Field Guide to Frustration
Paranoia, rage and helplessness: Every gamer knows their icy grip.
Sadistic game designers have weaved their tapestry of pain and aggravation for too long. Something must be done for the masses of videogame fans that have lain weeping at the base of their consoles, their controllers shattered in wrath-filled grips.
Like a digital Darwin, I have ventured into a dark and twisted Galapagos of shoddy platforms and invisible walls to catalog these phyla of frustration. My personal risk of contracting Gamer's Thumb and Castlevania Cramp was great. But if I save just one console from being pitched out of the window to the street below, it will all have been worth it.
The One-Hit Kill
When battling a giant alien that breathes white-hot death, getting killed with one shot makes a certain amount of sense. When battling a bunch of guys in camouflage, it doesn't.
Why is running into a commando in Konami's Rush'n Attack, for example, just as deadly as stepping on a land mine? Do these commandos secrete poison? Furthermore, if their touch alone is lethal, why do some of them bother carrying conventional weapons at all? These questions may as well be Buddhist koans, because I never managed to get past the second level to learn the answers.
NES-era Konami excelled at the one-hit kill. If not for the Konami Code, Contra would have surely gone down in history as one of the most unforgiving games of all time. Go ahead, fire it up without the code; you'll actually be able to feel your blood pressure rise.
The Two-Hit Kill
Oddly, the only thing worse than one-hit kills are the two-hit kills suffered in Ghosts 'n Goblins and its sequels.
In the game, you play a knight clad in full plate armor, the medieval equivalent of a Sherman tank. Yet that armor falls apart like so much tinfoil if you are even barely touched by an enemy, leaving the pathetic knight to leap around in his knickers until a second hit mercifully puts him out of his misery.
Undignified doesn't even begin to describe it.
No Saving Grace
When I was a kid, I left my NES on for three days straight because Rygar didn't have save games or pass-codes. Inch by inch, I battled my way through hordes of strange monsters until I stood at the gates of the villainous Ligar's palace in the clouds. I knew from the menacing music that the coming clash was going to be epic, but tell that to my mother -- it was dinnertime. Spaghetti and meatballs, if I recall correctly.
When I returned from my meal, I found a horror almost beyond words. The NES had frozen. The Legendary Warrior was petrified on the screen, unable to advance against his hated enemy and a mockery of all my hours of work.
I never finished Rygar. I cried then and I am man enough to admit I still tear up at the memory.
The Suck Ending
Even if I did finish Rygar, there's no guarantee that it would have been worth the suffering I endured to get there. More often than not, the endings of classic games were just another slap in the face.
One of the worst offenders was 1942, a flying shooter that could easily send even the coolest of gamers into an apoplectic frenzy. Any joy felt as the final enemy aircraft plummeted into the sea was immediately incinerated by the ending. Players received no fanfare, or even a snazzy graphic; just an abrupt black screen bearing the word "Congratulation."
The Obscene Difficulty Spike
Then again, a crappy ending could be a blessing compared to a monstrously hard boss fight.
Take Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!, a classic for the NES that only a handful of sainted kids managed to finish. Beating on the game's roster of goofy fighters with their obvious weaknesses did nothing to prepare you for an Iron Mike so terrifyingly powerful it's a wonder his punches didn't shatter television screens. Boxing a brick wall would have been easier.
And sometimes a game will get mean for no reason at all. In the perfectly mediocre Medal of Honor: Airborne, players shoot their way through passably realistic World War II battles until they reach the Waal River Bridge. If the game is to be believed, it was a location so important to the German war effort that scores of heavily armored SS officers equipped with gas masks and rocket launchers watched over it.
I don't know what I did to those game designers to warrant being blown up so many times.
The Endless Respawn
You've just cut your way through a horde of bandits or aliens or undead. You've used up all of your potions or health packs and most of your ammo, but it's all right. Everything is dead. All that remains is to go into the last room, grab the MacGuffin, and hightail it back to town.
Except when you come out of the MacGuffin room, all the splattered bits of goo have somehow reconstituted. You have to kill them all. Again. A common pain in older skill-testing games like Metroid and Castlevania, this species of game-design hobgoblin was long thought extinct. Until recently, anyway, when it reappeared with a dastardly vengeance in 2009's Borderlands.
