In the early days of video games, easily accessible game guides didn’t exist. Nintendo Power, one of the earliest video game strategy guide publications, was published monthly. Most strategy guides were simply word-of-mouth. Your friends came over and everyone would take turns failing on the same level over and over again. Back then, there was no hand-holding and no tutorials. Video games in those days felt impossibly hard–your job was to figure out how to beat them.
Those early days had a swinging pendulum of difficulty. Contra III: The Alien Wars, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, and the Mega Man franchise were intentionally difficult. After all, games in those days relied heavily on their replayability and by making them intentionally difficult, they were totally worth playing through to the end. And arcade games? Continues were incentives to slot in another quarter to continue your progress.
But that’s what made these video games so special. The view from the summit is breathtaking when you know how much perseverance and challenge it took up there. You could take pride in being king of the castle–you earned that right–through sore thumbs, sweat, and late night failings. These are the games that make that extra effort. The games that make the climb worth it. They are truly challenging games on the most difficult setting. Oh, you’ll die a lot. But you’ll relish the real challenge ahead of you.
15 Resident Evil 7 – Ethan Must Die Mode
If there was a difficulty mode more aptly named, we have yet to find it. Because that’s what you end up doing the majority of your time playing this difficulty setting. Over, and over, and over again. Resident Evil 7's Ethan Must Die difficulty setting is a stripped down version of the main campaign but challenging nonetheless.
When you start this game mode, you’re given a pocket knife and nothing else. Random loot can be accessed from crates, but you never know what you’ll receive, though each crate hints what may be hidden inside through a colour code and the number of stars floating above it. Though the path to the Marguerite boss fight is relatively simple, the enemies along the way are all powerful and the randomized loot drops will be the only weapons you’ll have for the Marguerite boss. Oh and some of the crates are booby-trapped... You’ve been forewarned.
14 The Last of Us – Grounded Mode
If you thought that The Last of Us was too easy to beat on hard mode and even more so on normal, and wanted to challenge yourself with its Grounded mode, then you’re in a world of hurt. Accessible through its re-release as The Last of Us Remastered, Grounded mode was meant to challenge the most seasoned player.
The disappearance of the HUD and disabling Listen Mode means you’ll be playing through the campaign completely blind. You won’t know how much ammo you have left and there’s little to no indication of how you’re doing on health. Enemy AI is more acutely aware on Grounded mode. They pick up on the slightest sounds of movement and without Listen Mode, you don’t know when you’ve aroused their suspicion. There’s also a severe scarcity of ammo and supplies, and enemies damage output is staggering. A truly harsh and unforgiving difficulty mode.
13 Mass Effect 2 – Insanity Mode
Simply put, Mass Effect 2 is one of those titles that pulls you into its orbit and never lets go. It’s that immersive, that much fun, and when switched to Insanity mode, that challenging. While not impossible to defeat, Insanity mode is, well, insane.
Enemies now have some form of protection, whether that’s shields or barriers, or something similar they didn’t have in the game’s normal settings. Much like other entries, enemies are the Hulk-version of their past selves. Bullets and damage just bounce off them like tiny mosquitoes, and their Hulk smash will obliterate you. Having an exemplary understanding of the game’s mechanics will prove to be beneficial in Insanity mode. You’ll need to know what weapons work, which squad mates are most useful in certain conditions, and which upgrades and skills to take. Trial and error is the key to success in Insanity mode, with a heavy emphasis on error.
12 DOOM – Ultra Nightmare Mode
It's been said that 2016's DOOM's Ultra Nightmare mode is so difficult that developer id Software insists nobody at their company was able to defeat it. In fact, when you first attempt Ultra Nightmare mode, a warning is issued asking, "Are you willing to put yourself through this?"
If you do decide to abandon all hope and enter this modern day Dante's Inferno, after all, you are literally traverse through the gates of hell to face up against literal demon spawns. For those who are up for it, then then be prepared to face a truly Everest challenge. If you die even once, you have to start over from the beginning again. You don't get to pass "GO" and you don't collect $200. Sure there have been diligent players who have bested this insane gauntlet mere days after its release, but for the average gamer, consider this mode next to impossible.
