Video games have come a long way since the days of 'Nintendo Hard,' when the limited amount of memory on a game cartridge forced developers to crank up the difficulty on their games in order to keep players from beating it in only a few hours. Back then, games were mostly considered the hobby of a niche audience or children.
These days, games appeal to a wide audience, with a wide range of difficulties. There are the casual mobile games your grandmother enjoys such as Candy Crush Saga, reliable adventure games like the Mario series, and even crushingly difficulty games that only appeal to the most masochistic of players, like Dark Souls.
Usually, when you pick up a new game, you immediately know what camp it's in. Whether from its art style, or from having played previous games in the series, or just from watching a few minutes of its trailer, you can tell a game's relative challenge level.
So, in the mood for something light, you pick out a game featuring your favorite furry mascot, sit down for a relaxing afternoon… then watch in horror as your mascot's brains get scattered all across the level.
These are the games that trick you into thinking they'll be a walk in the park, neglecting to mention the fact that the park is currently on fire.
15 Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door
The first Paper Mario is a surprising, but simple, RPG. Assuming you take the time to learn the mechanics there should not be too much in it to challenge you. So you'd be forgiven for thinking that The Thousand-Year Door, which shares the same cardboard cutout style, would be similarly easy.
And you would be wrong. Boss HP has been increased a ton, enemies have powerful attacks that do massive damage to the party, nasty status ailments abound, and at one point you are forced to go it alone, which in RPGs is always a difficult segment.
If that's not quite enough for, try the Mario & Luigi games, particularly Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, where the bosses are likely to end you if you're not paying attention enough to dodge with the circle pad.
14 Ecco The Dolphin
Oh, look! A game about a cute dolphin swimming around, leaping through the air, solving puzzles. It practically screams rainbows and joy and... a giant evil alien queen bent on destroying all ocean life. Wait, what?
For many of us, Ecco was our first experience with deceptive difficulty and trope subversion. How difficult or dark can a game where you control a playful dolphin be? As it turns out, very. You have to solve puzzles and riddles while watching your breath meter, all while avoiding all sorts of dangers from sharks, jellyfish, and, yes, aliens.
And the final boss battle against the alien queen, where defeat means getting sent back to the start of the previous level, is still one of the most difficult, frustrating final confrontations in game history.
13 Winnie The Pooh's Home Run Derby
What do you think of when you consider difficult baseball games? MVP Baseball? MLB: The Show? How about Winnie the Pooh?
A small Japanese flash game, Winnie the Pooh's Home Run Derby went mostly unnoticed for a few years after being released on the Walt Disney Company website, until its extreme difficulty garnered it a sudden cult following almost five years after release. The game features the player controlling the titular Pooh in a home run derby against his friends. As you progress through the contest, you face off against new pitchers from the series, each more difficult than the last, who are capable of all matter of fast, erratic pitches.
And if you do manage to get to the end, then you have to go against Christopher Robin, who has somehow gained the power to make the ball go invisible. There's a reason it's quickly becoming known as not only a difficult sports game, but one of the most challenging browser games of all time.
12 Etrian Odyssey
Cute characters? Check. Whimsical dungeon design? Check. Colorful game interface full of mellow blues? Check. Nintendo DS exclusive? Okay, this is going to be a pretty casual, relaxing dungeon crawler. Wait, who's the developer again? Atlus? Oh… crap.
If you are familiar with Atlus' big RPG franchise, Shin Megami Tensei, you probably know where this is going. Tough random encounters, ridiculous enemies known as “F.O.E.s” that will instantly wreck your day and a fairly easy to mess up advancement system all make this game much tougher than it would initially appear. Oh, and you have to draw your own minimap, which does not have to be accurate. Have fun retracing your steps if you messed something up.
It's not surprising this game appealed to Atlus' normal crowd and spawned several sequels and spin-offs with the Mystery Dungeon series.
11 F-Zero GX
If you're a fan of racing games, over the top action, and a futuristic setting, the F-Zero series is probably right up your alley. Like other Nintendo racers, it features a colorful cast of characters racing along incredibly dangerous tracks. You can play against your friends or against the AI. Unlike previous entries in the series, GX also included a story mode. Fans of previous entries in the series were in for a rough awakening.
F-Zero GX makes the previous games look like they were intended for casuals. As a matter of fact, the game was so tough that it ranked fourth in IGN and GameTrailer's toughest games to beat. The tracks required extreme precision and timing to avoid falling off course, leading to many a frustrated controller toss.
10 Rugrats: Royal Ransom
An entire generation grow up watching Nicktoons, and for a long time the cornerstone of that programming was Rugrats, a cartoon about horribly unsupervised babies going on adventures. The Rugrats franchise was a behemoth, spawning feature movies, comics, toys, and video games. The last home console game, Rugrats: Royal Ransom came out for PS2 and Gamecube.
Young gamers were met with poor camera controls, erratic jumping, and invisible walls that made navigation difficult. At least the mini-games were simple enough … unless you were on Reptar Tough, in which case both children and parents would be hard-pressed to beat any of them. Compared to the 'hard' settings on previous Rugrats games, the final entry in their home console releases proved to be too much for many young gamers.
9 Shrek's Carnival Craze
Another property based on a family-friendly animated series, Shrek's Carnival Craze is a party game in the same vein as Mario Party. Up to four players take on the role of one of the characters from the Shrek movies and compete against each other in a series of mini-games, with whoever performs best winning overall. Simple enough?
