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?


mjemirzian said...

Thanks, I aim to please.

Anonymous said...

Heya, Blade-14 from the P* Games board, don't know if you know me.

I couldn't help but notice your very staunch position on the way most RPG's are played by many people, About how anyone with enough patience can beat an an RPG with their hands tied behind their back. and how people who play RPG's are generally not good at other types of games.

Isn't that kind of a lil bit of an elitist view to have? I don't mind that you point these elements out but the way you did it sort of felt a lil undermining to people who do like to grind in rpgs just for the feeling of developing their characters. At the end of the day people are still enjoying the games in their own way and are putting a lot of time into increasing the strength of their players, so why shouldn't they feel good when they have powerful charaters that they've spent the last 2 days trying to level up. it's a just reward for the time investment.

Sure it isn't exactly helping their skills such as reaction time and resourcefulness, but at the same time i think people do have the right to play games in their own way, even if it MIGHT not be optimal. As long as they're having fun.

mjemirzian said...

People are free to play games in any way they like. I don't see how your statements contradict anything that I said in the blog post. If you are spending hours grinding you're probably easily entertained by brainless activities and aren't as likely to be interested in skill based activity.. otherwise you'd be partaking in that skill based activity and not running in circles hitting X watching your numbers go up.

Anonymous said...

So i'm correct in assuming that the way people do generally play rpgs you doesn't really bother you, but would like to emphasize the fact that there are challenges to be had in those games if you so wish to play them to their full potential? i.e no leveling up and such?

i see your point in that regard but i was only pointing out that it's ok to speak your view on it, it just came across as if you were angry at those peeps for playing the game that way.

Anonymous said...

Need God Hand up there :)

Anonymous said...

I would make special mention of the Ninja Gaiden 2 Mission Mode DLC, as it is far harder than the story mode.

mjemirzian said...

Thanks for the comments, I've made some adjustments based on them.

professor ganson said...

This is a completely awesome site. The shmup list is a bit off. It's not as though Cave games are harder than Psikyo, for example, so listing only Cave games is... peculiar.

Much more important: I'd love to know whether you were able to play those hardest SRPGs without translations. Can one play them effectively without knowing Japanese?

Matthew Emirzian (mjemirzian) said...

Hi, thanks professor ganson. Like I said in the introduction to this article, I'm not an expert at every genre under the sun, so I appreciate any input from gaming experts. I know about some psikyo games but I'm not aware of any that are as difficult as the cave ones listed, but I'm open to suggestions.

It's definitely possible to play Japanese SRPGs with limited Japanese knowledge. You won't be understanding any of the plot, but as long as you know the menus, items, names, and mechanics you can work your way around things. It helps that most of the Japanese SRPGs worth playing have English guides to them available on gamefaqs and other specialty sites, which usually help a lot with understanding what's going on. For example I played Front Mission 5 in Japanese just using a few translation guides on gamefaqs.

professor ganson said...

Also, how would you rank Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon on Merciless (H5) in terms of difficulty? That's the hardest SRPG I've played, but it actually became pretty easy once I figured a few things out (like how to get a ton of exp from the bosses and which characters have the best growth rates).

professor ganson said...

Thanks much for your initial response! That's very nice to hear because there are many SRPGs that I'd love to play that haven't been localized. I've already bought a few, but haven't had a chance to check them out.

For difficult Psikyo, Gunbird 2's second loop is just brutal. I'm not aware of anyone outside Japan having completed it!

Matthew Emirzian (mjemirzian) said...

The first couple missions can be trying, but once you get sedgar/wolf turned into generals and leveled up they are more or less unstoppable. Plus excessive warp staff use. And boss/XP abuse as you mentioned.

Getting an SSS in FE5 or S in FE7 HHM is more difficult.

professor ganson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
professor ganson said...

Yeah, I quickly got Wolf and Sedgar up to level 20, but I stopped using them at that point because they weren't gaining in stats at all. Master Seals don't do anything. I see now that by reclassing them to Generals they gain significantly in stats, but I just don't enjoy using characters that aren't gaining exp in the process. It's a shame that, as far as I can tell, you can only level them 20 levels.

Thanks for the suggestions. I'll have to look into these other FEs. Thanks for the suggestions!

By the way, some find that the hardest shmups are actually the old-school ones like Image Fight. I'm a long-time poster at I wonder if you've ever checked out that site. It's pretty fun. Recently I've been focusing entirely on SRPGs, and your site is just the sort of thing I've been looking for. I'll be looking everyday once I get back from vacation!

LegaiaRules said...

Don't know where this would fit, but I'd add in Armored Core: Last Raven (all missions, S Rank) under third-person shooter. AC has always been known for its multi-player component, but Last Raven definitely has a noteworthy single-player campaign. It's unanimously agreed that Last Raven's single-player is bloody hard.

Well, brutal and outright sadistic at times is a more accurate description. Even veterans have been frustrated to no end with the insane demands Last Raven puts on the player...and it was designed for AC veterans! I remember spending weeks with the other veterans, coming up with dozens of approaches JUST to beat the game's hardest missions.

You need to bring your absolute best (no underpowered heroics here!) in Last Raven - anything less won't cut it. It's a rewarding game, though, if you can persevere through the sadistic-like difficulty and monstrously steep learning curve. It is VERY anti-newbie friendly though, so it's usually a good idea to try one of the earlier ones out first.

If you want to know more, here's a link to a review from one of the most well-known AC veterans:

Matthew Emirzian (mjemirzian) said...

Thanks for your suggestion, LegaiaRules, I'll definitely check it out!

William said...

Have you ever tried Final Fantasy Tactics 1.3?

It's much more challenging than vanilla FFT. You learn about it here:

60Hz said...

you missed urban reign... way harder than god hand and that's on easy.

Matthew Emirzian (mjemirzian) said...

FFT 1.3 may be challenging, but unfortunately it has grinding, and this list is about tests of skill, not tests of patience.

60hz I will check out urban reign.

William said...

Grinding in 1.3 isn't such a great idea because the enemies levels and equipment scale to level of your highest character.

But there are ways to farm JP and items very tiring. You wouldn't need to use those to play through the game though, all you need is a firm understanding of Final Fantasy Tactics and good strategies (Maybe a few pinches of luck too).

But, yeah, the game certainly doesn't need to be on your list. Just though you might like it.

Nolan Shaw said...

I would suggest Demon's Souls and Dark Souls for the RPG category. I know I'm late to the party, but whatevs

Scoot said...

Worth mentioning that the Ys series is also a fantastically difficult game.