The Harshness

So you’ve beaten the latest Call of Duty game on Veteran. It’s no joke, but before you go telling everyone how badass you are, I want to tell you something important. Games ain’t shit these days. Be it the latest near-future shoot-your-face-off-em-up or some tricky Japanese platforming nightmare featuring fucked cats or something, they just aren’t all that. Now I’m not saying that as if I’m Charlie Big Potatoes. I’m sure I’d struggle with that stuff, but I reckon, given enough free time and patience, I’d get through them eventually.

I’m from an era, however, where playtesters were either non-existant, really fucking bad at their jobs or had incredible autistic superpowers. Be it at home or in the arcade, games back in the day were fucking savage sometimes. Often borderline unfair, sometimes completely ludicrious, old games had a way of punishing you for even daring to play them and if you got stuck, tough shit. That’s your lot, we hope you enjoyed the small fraction of the game that you got to play, stupid human.

Games like Robotron, Defender and Joust were celebrated (by daft fucking Americans) for their Third Reichian levels of hatefulness and are still enjoyed (by idiots) even today, but they were consistently tough. Within a minute of playing them, you’re in the shit and wondering if your brain is suddenly producing a huge dump of psychoactive chemicals on you, just to fuck with your game. And in that minute you know if you’re made of the right stuff (presumably a metal exoskeleton with a neural-net processor) to take on the challenge.

The games I want to talk about are more subtle than that. They come at you with a cheeky smile and next thing you know, you’re giving evidence from bum hospital via the safety of a video link.  First up is the 1984 ZX Spectrum game Jack and The Beanstalk. Based on the famous fairytale, the game is a bright, colourful platform game that puts you in the role of the titular Jack as he climbs the also titular beanstalk in order to infiltrate the giant’s house and steal a golden-egg-laying goose or something. So, basically, it’s a kids game.  You fire it up and you’re at the first of three screens (just three!). Starting at the base of the beanstalk, all you have to do is climb it while avoiding birds and spiders that lazily float about the place. Looks like fuck all. First things first, you need the axe that is to the left, behind that first creature. You move up to the top edge of the floor to avoid it. DEAD.

What? The fucking floor kills you? Yes. Fuck. The little ditty that beeps at you atonally every time you die might get annoying. Bleepy bleep bleep!  You respawn, you try to avoid the creature and the apparently deadly floor. You die because the collision detection gives the benefit of the doubt to DEATH. Fuck.  You respawn, grab the axe, and head right to the beanstalk. You climb. You go slightly too far left. By too far I mean YOU’RE STILL CLEARLY ON THE FUCKING BEANSTALK. YOU’RE FUCKING DEAD. Game over. That’s all your lives. Restart, cunt.  You do it all again. You get a bit further up the beanstalk. You die when you go a bit too far in the wrong direction while avoiding a flappy bird cunt. Again. Again. Bleepy bleep bleep. Again. Again. Again. Again. Bleep.

Eventually you somehow make it to screen two. Odd, forced 3D perspective blocks make up the backdrop. You presumably have to climb up them to the top of the screen. So what happens if I touch one of th…. OH FUCK I’M DEAD. That was my last life too. Restart. Bleep!  You make it up the beanstalk, you go to the blocks again. They keep fucking killing you. Restart.  Eventually you realise that the EMPTY FUCKING GAP between the blocks can be climbed up – yes you can touch that bit of wall it seems even though every other wall kills your stupid fucking Jack face – and you do that while trying to avoid bugs and worm things. Fuck. Bleep!

You’re on top of the first block. You walk to the next one… and die trying. This gap can’t be climbed like the first one. This gap kills you. Oh fucking whatever. Eventually get so tired of dying that you check a Youtube walkthrough…. THIS GAME HAS A FUCKING JUMP BUTTON?!?! Fuck. Okay. Thanks for telling me. Oh, it’s the shittest jumping motion ever and if you’re not spot on, you’re going to die. Great.  You never play the game again. You’ve been playing for fucking hours now, so you check that walkthrough again just to see how it ends. They’ve clearly used save states as he breezes through the whole game.

It takes less than four minutes to beat the whole game. It’s a four minute game that they’ve made so difficult that I couldn’t ever get to the third screen on it. Jack and the BULLSHIT more like.

If kids’ games in the 1980s were tough, then you’d expect a game based around training in a military academy to be even tougher. Combat School was an arcade game that saw you playing as a raw recruit and making your way through various mini-games in order to graduate from the academy. Two assault courses, three shooting sections and a dodgy arm-wrestling section await you and these are good fun and not too tricky.  After those events you then have to fight your drill instructor in an awful one-on-one beat ‘em up. Unlike most ’80′s fighting games, there is no trick to this. Your best bet is to jump in, hit him and jump out before he hits you back, but the ridiculous kung fu movie jumping is hard to judge and sometimes you’ll just end up getting blitzed by the instructor and then it’s game over. Back to the start.