What Shrek's Carnival Craze has that its competitors do not is insanely challenging mini-games. What seems like would be a fun evening for the whole family turns into a whirlwind of button mashing, timing challenges, and general madness. As your children struggle to even keep up with the game's pressing challenges, the adults will find their reflexes (and finger durability) severely strained.
Don't let Shrek's smiling face on the cover fool you: if you and your friends pick up this game, you will struggle.
8 Kerbal Space Program
If you knew nothing else about the game besides what you could see from advertisements, you might think Kerbal Space Program to be a casual, albeit wacky, space simulator game. Look at those kooky little cylinder people - who look like a Minion and a stalk of celery had a child together - getting into wacky hijinks and blowing themselves up! This game is going to be fun!
What you actually get is a game with complicated controls, counterintuitive physics, and a massive learning curve. Heck, even an actual astronaut and engineer struggled just to get a ship in orbit around the home planet, and that with the help from an experienced player.
So good luck going beyond that and actually exploring the whole solar system.
7 Katamari Forever
Now here's a game where the bright, cartoony style and J-pop soundtrack actually match the laid back and silly kind of gameplay. Like in the other Katamari games, Katamari Forever has you rolling up objects into a giant ball, with a couple of new twists like black-and-white levels where you are rolling up junk to bring color back to the stage.
But whereas most of the levels are pretty simple, Katamari Forever features some of the most frustrating levels in the series, such as a certain stage involving temperature control. And as if that is not bad enough, every time you fail the game's characters will mock you for your poor performance. After the 15th time getting scolded for your poor ball rolling skills, you are likely ready to get up and walk away from the game forever.
Rayman tricks players into thinking it is a fairly easy game by… being a fairly easy game, at least at first. You crawl, jump, helicopter hair, and telescopic punch your way through a classic side-scrolling platforming experience that is easy enough that even children had no problem with it. In fact, certain reviewers (who obviously did not play all the way through the game) considered the game to be for 'kiddies' because it was too easy.
Then comes the Band Lands, and a difficulty spike rarely matched in games. Suddenly you require precision, reflexes, and perfect use of your abilities just to survive. Combine this with infrequent save points and you have a game that can frustrate even the most veteran players, and that one reviewer from Sega Saturn Magazine (who clearly did play through the game) complained was “plain irritating and damn difficult.”
5 Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon
Pokémon games are not difficult by nature. Sure, for the hardcore fanbase there's a lot of depth to breeding and training the perfect team for competitive play, but even casual fans can beat their version of the Elite Four with a starter and whoever you picked up on the way.
Then come the spin-offs of Pokémon and the Mystery Dungeon series, dungeon-crawling roguelikes which are sure to catch the most casual fans of the family-friendly series off guard. Like all roguelikes, failure is just an expected part of progressing forward.
But the other games in the series don't hold a candle to the latest entry, Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon, which cranks the difficulty up way past the other Mystery Dungeon games. Fans of the series unaccustomed to roguelikes found a near impossible challenge ahead of them, and only those willing to do some tedious grinding had any chance.
4 Metroid Prime 2: Echoes
For the record, here we're talking about the original release of the game, not the version that appeared in the Metroid Prime: Trilogy collection.
Like many other games on this list, the difficulty here comes in large part due to the expectations going into the game. Having beaten the first Metroid Prime game with no difficulty, players found themselves in for a shock at the Echoes' unforgiving, large world with few save points.
And those boss battles. Let me see if I can't trigger some PTSD. Boost Guardian? Spiderball Guardian? And of course, you fought them in the Dark Aether dimension, which hurt Samus just for being in it. Legend has it that the boss battles were so difficult, testers used debug mode in order to beat them.
The game's difficulty was seriously nerfed in its Trilogy release.
3 Super Monkey Ball
Adorable monkeys in hamster balls. If you've gotten this far through the list, that much cuteness must be making you break out in a cold sweat.
Super Monkey Ball is trial-and-error gameplay in its most pure form. You must navigate your monkey/hamster ball combo across curved paths smaller than your ball. Expert difficulty has 50 floors of this, and in order to unlock Master you must beat Expert Extra, which includes yet another 10 floors, without using a continue. And considering you only get three lives… oh, and did I mention there's a timer? Cause there is.
At least the party games are a lot of fun, and not nearly as soul-destroying as the previously mentioned Shrek's Carnival Craze.
2 Nancy Drew: Curse Of Blackmoor Manor
Many cutesy point-and-click games could have made it on this list by having difficult, nonsense puzzles that seem to have been designed by madmen. But a Nancy Drew game, that's designed with tweens in mind. Hell, you can usually find these games in the bargain bin of your local Walmart. These have to be easy.
Prepare for some shockingly challenging puzzles. Assuming you don't cheat and go looking for solutions online, you're going to be in for a deep case study on the Penvellyn family if you want to solve the mysteries of this game. Oh, and the walls move sometimes, so have fun actually exploring and finding all those clues.
In the end, you're likely to feel dumber than the teenage detective you're playing.
1 Cooking Mama
Okay, hear me out on this one. Cooking Mama and its sequels are not, in of themselves, difficult games. Follow the tasks on screen, complete some mini-games, few penalties for failure, and all with a cutesy style, the game is perfect for kids or for a relaxing break from tougher fare.
Until you want to earn your gold medals, that is. Because the only way to get a gold medal is absolute perfection. Mess up even a little bit, make a tiny mistake in the most insignificant part of a mini-game, and now you are stuck with a silver medal. As the recipes get more complicated and include more steps and mini-games, it seems inevitable you will mess up something, either from sweaty palms or a simple slip of the stylus.
Plus, you know this game is going to make you hungry at some point. Good luck concentrating after that.