A game's difficulty is very much the make or break aspect of whether it both reviews well with the gaming press and also how it is received by the public.
Whilst graphics, camera and sound are extremely important, if a game is a breeze to complete then value for money comes into play and if it's insanely hard then most people will just give up on it and walk away giving a sense of wasted money.
The thing is that back in the 8-Bit and 16-Bit days a lot of games were deliberately made hard for a very specific set of reasons.
There's hard, then there's retro hard
If, like me, you get so unbelievably bored of people banging on about how they love those ‘Demon Souls’ type games on the internet then this article is gonna come across as a bit of a double standard because the title I’m focusing on today was that kind of game waaaaaaay before they were even invented. Looking further into this I would have to say that many old video games had a vertical difficulty curve to them that today often put people off of playing them because they never hold your hand, ever!
Back in the 80’s and 90’s however a lot of these games were super hard, unfairly hard even, for quite simplistic reasons. In the days of 8-Bit micro computers the physical size of a game and everything contained within it were often hugely limited so it was not uncommon whatsoever to slap down just under £10 on a full price title only to find it had 4 or so levels. From a developer point of view its perfectly understandable why they made them so hard, it was to make sure you didn’t breeze through it the same day you purchased it, problem with that design ethos however was that a lot of the time it really made people furious, so furious that decades later most people only remember the game because of it’s flaws, that’s a massive shame.
Personally, I tend to remember games for deeper reasons and mostly because of the circumstances in how I purchased or obtained them and most definitely the people I played them with. It’s probably why I get super frustrated when people make such negative comments on things because even games that were super hard, unfair, hell even poorly made, have all manner of merit to them. If you didn’t spent hours on your own, or with friends when you were young, ripping a game to pieces yet still spending time playing it and laughing then I feel sorry for you because they form just as strong a set of stories and memories as I ever got from playing Street Fighter II, Sonic, Mortal Kombat and Super Mario Kart.
Now to clarify, the game in question here isn’t a bad game, far from it. Back when it was first released it got average to high review scores across the board on a wide range of formats and it was heavily advertised and spoken about in the mainstream UK gaming press for sure. It was also a better game than almost every other game made under the franchise it was clearly based on. The issue is that since it’s release it now often gets heavily criticised due to its difficulty, borderline torturous levels of hardness in fact. So my question is that with a growing number of people who actively seek out games that are designed to frustrate, why does this one get so universally crapped on.
There's an archeologist in all of us
I think it’s pretty fair to say that if you were a kid or a teenager in the 80’s then Indiana Jones was a big deal to you, most of us wanted to be Indy, he was so cool and the two films up to that point had been awesome and the third one was doing the rounds at cinemas in 1989 and somehow was even better. The youth of now have no idea what a great Indiana Jones film is like because sadly you got one terrible one and one really poor one. Now unlike a ton of other films that got game tie-ins the computer games starring this famous character were, for the most part, absolutely garbage. For reasons I still cannot explain or work out to this day it took forever to get great Indy based games and all of them were point & click adventure titles, the rest were total poo poo.
In late 1988 and early 1989 the UK games magazines started to show images of a new game coming from Core Design that gave off huge ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ vibes and so when it finally came out in the summer of 1989 we had all just watched the 3rd Indiana Jones movie and were super pumped for this new videogame, a game called ‘Rick Dangerous’.
Clearly massively influenced by the character of Indiana Jones, Rick was an explorer and an agent for the British Government who travelled the world on dangerous missions. For his first outing he travels to the Amazon Jungle to search for the lost Goolu tribe however his plane crashes and straight away he is chased by a rather large boulder… sound familiar? Yup, straight off the bat this reminded everyone of the very first part of the first Indiana Jones film and the character you play as has a very distinctive hat. Nice!
Set in 1945 the story then expands to include evil Nazi fascists and a plot to bomb London and so Rick has to venture through 4 levels in order to both uncover the details of the plot and then ultimately foil it. With next to no in game background story or presentation screens to really flesh out the tale you are instead left to both read the comic (pictures of this are further down for you read and enjoy) that came inside the box of the game and then kinda fill in the blanks with your imagination, something that a lot of modern gaming has sadly lost. With levels taking place in Jungle caves, an Egyptian Pyramid, a large castle and a missile base, the stages were quite varied with some nice background detail.
