Story Time: Here’s the Real Reason Retro Games are So Hard to Beat

C’mon in, young’uns. Have a seat; settle in. I’ve got a yarn to weave and someone with your interests ought to find it fairly interesting.

It all begins long ago, when I was just a wee little gamer, all dewy-eyed and full of wonder. A little bit like you used to be, before you heard the Call of Duty and spent too many Fortnites Crafting your Mines… But I digress.

Milo here keeping the tradition alive.

Way back before online gaming—at least before us civilians had access to it—before shouting into your headset and swearing at strangers hundreds of miles away just for being better or worse than you at whatever game you’re playing… Back before hours-long tutorials and fetch-quests and tutorial missions… And way back before you had to watch an entire anime episode just to get to some gameplay… video games were different.

You may wonder how we were able to get hours and hours of playtime out of games that were usually not more than half a megabyte. Why, the original Legend of Zelda was just 128 kilobytes. Compare that to Breath of the Wild which weighs in at a whoppin’ 13.4 gigabytes. If my rusty ol’ math still serves, that means you could fit 104,687 Legends of Zelda onto that BotW card.

Yessir, back in them days we made use of all parts of the animal. Eyeballs and all. We reused sprites, swapped palettes and called it “level 2”. But that’s what it took back then. Times were hard. Heh. A youngun like you won’t ever understand.

So how in the world, you ask, was I able to get over 30 years of gameplay from that cursed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartridge? And I still haven’t beaten it?

Well back in my day games were hard. Real hard! I hear you sayin’:

Why are retro games so hard to beat, you old fart?

Well, I’m glad you asked.

Now, I can’t say for sure because the real “thinkin’ part” of our story takes place far away across the Pacific Ocean in the Land of the Risin’ Sun! That’s Japan if you didn’t know.

Nintendo HQ in 1970. Image from BeforeMario.

I’ve never been there myself, but that’s where Nintendo and Sega both have their deepest roots planted. After Atari met their untimely demise… or was it timely? Is a demise ever not untimely? 

Anyway, after Atari’s catastrophic failure in the United States, pretty much all video game technology and ideas came straight from Japan. Them Japanese game companies were smart. But they were shrewd as hell. They saw how volatile the market can be here. 

Before Atari exploded, almost every major toy or electronics company had a game console on the market. There were more than I can name, and there are a lot you probably never heard of. I don’t mean Colecovision or Intellivision or even the Vectrex, though all of those played their role too. I’m talking way more obscure. I’m talking the Fairchild Channel F, Magnavox Odyssey, the Epoch Cassette Vision…

And there were about a zillion little limited-release game consoles put out by individual manufacturers that just wanted to make a buck. Video games were hot as hell and any company that could afford a few developers was in it to grab our cash! It was a bubble, my friend. And like any good bubble, it had itself a mighty pop!

(ET for Atari 2600 is one of the best-known Atari flops and is often blamed for the US Console Crash. Here it is being beaten in 53 seconds.)

Nintendo didn’t want no part of that. Americans clearly couldn’t handle their games. So the brains over at Nintendo figured out a kind of sneaky way to market an American version of their Famicom. They called it the Nintendo “Entertainment System” and insisted it was an electronics system. Not a children’s toy.

But if you were a kid back in them days? (Whistles.) You could almost feel the wink Nintendo passed you as they slid that gorgeous, shiny NES under your Christmas tree. It was like a new dawn. Or a new day! Or a new life for me… Hey, I like the sound of that.

Anyway, seems like this story is takin’ on a life of its own. I guess when you get to be my age it’s harder and harder to just share a tale and get on with it. I’m just hopin’ I can convey the feeling behind what I’m telling you. It was different back then. It wasn’t “better” necessarily, but there was definitely a charm and novelty to video games. 

Buying video games yourself (save your allowance!) or receiving them as gifts was one thing, but it was quite the rare thing in my house. You see, we were broke and poor and living in the ghetto and we just couldn’t afford to own video games. We had a VHS collection of good stuff we had recorded off the TV at friends’ houses. Times were lean, my friend.

A video rental store in the early 90s. Image from the Almighty Guru.

Fortunately for me (and plenty of other ghetto gamers, I’m sure) we had here in the ‘States, an incredible phenomenon known as “video game rentals.” And it was a concept like nothing you kids have today. 

Actually, that ain’t exactly true. If you’ve been to the library, you know the idea. You get to borrow a movie or video game for however long, then return it unscathed (although video game renters pretty much always lost the manual, those scoundrels). If you lost it or messed it up, you’d pay a fine and go on with your life.

Come to think of it, it’s pretty close to how Game Pass works. You get to play the games you choose, but only for a little while unless you want to pay the ticket price.

‘Course when you rented from the video store, you might have the game for just 2 or 3 days. If it was an older rental you might get it for 5 days, but that was usually it.

One small indulgence our very broke family allowed was a weekly trip to the video store. I could pick one item to enjoy over the weekend.

At first I would pick out some VHS of a beloved cartoon. Beanie and Cecil was my jam for a while. But once my dad finally procured us an NES, it was all about the video game rentals.

The NES has such staying power that developers are STILL making games for it!

Now hold on a minute…

Remember about fifty pages ago when I was talking about the size of NES games? Remember 128 kilobytes? We were talkin’ about how you could get 30 years of gameplay out of TMNT and still not beat it… Well, here’s the thing…

At first, it wasn’t that way. Now, I can’t say for sure, but legends tell that those brains over in Japan made video games in a straightforward and simple way that you could actually sit and beat the game. Just like that.

Japan didn’t have the same video rental infestation we enjoyed here in the ‘States. Japanese audiences paid for their games and beat them. But Americans would rent the hottest new games, beat them over the weekend, and return them. And never actually buy them!

Like I told you already, I only owned about 4 NES cartridges growing up. Everything else was rented.

Nintendo’s Japanese developers were appalled. What were them dang Americans doing over there? How were they gonna make any money when Americans ain’t buying the games?

So them big brains buckled down and spent the next few years making the hardest games you’ve ever seen. If you wanted to beat a game, you were gonna have to git gud, son! To learn to beat some of these games, there was no option but to play the same levels over and over till you have the whole thing memorized.

That’s howcome we got games like Battletoads, Castlevania III, Ninja Gaiden, just about any Mega Man game (especially those annoying boss rushes), the way-harder US version of Bionic Commando, the list goes on.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles may be just about the ultimate example. As a kid, I couldn’t wait to rent it. I’ve probably poured more hours into that game than any other! You can keep playing literally for 30 years and still keep improving, but still not be able to beat it.

So there you go. It took us a while to get here, it seems, but here we are.

Why are retro games so hard to beat?

Because Japanese game developers wanted players to have to invest time in them, to play and practice and re-play the games and have to get good enough to beat them. They wanted the playtime of their games to be greater than a single rental cycle. And the only way to achieve this on a 128kb cartridge was to make them harder than heck.

So there you go.

I can’t promise that it’s all true, but it sure is what I heard. Now give me a hand if you would and help me up. My old knees get stiffer than Gramma’s banana pudding when I sit for too long. And it’s time to soak my dentures. Here, let me pop ‘em out and give ‘em to you. Just drop ‘em in a cup if you don’t mind, but make sure it’s glass. Everyone knows drinkin’ from plastic cups is howcome your generation is so soft. Cain’t even git gud enough to beat old games, askin me questions like that. Hey, where ya going? Come here, take these dentures! Damn kids…

If you’re lookin’ for examples of hard core NES games, I happen to have a very long list of the Hardest NES Games ever… Give it a read.

The 35 Hardest NES Games of All Time

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