I'd like to think of it as taking a comfortable hike through a park, or something fairly smooth. Imagine the process of getting the best ending to be like a sudden 5,000-foot mountain to unexpectedly appear at the end of your hike, with your house nested at the very top of it.
A game that is light and easy through the first 10 or so levels becomes insanely difficult for the last level. Perhaps it's bad game design, maybe it's a sadistic developer, who knows? But, it's the final level that makes you want to throw your controller through the television. Although it technically doesn't have to be the last level, it could just be an extremely difficult level compared to the rest of the game. It could even be the thirdlevel.
Nintendo Hard games tend to do this a lot. You can get through five worlds unharmed... but then you lose all 99 extra lives to That One Boss in 6-4. This is often made worse by the fact that it is usually more of a challenge to master a difficult section of a game if there is no intermediate difficulty with which the player can "work their way up" to being able to manage that particular section. In games where the spike occurs earlier than the very end of the game, it may result in the oddity that the section at the beginning of the spike gives the most trouble to players, while the final boss (even though it may be objectively more difficult) is taken out in a relatively short time, because by then the players have adjusted to the new difficulty.
Compare Surprise Difficulty, where a kid-centric brightly colored game is Nintendo Hard. Difficulty Spike is when a game is easy, then suddenly becomes very difficult. There's no ramp up in-between the easy and hard levels like, say, a medium difficulty level.
That One Boss is a specific instance of this trope incarnated in human (or often non-human) form. That One Level occurs when the spike is confined to a single (utterly hellish) level.
Not to be confused with these other kinds of spikes. See also Schizophrenic Difficulty, for when this happens a bit too often, and Sequel Difficulty Spike, when the difficulty spike happens between two games of the same series.
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In Cave Story, depending on what you've gathered, it's either the hidden Last Cave or the final boss; either way, there will be no recharging stations onward. In Last Cave, all your weapons are dropped to level 1 as you enter a Nintendo Hard maze of enemies and traps. It gets replaced with an even harder version if you have the Booster v2.0, and you won't make it through the level without using it proficiently. Then there's a Sequential Boss consisting of 3 boss fights, the second of which Turns Red and the third of which is a triple boss. That's all followed by an escape sequence. You have to fight these bosses all over again if you fail it.
Another Difficulty Spike happens on the route for the best ending. The Sacred Grounds has no checkpoints, two boss fights (the second of which has four different forms) and is considered by most to be the hardest level in the game. However, it is a Bonus Dungeon, so this is justified.
Dragon Quest Heroes Rocket Slime has the last boss, Flucifer. You can breeze through the whole game without dying once, all the levels are simple and even getting all the slimes you can find by then is no biggie...and then the boss has 500 HP more than you no matter what (your HP upgrades are made moot since you're controlling a different tank), has only three attacks, two of which devastate your cannon deck, making it hard, if not impossible, to counter subsequent hits, its dispensers feed the ammo directly in the cannons, letting it fire continuously no matter what even when the operator is outside, and the tank operator is insanely fast, can teleport, has AOE attacks, and always has, when hit, enough invincibility frames to cast one. And he only needs to cast it once in your engine room to spell your Game Over. And your only crew is a single, incontrollable Slime that just randomly chucks everything in the cannons.
Castlevania's Stage 7 (the third area) is where the difficulty starts to skyrocket. Enemies start dealing more damage, more Goddamned Bats start assaulting you, and more deadly jumps over Bottomless Pits await.
Stages 5-6 can be the first real difficulty spike in the original Castlevania. Stage 7 is a pretty modest spike after dealing with the Medusa Head + Bottomless Pit combo.
Stage 13 is officially when the game stops pulling its punches. From now on, every hit you take drains at least a quarter of your life, you'll see early bosses appearing as regular enemies, and the normal enemies are interspersed so they can attack in the most sadistic patterns possible. Thank God for unlimited continues.
Akumajou Dracula X68000 is even worse. Stage 7 starts off with an infinite fleet of eagles carrying Fleamen, and you can only take 4 hits before you die (which you don't experience in the NES original until you hit Stage 13). And then, there's those hard-to-avoid bubble enemies and the statues that shoot arrows at you...
Belmont's Revenge is also noteworthy for the sudden spike in difficulty for the final two bosses.
