Why do we keep coming back to games that make us want to throw our controllers across the room? A hard video game is a measurable challenge. We play, we die, we play again. We practice, we memorize levels, and we find ourselves getting better. What we’re really doing is fine-tuning and honing our precision until we’ve become masters at our game.
I’ve been seeking out tough games since childhood, and find their appeal a uniquely frustrating one. Interested in why we play difficult games, and how these games affect our learning style, I’ve devoted my gaming life to researching and focusing on everything from impossible platformers to screen-frenzied fighting games. I want to pull them apart, see what makes them tick, and learn from the game designers. And whether I can speed run through a brutal sidescroller or bounce off the first stage of a tough action RPG, I’m always thinking about the how and why. How do we beat these tough games, and why do we try?
With all this in mind, I took a look at seven of the hardest video games to master of all time, from classic side-scrollers to complicated esports games. And I don’t just mean the “hardest to beat” games with tough end bosses, or games so poorly designed they’re virtually unplayable. These are the games that best test the reaction times, concentration, memory, and hand-eye coordination of gamers. I’m here to break down what makes them so tough, and offer a few helpful suggestions per game. And because these games are all hard for different reasons and in different ways, I’ve decided not to rank them.
Most competitive MOBAs are plenty hard to play, but the team aspect of them makes them easier to master. You can rely on your teammates, coordinate, learn your position and stick with it forever… not so with Dota 2! There’s so much to keep track of during a game, from your character’s experience points that you’re racking up, to knowing where the four other members of your team are, to keeping the camera on you while being properly aware of the rest of the map, to knowing what your enemies are capable of at any given moment… just thinking about it makes my head spin. For a game about being the first team to destroy their enemy’s stone structure, there sure is a lot of stuff going on at once. So what’s the key to mastering Dota 2? Know your role. Even though there’s so much going on, you need to remember that your hero’s just one piece in a larger puzzle. As such, you need to know how to play that piece perfectly, to lay down heavy damage if you’re a Nuker, slip in and out of trouble if you’re playing an Escape, and properly start a good fight if you’re an Initiator. Playing to your specific purpose (and knowing how your moveset factors into larger team goals) will go a long way toward getting a handle on this overwhelming esport.
This list wouldn’t be complete without a Mega Man game on here, and choosing just one as the hardest of the series is an entirely subjective call. But the game I’ve bounced off of the most, failing over and over (and over!) again, is Mega Man 3. From tough bosses (damn you, Shadow Man!) to completely frantic (and perfectly designed) levels, we put our little blue dude through a set of challenges rarely seen in platformers. One of the best ways to get a handle on Mega Man 3 (and all MM games) is through careful study of each level. It’s not enough to go through one of the MM3 levels thinking your reaction time and wits will be enough to sustain you. Learn every trick, tough spot, cheap jump, and boss behavior, and you’ll be cruising through the stages on jet-powered canine pal Rush in no time.
Marvel vs. Capcom 2 holds a special place in players’ hearts as one of the most chaotic games ever made in the competitive fighting game genre. With splashing animations, tons of on-screen moving parts, an incredible depth of movesets and counter-strategies, and a roster of over 50 playable characters, it takes a lot of practice, focus, and discipline to be able to hang with the top-tier players. My best advice for this one is to pick a few characters that you like and train, train, train with them. You won’t be able to master the entire roster, and you shouldn’t get bogged down with the pixelated mess on the screen, just learn your top 5 or so characters inside and out. Don’t hit the competitive scene until these characters’ movesets are ingrained into your brain, muscle memory-style.
Known simply as Super Mario Bros. 2 when it first debuted in Japan in 1986, this is the infamous Mario sequel deemed too hard for North American audiences. I remember the first time I played the game (when it finally landed on our shores in the Super Mario All-Stars bundle) I was so excited for more Mario… but this wasn’t what ten-year-old me was expecting at all. The game still stars our favorite plumber brothers, but features poison mushrooms, punishing levels that require intense precision in order to land tough jumps, and random gusts of wind — a far cry from our turnip-filled version of Super Mario Bros. 2. What’s the key to this one? To be honest, there’s no easy tip. For these Lost Levels you’ll just have to practice your reaction time and hone your precision. Keep practicing your jumps, memorize where those evil poison mushrooms lurk, and get comfortable with the physics. Another pro tip: watch speedrunners online and see how they handle the game, and go from there. Good luck (you’ll need it)!
This classic fighting game for Nintendo Gamecube may seem, to outside observers, like a silly barroom brawl of a beat-em-up. Pikachu blasting Yoshi halfway across the screen? Captain Falco punching Mario in the face? Seems a little ridiculous… and the original game for Nintendo 64 was! But hidden underneath Melee is one of the most complicated sets of tech to ever hit the pro gaming circuit. Still loved by players all over the world, the game’s so finicky, and needs such careful tuning, that players won’t compete unless they have controllers that are broken in a specific way. Even moving across the screen (a simple concept, eh?) is complicated by the fact that there’s a specific physics exploit, called a Wavedash, that allows characters to essentially float across the screen, performing moves they normally couldn’t while walking. What!? But that’s the real secret to mastering Melee: you’ve got to do your homework and study how the pros play in the competitive scene. Go to a tournament where professional Smash players are competing, and watch them in person. You’ll see feats of hand-eye coordination, and new levels of focus and timing, that you didn’t think possible. Watch them like a hawk, note every small, minute detail, and you’ll see your performance steadily improve as you begin to mimic the best in the biz.
Super Meat Boy is what happens when game developers who grew up playing the toughest games on this list think to themselves, “Yeah, but couldn’t it be harder?” You play as the titular Meat Boy, a little blob of beef in a world full of fire, buzzsaws, and pain. Relentless in its call for careful handling and perfect timing, this wonderfully frustrating indie release isn’t for the faint of heart. Miss a landing by a pixel? You’re dead. Mistime your jump by a millisecond? You’re dead. Blink? Sneeze? Look briefly at a passing bird? Well… you get the idea. For Meat Boy, the only way to get better is to practice and sharpen your precision in this minimalist platformer. This game is all about being pixel-perfect in your landings, so playing on the largest screen available can make a huge difference. The more information you have to work with on the screen, the better you’ll fare in this unforgiving platformer.
Is this the hardest-to-master esports game of all time? There are so many levels of complication and difficulty to this real-time strategy bruiser that it seems almost impossible to master it all. Even playing through the campaign won’t get you close to where you need to be to hit the competitive scene running. But watch the pros play for a few minutes, and you’ll be baffled by the amount of commands issued per minute, the specificity of their gameplay, and the speed at which top-tier players are able to make runs on their opponents. The only real way to master Starcraft 2 is by putting in the hours in competitive play. The more games you jam, the more contingency plans you’ll build. As you practice, you’ll begin to get comfortable with a race that matches your playstyle. Whether you want to swarm the map with the Zerg, dig in with the Terrans, or run the choke points with the Protoss, practice will help you find the race that’s best for you. The more you play, the more you’ll know what to expect, and the better you’ll perform out there in the cold, uncaring expanses of space.
What are some of the games that you’ve had the hardest time mastering? And how do you approach a viciously difficult game? Let us know in the comments.
Giaco Furino is a writer living and working in Brooklyn. He contributes frequently to The Creators Project, Tribeca Shortlist’s Outtake, Rhapsody magazine, and more.