Not only can the slow march of video games from wire-biting headaches to cool summer strolls be chronicled, surprise-surprise: it's not nearly as bad as everyone is making it out to be. To elaborate, I give you Kirby.
Do you know what this is? This is Kirby's Dream Land. Kirby's Dream Land is easy. You have infinite continues. You get many lives. You have six hits and health refills around every corner. You have small hitboxes and harmless enemies. You have power-ups that can clear a room of said enemies in an instant. Those enemies have one hit. You can suck them in from a distance like a tractor beam, before they ever get close to you. You can spit them out at whomever dares approach you, O God Player. Or you could just eat everyone.
Kirby's Dream Land was easy. It was easy for children. It was easy for adults. It was easy in 1992, year of Street Fighter 2, year of Sonic 2, year of tricky difficult games, too. Does that make it ahead of its time? No. What makes it ahead of its time is the radical mentality behind its fluffy pink approachability:
Everyone should be able to finish this game.
I could probably end the article here, but I won't. Not even close. Instead, let's make a comparison.
This is Super Mario Bros. 3. Super Mario Bros.3 was made in 1988. Super Mario Bros. 3 is not easy. In Super Mario Bros. 3 you...well, let's be serious here. Super Mario Bros. 3 is brutal. This is a game where you are capable of losing 99 lives in a single playthrough, one where mere decorations will attack you, where fires leap off candles and chase you, where an entire level is being slowly lowered into the water where a hungry fish is waiting to gobble you up, and you just happen to be horrible at swimming. It is a game where, if you take too long, Chain Chomps will break free of their posts and bite you.
Most players weren't expected to make it past the early stages of the game. Says who? Says the designers. They tried to balance the game by making it so that casual players got plenty of extra lives and useful goodies in the early stages of the game, and making the later stages extra challenging to accommodate Mario experts, or, as they were called then, "Super Players."
The irony of this is that they tried to make the game approachable to everyone by sealing off half the game to half the audience. And lead designer Shigeru Miyamoto wasn't the only one to think this way. It was a sort of holdover from the days of the arcade (which had not yet ended,) where most games didn't even have an "end" to aspire to, and players were supposed to just try and last as long as they could. This worked because, at the time, there was little of the game that a casual player wanted to see that they couldn't early on; games back then had few tutorials, establishing whatever interesting gameplay concepts the they were boasting from the very first wave.
Not-so-coincidentally then, the shift in difficulty in games is in part linked to rise of storytelling. Suddenly games had these things called "endings," which everyone wanted to see but few could. The question stopped being "What's your high score?" and started turning into "Have you seen the princess?" And it worked for a while, this hierarchy of elite game-enders above and the weary souls who looked up to them below. But those endings got better, and people really started wanting to see them.
When Kirby's Dream Land was released, players everywhere finally got their ending. I got my ending. I got it in only a few hours, as a matter of fact. There were secrets galore and an "Extra Game" for advanced players and those not yet satisfied, and the whole thing was endlessly replayable, but still. Finished the whole thing in an afternoon. And the ending was pretty cool, so that's a win for me.
But here's the thing: sometimes you want the game to be hard. Sometimes you have a good reason. Maybe your game isn't about your ending. Heck, maybe it doesn't even have one. Maybe the very concept of the game is something that is both incredibly difficult and something you don't have to finish the game to appreciate, like QWOP or Surgeon Simulator. Maybe half the fun of the game is reveling in how ridiculously painful the game can be, like in I Wanna Be The Guy, The Life-Ending Adventure, Dark Souls, or Takeshi's Challenge. And maybe it's just a niche game with a niche audience, and you're not afraid to go wild. Why not? Difficulty can be fun! Big challenges can yield even bigger payoffs, after all.
But here's the other thing: There's always a balance to strike. Questions we don't ask ourselves often enough are: Does this mechanic need to be pushed to the limit for players to able to appreciate what it can do? Is there a reason that the game is difficult that is core to its appeal? Does this particular game have to be hard to be enjoyable? Does it have a story? Is the game's difficulty more important than the player seeing that story through? Am I ready to accept that I am losing a significant fraction of my audience, including the audience this game was originally intended for, even though I may not need to, even though there are
of other ways
to make a game interesting?
You'd be surprised how often the answer is "No."
What we've learned since 1992, and what we're still learning today, is that plenty of good came from the mass transition of games from hard to manageable, that some games are better off easy, and that we can't go back, no matter how many irate players say we should, because it's opened us up to a myriad of new and exciting experiences beyond "Insane Mode" and "Nightmare Mode."
A game doesn't have to be hard to be legitimate. Kirby's Dream Land wasn't. And did I mention it topped Nintendo sales charts for weeks?
Now let's talk about easy games that rock! Sound off in the comments below and tell us commenters about your favorite easy game and why you love it. We'll be listening!
Title Image: "The Stars of our Hearts, Kirby's Dream Land 3" by JamesmanTheRegenold (DeviantArt, link here.)