Special mention must go to Super Castlevania IV's final level. A Rise to the Challenge level with a floating spike-ball rapidly making its way up, forcing you to be constantly on the move, while jumping from small platform to small platform where a single mistake could mean death. Add falling blocks, an unexpected section with floating rocks where you must have perfect timing else you get impaled by instant-death spikes and many annoyingly placed enemies that send you plummeting to your death if they hit you, and you get many broken controllers. It really doesn't help that, if you die, you must do it all over again. Right after that, you must face not two, not three, but FOUR bosses in a row, with little health boosts along the way. And one of those bosses is Death itself, in all his inglorious difficulty. However, if you game over by running out of lives here, you start right back at the same boss, and each of them have their own passwords.
Castlevania 64 is an example of this; the game progresses pretty normally, until you have to get the "Magical Nitro" part of the game. In order to progress, you need to carry a bomb from the top of the castle to the bottom without getting hit once or even JUMPING. Yes, you heard that right, you are not allowed to JUMP. Then there's the next level: No Save Points with several jumps made trickier by the constant need to fight the camera.
Metroidvania titles in the series tend to have a spike immediately after you dodge the bad ending, with enemies becoming more powerful, numerous, and difficult to hit. It usually goes back to normal after you gain a couple of levels and stumble upon really good equipment found in late game areas.
Castlevania: Rondo of Blood has a really easy first level. The rest of the game is considerably more difficult, especially Stage 2 (the alternate Stage 2 isn't quite as bad, but it requires doing a more difficult boss to reach it, which is a spike in itself).
Illusion of Gaia/Time does this twice - first in Mu, and again in Angkor Wat. Prior to each, you're probably laughing about how you're cutting your foes down like grass, then you receive a nasty wakeup call. Matters aren't helped any by the boss of Mu, the Vampire Couple, being considered That One Boss for many players.
Even on the harder difficulty levels, Uncharted 2 Among Thieves is challenging, but not frustratingly so. That is, until you get to Shambhala, where even one of the natives is capable of utterly slaughtering you in the blink of an eye.
Uncharted 3 took several spikes of difficulty once you reach the ship graveyard. You now have to deal with heavily armored mooks as well as snipers, brutes, and loads of mooks spamming grenades every five seconds all at the same time.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is fairly well-balanced on normal difficulty, but it spikes late into the game on hard. Much of the increased difficulty on hard mode comes from increased enemy health, which in the case of Mooks is ignorable if you abuse your unblockable one-hit-kill attack, and in the case of Giant Mooks isn't too unpleasant. Unfortunately for you, said Giant Mooks not only are immune to one-hit-kills, they're the only enemies that can attack you during the Overly Long Fighting Animation if you one-hit-kill regular mooks, so fights that have both regular and giant mooks become the only legitimately difficult fights on hard mode.
Arkham City's difficulty spikes rather noticeably upon revisiting the Steel Mill, and stays that way for the rest of the main story.
Assassin's Creed I: The fights go from "could be beaten by a badly-trained monkey" to "enemies with unblockable attack chains that take a sizable chunk out of your health" right around the time you lose the ability to avoid them.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past ramps up the difficulty considerably when Link defeats Agahnim for the first time. The environment of the Dark World is far harsher than that of the Light World, the first dungeon in this dimension (Palace of Darkness) is larger and more intrincate than the previous ones, and its resident boss (Helmasaur King) is much more powerful than previous bosses.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time: Once Link reaches his adulthood, the difficulty of the game is quickly adjusted to the darker situations of the future era of Hyrule, which is reflected in most of the dungeons that follow up. The first of those dungeons, the Forest Temple, introduces several abstract and mind-blowing puzzles like corridor twisting, hunting elusive Poe ghosts, and block puzzles in mazes. Small and Big keys are required for progress, enemies are more plentiful, and both the minibosses and the boss are considerably more difficult. If this dungeon seems too overwhelming, it won't be a good news that most of the others are even harder.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword has it earlier with the Lanayru Desert, which has a much higher concentration of puzzles and hazards than the previous areas of the game due to the Timeshift Stones and quicksand, and introduces annoying enemies like Ampilus, Hroks, and Technoblins. Then there's the resident dungeon, the Lanayru Mining Facility, which houses very dangerous enemies like Beamos, Sentrobes, Armos, and Froaks, and the aforementioned hazards of the overworld are present to a greater extent. The consolation is that the boss is very easy to beat (and even then, shortly after completing the dungeon Link must fight The Imprisoned elsewhere, which players hardly remember fondly).
