The wonderfully difficult Ninja Gaiden.

The art of play.
May 6 2004 5:35 PM

Tough Love

Can a video game be too hard?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Some video games are hard. Some are really hard. And some are so freakishly, spoon-bendingly difficult that they take 10 hours of solid play before you've even begun to master the basics. Whenever I slip one of these nasty little backbreakers into my game system, I usually discard them in frustration after a couple of hours and wonder: What's the point? What adult has the time to master this stuff? Could it ever be worth it?

Recently, I've decided the answer is yes, even if you're reduced to tears by a hellish game, it can be worth it to plug through. Why? For the same reason it's often worth struggling through many other pieces of art or entertainment that we consider "difficult." Anyone who's slogged through the experimental swamp of Ulyssesknows that it seems like a pointless chore at first. But if you're patient, the literary payoff is powerful—er, so I've been told—perhaps all the more so because you've worked hard for it.

The latest test of this thesis is Tecmo's new Ninja Gaiden, a game so punishing that even some hard-core players fear picking it up. Like most fighting games, Ninja Gaidenrequires you to use dozens of different moves, from the "Divine Cicada Slash" to the "Cremator," a lovely combo that sprays guts in all directions. But the moves require particularly meticulous timing: Push "attack" when you're supposed to push "defend," and your enemies will mow you down like a daisy in a weed-whacker. Sure enough, I got mowed. I'm pretty good at most action games, but when I slipped the disc in my Xbox, I was slaughtered barely minutesinto my first fight. That went on for two hours. But I sucked it up, kept slamming away, and after about four hours, I'd mastered a few combos that could lay waste to most of my lesser enemies.

Mastering a hard game is kind of like learning a new language. You practice wearily, mangling the words, unable to say the simplest thing. Then one day you walk into a bar, and suddenly you know how to order a drink. When you have your first breakthrough on a hard game, it's that same existential thrill. With Ninja Gaiden, I stumbled into a room full of teleporting zombies and 12-foot-tall skeletons wielding battleaxes the size of lampposts, and instead of freaking out, I realized: Cool. I can handle this.

Game theorist Eric Zimmerman describes games as "systems of desire." They make you want something—to score a home run, to kill a zombie, to win a hand of cards—but they impose rules that make it difficult to do so. Games offer a carrot, a stick, then another carrot and another stick, on an infinite loop. When game designers successfully strike that delicate balance between challenge and reward, they create truly intoxicating play, the sort of game that grips you in a druglike ecstasy, feverishly hunched over your console until you look up and realize, good grief, it's 2 a.m.

Mind you, hard games aren't necessarily better than easy ones. I recently bought Nintendo's Mario Kart: Double Dash!!because it's the precise opposite of Ninja Gaiden. Mario Kart is so user-friendly that a bonobo could pick up the controller and zoom around the kooky race-tracks. I'll often whip out Mario Kartfor few minutes in the middle of the day as a quick pick-up-me, a little blast of fun. In contrast, when I play Ninja Gaiden I have to pencil it into my day planner. I turn off my mobile phone, lock the doors, and tell my girlfriend I'll be unavailable for the next three hours. It requires that level of monklike devotion.

Each game offers a different flavor of achievement. The quick-hit delights of Mario Kart are similar to the joys of a detective novel or a romance paperback, while the intense, grinding slog of Ninja Gaiden creates a sort of exhausted exhilaration, like finally reaching the end of War and Peace. Neither one is better than the other, but too many people miss out on the latter merely because the barrier to entry is so high.

The trick behind cracking a difficult game is to surrender to the chaos. Gamers call it "button mashing." When you first encounter a difficult game, just wade in, thrash away at the buttons, and hope for the best. Eventually you'll do something accidentally brilliant, and then you can try to repeat it. (Not much different from how we approach everyday life, really.) We tend to think of top players as having Jedi-like Zen control over the game, but they too started out by flailing.

There's also scholarly advice. After all, how do most college students fight their way through difficult novels? They read the critics, people who professionally tease out every nuance of a book. No sane reader attempts Ulysses without also having a copy of The Bloomsday Book, that meticulous guide to Joyce's literary hyperlinks. The same goes with games. For each hard title, some public-minded geek will have written a "walkthrough," a blow-by-blow explanation of techniques to use along the way. Some guy named Chris Zawada saved my sanity by producing a meticulous Ninja Gaiden FAQ with strategies for beating each "boss," the superpowered enemy who appears at the end of each level.

But just because a game is hard doesn't mean it'll have a payoff. Many games are arduous for all the wrong reasons: They have overly complex rules, enemies with no weaknesses, puzzles whose solutions do not follow Earth logic. Grind your head as long as you want against Resident Evil 3: Nemesis or Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, and they'll stillsuck. There's no point wasting time on them, just as there's little point struggling through many works of literature that are touted as "difficult" but have little aesthetic or intellectual payoff. (How much Ezra Pound does anyone really needto read?) 

So, sink 40 hours of your life into a hard game only if it's already been widely praised by game reviewers and game blogs, the folks who play everything. I rely on these selfless warriors the same way I rely on film buffs who visit every benighted film festival on the planet until they've discovered the true indie gems. They suffer so that we don't have to.

Clive Thompson is a longtime contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired. He is the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better.