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Game On: Video games are much easier than they used to be

UPDATED: Thu., May 12, 2022

Released in 1982, Ms. Pacman was first created as a bootleg modification to the original Pacman before being officially licensed by Midway. With increased speed, more mazes, randomized ghost movement and other enhancements, the game became much more difficult and intense.  (Midway Games Inc.)
Released in 1982, Ms. Pacman was first created as a bootleg modification to the original Pacman before being officially licensed by Midway. With increased speed, more mazes, randomized ghost movement and other enhancements, the game became much more difficult and intense. (Midway Games Inc.)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

If you’ve ever found yourself playing in an arcade, there’s a good chance you realized that video games can be very, very difficult. That’s not crazy – I’ve been a hardcore gamer as long as I can remember, and, honestly, arcade gaming can feel downright masochistic if you’re actually trying to beat a game or grab a high score.

On the flipside, gaming on a couch, computer or even a phone tends to be a much more laidback experience. That’s no surprise – after all, since their inception, arcade games have been designed to eat stacks of quarters, and they’ve stayed that way.

While most games started off as round-based affairs – think Pong, Pacman or Galaga – there are some arcade games where you can play through an entire campaign no matter how bad you are provided you have enough coins – lightgun games like Time Crisis and Virtua Cop, for instance.

One of the advantages of bringing the arcade experience home was the opportunity to replay a game to your heart’s content without the constant loss of quarters. To compensate, of course, home video game cartridges were expensive – usually around $50-$80. Keep in mind this is in the early 1980s and late ’90s, so we’re talking around $100-$160 in today’s dollars. Yikes.

So, rental stores like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video began offering video games. It wasn’t long before game companies realized that they were losing money due to this, so publishers began urging developers to make games unreasonably difficult – the logic being if your everyday player couldn’t clear the game in a weekend, they’d be more inclined to buy it outright.

Lead game designer of 1992’s Ecco the Dolphin, Ed Annunziata took to Twitter just a few years back to apologize for the game’s unreasonable level of difficulty. He freely admitted that it was done to shut down the weekend rental warriors.

The practice was most common in the U.S., so 1994’s Streets of Rage 3 was made much more difficult than its Japanese counterpart. Today, most fans insist that the Japanese version is the balanced, “true” version despite the language barrier.

A better solution, of course, is for developers to implement difficulty options. The practice became widespread throughout the 1990s in PC games first, with strategy games like Civilization giving players robust AI difficulty options.

Many RPGs opted to do the same, with its difficulty levels affecting incoming and outgoing damage values and certain luck vectors. This gave games more replay value than before – beat the game on normal? Now challenge yourself to clear it on hard.

The pitfall with difficulty options is determining what’s considered the “true” intended mode. Halo always made it obvious by marking its “Heroic” difficulty level as “the true Halo experience,” but it’s often not so clear. I find the BioShock series laughably simple on anything below hard settings, but that’s just me.

Unsurprisingly, you don’t have to go far to find keyboard warriors online getting hot under the collar about what “the true experience” is for any game you can imagine. A surprising number of such elitists were even upset when FromSoftware had the sheer audacity to make Elden Ring just a touch easier than its predecessors, Dark Souls and Bloodborne.

To me, such arguments are a waste of time. Video games are supposed to be a form of recreation – if you enjoy making it especially challenging or competitive for yourself, go for it, but don’t push your standards on folks who just want to kick back and relax. Not everyone has catlike reflexes, and many gamers are differently abled.

Anyone who’s physically able to enjoy video games should be free to do so – there’s no sense in gatekeeping. I may never play games on easier settings, but I’m always happy to see the option available for the many gamers out there who aren’t try-hards like myself!

Riordan Zentler can be reached at riordanzentler@gmail.com.

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