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons applies the difficulty spike at the 6th dungeon, the Ancient Ruins. The difficulty of the enemies are substantially increased (Darknuts, Wizzrobes, and Gibdos start showing up in large numbers), many of the puzzles (and the boss) require precision strikes with the Magical Boomerang, and the place is five floors, which is absolutely massive by Oracle standards. It doesn't help at all that Manhandla, the boss, is considered That One Boss.
Cannon Fodder is easy going for the first few "run around, shoot people and lob a few grenades at huts" levels. Then you get the horror of Level Eight Phase 2, where you need to clear a map of snipers and then take control of a central turret and blow up five armoured buildings - which are spitting lots of significantly tougher-than-previously enemies out at you, including plenty capable of grenading the turret with you inside. Gets special points for being one of the hardest phases in the entire game, which tends to Schizophrenic Difficulty from this point on.
Devil May Cry is pretty simple for the first two stages... and then Phantom shows up at the end of the third stage and mauls you. If you can get past him, there's the Shadow waiting for you in the next level.
Devil May Cry 3 is infamously Nintendo Hard, but it doesn't get truly painful until the fifth level's bosses, Agni and Rudra. Many a run of the game, especially the US version with the oddly localized difficulty, has ended there.
Ninja Gaiden 1 (NES) is already difficult to begin with, but in Act 6 the difficulty skyrockets to near Platform Hell levels.
Ironsword is a fairly difficult game in and of itself, but anyone who's fought the final boss knows that it epitomizes this trope.
The Cabin Fight from Resident Evil 4 is essentially a boss-free Wake-Up Call Boss: it basically marks the part where the game stops dicking around and gets serious. Up until now, ammo has been fairly plentiful and you've had the option to just flee if you run short or are outnumbered. Not here. You're in a small area with no cover and facing an onslaught of Mooks, and you can't even leave the cabin until you've taken enough of them down. If you haven't figured out how to effectively stun enemies and use your melee attacks, you'll run out of ammo in five seconds and be toast.
Dust: An Elysian Tail has two notable spikes, in the Sorrowing Meadows and Everdawn Basin. The first introduces two new enemy types (an Enemy Summoner that teleports away if you get in melee range and the first enemy that can reliably take you out of an aerial attack) while the second has an enemy capable of blocking or avoiding most any melee attack and even your aerial attack as the most common enemy.
In Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, the fight with Monsoon onward is a huge jump in difficulty, with bosses requiring you to notice subtle tells and react quickly, and the stages being full of forced fights against Demonic Spiders. On a larger scale, Very Hard mode is this to players of the lower difficulties, because not only do you encounter Demonic Spiders as early as the first level, but unlike the lower difficulties, enemies attack you at the same time instead of taking turns.
God of War 3 has two, both involving Hard and Chaos Mode. The first is when you start hard mode after you've played easy/normal mode. The first boss can kick your ass if you're used to playing on the easier modes. The second one is when you get farther into hard mode. After the Hades fight, the game starts to get pretty easy except for a few fights. But after you kill Hera and enter the labyrinth sections, the game starts getting extremely difficult, with enemies and bosses like Skorpius and Cerberus breeder that can rip you to shreds.
Gatling Gears has the end of the prologue chapter. After four easy levels where your allies aid you, the game stops pulling its punches when you face off a sequential gauntlet of machines that spam Bullet Hell, with no chance for you to heal in between. The levels after this introduce more dangerous enemies, showing the game's true difficulty.
Beat Em Up
The most infamous among the NES generation is probably Battletoads. The first level was pretty reasonable. The second level was harder, but no more than you would expect. The third level was OMG! And it gets even harder.
There's one where you must outrun a Mook to stop him from setting off a bomb that kills you instantly, and the freaking rat not only glides effortlessly through every obstacle, he also moves and falls faster than you do.
Then comes the last level, which of course does it again. Not only because it's long, unpredictable, and requires lots of trial and error, but because you're glad if you have even a single credit left after the onslaught of the other levels.
The very first Streets of Rage. The first 7 levels are very manageable, but dear god, by level 8, the Mooks come at you in swarms and the kicking ninja-like Mooks will kick you multiple times, jump back, rush and multi kick you again, then repeat as their allies do the same to you on the other side, making this pretty much ninja rape. If the bosses here don't kill you, the Mooks will. Granted, this is toned down on an easier difficulty setting, but the spike is very noticeable on at least Normal.