Eventually, after countless attempts, you somehow get past this medal-chested motherfucker. Congratulations! You’ve graduated. You’re now no longer a maggot but rather a lean, mean, marine machine. There’s no time to sit around playing the biscuit game with your sex-starved platoon though. There’s a hostage situation and they are sending you in. It is here where the fun really turns to fuck off.

The rescue mission plays out as a side-scrolling fighting game. Fighting? What, despite half of the game being weapons training. Yep, ‘fraid so. Well, the enemies won’t be armed either then, right? Think again. Grenades, guns and knives all await you, and you have to get through this while fucking punching them. Okay. You walk forwards. A terrorist runs at you, you punch him. Fuck, he was fast. Another comes up behind. Punch! And another. Thwack!  Then a fucking grenade arcs towards you, thrown by an unseen assailant from off-screen. You’re dead. BACK TO THE START. Of the whole game. Yep. No lives, no energy bar. One hit and it’s back to the start of the game.

Now, if you’ve still got the will to live and attempt to get past the drill instructor again, you’ll get back to the mission to find out that all weapons kill you instantly and so does the slightest contact with a terrorist. Yep, you’re apparently made out of fucking glass or something and the mission gets increasingly more difficult with plenty of ambush situations that need to be played several times before you can work out the exact route to take to avoid the crossfire of bullets and grenades.  Combat School was harsh, yo.

Oh Burnt Wan Shinobi

Maybe the trick is to avoid games where you are on your first mission. What say we slip into the black plimsoles of a ninja? Ninjas are badass and have magic and gadgets with which to mess up their enemies. This has to be a bit easier on the reflexes.  Shinobi is something of a classic; a great arcade game that spawned a bunch of well-liked sequels that were never as good as the original.

Playing as Joe Musashi, your job is to fight your way through five levels of enemies who, as ’80′s arcade tradition dictates, are a bunch of footsoldiers and bosses for a shady criminal organisation.  Now, at first the game is pretty straightforward. It’s a 2D platformer that sees you heading forwards and taking out security guards, bent cops, ninjas, unofficial Spiderman and a bunch of scary bosses. Your sprightly ninja is capable of throwing shurikens (quickly upgraded to bullets), casting smartbomb-style magic spells and leaping between floors in order to avoid obstacles and unnecessary confrontations, and for a while you’ll be pretty badass. At least until the first boss who might give you trouble.

Each level is split into three or four sub-levels, and if you lost all your lives you could continue (at a cost of another 10p) from the start of that sub-level. Now, by level four the game is pretty brutal with enemy ninjas teleporting in and killing you instantly unless you are ready to hit them as soon as they appear, and the sheer number of regular enemies will also give you a headache. The game was no joke but, with some persistance and a pocket full of change, you could eventually get to the fifth level where brutal death awaits around every corner.  But here’s the kicker. If you die on the fifth level, you can’t continue. Yep, Sega weren’t afraid of a little arbitrary cuntery it seems. Get to level five and die and, yep, BACK TO START, MOTHERFUCKER. We hope you have another pocketful of ten pence pieces.

Level five of Shinobi, which is also split into sub-levels, is brutal and takes a great deal of memorisation if you want to get through it. Instant failure greets anyone who doesn’t have the memory capacity of a fucking chess computer, and that’s before you even get to the boss. The boss, bizarrely named ‘Masked Ninja’, has a bunch of magic attacks and also rushes around the place like a sort of spastic Mo Farah. His attack patterns are astonishingly hard to read and if you fail, BACK TO THE START, MOTHERFUCKER.

Now, some people have no doubt beaten Jack and The Beanstalk, Combat School and Shinobi legitimately (I had to quicksave my way through them on emulators just to see how they end), but those people can fuck off back to their fucking home planet, the scary extra-terrestrial cocksuckers. As a member of Team Human, I’ll stick to beating modern games and lying to myself that I’m good.




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4 Comments

  1. Lorna says:

    I have a nasty feeling that I recognise Jack and the Beanstalk. I think I may well have attempted to play it briefly, way back as a youngster. Obviously didn’t get far. Three screens? Jump and gameplay rules that inexplicably change, just to fuck the player up? Fuck that. Devs were way more sadistic back then. We have it easy now, it would seem!

  2. Sly Reflex says:

    I played Combat School. Never managed to get past that stupid 1 on 1 fight. Games then were hard as fuck, a lot harder than anything made today.

  3. Ian says:

    I don’t recall ever having made it past level two of Shinobi on the cabinet in Toni’s Fish Bar, cunt of a game!

  4. Edward says:

    It’s time like this that I’m glad I was born in the 90s and didn’t have to struggle against games like this.

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