In Defense of Difficult Games

Spelunky has thought us that sometimes a challenge is more rewarding than a good story.

Erik Norrisby Erik Norris


Nearly two months back I reviewed Spelunky for CraveOnline. At the time, I gave the game a score of 8 out of 10. Since that review was published, nearly eight weeks have passed and each day I wake with the desire to play more Spelunky. I’ve since reviewed three games for the Crave, gone to the beach for a week, survived another disgustingly awesome Steam sale, and completed Darksiders II. Yet, despite all of those distractions, my fervor to play more Spelunky has not waned one iota. I fully expect that I will still be playing Spelunky a year from now and perhaps a decade from now. It’s because the game is so enjoyably difficult.

For those of you that may have missed Spelunky in the never-ending flood of XBLA and PSN games, this dungeon crawler is a throwback to an era of game design long since forgotten. Since completing my original review, what has kept me coming back for more? Usually when done with a game review I move to whatever is next on my backlog. Playing through games in such a short time span can burn me out pretty quickly. And what does the old school game design teach us about how great games true impact can’t be felt until we are far removed from the first play through?

Completionism is the core reason why I keep returning to Spelunky. It's the perfect example of a game that begs to be finished and explored from inch to inch. This is a quality that Mario and Lego games have thrived on for years. Sure, we’ve unlocked 99% of the hidden Star Wars mini-figs; nevertheless, something draws us back to collect them all! Every game has something to collect but making that item or items worth striving for is a hard nut to crack.


A magnetic quality even more powerful than completionism is the game’s ability to almost let you win. No matter if a game ends in 60 seconds or after 20 minutes, I found myself quickly restarting the game immediately afterwards. Great arcade games like Geometry Wars and multiplayer FPS thrive off of the same quality. Hell, this quality is the basis for what drives players to keep playing Bejeweled and Angry Birds for hours on end.

I find that this 1980’s-era repetition fills a void that modern narrative games have abandoned. In an era that asked gamers to plop endless quarters into an impossible game, the 1980s had unbeatable games with the purpose of stealing a player’s money. In rare situations (usually after blowing through a whole pay check), gamers could master a game enough to beat the machine.

Now that games have evolved out of the arcade, players buy the whole game up front. We demand to get to the end. We want games to be like our movies. We want our stories to have a conclusion. Yet, with the right recipe, games can still thrive when the challenge is appropriately molded.

The incredible struggle to win, a feeling left mostly in the past, was the essence of old games. While it doesn’t need to be part of every new game, the developer of Spelunky makes a case for putting more challenge in our games. Great games don’t just have to be about storytelling. A great puzzle can be just as an enjoyable. Especially when that puzzle changes every time the game is played.