Practically repeated in the 2nd game where levels 6 through 8 suddenly upped the amount of Mooks that appear to almost small armies.
Bayonetta has a rather notorious jump in difficulty between Normal and Hard. All of the enemies suddenly attack much, MUCH faster and more frequently, which will surprise players that have become accustomed to their slower, more languid attack speed on the easier difficulties. Enemy spawns are also adjusted, and you can expect to encounter mini-bosses almost as often as you do mooks. Most players need to spend ample time boosting their health and stockpiling items on lower difficulties before they stand a chance on Hard mode.
No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle: Nothing says "Welcome to Bitter Mode, bitch" by making the tutorial boss suddenly start handing you your ass. And it only gets harder from there.
Also, expect the Silver Coin Challenge for any given race to be much harder than the original race. Having three laps to get eight coins at various (often hard to reach) points on the track and still having to place first is harder than it sounds.
Once you reach the last part in most Need for Speed games after Underground, it's not uncommon to see people switching the difficulty from Hard (or Normal) to Easy. Be very careful in Most Wanted once you reach the Rockport borough. Also, the difficulty spike of Police Chase Heat 3 to Heat 4 is massive. The cops are way more reckless, roadblocks now have spike strips (which is an instant bust in this game) on then, and a helicopter is chasing you, meaning that if you want to get out of the cops' sight, you need to hide somewhere indoors. Oh, and there's Heat 5, which is the exact same thing as Heat 4, but even worse; you're getting chased by a total of 25 Corvettes and Sergeant Cross.
While you can beat most of Driver by avoiding being noticed by the cops by driving legally while in their zone, in the last level, the cops are actively trying to demolish you from the beginning to the end. It sounds easier than it is; even while using an invincible cheat, it's easy to get a game over by having the car knocked upside down.
The last level of Micro Machines. The sports cars on the desktop stages are difficult anyway, but the final iteration, "Win This Race To Be Champion" is particularly fiendish, particularly when you realise they're the only vehicle you have to do four races with.
Wipeout 2097/XL had easy, medium, hard, and very hard tracks. The difference was the default speed class. But during a championship, all tracks are raced at the fastest available speed class. Let's just say the tracks that are actually hard are the second, third, and fourth tracks out of eight; the easiest track in the whole game is track number six. Once you get through the first half of the championship, you pretty much have the win in the pocket unless you hit the respawn trigger at Vostok Island's bugged drop section.
Forza Motorsport 3 was criticized for its unbalanced difficulty settings, with the gap between Medium and Hard being too large. FM 4 balanced this out by lowering the Hard difficulty somewhat and adding Expert mode for the truly hardcore.
In general terms, when a Difficulty Spike presents in this genre of games, it's often overlapping with SNK Boss.
Tekken's AI bounces all over the place, from imbecile, hardly moving AI to ones that keep interrupting your combo with punches and love to juggle...The exact time of difficulty spike in the fifth game is the Sub Boss. You have three easy fights and then the game hands you your head.
The Subspace Emissary of Super Smash Bros. Brawl gets noticeably worse around the levels where you play as Marth, due to many of the nastier enemy types beginning to appear at that point. Most of the bosses tend to give players a lot more trouble then the levels before them, as well.
Classic Mode on Brawl also has a Difficulty Spike in the free-for-all right before Master Hand, the result of the AI deciding to Gang Up on the Human.
The original Super Smash Bros. had the AI ramped up a little on Fox, then the Kirby team.
Also in Melee, though Very Easy, Easy, and Normal modes are all quite easy to clear without continuing, the difficulty is ramped up enormously on Hard mode, to the point where the trophies attained from beating Classic, Adventure, or All-Star modes on Hard or Very Hard without continues are probably going to be the last ones you getnote not counting the gift trophies and the one which can only be obtained if a certain previous save is on your Memory Card in order to obtain 100% Completion.
M. Bison is the boss for every character in Street Fighter Alpha 3 except himself, naturally. While the fights get progressively more difficult as the player gets nearer to him, Bison himself is pure torture, with super-fast cheap moves and a super-strong super move that eats up half of your total health if you don't block in time (and "only" 1/4th if you do). Oh well, at least I got a full pocket of quarters so I guess I can try agai... wait, a Nonstandard Game Over? No Continue? I HAVE TO START ALL OVER AGAIN?!?!?! AAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!
