“Don’t handicap your children by making their lives easy.”
-Robert A. Heinlein
That quote alone sums up how most games these days are: hand-holders. They don’t offer the same challenges you faced back during the old generations. Nowadays we’re left with a few rare titles to carry the torch of being difficult for all the right reasons.
Most times you’ll hear that a game is hard because the controls aren’t right or there’s a bug here or there, or the game practically begs you to buy DLC or microtransactions in order to progress easier.
Back during the hay days of the Arcade and NES, challenges were easy to find but instead of focusing on the 10 hardest first levels of those days, I looked all around to find the hardest opening stages across gaming’s history.
Here’s what I came up with:
Dead Space 2 (360/Ps3/PC)
The first Dead Space wasn’t scary. No, it wasn’t. What it was was uneasy and freaky. I never felt scared but turning corners was iffy. I didn’t want to play the game at a fast pace or rush through for hesitation of what might be around the corner. There were plenty of jump scares but nothing terrifying. Dead Space 2′s intro part is terrifying. Not only are you given a horrifying opening cutscene featuring the mysterious Marker and a dead version of your girlfriend, but you also wake up in a straitjacket and watch someone transform into a Necromorph in front of your eyes. Then you’re tasked with running for your life surrounded by the hellish creatures at every turn. Not only is this pretty damn freaky but it is also hard. One wrong move and you’ll end up in pieces. It’s more of a trial and error experiment then a need for skill but it isn’t easy to do. Dead Space 2 manages to come right out of the gate showing you that the horror aspect from the first game is intensified and so is the difficulty.
Demon’s Souls (PS3)
We all know Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls are extremely hard games, we’ve heard it all before. However, for a first time player, the intro level can be devastating. You’re put into an experience with little explanation. It doesn’t matter that you have messages on the ground you can read. You can read them until the cows come home but when you reach your first enemy the game comes alive with difficulty and a skill wall. Normally skill walls only come in form of crazy events, boss fights, or a point in the story where you shouldn’t proceed until you’re strong enough. No, you get a skill wall with your first enemy. You have to master the controls in the intro level just so you feel capable of moving onwards. Worst yet? The boss at the end of the intro level is nigh impossible. Yes, I know you can beat him but… how? Just… how? This is ruthless gaming at its finest, my friends.
Dragon’s Lair (NES)
Not only is the first level ridiculous, the first screen is insane. You basically have to die over and over until you understand the pattern and just precisely where you can be and where you can’t. Every step is a death trap and no matter how well you think you have it down, this level will tear you apart, spit you back out, and scold you. It makes you not even want to play the rest of the game. The first screen!
You can substitute this game with most other shmups but Ikaruga happens to be the one I played the most outside of Gemini Wing on an old arcade cabinet down the shore. This is a tough game until you gain confidence in how each stage unfolds and how to best utilize combos. Until then, it’s a nightmare and the first stage is just as crazy as any other. You are pitted against tons of enemies at once that shoot multiple projectiles are your little ship. It’s the same old song and dance with other shmups but Ikaruga’s design, soundtrack, and perfect gameplay flow have it rated as one of the best ever made and its difficulty is is no slouch, either.
Mega Man Zero (GBA)
Fans are going to get on me for saying this is difficult. I didn’t find it difficult myself, but I’m a seasoned Classic player. I know many other Blue Bomber fans who weren’t so much into Classic but really enjoyed the X series, Legends, and hell, even Mega Man & Bass (we were huge into the GBA and Battle Network). When Zero came out I sat there and watched them all die over and over again on the intro stage. Be it the Golem at the end or just taking far too much damage over the course of the stage, they found it difficult to get past. It got even worse as they went on after finally beating it. I believe they still haven’t completed the game. The Zero series was a return to old school ruthless difficulty that had been missing from the series since Mega Man 6 and wasn’t seen again until Mega Man 9.
Ninja Gaiden (Xbox)
The reboot for Ninja Gaiden brought a lot of success to the franchise and it was based on two things: violence and difficulty. Later on they would tack on a third aspect: ridiculous female Ninja bodies but that’s a story for another article. The first level in Ninja Gaiden (be it the original, Black, Sigma, Sigma Plus, whatever) is a true test of your patience, mastering of the controls, and your ability to put everything you learned in 10 minutes and churn out a winning formula with it all. This level is ridiculous in its own right without the old man at the end but when you close that door and he pulls out his nunchaku you know you’re in for it. This guy is crazy hard until you get down his movements, timing, and attacks. His unflinching block that doesn’t lower until he attacks was very hard to combat against when non of the other enemies in the stage acted like that. You have to remember everything the first level taught you and then learn more stuff with this fight. Crazy.
This is a generally tough game to crack but the first level throws everything at you to give you a sense of what’s ahead. In Paperboy you are tasked with delivering newspapers to selected houses on a block. While trying to do your job you are trying to deal with loose dogs, burglars, idiot drivers, construction, uncovered manholes, toddlers with toys, ghosts, and all sorts of other crazy stuff and people. Not only that, if you even get passed that you have to do an obstacle course designed to make you do insane turns on a bicycle. Screw this town, I quit!
Pokemon Red/Blue/Yellow (Gameboy)
How can a Pokemon game be on a hardest first level list? Well, I view the Gym Leaders are stepping stones, which is exactly what levels or stages are. In Gen 1 of Pokemon we all had to go through Brock, the first Gym Leader. He was a Rock user and had a level 12 Geodude and a level 14 Onix. The problem here is that 50% of the 4 starters (I’m counting Pikachu from Yellow here) are basically dead meat against Brock. If you chose Bulbasaur or Squirtle you were fine but if not you had some serious training to do to be able to beat Brock. You either had to level up past 14 and hope for the best or raise a Butterfree (which was no easy or quick task in the first part of the game) or find a Mankey and raise it up a bit in Yellow. For a game that was meant to appeal to children, they sure did make it hard to get past the first freakin’ Gym Leader if you wanted Charmander or Pikachu.
I honestly can’t say if another game has ever scared me to the point that Sinistar did. My local arcade had this cabinet because of how frightening the owner thought it was. He even had a challenge, make it past the first level on your first coin and you’ll get four free games on any cabinet you wanted. Not an easy task, at all. Sinitar’s difficulty comes in two aspects: the crazy fast game flow and how overpowered Sinistar is. The point of the game is to collect the pieces that will harm Sinistar but he is also collecting them so he can build himself and then attack. You never see him doing this, however. It’s a race against time as you’re being attacked non-stop by Sinistar’s armies. Then, all of a sudden, “Beware! I live!” I have goosebumps just thinking of it.
Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts (SNES)
I watched a video on YouTube of someone going through this first level and he was damn good. I actually felt like the game may have not been that hard until I loaded up myself and tried it out again. I died. I died a lot. The guy on the video died from one thing: the damn bear trap. Not only is this first level insanely filled with enemies and things going on, you have that stupid bear trap. This thing comes out of a chest. You have to attack chests to open them. The bear trap likes to come out of a chest when you’re on a pillar and your only choice is to jump backwards and not progress or try and jump over it to move forward. Problem? It’s impossible to jump over!