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Five borderline unfair levels in retro gaming

I almost broke a controller just writing this.

tough retro games lion king
Image: erickeek / YouTube

Barring the likes of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, I think we can all agree the vast majority of games nowadays aren’t quite as hard as the titles of yesteryear. This was partly out of necessity – when video games were so limited, increasing the difficulty was an easy way to make now-retro games last longer.

But some home console games bordered on being unfair. Which is what I’m bringing attention to today. Five ridiculously tough levels from old-school gaming. And in the spirit of challenge, I’m not going to take the easy way out with this one either. I’m going to limit this to one game per console. Which means there are some difficult choices to be made. You won’t see five NES games here.

It’s going to be a range of titles across different genres, different consoles, and different generations. So let’s get to it.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – Water Dam (NES)

  • Honorable mention: Battletoads – Just the whole damn game.

This is the game that kicked off my idea to write this in the first place. My five-year-old boy has just started playing this retro game on one of those 400-in-1 GameBoy looking contraptions, and I don’t have the heart to tell him how bad Water Dam is.

Nobody likes water levels as it is (except for Donkey Kong Country’s underwater sections and their beautiful, relaxing music). They can turn a game you love into an exercise in frustration in no time at all. And this evil area is possibly one of the worst of all time. Navigating through timed electric forcefields and reefs that can damage you at the slightest touch would normally be difficult but doable, but you have to do that while disarming 8 bombs. Within 2 and a half minutes. On a non-linear level with branching paths. Heroes in a half-shell? Get me out of this hell, more like.

The Lion King – Just Can’t Wait To Be King (Sega Genesis/Mega Drive)

  • Honorable mention: Pretty much any Disney game from the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. Seriously, did Disney just hate kids?

Released as part of a retro package with Aladdin in October 2019, today’s gamers have recently had the opportunity to experience two of the most unfair games of all time on PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. To be honest, The Lion King didn’t originally start as a particularly tough game by all accounts. But as it was being developed, Disney execs requested that the game was made more difficult, so that people couldn’t beat the game within a single rental period.

Just Can’t Wait To Be King challenged you to make pixel-perfect jumps through tree branches, change Simba’s path by roaring at monkeys, and even endure a couple of high-speed ostrich rides between platforming sections. Your first attempt feels like a random, insurmountable challenge, and even when you know the game it’s still incredibly tough.

Driver – Driver Test (PS1)

  • Honorable mention: Rayman – Stupidly cute. Stupidly difficult.

One of the greatest games on the original PlayStation, but most players wouldn’t have known how good Driver was thanks to the horrifically difficult skill test. Asking you to perform nine stunts with no prior introduction to the controls was tough enough, but to do it all within a tight time limit was an insurmountable task for a lot of people who tried it.

It’s a shame, because Driver was an incredible game that made you feel like you were playing a Steve McQueen or Fast and Furious action sequence, and the sequel was even better.

Jet Force Gemini – Goldwood Lodge – Vela (N64)

  • Honorable mention: Perfect Dark – Another Rare masterpiece, but this one had difficulty levels, so you brought the challenge on yourself.

Jet Force Gemini is an outstanding game with an incredibly steep difficulty wall. It’s a third-person shooter from Rare (the guys that made Goldeneye) with a trio of characters to play as, all with different skills and abilities. The cute visuals are a bit of a ruse too – get past the hard-to-master controls and you can pop off ant limbs and heads with no mercy.

Goldwood Lodge is the first real area you explore, and with the first character you control, Juno, it’s not too bad. Sure, you’re getting to grips with the game, but it’s doable. It’s when you return as Vela later on that it gets tough. Rescuing all of the Totems is hard enough, but dodging enemy fire and hoping the super-cute Ewok tributes don’t get blown to bits adds depth to the difficulty. Then there are drone sections, where tons of bad guys attack you from above, as well as more Totems to rescue on top of falling platforms. You also need 100% completion to even finish the game, so you can’t actually avoid this challenge.

Super Mario Sunshine – Lily Pad Ride (Nintendo GameCube)

  • Honorable mention: Ikaruga – Notoriously difficult, but oh so fun.

With the recently announced Super Mario 3D All-Stars on its way to Nintendo Switch, I thought it was only fair to bring a little attention to my personal favorite game in the series, Super Mario Sunshine. I’m also going to brush past the fact that a game from 2002 is now classed as old-school. Because that makes me feel ancient.

Anyway, in Super Mario Sunshine, you spend most of the time enjoying Isle Delfino’s vibrant sights and swimming through various obstacles while also getting to grips with your water-gun backpack, FLUDD. Lily Pad Ride turns everything upside down though. Your task is to collect eight Red Coins along a specific route. So far, so Mario. But you have to do it while riding on a lily pad, which is floating on one-hit-kill poisonous water. You also have very little control over said lily pad, so if you don’t manage to reach the coins you have to jump to the ridiculously thin sides and hover over the river. Even if you do manage to reach the individual coins, the lily pad degrades the longer you’re standing on it. This one is not fun. At all.

None of these levels were impossible, but all of them were hair-tearingly difficult. The sense of relief and victory gave an endorphin rush that not many things can compare to but getting to that point could take hours and hours of practice. And to anyone who wants to take these challenges on – good luck.

What are some of the hardest levels you’ve ever played in a retro game? Let us know down below in the comments or carry the discussion over to our Twitter or Facebook.

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A gamer since I've been able to hold a controller, I can usually be found with a PlayStation, Xbox or Switch controller in my hand.

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