To Capcom's credit, the "bad ending" (actually M. Bison's normal ending with your character in place of Ryu) is arcade-only, since they quickly realized what a monumentally stupid idea it was and took it out of the console ports. You'll still see it if you don't continue, however.
Fate/Unlimited Codes (Fate/stay night's Fighting Game spinoff), has a fairly normal difficulty progression during arcade mode... until you come to the final stage. On any difficulty above Easy, the CPU suddenly becomes nightmarishly competent (and gods help you if your character's last boss is Gilgamesh...). As one person on Gamefaqs put it, arcade mode is "less of a difficulty ramp than a difficulty teleporter".
Though this trope may apply to a large number of fighting games, few have have matched the difficulty of the final boss of Dead or Alive 4, who could essentially counter at will any move you might care to toss in her direction while dishing out highly damaging, unreasonably fast, unblockable attacks from across the screen. Also, anyone unlucky enough to face Jann Lee in the regular story mode is in for an unbelievably nasty surprise.
The King of Fighters XI: Three teams in, the Sub Boss arrives. There are five, four of which require certain actions on your part to reach. (The fifth one is Adel Bernstein.) It doesn't matter which one shows up, you're in trouble. They fight alone, but their defense is three times normal, and their AI is much better than the usual.
Soul Calibur III's Story Mode, Tales of Soul, does this. For the most part, the AI raises gradually, then when you reach a certain point where, well if you had any difficulty at before then, it will take you about a have dozen attempts to get through ANY of the stages. This is part of why people say the superboss Night Terror is so hard, the computer handles him so well.
Dissidia: Final Fantasy's story modes do this somewhat. The first, the Destiny Odyssey set, has you fight low level opponents. The next, Shade Impulse, the enemies you fight are all at much higher levels, so you'll have to do some level grinding before going into it. Chaos, the final boss, is extremely cheap, and many new players give up on the game because of how tough he is. Next up, Distant Glory, has enemies take a jump in difficulty. The last, Inward Chaos, all of the opponents are maxed out.
Beyond maxed out: the enemies you face in Inward Chaos start at level 91 and end up at level 110! To make matters worse, they're all set to the highest AI competency level, which means they'll block, dodge, and counter all of your attacks. And every single one of them has very high stats and some of the best equipment in the game (only the exclusive level 100 weapons are better), so unless you have comparable equipment, you won't hit hard enough, and you'll get devastated by a single combo.
And Unlimited Rachel will haunt you again when you try score attack mode as the ninth match. And there's another spike with Unlimited Nu and Unlimited Ragna!
And then there's Continuum Shift, where the boss of arcade mode is Hazama, who is several notches above the AI you've been fighting to get to him, partly because of some blatant reading of your controller inputs. Oh, and he's Unlimited, which means he siphons off your health and refills his own by being near you.
Guilty Gear XX Story Mode goes from "you can practically win these matches by accident" to "RAPE VIA VIDEO GAME PROGRAMMING" in record time. And in order to get all the endings, you have to 1) conclude matches via bizarre and/or very difficult stunts and 2) win nigh-impossible matches that you can't replay, all of which the game doesn't tell you about. It's a good thing the game gives you the 100% Completion characters if you play it for long enough (which is a very long time, as in "there's a possibility of actually completing Guilty Gear XX story mode" long time).
First Person Shooter
DOOM II officially gets serious with you on the "Dead Simple" level right after the first intermission. Prior to this point, you've been fighting mostly humanoid enemies and low-level mooks, with the occasional mid-grade monster. "Dead Simple" immediately throws you into a melee with newly introduced high-powered enemies and Giant Mooks in very close quarters.
BioShock 2: Siren Alley is known to fans as a Difficulty Spike, where all of the gun-using enemies now use shotguns, and the easier melee weapons no longer appear for the rest of the game.
In Unreal Tournament, the last fight against Xan is far harder than anything seen in previous battles. This is caused by that final opponent being a Rubber Band AI, automatically adjusting itself to player skill. The same also applies to the 2003 and 2004 installments.
Oddly enough, the end boss (Malcolm again) in 2003 was somewhat easier, given that the arena for that battle was small and had ample flanking opportunities.
