Classic Video Game Screw Yous
It just occurred to me That I've been through this place again and again And in the same spot, every time, I repeatedly die. I never will give up, as I attempt to cross the disappearing tiles on the wall But again, I'm falling off of them.
— I Can't Defeat Air Man
(unofficial English version)
When a developer wants to up the difficulty level of his game, he has quite a few options.
This is a list of a few classic methods of making a game Nintendo Hard
. We'll call them Classic Video Game Screw Yous, or, to avoid unnecessary swearing, "Fun Units", hereafter FUs
Differs from Fake Difficulty
in that these can be fair. By definition, Fake Difficulty
is completely unfair in some way; it requires good luck
, it expects you to know things it didn't tell you
, etc. Screw Yous are designed to frustrate, but aren't always unreasonably out of the player's control.
Note that "Fun Units" is only partly sarcastic, by the way: a game that's too easy can sometimes be less fun to play
than one that's Nintendo Hard
. In a way, they apply the Rule of Drama
To keep this from degenerating into complaining about examples of Video Game Difficulty Tropes you don't like
, examples should be phrased as generically as possible, or explain exactly why
this game is a well known example of this particular FU, or this FU is particularly unusual.
See also: Scrappy Mechanic
; Trial-and-Error Gameplay
. If it belongs, there is no need to put it here too unless it's shared by many games. I Wanna Be the Guy
and other examples of Platform Hell
are loaded with FUs. The antithesis to Anti-Frustration Feature
. See Unwinnable by Design
for when there's a way to make the game literally unbeatable.
Classic Video Game Screw Yous/"Fun Units"
- Spikes Of Doom that spring out of otherwise nearly ordinary floors or walls when the player gets close.
- Labyrinthine formations of Deadly Walls, especially with high-speed auto-scrolling, exacting time limits or Video Game Flight.
- Inescapable Death areas, which you can fall into and get hurt, but can't get back out of and have to wait until either your health or the timer runs out.
- Vanishing or moving platforms are also excellent building blocks of an FU, especially when mixed with Spikes Of Doom or Bottomless Pits.
- Any variation of Pissy Boss Mode where the boss becomes invincible, or enemies who do the same, is a favorite FU.
- The ability of an enemy to One-Hit Kill you when the game itself doesn't make you a One-Hit-Point Wonder is a well known FU.
- The Auto-Scrolling Level can easily be made into part of an FU, especially when mixed with Instant Death Areas, vanishing or moving platforms, Inconveniently Placed Conveyor Belts, and/or Goddamned Bats. (Forcing you to choose between two paths, one of which is a dead end, is more Fake Difficulty than a true FU.)
- Deliberate use of Ratchet Scrolling that limits you from going back, causing you to miss pickups and giving less room to avoid attacks. Worse yet is Ratchet, Auto, or Flip Screen scrolling on a climbing vertical level, which each have their own way of illogically killing you with bottomless pits.
- The Ice Level is another classic FU, where your character, and only your character, skids like crazy, causing the Spikes Of Doom and Goddamned Bats to be much more difficult to avoid.
- Similarly, underwater areas that hamper your characters mobility but leave enemies and traps (including fire-based traps) unhindered. Better yet, an underwater ice world that ignores how cold such water would be in the interest of combining these FUs.
- Goddamned Bats and Demonic Spiders are among the most common FUs
- Ledge Bats that make knockback during jumps a true frustration.
- Wall Masters don't typically fall into this, since there will usually be some recognizable form of portal that shows where these things tend to leap out at you... except for that one place where there isn't.
- Invisible Monsters.
- Timed Missions can easily be used to make an FU.
- Escort Missions, especially when the person you're escorting has Artificial Stupidity.
- In games with power-ups (e.g. most space shooters), losing them all when you die is a nearly universal FU, and also an example of Unstable Equilibrium. AKA Gradius Syndrome.
- Power Ups that can kill you/harm you/cancel out good Power Ups if accidentally collected, in conjunction with looking like normal power ups or being in the same container as the normal power ups.
- Power ups that, while normally useful, can be counterproductive, at least in specific situations (for example, a powerup that removes your ability to fly in exchange for faster running speed, in an area without a floor). Obviously, the FUs are the situations where Power-Up Letdown is in effect.
- Power ups that are useful, even in the given situation, but are placed so that getting them only serves to get the player hurt or killed (such as over Spikes Of Doom).
- Enemies that can move and shoot through walls when you can't do either.
- Complete absence of Mercy Invincibility, forcing you to instantly take action or allow one hit to become several (can lead to being juggled to death when combined with knockback).
- Trial-and-Error Gameplay moments where death is essentially unavoidable on the first play.
