Thursday, February 18, 2010

The most difficult and/or competitive single player games.

This article is an (incomplete) list of the most difficult, and/or competitive single player games with useful scoring systems. By a competitive game I mean a game with a high skill cap and well balanced, useful scoring system by which skilled players can measure themselves with on a leaderboard. This means they cannot be excessively undermined by stat grinding, save/reloading, imbalanced game mechanics, imbalanced exclusive items, or anything that allows the player to substantially mitigate a game's difficulty.

This list does not contain games with repetitive, grinding, unbalanced, skill-less, or extremely random difficulty. It also has no 'player defined' challenges.

Finally, don't pretend you'd be able to complete these challenges or compete in the high score lists 'if you had no life' - you need skill in addition to practice, just like any competitive game or activity.

Some genres (FPS, Fighters, Driving, etc.) are typically built for multiplayer and aren't mentioned here because the AI in such games usually makes a poor opponent. Some of the most competitive/high skill cap multiplayer games are already famous with large tournaments and audiences - Street Fighter, Counterstrike, Starcraft, etc. Difficult single player games are less well known and so this list is dedicated to them.

If you think I've missed something, feel free to let me know, and I will likely update this list. I don't have a lot of experience with some of the of genres listed here so I welcome your advice if you are a skilled and knowledgeable gamer.

Shoot-em-ups, Shmups:

Good shoot em ups follow the formula of complex but fair bullet patterns, intricate skill based scoring systems, auto adjusting rank-based difficulty, and extra challenges for the top 5-10% of skilled players who can complete the game on 1 credit, such as a 2nd loop or a true last boss. Even one bullet connecting with your ship is the kiss of death, so precise movement is vital. Shoot em ups are competitive by nature, due to their nearly limitless skill caps, open ended high scores and the fact that playing a 'perfectly scored' game is often beyond the reach of even the best players.

Aside from the Cave games listed below that are both difficult to 1cc and score on, there are some games that are not as difficult to 1cc with a low score, but still difficult to get a top score on, like Ikaruga or Espgaluda II.

Mushihimesama Futari 1.01 or 1.5 (Ultra Mode). Available for X360 region free. (stage 5 ultra) (stage 5 ultra boss/tlb)

Dodonpachi Dai-ou-jou (2nd loop). (original version) (black label version)

Ketsui (ura loop). Stage 2-4 ura loop (aka special round) Stage 2-5 ura loop (aka special round) and true last boss

Death Smiles Black Label (999 mode)

Mushihimesama (Ultra Mode)


The most difficult games in this genre are the ones heavy on action and light on adventure. This sub-genre of action/adventure started (afaik) with the release of Devil May Cry and continued on to Ninja Gaiden, Bayonetta, and beyond. The precise frame-by-frame combat mechanics, deep combo system, unpredictable enemies, extra mission modes, well designed hit/hurtboxes, and competitive scoring system make for a very skill based experience. Hideki Kamiya (DMC, Bayonetta, Viewtiful Joe, God Hand) and Tomonobu Itagaki (Ninja Gaiden) are the two heavyweight developers in this genre.

Ninja Gaiden Black for Xbox (Master Ninja Mode).

Ninja Gaiden II for Xbox 360 story and mission modes (Master Ninja difficulty).

Devil May Cry 1,3 (Dante Must Die Mode w/ all SS ranks).
Devil May Cry 4 (Dante Must Die Mode w/ all SSS ranks).

Bayonetta (Non-Stop Infinite Climax Mode w/ all PP medals).

Godhand (Hard mode, no deaths/continues aka no gold subtracted from total at end of stage). This game isn't as difficult as the others unless you go with a player defined challenge due to the lack of a real scoring system.

Metal Gear Rising S on Revengence difficulty + gold medals on all VR missions.


Platformers require coordination and skill, but are generally less heavy on combat and more about timing jumps and avoiding environmental hazards. This is one of the most nostalgia-tainted genres due to the overabundance of platformers the NES. Old NES games like Battletoads, Zelda 2, Mega Man, etc. are easy compared to what's out there now.

Kaizo Mario World

Viewtiful Joe 1 and 2 (all perfect scores, hardest difficulty)

I Wanna be the Guy/Boshy/other variants. Retro themed platformers designed to be extremely difficult.

Super Monkey Ball (Master levels on one credit aka no continues).