The Assault matches are significantly harder than the rest of the single-player ladder (save for a couple of the Capture The Flag matches), sometimes even exceeding the difficulty of the Xan fight. And if you do manage to win, expect to terminally come in last place as your teammate's laser-guided map savvy lands them the fastest routes, all the vehicles, all the objectives, and 98% of the kills.
That said, the other modes get pretty insane pretty quick as well, one notorious example being the Bombing Run snow level, which, in addition to suddenly steroid-injected AI, involves particularly cruel level design that will take you and your team 2-3 times the time limit to reach the enemy goalpost and score—that is, if the "AI of Death" team doesn't get to yours first.
Akasha in Unreal Tournament III as well. Her rubberband code may actually exponentially break the normal limits of bot skill factors, leaving you with a bot rated 15 out of 10 on "easy". Oh, and she favors the shock rifle, which caters equally to impossible AI aiming and impossible AI prediction skills.
Xaero in Quake III: Arena was head and shoulders above any other bot in the game. Not only does he have Improbable Aiming Skills, the arena you fight him in has a railgun right next to a respawn point. So if you did manage to kill him, he would return the favor immediately from across the map. And then kill you again and again until you managed to respawn in a spot that wasn't exposed.
The first Descent had a massive, permanent difficulty spike after the first seven "shareware" levels. Levels 6 and 7 depict homing-missile hulks and Class 1 Drillers as deadly Demonic Spiders that appear only now and then and are much stronger than normal enemies. Levels 11 and 12, four maps later, are almost entirely populated by them and they're not one iota easier to kill than they were at first.
The difficulty spikes further around levels 18 and 19, with the even deadlier Demonic Spiders that are Class 2 Missile Platforms and Heavy Drillers greatly increasing in number.
The second game's difficulty also ramps up significantly after the first eight levels, and again at level 21, which introduces several new Demonic Spiders to rival anything in the first Descent. And the fourth boss's difficulty spike after the first three makes it That One Boss.
Left 4 Dead has this to some degree. The first level of every campaign never has any Witches or Tanks, but by the second level onward (depending on the director's mood), you could easily get stuck because a Tank keeps spawning in one area.
The sequel makes this worse. "Dark Carnival" has two gauntlet crescendo events (racing to turn off the the Screaming Oak's alarm in The Tunnel, which involves running three quarters of the coaster's entire length while being hassled by nonstop waves of Infected, and the sprint to the stadium safe room in The Barns, the map immediately afterwards, whcih is much the same except you have to Hold the Line until the gates open first) that will make you tear your hair out. If you didn't bring a Bile Bomb or Chainsaw to make these event easier, you will have a hell of a time getting to the final objetives; also, there is a possibility that you will encounter a tank or a witch on the way. The first two maps and the start of the third, up until the Screaming Oak, are relatively manageable.
In Halo 3, many players find the "Cortana" mission to be the most difficult mission of the game. This may be partly because there are more enemies, fewer places to take cover when you get attacked by mobs of Flood (they almost always come in packs), and no NPCs to cover you. Beating it makes the next mission seem a lot easier by comparison.
Also, "the library" in the first game. Hundreds of hard to kill, fast moving zombies, some of which explode when shot, and a limited supply of ammo.
That's more or less because the player can also not tell where they are going.
Halo: Reach has a large difficulty spike starting with the second mission. If you're playing Legendary, prepare to be wasted.
Wolfenstein 3D goes absolutely insane in the sixth episode, throwing one dick move after another and forcing you to navigate horrific mazes. Its Mission Pack PrequelSpear of Destiny does likewise at level 16. Whether level 16 or level 18 is the hardest map in the entire Wolfenstein series is debatable; level 16 has more difficult regular fights, but level 18 has That One Boss, the Death Knight. Then the difficulty drops precipitously for the Bonus Level Of Hell and the underwhelming final boss.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, the Favela missions. Impossible to tell where you're going, enemies that have numerous hiding places while you get little more than the occasional doorway, low ammo. Oh, and dogs. Yeah.
Modern Warfare 1: Charlie Don't Surf, especially on Veteran; after the first two missions that were a cakewalk, the insanity hits like a ton of bricks. Later on, there's the infamous One Shot, One Kill, and it doesn't get any easier from there.