- Having enemies respawn right on top of you for massive Collision Damage.
- Ceiling Bumper Moments when a simple jump is made much more difficult for having to jump out from a low passage and chances are that you either hit the ceiling and bounce into the Bottomless Pit or jump too late and fall into it anyway. Happens when Jump Physics aren't made for those kinds of jumps.
- Passages where both the ceiling and floor are lined with Instant Death such as Spikes Of Doom. Bonus points if said passage is really narrow and you can easily bonk your head on the killer ceiling if you aren't extremely careful.
- A popular ceiling bumper moment is a tunnel where the end of the ground and ceiling line up with each other, and the only way to progress is to jump out of the tunnel, turn around in mid-air, and land on top of the ceiling.
- In some old Platform Games, the player lacks a useful Goomba Stomp or other kind of downward attack, but enemies can fall or be pushed into small nooks in the floor, and then trying to climb into the nook would obviously be suicide by Collision Damage or unblockable melee attack.
- One of the most apparent in platform games - flying backwards after getting hit. Sometimes this gets you away from danger, but other times, throws you into a Bottomless Pit.
- Bottomless pits in places they don't belong. Like your backyard. No wonder that house was so cheap...
- Interchangeable Antimatter Keys which are outnumbered by locks, so you can get stuck if you waste keys on the wrong locks.
- Warps that throw you many levels backwards; in linear games, these can wipe out a lot of progress.
- On games without bottomless pitfalls, this is usually what replaces them. And then, of course, there will come a few points where you have to choose the right one to fall through to continue...Usually with no hints whatsoever. Some other examples might include pitfalls in roguelikes (moving you up or down a level), gaps in adventure-y platformers whether they be 2D or top-down, colour-coded teleporters, be they visible or not, door/pipe/etc choices with no obvious hints such as the entire purpose behind the game Section Z (one notable choice near the 60% mark sending you back to the fourth room of the game!), or enemies such as wallmasters that serve a similar purpose. In this case, they aren't killable and the effect is immediate. (ie unlock a caged bird and he nabs you) The difference between the mentions here and in other categories being: Unavoidable once triggered and progress is always negative/similar to backtracking.
- Enemies that spawn near the end of a level exit just to kill you right before you can finish the level.
- Enemies that spawn from behind you (in particular, in Shoot 'em ups that only allow you to fire in a forward facing direction; note that, in that particular case, this only qualifies as an FU, rather than Fake Difficulty, if the appearance of enemies from behind is well telegraphed).
- Unknown items in roguelikes. Take a wild guess why. For comical reasons shoots past the stratosphere in Alphaman, a parodical post-apoc roguelike with numerous crazy-lethal 'old world tech' lying around. Especially fun are potions after the start of a new game.
- Enemies, especially in shmups, that teleport after firing. More sadistic shmups make them fire faster the longer you take to kill them, so even a marginally laid back shmup can have a twinge of bullet hell. While they usually only take one or two hits to kill, a lot of the time they will be shielded, or have a tendency to pop up behind a sturdier foe and vanish before you can hit them. This may also often appear in 2D action-platformers, to similar results.
- Extremely finite resources in Real Time Strategy games. While this is normally part of a 'stealth infiltration/probing' mission, some such as Earth 2150 and War Wind make it a bonafide consistent element, resulting in your final push failing because you upgraded too much or lost too many units early on, giving the game a minor touch of a puzzle element as well. (that is, you must max out the damage you do with the cheapest possible units at your disposal with the right upgrade tree)
- Wind physics. Unless the game is about flying a glider, wind is always going to screw with you. If it IS about flying a glider, wind is only against you 70% of the time. If the game is artillery-style, it will only ever benefit the CPU.
- Forcing the sacrifice of Video Game Lives to progress, especially combined with abuse of Respawn On The Spot mechanics.
- Falling Damage that makes falling from more than a certain height automatically fatal, especially if falling from slightly lesser heights is necessary to progress.
- A series of extremely narrow platforms to jump across, which can be further aggravated by knockback from enemies.
- Bribing Your Way to Victory is one that pops up in most multiplayer (and some singleplayer) games. If it's in game money, it's exempt from this since all you usually need to do is grind the money, but if it uses real money...especially so if the game is heavily based in competitive play, high score contests included.
Examples of unusual "Fun Units" (See also: Scrappy Mechanic)
- Mega Man & Bass is notable for having nearly every one of the listed above. Ammo does not regenerate on death, enemies have massive amounts of Recovery Time, two consecutive Marathon Levels with bosses who are willing to use nigh-unavoidable attacks at the drop of a hat... oh yeah. This is not a game for pansies.