11 Furi – Furier Mode
A stylish boss battle game from French indie studio The Game Bakers, Furi is a fast-moving action game mixing shoot-’em-up action and swashbuckling swordplay. Furi is all about memorization and quick reaction time. Boss battles are fast and furious, but as long as you memorize the attack patterns of the boss characters, then you’ll breeze through the game. That is until you play Furier mode.
In Furier mode, everything you’ve understood about the game flies directly out the window. Boss attack patterns drastically change and the game shifts, giving the odds in the favour of your AI opponents. Bosses in Furier mode drop fewer health bars to rejuvenate yours and their attack patterns add additional layers of attacks to catch you off guard. Poorly time a moment of evasion or forget an attack pattern and say goodbye to your health.
10 Hyper Light Drifter – Normal Hard Mode
A successful Kickstarter campaign led to the release of Hyper Light Drifter. Inspired by old-school action games, Hyper Light Drifter is a stylish video game that’s part 2D action role-playing, part slash-and-dash, and all around difficult. Put simply, it’s an exceedingly difficult game. Roadblock after roadblock offers no easy way out and there are no cheats or exploits to avoid its difficulty. Hyper Light Drifter demands one thing from its gamers, practice, practice, practice.
Most players who have ever tried their hand at Hyper Light Drifter have walked away from the game frustrated at their inability to play it. Just how difficult was it in its original normal mode? When the game received an update from developer Heart Machine, they had to introduce a new difficulty option called “Newcomer” mode. That’s right. It was so challenging and intense that they had to release an update to water it down for the mass market.
9 Metro: 2033 Redux – Ranger Hardcore Mode
Appearing in both Metro Last Light and Metro 2033 Redux, Ranger mode is the difficulty setting the player is allotted if the three standard difficulties are child’s play. Dubbed as “the ultimate challenge for the player,” Ranger Hardcore mode attempts to make the Metro games much more realistic. But considering that the Metro games are post-nuclear-apocalyptic Russian horror games, realistic is loosely defined.
Regardless, Ranger Hardcore mode challenges the player by removing the all-important HUD, ammo caches are scarce, and your health is massively diminished. But Ranger Hardcore mode ups the ante with one shot-one kill methodology, making stealth your only option of survival. If you’ve depended on run-and-gun methods up to this point, you’re going to have an impossibly hard time defeating this game. Be prepared to die, a lot.
8 Sniper Elite 4 – Authentic Mode
Much like the Metro franchise, Sniper Elite 4’s Authentic mode attempts to make the game realistic by removing all the trappings that would make the experience video-gamey.
With no assist or aim interface, you’ll have to rely on your senses and capabilities as a Sniper Elite series veteran to survive. Environmental factors have been introduced to this gameplay mode. Gravity now affects a bullet’s trajectory at long ranges meaning you’ll target enemies with only the wind gauge and crosshairs. Enemy AI is as sharp as a German bayonet and their location senses are as uncanny as a German shepherd. Understanding your weapon’s capabilities also play a major factor as you need to factor in target’s distance and current weather conditions. Your ability to stealth through levels play a major role in the success of your campaigns as killing is recommended only when necessary.
7 Battle Garegga – Normal Mode
At a glance, this 1996 2D scrolling shooter feels and plays much like its predecessors, Raptor: Call of the Shadows and Gradius. But similar to Hyper Light Drifter, Battle Garegga is difficult from the get-go. And much like God Hand, Battle Garegga adapts to the way the player plays, punishing the player as a reward. Increasing the difficulty level quickly turns the gameplay into an impossibly manic shooter.
To play Battle Garegga and succeed, means constantly playing on the edge. Great Battle Garegga players understand the balance of “suiciding” or losing lives on purpose to decrease the game’s difficulty setting. Understanding the fine balance between keeping your life stock low and conserving weapon power-ups is the defining difference between success and total failure. What makes gameplay even more difficult is that bullets are realistically coloured, and exploding enemies and objects camouflage incoming fire.
6 BioShock Infinite – 1999 Mode
BioShock Infinite’s 1999 mode is a subtle reference to developer Irrational Games first game, the critically acclaimed System Shock 2, which was released in 1999. While there are two ways to unlock the 1999 mode, the funnest way of the two is perhaps entering the infamous Konami Code while on the game’s main menu. But be forewarned, 1999 mode is no walk in the park.