An Indiana Jones game through and through, that was in fact nothing to do with that franchise, this turned out to be the Indy game a lot of us had been yearning for, for many years. Published by Firebird for several formats including the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Amiga, Acorn Archimedes and MS-DOS PC the differences between the 8-Bit and 16-Bit computer versions was pretty big. Whilst the ZX Spectrum version looked pin sharp the Amiga and Atari ST versions had superbly detailed sprite work and backdrops and some excellent music and sound effects. The Amstrad version, although blocky, was solid and the C64 had that washed out look but played brilliantly.
Getting good to great scores from the magazines of the time all of the formats had one thing in common… this game was hard, and by hard I mean… you might need to be a Jedi to beat it. A game that very much required you to learn the layout of the levels this killed you constantly with hazards, that for much of the time you could not see or even sense, you just knew that every single step was fraught with danger. Initially annoying and frustrating there was something about this game that kept you pushing for more because with a lot of patience and practice this could be mastered and without question gamers in the 80’s tended to persevere more.
Clearly the game design here was to reinforce how skilled an agent/explorer Rick was by having you learn to be pixel perfect in everything you did as when you got through a section alive it really did make you feel like Indiana Jones, it really did! By being super hard you got super rewarded. I have no doubt that had this game had 2 or 3 times the number of stages then it would have been more of a traditional platform game that would have been nowhere near as hard. Rick Dangerous only had 4 levels, it had to be hard, there was no other way to justify it as a full price game as graphically it kinda looked looked like a Budget title, the ZX Spectrum version especially looks like it could have been made by Players or Codemasters.
The punishment of purchase
Featuring in every major UK games publication of the time this was pretty popular, sold well and had a full page advert in just about every issue of every Spectrum magazine for about 8 months. As someone who grew up loving Indiana Jones I knew I wanted this from the second I first saw the first preview screenshots in Your Sinclair, Sinclair User and Crash, the problem was that it was going to be £9.95 and this young leader of the Decepticons tended to only ever be able to afford the £1.99 and £2.99 budget range titles because 2 paper rounds only paid me so much per week and I did have all of those games mags, comics and sweets to purchase as well.
The week this came out I was hopeful that a local friend, someone a couple of us referred to as ‘Mug’, would have his mum or dad purchase it for him. He tended to get a game every other week from his parents who threw cash at him during their break-up/divorce to buy his affection and he had this weird habit/fetish to buy anything I mentioned that I was interested in then sort of rub it in my face as all I could ever do was copy it from him, I think it made him feel superior and/or important. Now, what he didn’t realise was that I was as cunning as a fox, especially as a poor kid, so after a while I worked out that if I wanted a game all I had to do was keep talking about it knowing full well he would get it immediately. A few minutes looking at him in awe and then acting a bit sheepish would not only get me an invite to his house to play it but would surely get me a copy of it within a week tops.
Can you see why I called him Mug? He fell for anything, he was such a mug!
Unfortunately the week this game came out he had already had another game purchased for him and so my cunning plan was doomed and as I had spent months building myself up for this I was crushed, truth be told it felt like I was craving it like an addict. What on earth was I gonna do?
Then it hit me. My ‘do not touch’ bank account. Let me explain…
In the late 80’s a certain high profile bank set up small banking systems in some secondary schools to encourage pupils to save money. I had mentioned this to my mum, and impressed with my interest in this, she had given me £10 to open up an account the previous year. Problem was… she kept the bank book in her bedroom and would never let me use it to buy another of those videogames she hated so much. The deal was that she would give me the £10 and we would see how much I could save during my time in that school.
Soooooo… after searching through her room I then found the bank book and took it to school, she had, after all, never once spoken to me about it again so I figured that if I withdrew the money then spent a few weeks saving enough to put it back she would be none the wiser at the time then kinda be impressed that I put it back with possibly a few more pounds extra on top as a sort of sorry for taking it in the first place. Unfortunately I didn’t factor in 2 things:
1. My awful luck
2. See point 1
I withdrew the money, put the book back where I found it and went and purchased Rick Dangerous on the ZX Spectrum for full price at my local branch of Boots. Just purchasing it felt like part of the game as it was a super dangerous thing to attempt (if you knew my mum then you would know exactly what I’m talking about here) plus sneaking it back in then hiding it among my other games hoping she didn’t spot something new as well as making sure she didn’t find a carrier bag lying around or a receipt etc left me feeling constant panic.
Still it was Rick Dangerous, it was worth the risk and I had absolutely gotten away with it… Until just over 2 weeks later when she came into my room and asked me a loaded question
“So… how’s that school bank account going?”
I won’t bore you with the exact details but I’ll finish by saying that it’s not just Rick Dangerous who got severely punished after making a mistake, the difference was that I kind of saw this pitfall coming. Life is way harder than any videogame... and it sure as hell stings more!