Action/First and Third Person Shooter:

Armored Core: Last Raven (all S ranks)

Vanquish (God Hard mode, score attack, challenge modes)


Pinball games are still around and still hardcore with solid mechanics, 'one credit only' play, scoring systems, trick shots, and wizard modes. The wizard mode is usually activated when the player completes all of the normal scoring modes/minigames/events on one credit. There are still annual pinball tourneys held across the world with fierce competition.

The Simpsons Pinball Party (wizard mode)
One of the most complex and in depth modern pinball games. "The Simpsons Pinball Party is famous for its extremely hard-to-reach wizard mode, the Super Duper Mega Extreme Wizard Mode. There are very few players in the world who have reached it. Even some of the world's best have failed to accomplish it."

Lord of the Rings Pinball (wizard mode)
"The wizard mode (Valinor Multiball) is said to be one of the hardest to reach to date (only being topped by The Simpsons Pinball Party)".


Guitar Hero Series
This popular rhythm game features some extremely difficult challenges that few players in the world have mastered.

Beatmania IIDX Series
A DJ based rhythm game that defines finger-twisting agony. Some of the most difficult tracks will have you wondering whether the players have grown an extra finger or three. Honorable mention to Pop 'n Music.


Good puzzle games have simple yet difficult to master mechanics, with solid and balanced scoring systems. They have nearly limitless skill caps due to added stress factors like time limits. Some complex puzzle games may leave your brain tied in a knot or have extremely tough action sequences.

Tetris: The Grand Master 3 and 4. Sure you've played tetris, but have you cleared Tetris: The Grand Master 3?

Puzzle Bobble/Bust-A-Move.



I don't have a lot of experience with this genre. Probably missing some things.

Ace Combat 4,5,Zero,6 (Ace or Ace of Aces difficulty, S ranks).

The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces (Ace difficulty, S ranks).

Dungeon Crawlers/roguelikes:
I don't have a lot of experience with this genre. Likely missing lots of entries.

ADOM, Nethack, Crawl, other modern PC roguelikes.

Wizardry IV: Return of Werdna.

Role Playing Games:
Any suggestions that don't involve grinding?

Monday, February 1, 2010

2010 update/news/what I've been up to

I've been playing Bayonetta recently. This is the first action game I've played in a long time, and I'm enjoying the focus on reaction times and coordination. I've been working on a guide for it with video that can be found here:

I got into Super Robot Wars Z a little bit. It's a great SRPG but it will never see the light of day in english so I've started learning the Japanese menu commands (I won't ever bother learning anything beyond menus and skill/pilot names, though). I'm tired of leaving great games like this by the wayside just because they are in another language.

I've played Mushihime-sama Futari a bit. This is a shmup import for 360 that is region free. It's one of the best (and most difficult) shmups ever. This game makes me realize how low my skills are when it comes to shooting/action/realtime games. You could devote a year to this game and not crack the top 10 global high score list.

I've completed the Military Madness remake on PS3. It's a decent game, but mostly felt like an Advance Wars lite. None of it was particularly challenging, but if you are desperate for an SRPG then give it a try. Unfortunately it seems SRPGs are going extinct on modern consoles, and I imagine they will go extinct on handhelds as well once those increase in processing power.

The next game I'm looking forward to is End of Eternity/Resonance of Fate. This looks to be a good, challenging, strategic game from tri-ace, much like Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume was. There will be the option to replay the game successively, with each playthrough increasing enemy stats. If the demo which can be replayed 10 times is any indication, the game may become quite difficult. Final Fantasy XIII is coming out on the same day but I'd rather play Resonance of Fate. FFXIII is an easy game and apparently you have to do some brain melting farming for random drops post-game, which I abhor.

SRPGs in 2010:

There's Valkyria Chronicles 2, which I hear from import reports is easy and imbalanced.
R-Type Tactics II hasn't been announced and all we can do is pray that Atlus, Xseed, or Aksys brings it over.
Record of Agarest War is coming for 360 and PS3, but it's a second rate Idea Factory SRPG with slow and boring combat, much like Spectral Force 3, which is currently haunting bargain bins across North America.
I predict a new Fire Emblem will be announced for Wii this year, although it won't be out in NA until 2011.
Sakura Wars V is coming to NA, which is sort of a Valkyria Chronicles lite - I'm not exactly sure how much SRPG is actually in this game.

That's it so far this year that I know of. Kind of sad, but wait for E3 or TGS or whatever show they stuff a bunch of sweaty nerds into while pretending to be an all night rave.

Mass Effect 2 review (PC)

This review is spoiler free. Mass Effect 2 is an RPG/TPS hybrid. It strips out the customization of an RPG while keeping the mindless resource grinding, and tries to be an TPS yet fails with clunky controls/terrain and boring combat.

