As the resident retro gamer at Backward Compatible, I have a deep appreciation for the games of the NES. But a part of that appreciation includes the recognition that, for every good design element of retro games, there were also a few bad ones. Because I still regularly play old games, I am often reminded, at times painfully, of the flaws present in even some of my most treasured games from childhood. I also recognize just how spoiled I’ve become due to the conceits of modern games, and each time regain an appreciation for the patience and perseverance of my younger self in the face of what some might consider a glaring flaw of games during this period. Naturally, I refer to the concept of “Nintendo hard.” Often taking cues from quarter-munching arcade games, many games for the NES ignored the very different environment home consoles provide. Ironically, many of the games that bucked that trend and proved among the easiest of the era (although still harder than the average game today) were developed by Nintendo, as the company blazed the trail towards a more user-friendly and inclusive design philosophy.
Apparently, Australia didn’t get the memo.
So when a modern game tries to emulate retro design elements, including “Nintendo hard,” I find that many miss the mark on what made these old games so compelling. Granted, I have no problem with a ball-busting challenge, but designers must walk a fine line between providing a challenge and causing frustration. One way in which modern games have found this delicate balance is by providing several difficulty settings ranging from easy to, sometimes, hellishly difficult. The other way is perhaps the most divisive: checkpoints. One frequent complaint targeted at modern games is that checkpoints occur so frequently that all challenge is removed from the level, and thus there is no tension felt by the player, and by extension no sense of accomplishment upon completing it. However, it’s quite easy to go too far in the other direction by setting checkpoints too far apart or removing them entirely. If the difficulty proves too much, having to repeat a level over and over and over again can soon become a punishing experience instead of an enjoyable challenge.
Perhaps no other game epitomizes “Nintendo hard” better than Ghosts ‘n Goblins, which served as one of two major influences for Volgarr the Viking. And make no mistake: despite the 16-bit visuals, Volgarr the Viking takes its design cues from 1980s games; it is “Nintendo hard.” Like Ghosts ‘n Goblins, the player’s avatar, Volgarr, is a fragile hero, dying to only one enemy strike. The exception to this is if Volgarr has collected one of three powerups throughout the stage. Each time Volgarr is hit, he loses a powerup and, when his powerups are exhausted, he dies. Enemies prove to be, mostly, just an annoyance; the real challenge comes in the form of demanding platforming sections (or enemy placement at platforming sections). As the player progresses, he must learn how to overcome each challenge using both his wits and understanding of the game’s mechanics. Here is where Volgarr the Viking triumphs—challenges never really blindside the player so deaths never feel “cheap” or undeserved. Although sometimes rushed, players can overcome each challenge with careful planning and strategy, as opposed to fast twitch responses or stage memorization. Unfortunately, the sheer difficulty of the game means these challenges will often need to be repeatedly attempted before they can be overcome, with even the simplest mistake proving deadly.
Repeating a difficult section of a game until finally advancing beyond it remains a common, and rewarding, part of level design in video games. However, Volgarr the Viking rarely gives you a release from the tension you feel throughout the stage because not only does a new challenge immediately follow the last, the checkpoints are spaced so far apart (only one in the middle of each stage) that you must traverse the same frustrating challenges until finally reaching the spot of your previous death…only to, quite often, fail yet again. Checkpoints not only allow players a chance to relieve the tension of a challenging gaming experience, albeit temporarily, but they also break the level into smaller, more manageable “chunks,” helping players gain more practice on the obstacles they struggled with most while the memory of their last attempt(s) remains fresh. And, perhaps most rewarding of all, offer players a feeling of accomplishment for advancing beyond the previously insurmountable hurdle. In Volgarr the Viking, however, this sense of accomplishment comes crashing to a halt mere moments after the player feels he’s made any progress. I can’t help but conclude that Volgarr the Vikingwould be a much more enjoyable game, yet still just as rewarding, with the addition of just one more checkpoint in each stage.
Presently, I’m working my way through Volgarr the Viking slowly. I have to put the game down and walk away every hour or so to avoid punching a hole in my monitor. Volgarr the Viking, with its beautiful sprite animations and rousing soundtrack, is loads of fun in small chunks, but can become extremely frustrating as the deaths pile up. What should have been a perfect nostalgia trip to the early days of gaming—with all the positives and none of the negatives—barely misses the mark due to sparse checkpoint placement. If you have the patience of a saint (or better still, of a child), Volgarr the Viking may be worth the frustration it will no doubt cause. But be forewarned: it is truly “Nintendo hard.”