Is challenge the spice of life?
It’s a new year, and that means one thing: another massive pile of games that I mostly bought myself in the Christmas sales. This includes games I’ve had on the radar for a while like XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Mark of the Ninja, but also those that fall into the “Why not?” category like the reissue of Sega’s teenage rebellion simulator, Jet Set Radio.
I never got into Jet Set Radio on the Dreamcast. At the time, I blamed the challenge on my underdeveloped motor skills. Playing it now as a 26-year-old man at the peak of my mental and physical dexterity, the truth becomes clear: it’s just plain hard. Unresponsive controls, dodgy collision detection, floaty physics, unforgiving mechanics. I encountered a GAME OVER screen twice during the game’s tutorial, for crying out loud! “Why not?”, I previously asked myself, but now I find myself asking “Why bother?”.
JSR isn’t a challenging game in the modern sense of requiring skill to succeed. It is challenging in the old, ‘Nintendo Hard’ sense (warning: that’s a link to TV Tropes), where every aspect of the environment and your abilities conspire against you in what I like to call “two-dimensional Hobbesian nightmares”. In a Nintendo Hard game, you’re a character who can jump three feet in a world of four foot chasms. Unlike Super Hexagon or Spelunky, where completing a difficult section brings a sense of satisfaction and elation (if only for a few seconds), Nintendo Hard games reward difficult tasks with even more difficult tasks.
As our gaming piles of shame grow ever larger, whether literally or digitally, Nintendo Hard games are no longer necessary. When you could only afford one game a year, it made sense for that game to require a significant investment of time and skill- ‘fairness’ was an insignificant factor. When there are loads of cheap games available, they need to be more respectful of our time. Fewer players than ever are actually finishing games, and in the case of Mass Effect 3 that’s just the main quest. When I heard Borderlands 2 had a 58-hour campaign, I was no longer interested, because I hate not finishing things.
Some people relish the overwhelming challenge of a difficult game, but I think they’re in the minority. The problem with extremely difficult games is that they risk a lot for a potential payoff. If you rise to the vertical difficulty curve of Super Hexagon, you’ll love it; but if you never master the required skills you won’t enjoy it at all, not even a little. That’s less of a problem when the game costs less than a quid, but I have a copy of Ninja Gaiden II that I received as a gift and I just don’t have the skills or stamina to finish it (sorry, Paul!). The howls of anguish about the mistranslated claims of an easier difficulty setting in Dark Souls II are misguided: what’s the problem when those who relish the challenge can continue to enjoy it, while mere gaming tourists can enjoy the ride? Why is letting more people experience the full game as a bad thing? I love playing Bayonetta and Halo on the hardest difficulty, but I’d never insist on the removal of the easiest settings. Critics have lauded the ‘Ironman’ option in XCOM that makes one’s decisions (read: mistakes) in the game permanent, but it’s still optional.
The racing classic Burnout 3 emphasised “risk and reward”. Driving in the wrong lane, weaving out of incoming traffic or performing drifts increased a boost bar that gave the player a racing advantage. The third game also allows racers to ‘takedown’ rivals by crashing into them to increase their boost multiplier. The challenge is not to stay out of harm’s way, but to actively put yourself in harm’s way. It could be as easy or difficult as you wanted it to be, with the caveat that greater feats of bravado were required to win in later races.
Challenging games need to establish a link between risk and reward to succeed. The reward need be nothing more than a rush of endorphins, but there must be something to make you want to continue. This is where a Nintendo Hard game fails in the modern era: it’s risk with no reward except more risks and a single congratulatory image at the end of the game for your trouble.
To find an alternative to the Nintendo Hard mechanics of Jet Set Radio, you need look no further than its sequel, Jet Set Radio Future. Future isn’t much of a challenge at all: in fact, the biggest challenge would be trying to fail. Rather than the timed challenges of the original game, it offers a more laid-back experience where players are free to explore at their leisure. This transforms the game from one where we curse at its mechanical failings into one where they simply don’t matter as much.
If mastering Jet Set Radio Future is like learning to ride a bike, JSR was like your cycling instructor kicking you in the face every time you wobbled off-balance. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that it’s called Future as it foreshadowed a development style that is now commonplace: it’s a drawn-out, inclusive and friendly game, rather than the arcade-inspired bursts of challenge that characterise the original. One consequence is that Future is a much longer game than JSR, because more content is required to keep the player interested in the absence of challenge. Without the rose-tinted glasses of Dreamcast nostalgia, I feel confident in saying that Jet Set Radio isn’t very good, and if you gave most people both games they’d prefer the sequel.
Most people don’t play games on Hard. Most people don’t like melodic death metal. Most people don’t eat really hot curries. For aficionados of the spicier things in life, the moderate can seem bland by comparison: but if you believe that only challenging games can truly entertain, you’re ignoring games like Journey, To The Moon, Jet Set Radio Future, Rez. A gaming diet heavy on challenge can still be lacking in flavour.
This article was written for January's 'Blogs of the Round Table' feature at Critical Distance.