. That sated the RIAJ and still allowed businesses to rent music to customers.
The computer software industry, which included video game companies like Nintendo, would not budge. Video game rentals were made completely illegal. This is something that persists to this day.
The same wasn’t true in the United States. Nintendo lobbied hard to curb video game rental in the States, twice trying to get legislation enacted for that purpose. When both failed, they decided to pick a fight with Blockbuster Video, then the largest movie and video game rental business. Despite their efforts, they weren’t able to stop video game rentals.
Nintendo really hated the rental business. “Video game rental is nothing less than commercial rape,” then-CEO of Nintendo of America Howard Lincoln once said. “I can spend thousands of hours and millions of dollars creating a game. I expect, therefore, to be compensated every time the thing sells. All of a sudden, out of the blue, comes a system that distributed my game to thousands of people, and I get no royalty. The guy who developed the game in Nintendo gets screwed.”
(For a more detailed look at Nintendo’s fight against video game rentals and Blockbuster, in particular, check out the Gaming Historian’s excellent piece on the subject. It was sourced heavily for this piece, right down to the Howard Lincoln quote.)
To combat the problem, Nintendo and a few other publishers (#FucKonami) decided to make their games even harder. By doing this, they hoped that the amount of time needed to beat a game would make it prohibitively expensive to rent.
In a way, it worked. Unless a player was a gaming savant, they weren’t beating Battletoads or Silver Surfer in the typical three-day window most video game rental places gave in 19xx. But it’s not like anyone stopped trying. In fact, many gamers accepted the challenge. Some strived to beat the game in as little time as possible. The spirit of those gamers lives on today with speedrunners. Other gamers grouped up with like-minded friends and made an event of beating the games.
That was the case when I and a group of friends took on Top Secret Episode, one of my all-time favorite NES games and NES Hard in its own way. I planned an all-nighter with some buddies, rented it, ordered copious amounts of pizza, and took on the game cooperatively. We started at about 9 PM that night and didn’t stop until 7 AM the following morning. We had tons of ups and downs throughout. Once the final battle was bested and the final credits rolled, we were sleep-deprived but elated.
Nintendo Hard brought us together. We took on a challenging game and conquered it as a team. Taking on and besting a game that’s considered challenging is a badge of honor that players wear proudly, whether alone or among peers.
I can proudly say that my daughter now has that badge of honor. Last week, nearly a full year since I issued the challenge, my daughter finally broke through. With her last life in her last playthrough, she took on Bomb Man in Mega Man and won out. She was pleased because she knew her victory meant $50 were hers. I was pleased because she took on Nintendo Hard and won.
Nintendo Hard brought us closer together. But she probably won’t stay crowing after I pay up. After all, she needs to spend that $50. Maybe I’ll dangle $200 in front of her and require that she beat the game fully.
At least I know she can take on Nintendo Hard and win out. Maybe she can be coerced into not only saving the year 200X in Mega Man but saving it again in Mega Man 2. Here’s hoping that she takes on the challenge and selects “Difficult” mode there.
Hey. Sometimes, if the game ain’t Nintendo Hard enough, you have to ramp it up.