The Leap of Faith
It is a disturbing fact that in a Tomb Raider game, the higher you climb, the more likely it is that the camera will settle on a low-angle shot of Lara Croft's hindquarters instead of somewhere helpful, like the ledge over the gap you need to cross.
Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with Lara's backside, but at that point your only options are to turn off the game or jump. Unfortunately, if you do choose to leap blindly across the abyss, you've likely embarked on a suicidal plunge to the rocks below.
Why Am I Jumping?
A cousin of the Leap of Faith, this problem crops up in a number of modern action games, like X-Men Origins: Wolverine, in which players expect to do little more than carve people up into little pieces.
Yet, strangely, you spend an awful lot of Wolverine jumping around, not just on your average platforms, but through obnoxious timed challenges as well. It's as though developers feel bad about releasing a game that's just about stabbity action. And, really, why is he jumping around like Spider-Man when he can just use those indestructible claws that cut through anything to climb right where he needs to go?
Why would a videogame cheat? Because it's programmed to.
Imagine playing a game only to become stuck near the end because you failed to perform some task or keep an item that, in a million years, would not have seemed important to the quest at hand. Now pretend that the game never tells you that you can't win, leaving you to forever wander within its pixels. Text adventures like Zork were notorious for this kind of buggery, a tradition that their point-and-click-adventure successors carried on.
Thankfully, this kind of awfulness seems to have died out, probably for fear of the murder sprees that would be committed when players got to the end of a 60-hour campaign in Dragon Age: Origins only to find that they needed an item accidentally lost at Ostagar in the first hour of the game.
The New Cooperative
Co-op used to be frustrating because your buddy on the other end of the headset was too busy eating Cheetos to be bothered to lay down suppressing fire.
New Super Mario Bros. Wii has changed that by making it nearly impossible for a room full of people to work together despite their best efforts. With bouncy characters, imprecise controls and plenty of opportunities to screw over your fellow player, co-op Mario is less about finding the princess than it is about making your little sister storm off in tears.
It's a good thing the Wii controllers now come wrapped in injury-proof rubber. But that won't protect your ears from the angry shrieks of the kids when you knock them off their Yoshi.
The Hapless Ninja
Ninjas have a reputation for being resourceful, shadowy assassins that effortlessly dispatch their quarry with a combination of guile and martial prowess -- but you'd never know it from their games. The real danger of the ninja games is their unforgiving difficulty level.
2004's Ninja Gaiden was intentionally designed to be one of the most challenging games ever made. Shinobi, released around the same time, was characterized by a complete lack of checkpoints and the fact that even your sword was slowly trying to kill you.
But for real controller-crunching frustration, you need go no further than the original Ninja Gaiden, not because of its punishing platforming or patently unfair boss fights -- but because of the birds, the damned birds.
Alfred Hitchcock had nothing on these feathered menaces. Spawning rapidly and sometimes in multiples, they swoop randomly down to knock hapless ninjas into ravines or other enemies. They often attack you in mid-jump; but even when you are on the ground, they always seem to be just out of reach of your sword.
Without a doubt, these avians were some of the vilest enemies in the history of videogames.
Sometimes, it's the little details that drive gamers nuts.
You can run up walls in Infamous, but chain-link fences stop you dead. There is always one Locust in Gears of War who won't come out from cover. And LEGO Robin just refuses to pull the lever at the same time as LEGO Batman.
Other times, it is a sea of suffering so deep and wide that it is impossible to break down into component parts -- like the travesty that is Battletoads, which still stands as an enduring monument to Rare's unrelenting hatred of the entire human race.
Most players didn't even get through the harrowing obstacle course that was the third level, especially if they made the mistake of playing co-op. But if they did, they were met with level after level of malicious mazes, unpredictable enemies and all-around unfairness that has never been matched by another title.
If you suffer though every other type of horror on this list and still haven't had the misfortune of Battletoads inflicted upon you, then you can count yourself more than lucky -- consider yourself blessed.
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