Plot, Character Development

Mass Effect 2s plot is dull, lacking in direction and narrative. The main enemy group are the vaguely defined Collectors, and the plot reveals about them are hardly surprising or dramatic. The majority of the game is one large side quest dealing with recruiting teammates then helping with their personal issues to gain their loyalty so they don't die in the final mission. The recruits are just not that compelling to warrant taking up 75% of the games main content. There is no nemesis like ME1s Saren to drive the plot, and if you cut out all of the recruiting and loyalty quests, you're left with a 5 hour game at most. Even worse, the final boss and new plot reveals are shockingly corny and just plain 'jumped the shark' silly, even for a mainstream sci-fi tale. The game feels like one big diversion, with the final mission payoff being a laughably corny and just plain bad plot reveal.

The main content of the game is incredibly boring - recruiting your allies almost always involves taking out color coded merc cannon fodder, and the loyalty quests are either mercs or parent/daddy issues. Compare that to the epic scale of the missions on Feros, Noveria, the Prothean ruin, Virmire, the final ME1 mission, or other top WRPG plots. ME2 is a boring soap opera in comparison.

There are rarely any big decisions that make the player feel like they've made a large impact on the game world (I counted two total, both near the end of the game). None of the quests are open ended with multiple methods of completion, unless you count failure of the quest. Fans of WRPGs who enjoy the open ended quest options of classics like Fallout 3 will be highly disappointed in the braindead, decision-less missions here. The one compelling and plot-heavy character (the last one recruited) could have had a much more involved presence in the game, instead of being dumped in your lap during a mission. There's plenty of wasted potential to go around. Almost all of the quests involve Shepard going around taking out bland color coded merc groups that have no plot presence other than to be cannon fodder. Even ME1 was better in this regard.

The side quests, or should I say side-side quests, are meaningless and empty. They consist of the same short segments of running around blasting generic mercenaries or robots, with almost nothing in the way of plot development, moral based decision making, or even voice acting. Once again even ME1 wasn't this bad, even though it re-used room layouts.


The combat is a fairly dull TPS affair, even on an Insanity New Game. Enemies scale poorly vs your gear and ability upgrades, to the point where formerly threatening enemies are cannon fodder by mid-late game. 95% of the games fights are 'take cover far back enough that you don't get flanked', and the other 5% are 'kite the husks'. A good 2/3 of the fights in the game can be won just by putting your squadmates behind cover and letting them kill everything. Due to auto-regenerating health, the only way to die is to be caught out of cover, so once you find a good spot it usually doesn't matter how long you take, you are going to win eventually. The game lacks any sort of scoring system to encourage the player to perform more efficiently in combat.

The cover system is clunky and glitchy. Bioware tried to shoehorn TPS combat onto an RPG engine and the results are predictably under par. For example you have to crouch behind something before you can leap over it, which is a pain when there is no other way around the barricade. Further adding to the irritation, the run and crouch buttons are the same, meaning you can be trying to move somewhere quickly in close quarters and suddenly find Shepard cluelessly attaching him/herself to a structure you didn't intend. I assume this is because they ran out of buttons on the 360 controller. In addition there are quite a few pieces of terrain or objects that are impossible to use as cover, even though you should be able to. Not to mention that it's common to get stuck on terrain, due to the clunky movement and terrain boundaries that hinder the TPS experience. On Insanity if Shepard is out of cover for more than 2-3 secs he/she will die, so it can be frustrating to lose in an unfair manner due to poor cover controls and poorly coded cover areas.

There is very little creativity in any of the games battles. This is made worse by the lack of abilities and character customization. It's all endlessly running from cover point to cover point, using the same 1-2 abilities and shooting the same looking/behaving enemies. Boss battles are similarly boring and uninspired. The lack of creativity is so apparent that you can tell exactly where enemies will pop up ahead of time just by looking ahead and spotting the next rows of conveniently placed rows of cover. The TPS genre has seen far more exciting, creative, and strategic battles before, and you won't find any of them in this game.

The planet scanning and resource farming is a complete waste of time. Players will not enjoy the tendinitis that ensues from fighting the controller/mouse drag. Having to fly the Normandy around using fuel is similarly pointless. Why they kept the time wasting elements of the RPG genre while snipping the character customization remains a mystery.

There are better open ended morality based WRPGs and far better TPSs out there. Go play the best of either of those genres and avoid this mediocre hybrid.