Defeating the impossible

13th August 2008 – 1.27 pm

Over at kiasa, Zoso is pondering computer games that feature unbalanced boss or end-of-game fights. The only boss fight that immediately springs to mind when reading his post is the walrus from the N64's Diddy Kong Racing, who would throw the most annoying slowing obstacles in your path to make an already-difficult race to an almost-impossible one. But it is Zoso's comment about the 'hardcore' player who could breeze through a particular game's levels, and is perhaps responsible for the increased difficulty of the boss encounter, that got me thinking.

There have been a number of games that have seemed far too difficult to me, where the next level is a mythical zone, only shown as a screenshot on the back of the case as vague proof that it does indeed exist and isn't just a conceptual artistic work to convince you that the game continues for longer than The Level You Can't Complete. I have spent hours struggling to overcome obstacles, timing jumps just right, ducking below well-placed amorphous bullets, yet still plummeting down bottomless pits or being reduced to a skeleton.

My struggle continues until one fateful day, when everything just 'clicks'. On that day, I enter a zen-like gaming trance where the lines of code run down the screen and I find myself able to break all the rules, to glide through levels like the obstacles were specifically programmed to miss me. Somehow, I can see the game's true form. I can immediately think back to two games that gave me serious troubles when first playing them yet revealed all their secrets to me in an unfathomable manner later on.

The first is Super Ghouls and Ghosts, played on the Super Nintendo. The first level caused me problems, running backwards and forwards to avoid the zombies ambling at different speeds, plants firing blobs of fire directly at me whatever position I was on the screen, jumps needing to be pixel-perfect, and hidden upgrade pots tempting me to risk more than my ability could handle. When I finally made it to the second level, the ghost ship, I died so quickly that I soon found myself having no lives and restarting amongst the frustrations of the first level. I got so little experience with the later levels that I simply didn't last long when I got there.

By the time I had somehow got to the icy level my earlier trials had probably hardwired the controls and reactions of my knight in to a clump of neurons that had dedicated themselves to working on the problem of defeating Super Ghouls and Ghosts. No more did I see a screen of pixels but instead I was the knight in the armour. From that point on, the game was me. I knew all the patterns of the enemies, what caused game events, where all the hidden pots were and how to summon them, and the scenery was more familiar than my back garden. I no longer feared my surroundings, I danced around them, never again to feel any ignorance.

The second game with a similar experience is Turrican on the Amiga. Turrican was difficult, with two-way scrolling; large, sprawling levels; hidden blocks; and vast arrays of power-ups to gather. The power-ups seemed to be the key to progressing, allowing several weapons to be upgraded at once and encouraging amassing huge numbers of floating icons all the time. Yet despite the lure of the power-ups, getting them was not easy and progressing was a struggle.

Getting through the levels in Turrican was hindered by their two-dimensional structure, often requiring vertical jumps to be made involving mid-air changes of direction. Whilst falling great heights did no damage in themselves, they were a set-back in time and occasionally forced you to encounter more enemies. Sometimes the levels were the enemy themselves, with the apparently H. R. Geiger-inspired alien level being such a maze that I couldn't find my way through for many sessions, and even once the exit had been found I couldn't remember how I got there in order to repeat it the next time.

Even right to the final level I fought hard, with the last encounter being difficult without seeming unbalanced with respect to the rest of the game. It took me many attempts to beat the final encounter, and considering the effort it took every time to get there I am amazed I managed to prevail, yet is also a testament to the high quality of the game to bring me back each time. It was difficult, but I defeated the final boss and I completed Turrican.

And then the game held no more secrets from me. I knew it all, where all the hidden blocks were either concealing multiple power-ups, or single power-ups but providing a stepping stone to a previously unaccesible area full of goodies or a short-cut. The problems I had with jumping up with mid-air changes of direction were gone, and now there were just fluid motions ending in pixel-perfect landings. No more did I get lost in the alien-esque level, instead waltzing my way through the level with no detours. Even the final boss fight became straightforward. It was as if completing the game had unlocked an easy-mode.

I can't explain what finally enabled me to play the games with ease where before I had trouble getting past the first level. I could understand a gradual progression from learner to master, but it was as if someone flicked a switch and the games got easier all of a sudden. And it wasn't that I was getting through the earlier levels more easily, I was struggling through the whole game each time until that one day where everything could be completed with equal ease. It is important to note that the games also didn't become boring because of this new-found skill. Indeed, they became more fun precisely because I knew how difficult it had been, and it was a delight to race through the levels with consumate ease, knowing that I had mastered them.

If only the walrus had too bestowed its secrets to me once vanquished, my time as a racing tiger would have been much less stressful.

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