- I Wanna Be the Guy has one almost every screen, and this is what actually makes it fun. For example, one screen has a falling ceiling of spikes, and one spot in the floor that is lower than the rest. Upon finally managing to reach that spot, you discover that the spike just grows longer to kill you. Other examples include the Delicious Fruit which can fall up and the evil save point which chases and kills you. And spring-loaded background couches underneath spiked ceilings. And clouds that spontaneously drop lightning bolts. And spike pits of doom that chase you. And the invisible wall maze. And that clusterchucking moon.
- The Wizardry games at least up to V were more than happy to allow you to teleport into solid rock. This resulted in the total loss of your party, no resurrection attempts allowed. Oh, and if you play the games the way they're intended, there's no "reload game" upon this happening. You can also emerge high above the city and crash to the ground, or drown in the castle moat, but these "merely" kill your party as opposed to your losing them forever; you have a shot at resurrecting them in the latter two instances. Basically, be very careful when teleporting in Wizardry.
- Might and Magic: World of Xeen similarly allowed you to accidentally teleport off the edge of the world — potentially before you realized the world had an edge.
- In Dwarf Fortress, if you Dug Too Deep, you can release a Balrog. Thanks to the line "Losing is fun" in the in the instructions for the game, they are referred to as Hidden Fun Stuff, or just HFS.
- The "losing is fun" line means the Fun Units for DF suddenly stop being sarcastic.
- Balrogs are out, now it's hordes of demons. These are killable, but it's really hard, especially when they're Spirits of Killing It With Fire (considering how dwarves react to being on fire).
- In the new version it's an infinitely huge horde of demons. Basically, when you hit HFS, your fortress is dead. How fun.
- Emphasis on "basically." DF players being DF players, they have discovered a way to colonize Hell.
- The [TRAPAVOID] tag. It's a delicate way of saying "You see these Orcs? They're immune to your lovingly crafted wall of traps. Have a nice doom."
- The [NOFEAR] tag that they also happen to have turns most enemies into Demonic Spiders.
- This being DF, one must remember that winning is impossible. There are lots and lots of ways for !!Fun!! to happen, though. For example, doomsday devices and magma floods are a major source of !!Fun!!, as are tantrum spirals, carp, and elephants.
- Carps haven't been sources of !!FUN!! for a while but there are always Bronze Colossi, Orcs, and Forgotten Beasts.
- Kaizo Mario World: Invisible coin blocks. Invisible. Coin. Blocks. TABARNAK!
- When you die in Descent, all of your equipment is scattered around the place. This wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't for losing them all forever if you die between blowing the reactor and getting the hell out of Dodge. (Some levels, which involve things like invisible death mechs with insanely powerful cannons, are even more charming).
- Level 6 has a fairly memorable FU where you pick up the red key and the walls open to reveal an ambush of six Class 1 Driller Demonic Spiders with instant-hit cannons. Most players, on their first try, will die before they even figure out what happened. It's even worse in the later levels.
- Level 9 has a Monster Closet right at the start of the level that opens after you proceed forward a ways. Also bad are Teleporting Keycard Squad ambushes from multiple directions, spawning Demonic Spiders such as the aformentioned Drillers and Super Hulks. One level in Descent Maximum for the PlayStation has the yellow key placed between two Diamond Claw-generating Mook Makers.
- The whole first game becomes a big Fun Unit on Insane difficulty after level 7. Between the random "roaming" of the enemies, the brutal AI, and your weakness vs their strength, it's for all practical purposes impossible.
- Bastet has the piece generator designed so that the worst possible block for your situation is the one you get every time.* However, this is the entire point of the game.
- In almost every version of Metroid, there are fake walls, floors, and ceiling tiles. Some of these can be shot through, and others appear solid but aren't. The best Fun Unit is in the original Nintendo version, where the player enters a hallway with an Energy Tank near the end. Shortly before the tank is an invisible hole in the floor. Falling down through the hole doesn't kill you but forces you to go through tedious backtracking to reach the tank. Zero Mission does the same thing, but at least is nice enough to have an enemy travel up around the edges of the gap if you wait long enough, making it obvious there is a hole. Super Metroid did it in between the two, as well.
- Some levels in Lemmings have the lemmings enter over a lethal drop, forcing the player to act fast by making them Floaters. And some of those don't allow enough Floaters.
- There's a very fine line between a fall that will kill any Lemming and a fall that will do no harm. Specifically, Lemmings will die if they hit solid ground after falling 64 pixels; a 63-pixel fall is perfectly harmless. "We All Fall Down" is a lesson in this.
