The 10 Hardest Video Games of All Time
See how many of them you've managed to beat.
These days, video games are a multi-billion dollar business, but there was a time when many people thought of them as mere kids' stuff. But that categorization belies the fact that becoming masterful at video games requires real skill—not unlike, say, playing a musical instrument (arguably more, since every game has different mechanics). And this is doubly true for games that are really, really difficult—like any of the following 10 games, which stand among the most challenging ever made. Read on to see which ones—if any—you've conquered.
Ghosts 'n Goblins (1985)
Released in arcades in 1985 and ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) a year later, this action-adventure game casts you as a heroic knight battling the titular monsters on your quest to rescue a princess… which will probably be quite short, as you apparently decided to head out in your underwear (though you can collect armor, it doesn't help much). What's worse, to truly beat the game you have to play levels a second time—on an even higher difficulty level—and there are no saves or continues.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1989)
I was one of millions of reptile-obsessed '80s kids who ran out to buy the first Nintendo game starring the heroes on a half shell. I was also one of millions who never got past level 2, in which you have to navigate the turtles through booby-trapped NYC sewers to defuse mines before they can destroy the Hudson River dam. That level alone has earned it a place of dishonor on lists of games no one has ever beaten. Are the subsequent levels even more difficult? I wouldn't know.
The Battletoads were a ripoff of the Ninja Turtles, so it only seems appropriate that their Nintendo game would feature a similarly impossible level. In this case it was level 3, "Turbo Tunnel," in which you control one of the 'toads while racing through an obstacle-littered landscape on a hoverboard. The timing required to dodge and jump past everything that will kill you is so precise, you can only get through it by playing it through hundreds of times to develop your muscle memory. Sure, some guy eventually did it blindfolded, but to a kid in the '90s, even making it 30 seconds felt like an impossible feat.
Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels (1993)
This game was released in Japan as Super Mario Bros. 2, shortly after the original. Nintendo declined to quickly export it to America, reskinning a completely different game to create a Mario sequel for the U.S. market instead, because the company feared the game was too hard and would alienate western gamers. When it was finally released in North America as part of Super Mario All-Stars on the Super Nintendo in 1993, we all found out the company was right.
Ikaruga is from a subgenre of gaming known as "bullet hell," and it's an apt descriptor. In this game, you control a small ship across an endless scrolling screen teeming with enemies (and enemy projectiles). Progression in any bullet hell game comes down to repetition and hair trigger reflexes, Ikaruga ups the ante by also requires you to flip the "polarity" of your ship depending on what kind of enemy you're facing at that particular second. It's the video game equivalent of rubbing your head, patting your belly, and playing Bach on a piano, all at once.
Hollow Knight (2017)
I really wanted to love Hollow Knight, not only for the beautiful animation, which resembles an interactive Disney cartoon (with the sensibilities of Tim Burton), but also for the engaging storyline, in which you play as a cute little bug warrior who has lost his memory and must escape from a barren, spirit-infested underground labyrinth to recover it. Yet the game doubly confounded me: Not only do you have to traverse back and forth across a vast network of maze-like caves to find your way, but you also face a constant, punishing onslaught from ever-stronger enemies. Yes, you can get stronger and find new weapons along the way, but I couldn't even best the first boss.
Indie game sensation Celeste is a moving story of self-acceptance in which you control an anxious young woman as she sets off on a solo climb up a treacherous mountain, battling more powerful self-doubts and inner demons (sometimes literally manifested) with each ever-more-perilous meter. It's a spare but deeply emotionally affecting journey—and also hard as hell. Levels are broken down into single screens, and you might die dozens of times before clearing each one. Helpfully, the game keeps a running death tally for you (I was never able to finish it, but I got close… by which point I had already failed more than 1,500 times.)
Cuphead's adorable style—heavily inspired by cartoons of the 1930s and '40s and with an endearing sense of dark whimsy—provides an alluring cover for one of the most fiendishly difficult games ever made. You take on the role of Cuphead (who does indeed have a cup for a head) or his brother Mugman, attempting to get the Devil to relinquish his claim on your soul by reaping the souls of others in turn—which translates into an entire game made up of nigh-impossible boss fights with zany characters, each of which requires expert timing and quick reflexes to best. And if you want to actually complete the game, you aren't allowed to play on easy mode.
Hades is a game built around failure. The plot follows the son of Hades (yeah, that Hades) as he attempts to escape the underworld and kill his father, and there is simply no way to get through it without dying. A lot. Yes, you'll get a little stronger and progress a little farther with each of your dozens (hundreds?) of cycles through the game. But then comes the real kicker: Even once you manage to off your dad, the cycle begins again, and to progress father, you actually have to handicap yourself to make the game harder. (They should have called it Sisyphus.)
Elden Ring (2022)
Set in a sprawling fantasy landscape and with a story co-written by Game of Thrones mastermind George R.R. Martin, last year's gaming phenomenon Elden Ring is a genre fan's dream game—provided they don't mind dying a whole bunch. The open world adventure allows you to do anything you want, whenever you want, without a ton of guidance along the way. In practice, this means you might wander into a brutal boss fight dozens of gameplay hours before you'll be equipped to handle it—a fact you might not realize until you've already been throwing your controller against the wall for hours.
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