Video games are undeniably an art form, but it would be foolish to ignore the fact that they exist primarily to entertain audiences. After all, if a player isn’t having a good time, what’s the point? Of course, games are more nuanced than that. There’s a lot that goes into game development to create an experience that’s engaging and accessible, especially when it comes to the difficulty curve.
Difficulty can make or break a game. Most gamers won’t want to play something too easy just as they won’t want to play something too hard. Games need to model themselves around their difficulty curve carefully, to ensure that even those apprehensive players end up giving those harder games a shot. At the same time, a game’s default difficulty can still be overwhelming. On the other hand, there are those easy modes that are still challenging. It’s not an approach that appears to everyone, but masochistic gamers might be up for the added challenge. Here are five games that don't have an easy mode, along with five where the easy mode is still hard.
10 No Easy Mode: F-Zero GX
With Nintendo unwilling to continue the series and no copycats showing up to fill its niche, F-Zero has been left dormant for quite some time. The last major release was F-Zero GX for the Nintendo GameCube. While an older title, it does still stand out as one of the best racing games of all time and one of Nintendo’s better first party titles on the GameCube.
It’s also viciously difficult and the only difficulty modes for the Story Mode are Normal, Hard, and Very Hard. Normal is already brutal and essentially requires that players master the core mechanics (not understand, but master) them by the second mission. That said, it’s an incredible game for those willing enough to learn how to play.
9 Still Difficult: Ikaruga
A former GameCube exclusive (Nintendo really went all out with the hard games for that generation), Ikaruga is one hell of a bullet hell. It’s the shoot ‘em up genre taken to the extreme. Even on Easy, this is not a game that lets players rest. There’s always something happening and something to think about.
Needless to say, Ikaruga is an incredibly overwhelming game, one that shouldn’t be approached lightly. It requires patience and mechanical mastery. Just trying to scrape by won’t cut it, but anyone familiar with the genre will adapt quickly. Ikaruga is punishing, but its challenge is both sensible and comprehensible. It may feel impossible, but it isn’t.
8 No Easy Mode: Punch-Out!!
Whether Little Mac is going up against Mike Tyson or Mr. Dream, there’s no easy way of getting through Punch-Out!! Sure, looking up the fights online to have the pattern in mind does solve half the problem, but this is still a game that requires quick reflexes and an eye for detail. One slip up can mean the end in Punch-Out!!
But that’s what makes it such a fun and rewarding game. To this day, Punch-Out!! holds up as an engaging 8-bit challenge, one every gamer should try at least once in their life. Sure, beating Mike Tyson might seem impossible, but just getting to him is an achievement in and of itself.
7 Still Difficult: Darkest Dungeon
Darkest Dungeon didn’t originally have an easy mode at release, and just the thought of adding one seemed wrong. It’s a game that’s designed around oppressive difficulty. One mistake can kick off a domino effect of everything falling apart. It’s a game where hours of progress being lost is just something players need to come to terms with.
A later update added Radiant Mode, the game’s easy mode, but it still keeps the Darkest Dungeon experience intact. It’s considerably easier, but mainly because it cuts down the grind and pulls back the more punishing consequences. It’s still a difficult and time-consuming game, but Radiant Mode makes things a bit more manageable.
6 No Easy Mode: Demon’s Souls
The whole Souls series is a pretty good example of hard games lacking easy modes, but it’s important to give credit where credit is due: Demon’s Souls, the game that kicked the series off. A PlayStation 3 exclusive, Demon’s Souls was not designed with difficulty in mind. It was meant to be a slow-paced action game geared at patient and observant gamers.
Demon’s Souls is designed to make the player stop and think about what they’re playing. The challenge comes from failing to meet the game halfway. It’s certainly possible to blitz through and rush Demon’s Souls, but only for those who have taken the time to learn what they’re doing. It’s a design philosophy that extends to every Souls game.
5 Still Difficult: Ninja Gaiden Sigma
Ninja Gaiden is one of the hardest video game franchises of all time, and unlike other major series from the NES era, it never quite had the same lasting impact as Mega Man or Castlevania. Perhaps it was because the series’ transition to 3D was originally locked to the Xbox, but the game was later re-released as Ninja Gaiden Sigma for the PS3.
An improvement in just about every way, Sigma takes an incredible hack n slash and makes it even better. It also keeps the difficulty intact with an easy mode that’ll make even seasoned gamers rip their hair out. A Vita rerelease, Ninja Gaiden Sigma PLUS, adds an even easier mode for those still struggling.
4 No Easy Mode: Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse
Worth noting, Castlevania III’s Japanese release, Akumajou Densetsu, is considerably easier than the Western Dracula’s Curse. For whatever reason, Nintendo of America made Castlevania III, an already hard game, even harder. It’s truly brutal at times, with the difficulty curve only increasing up to the final boss.
But it’s also one of the best games on the NES and a fantastic end to the NES Castlevania trilogy. It’s incredibly challenging, but it’s worth the trek. Even if Akumajou Densetsu is the objectively better version. Not only because of its smoother difficulty curve but because the Famicom is able to produce cleaner sounding music than the NES.
3 Still Difficult: Devil May Cry 3
Like Castlevania III, Devil May Cry 3 was inexplicably made harder during the localization process. The west’s Normal mode was actually Japan’s Hard mode, and Easy mode was Normal mode. Easy being Normal doesn’t sound too bad, but Devil May Cry 3 is easily the hardest game in the franchise.
Easy mode might feel like a punishment for those inexperienced with the action genre, but the game was re-released with the difficulties changed up (along with other goodies.) This is the version that the HD port is based on, so there’s no chance of getting a brutal Easy mode. The game is still quite hard.
2 No Easy Mode: Sekiro Shadows Die Twice
A game so hard it sparked hundreds of think pieces on the nature of easy modes in gaming, Sekiro Shadows Die Twice is FromSoft embracing their reputation for hard games. At the same time, it’s designed very much like Demon’s Souls, where everything is manageable so long as players are willing to play by the game’s rules in every sense.
Still, it’s much harder than Demon’s Souls and seems quite eager to kill the player at any given moment. Not paying attention? Well, that’s that then. Hands getting tired? Might as well play something else. Sekiro does not play around, but it’s a rewarding game to actually get through.
1 Still Difficult: Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts
One of the hardest 16-bit games ever made, Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is a nightmare given virtual form. A fun nightmare, but a nightmare nonetheless. Patience, memorization, and mechanical mastery are all necessary skills for getting through the game.
Before the first stage even ends, players must understand how to double jump with Arthur. Every little thing can end up killing the player, so it’s important to always be paying attention. It’s also important to accept that death is going to happen a lot. It’s just as important to understand that Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is pretty forgiving. For how mind-numbingly hard it can be, it features more than fair checkpoints and a generous continue system.