"Remember, the difference between a Lemming going splat and a Lemming walking away from a fall can be a single pixel!"
Lemmings Instruction Manual
- Glider PRO has a variation of the Ceiling Bumper scenario: though the game doesn't have jumping, the lift of an upward vent (normally the player's best friend) can extend right into a shelf or table above. At least Glider 4.0 had a visible air option which would show this subterfuge.
- The paper shredder hidden behind a mirror or a picture was another common cruel joke.
- The room "Oh no... no way!" in Glider 4.0 introduced the uniquely cruel trick of a basketball bouncing over a vital floor vent.
- The end of Mission 4 in Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, where mooks that can see you through the foliage (while you can't see them) are shooting at you from the front, and endless waves of mooks and Demonic Guard Dogs are spawning behind you.
- TIE Fighter has the eponymous spacecraft. No shields, only two laser cannons for weapons, and no hyperdrive, which makes any long-term combat difficult but not unfair. At least you get better craft later in the game.
- TIE Fighter was a pretty challenging game in places. It was also a LOT more forgiving than its predecessor X-Wing. In the predecessor, while you did have shields and a generally better fighter, it made your mission completions pointlessly hard, repetitive and very long training courses before you could earn any medals (you could play the missions, but not earn medals *facepalm*) and a lot of the time if you got shot down, you either were captured or killed with your character locked unless you sacrifice score for a revive or restore a backup. The missions were exceptionally hard in places, either putting you against vast numbers or against capital ships you couldn't hope to kill (X-Wing had no interest in locational damage or heavy missiles/bombs). Basically it was crazy tough, with TIE Fighter being fair in comparison.
- On a related note, TIEs DO function as your superiors and in-universe lore tell you they should. Only the A-wing and Assault Gunboat/Shuttle (slow as molasses but its turning radius can give you hell) can outmaneuver you until you get to the Imperial Rebellion arc. By contrast to the TIEs, shielded or non, you were basically expected to have to take hits in non-A-wing craft, especially the slovenly B-wing and Y-wing. The only truly !!FUN!! ship in Tie Fighter is the Tie Bomber, which is as much of a useless deathtrap as the B-wing, but without even any shields. Thankfully you only have to use it on battles that center around actual bombings and lightly defended stations, while in X-Wing you were expected to treat the B-wing as a main combat ship like the X-Wing.
- The NES Dirty Harry video game randomly has a "trap room" that shows up when you enter a room; in place of a door, it has "HA HA!" written on a blank wall. The only way out is to reset the game. The developers admitted that it was a joke they were playing on the players.
- In a late section of Final Fantasy VI, players spend a section with one party member until they're able to reach another town. On the most direct path though, many enemies have an attack with 100% accuracy that causes the Zombie status, best thought of as "instant death meets confusion". There is an item to prevent it... but you have to know it's coming.
- But of course, even worse than this is the second fight against Ultros, at the Opera. You have 5 minutes to get to him, which doesn't sound bad at all- BUT you must fight tons of very powerful Mooks on your way to him. As in, powerful enough to kill you. And he is, in fact, an extremely difficult boss as well, and if you forgot to stock up on items, or ran out then, well, you won't exactly be... living anymore... this entire sequence is unfair, fake difficulty.
- If memory serves, some NPCs do warn you about it beforehand and you can buy the Zombie prevention item from a shop there. Granted, it's an easy thing to miss considering the fact that most NPCs just spout off the usual "Welcome to Corneria!" rubbish so the temptation to start ignoring them grows pretty quickly.
- Disappearing ladders in La-Mulana.
- Bats are the same blue color as water and most background walls making already-annoying enemies near-impossible to spot.
- The original Sonic the Hedgehog game did not make you immune to the Spikes Of Doom when you were flashing after taking damage. That means that, while the spikes were not technically an instant kill, if you fall in the middle of a large group, you'll lose your shield, then bounce over to more spikes and lose all of your rings, then bounce over onto another patch and die, without a chance to realize your mistake and get off of them. This was entirely intentional; the developers intentionally coded spikes to ignore Mercy Invincibility.
- The same goes for the first Mega Man game. In all later games, getting hit by an enemy and falling into a spike pit would do no further damage due to Mercy Invincibility, and even allowed some intrepid players to skip difficult spiked areas by doing this. In the first game, getting hit into a spike pit was instant death.
- Mario Kart is full of these. Get hit by someone's item and it's guaranteed that one or two other people that are passing you as you wipe out will use their items on you just to torment you further. Then there are those times where you fall off the track and are being towed back on, only to get shoved off by someone as they run you over and get knocked off again. And woe for any player that hears a Spiny Shell coming at them in the final lap.