Even Irrational Games creative director Ken Levine emphasizes that the 1999 mode wasn’t made for the average gamer, but rather, but as a throwback to retro-difficult games of old. There’s no auto aim, ammo is greatly reduced, the navigation arrow is complete gone, and enemies now inflict greater damage on the “glass cannon” Booker. Respawn points are also hard to come by in 1999 mode, and you better save your money because respawning now costs $100, which means if you don’t have enough money, it’s game over.
5 Dead Space 2 – Hard Core Mode
While there’s an inherent nature to survival horror games regarding limited resources and seriously tough enemies, Dead Space 2’s Hard Core mode obliterates this premise right into orbit.
The first thing you’ll notice in Hard Core mode is that checkpoints have been disabled and you’re only given three game saves for the entire campaign playthrough. New Game + saves don’t even transfer over during Hard Core mode forcing the player to start from scratch. Be prepared to lose a lot of progress. While not physically tough to beat as enemies are around Survivalist mode in terms of difficulty and item drops similar to Zealot mode, the constant stress and panic are what will overwhelm most gamers. Pinpoint precision will be necessary against the hordes of enemies which can cause intense pressure to even the most enthusiastic survival horror player.
4 XCOM: Enemy Unknown – Impossible Ironman Mode
Much like a Siren’s call, XCOM: Enemy Unknown lures you in with mission success after flawless success until suddenly and without warning, disaster strikes. Losing a team of seasoned veterans is a difficult pill to swallow on XCOM’s normal mode, but a rare occurrence. In Impossible Ironman mode, it's a daily occurrence.
On Impossible Ironman, the game’s hardest difficulty, your XCOM campaign is limited to a single save file, meaning your choices have far-reaching consequences. Rewards are smaller, costs greater, and having a methodical strategy to get your through every and all obstacle is key to defeating such impossible odds. XCOM is brutally unforgiving in the early missions, and success in these crucial stages will determine how far you’ll get in Impossible Ironman. Everything can be lost within the first month, depending on alien activity, the international community’s response to the crises, and the efficiency of XCOM’s response.
3 Ninja Gaiden 2 – Master Ninja Mode
The success of the Ninja Gaiden series has been built on the backs of countless broken controllers. Since its 8-bit release, many gamers have rage quit over the impossibility of this series. The 128-bit Ninja Gaiden 2 is so difficult and challenging that you’d think the devil himself made the game.
Master Ninja mode hits a new peak of demanding insanity, with enemies attacking with relentless fury and unnerving precision that almost always guarantees your death. Players will have to rely on Ryu Hayabusa’s entire arsenal and their own shinobi skills to survive the endless pursuit of faster, stronger, and more capable enemies. To prove its difficulty, it took one player SIX YEARS(!) to finally defeat the Path of Master Ninja with 100% completion and no damage. A feat that has yet to be repeated.
2 Rock Band 4 – Brutal Mode
Rock Band 4’s Brutal mode is the stuff of legends. It’s what separates the Rock Gods from mere rock enthusiasts. Rock Band 4’s Expert mode was difficult but challengingly playable. Brutal mode raises the stakes, making a difficulty setting only playable by video game masochists.
For starters, Brutal mode punishes you for performing flawlessly, getting more brutal the better you play. Notes quickly disappear the better your performance. This is all tied to an invisible gate connected to your crowd performance meter. Shorter reaction times means your reflexes have to be finely tuned and your eyes alert to press the buttons at the exact right moment. If that wasn’t difficult enough, there’s also the Variable Breakneck Speed that allows players to modify a song’s velocity up to 2.5 times. Brutal indeed.
1 Dark Souls – New Game ++++++ Mode
Dark Souls is the type of game that players love to hate. When discussing Dark Souls, you stand in one of two camps – you either hate it for insane difficulty or revel in its challenging gameplay. It should come as no surprise then that Dark Souls would have one of the most insane difficulty modes there is.
After beating the final boss, Gwyn, Lord of Cinder, players have the option of starting over with the New Game Plus feature which starts the game with even harder difficulty but a marginal increase in souls received from enemies. The more you repeat the cycle, the harder it gets, with New Game+ 6 being the hardest mode the game has to offer. In this difficulty mode, common enemies are juggernauts and bosses are world-ending entities, endless pain awaits down this path for those who dare to take on this mantle of responsibility.