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Mar 21 2013

The Age of Easymode: Games and their Difficulty

The one everyone knows. And of course, the easy mode is Luigi. Can't even play as the guy until you beat the game once.

The one everyone knows. And of course, the easy mode is Luigi. Can’t even play as the guy until you beat the game once.

I’m an adult who hails from the late eighties with the NES as my standard system, so I could casually call myself some kind of fanatic for a challenge. For all the young kids who actually have an interest in gaming of the old days, I congratulate your curiosity and give you a warning; the games of the past were harder. Game design was not as complex and engaging as it is now, so games had to be harder to achieve strategy and complexity needed for their players to develop skill in it.

Games used to be very hard in the old days, because the alternative was to make the game expand and play infinitely for hours of similar gameplay akin to that of arcade machines. That didn’t hold up so well because it was too boring and lacked any uniqueness. Because you had to learn to play and develop patterns of success, the payoff in victory was much more effective. It was the developer’s way of maintaining your competency while pushing your limits without making rude faces and saying “No no, you can’t use these fun power-ups anymore, we force you to play it this way!” A lot of games did this mind you, just with degrees of irritation and bad design choices left that kind of thinking to the Adventure Genre where instead of it being a plot contrivance it was game design.

As gaming improved, the games became easier to instead give the audience a chance to explore their worlds in full and enjoy what was provided to them. A better story, a more involved and engaging character experiences, better aural and visual aesthetics to better catch the eye of the player, and a sense of improved gameplay which the player can explore. And as that changed, so did the skill of the player based on the region they came from; Japan is filled with hundreds of hard games to sink quarters and personal time into because the people ask for them and whereas America is laughed at because of their need for successive easier games. It probably was a bad idea, though, to allow Nintendo to create a system where the game plays itself for you.

I wish I was kidding. In Super Mario Bros. Wii, there is an option where the player can choose, after enough lives are lost or at their leisure upon realizing the option exists in context, to allow Luigi to play the level for you. Called the “Super Guide”, it actually allows the player to skip whole levels if they have no interest. I certainly didn’t approve of it, but I was not one of the people who had a major freakout over the idea and how hardcore gamers feel cheated for getting this easy-mode forced upon them. It was an option-plain and simple-but for those with an appreciation for the skill required, it was an insult.

I do understand. The fact that this option exists meant that the developers were getting soft, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t build skill or that the game is terrifyingly easy. I have died more than enough times in Mario games and recent Minecraft maps to admit that I still have a great deal of skill to learn. This is why your shields mean jack and squat on Halo Legendary and why conserving ammo is key on Ultra-Violence. Of course, when every single thing in the universe is out to kill you, one tends to make sacrifices; Doom maps are nefarious by mapmakers who lack an understanding of balance and gameplay, which lead to meatgrinders. Like with all things, a light but firm touch is required to either understand the importance of fairness or simply to recognize the player’s interest in creative defeat. That feeling where the players dawns upon their challenges is as engaging as the attempt to circumvent them. I come from a great deal of personal experience; my deaths and challenges each provide an idea of what needs to be done, and I personally enjoy making a strategy.

The one barely anyone knows about. Increased Coin gains and powerups. Activated by the simplest cheat in the world. Let's all take a deep breath.

The one barely anyone knows about. Increased Coin gains and powerups. Activated by the simplest cheat in the world. Let’s all take a deep breath.

What I don’t understand was the sheer level of outrage. Nothing was stopping the players from using their skills without turning on the option, but give casual players a chance to experience later things. If it was a forced mechanic that required the player to skip and learn nothing from the experience, that only dampens the overall interest and I understand those feelings, but that was not the case. A similar distrust comes from this hatred for tutorials that has shown up as of late. While this is a discussion I feel is worth having for its own article, it lends to better game design decisions to teach new players, not to hamper hardcore gamers with the ability to understand the mechanics upon a glance. And I seriously doubt there are people who can figure out the premise of a game from a simple glance without playing through it and understanding the nuance to the controls and powers the game provides them. To say otherwise is to say we never asked some kid on the playground or older sibling to teach us the controls or how to beat Airman; those were tutorials of a different sort, everybody. We all needed help to move, eat, and think differently than others through the help of our parents and close friends. That tutorial is far from over for me.

All I would suggest is a little restraint for next time. We can’t all be Kratos when we get something we don’t like and doesn’t impact us because the designers are trying to appeal to a new audience. In fact, those new players are slowly becoming more and more interested in gaming, so it only provides more interest for the rest of them and gives us a better chance of more games we like coming out as the money flows. When there’s something to be mad about that interrupts your gameplay like politicians or activists, feel free to scream at your keyboards as loud and as crazy as you like. The rest of the Internet will probably join you.

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