- Then there's the ultimate AI cooperation attack, the rainbow shell assault: Green shell first, then red shell while you spin, and the final insult of a blue shell finishing you off before you can recover from either of the first two. Welcome to last place!
- In the first game of the original Bard's Tale trilogy, standing in front of one door leading to one room in the catacombs yielded the message that the escaping air smelled very stale. Entering this room froze the game.
- Carmageddon TDR2000 had a trick jump leading to what looked like a bonus tunnel entrance which was only accessible by using the jump on command power-up. The tunnel was empty, and when you attempted to get back out, you'd run into an impenetrable barrier that said "Now you're stuck, SUCKER!". You could get out by respawning a number of times... spending money each time.
- In Bleach: Soul Carnival 2, just about every other treasure chest in the entire game has a bomb inside, which explodes when you open it, dealing damage and knocking you back. Stage 27 turns this up a notch; the chests are on platforms with raised sides, meaning that they're basically invisible. It is entirely possible to kill enemies with a treasure bomb, and is extremely satisfying when you do so, but you can still die in the middle of a combo because you accidentally opened a fake chest.
- Unusually early example: The Bat in the Atari 2600 Adventure. It could not only grab the holy grail (the way you win) and fly off getting itself occasionally trapped in an area of the game you can't reach but it can ALSO take items right out of your hands and carry live dragons.
- The Slippy-Slidey Ice World in Snake Rattle And Roll, a game which already had very loose controls.
- Deadly Towers has a lot of hidden entrances to dungeons and Parallel Zones, which will frustrate players who are searching for them without a clue and frustrate players who aren't looking for them but stumble into them by accident. The game also has a caged enemy which takes all your money if you shoot it.
- Saturn Bomberman has a few of these spread around, but the one that jumps to mind most is in the Samurai World where the butterfly enemies can fly over pretty much anything. This makes getting trapped in the corner by one extremely common, to a frustrating degree.
- Another example, again from Samurai World, is the enemies who transform into invincible rocks, however more often than not they transform into harmless trees so it isn't so bad.
- The "Slow Down" power-up mixed in with normal power-up's is another.
- Battle Toads still stands today as one of the most infamous examples of developer cruelty, with the infamous Speeder Section requiring a level of reflex possessed by few gamers. Of course, this just prevented players from seeing the literally Game-Breaking Bug that popped up in later levels.
- Taken Up to Eleven with Jak 3, which has two sections that resemble this, but in 3D, with even more pitfalls, and shooting enemies to contend with as well. You can shoot back, but it's possible the explosions will cover some of the holes...
- Any game that requires perfect positioning and/or timing, down to the pixel or frame. Being off by what appears to be a miniscule amount causes a failure, or player death if some hazard is involved. In some cases, the game uses some acceleration system, making it that much harder to get perfect maneuvers.
- Ikari Warriors has a particularly frustrating one of these. In the final level, there are pipes which cannot be crossed, forcing the player to walk around them in a sort of maze. When the player dies, he respawns at the bottom of the screen. If you happen to die at one of the times where there is a loop of pipe at the bottom of the screen, it will be impossible to move after respawning. Note that this is the final level, after you have played for over an hour and have only a few more minutes before reaching the final boss...
- The Randomizer present fits nicely as an FU in Toe Jam And Earl. Similar to a roguelike, the game has presents that won't identify themselves until you've opened one of that kind (i.e. all presents with the same wrapping have the same contents), or paid an NPC to identify them. So if you open a present and it kills you, it kind of sucks, but at least you'll know the next time you see a present with the same wrapping. The randomizer is a very good one to identify without opening, as opening it will randomize the contents of every present including the randomizer. Time to start figuring out those present contents again! Even more fun: if all your presents are negative and you desperately need something to keep yourself alive, you can use the randomizer to your "advantage" and open completely random presents in the hope they'll do more good than harm.
- Fallout: New Vegas has the NCR Ranger and Legionary Assassin hit squads, which show up within two days of gaining a negative repuation with the respective faction. They are ridiculously overpowered, being armed with the game's best weapons and having damage resistance much higher than the normal mooks. At least the NCR gives you a chance to improve your rep, while the Legionaries shoot first and ask questions later. They also tend to kill off important NPC's, causing you to fail their quests.
- Aside from having some of the classic Screw Yous, most notably exits that would send you a few levels backwards, Kid Chameleon featured an auto-scrolling level with an Advancing Wall of Doom. Near the end, you need to choose between an upper and lower route with no indication as to which one is better. Then at the end, one route leads to the exit while the other leads to a dead-end (and certain death) and a large billboard that reads "TOO BAD".