Medal of Honor: Allied Assault has a (mostly) permanent difficulty spike starting with Mission 3-3, The Nebelwerfer Hunt on the normal difficulty, then again at The Command Post (psychic guards setting off alarms that summon Respawning Enemies). On Hard, the spike starts with Cover Blown. Let's not talk about Sniper's Last Stand.
Metroid Prime has a fairly linearly increasing difficulty curve most of the time. That is, until you reach Phazon Mines. The next segment requires you to do half of the area, beating 2 minibosses, one of which is INVISIBLE, navigating morph ball puzzles, introducing you to new space pirate types and spamming them, and getting the Power Bombs, without saving. After that, it feels like a relief it's over as it's not as bad after that. Dark Aether in Prime 2 early on throws you a nasty spike as well as you learn to deal with its atmosphere. After you get the Dark Suit, it's much less nerve-wracking. Prime 3 has it with the fiery zone of Bryyo, not only because of the Fuel Gel hazards and overall difficult navigation but also because of Rundas, a Wake-Up Call Boss; it also holds the first moment when Samus's Hypermode ability shows its dangerous side.
Red Faction gets a lot harder around the one-third mark and just keeps getting worse from there. Why? Because the enemies (and you) get better weapons, but you never get more HP, and even refills become harder to find.
Dead Space, Chapter 4: Obliteration Imminent is fairly standard for what you've dealt with for the last three chapters until you're told you need to step outside the ship in the middle of what is essentially a meteor storm. The only hint you are given for this sequence is "take cover." Now, once you realize that there is a perceptible warning and you know what "cover" looks like, the sequence is less of a difficulty spike and seems more like Fake Difficulty for the uninformed. However, no amount of information will help you fend off the giant rocks in the next room. Once you've memorized what Isaac looks like getting killed in that room and move on, though, it's back to business as usual.
Most of the Rainbow Six series have this around the 1/3 or halfway point. Especially Stone Cannon, dear god, in Raven Shield.
The first/shareware episode in Quake is a walk in the park compared to the rest of the game. After completing the preparation "slipgate" level (featured at the beginning of each episode), be prepared for your brain (and likely your mouth) to drop a series of Atomic F-Bombs once you're inside the castle.
Postal 2: Apocalypse Weekend is a breeze (mostly because you can stock on weapons and healing items), but then near the end you are stripped from all your stuff and have to fight your way out of a military base. Where healing items are very scarce and soldiers are tough and immune to OHKO sledgehammering. Prepare to be ridiculed by protagonist for save spamming. Following this, levels are relatively simple again.
Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter takes a disproportionate leap in difficulty with "Mayday! Mayday!", slightly under halfway through the game. And that's just on Normal difficulty. Prepare to get pegged many times by the guards in the forest area with the jammers.
The entirety of the VC campaign in Vietcong 2, when compared to the US campaign, due to being much shorter (only 4 levels!) compared to the latter (13 levels).
Scythe, a Game Mod for Doom II, is a fairly well-balanced mod... up until the final set of levels (beginning from level 21), which are set in Hell, and their ridiculous difficulty lives up to the location. Barely any ammo, barely any room to maneuver, and hordes of enemies from all sides.
Donner Party undergoes a noticeable shift in difficulty between Rounds 6 and 7. To wit: the amount of damage the player takes doubles, flying over large swaths of territory is impossible, few enemies die in a single hit, and the three-boss-per-level standard returns with a vengeance. Round 7 specifically includes a segment where taking damage is required in order to progress. Round 8 introduces an abrupt and awkward shift in play-control, which becomes permanent for the rest of the game.
The game has a dramatic change as you go from Nightmare to Hell difficulty. The effectiveness of just about everything is reduced to a quarter, your resistances plummet to a base of -100, and almost every single monster is not only resistant, but entirely immune to a particular element (often when the monster had zero resistance to anything in either of the previous difficulties) while gaining additional resistances to one or nearly all attributes. The immunities are a particular problem, as it's very possible for your character's skills to be focused on only one form of damage if you didn't know about the problem beforehand.
It deserves special mention that some monsters possess immunity to physical damage. I.E, melee attacks don't work. There are three randomly generated per normal level in hell difficulty as opposed to one in normal, plus their flock of minions is deadlier too.
Less dramatic is Act IV of the game, when you invade Hell, featuring a jump in monster difficulty — suddenly homing, mana draining missiles, etc. Then of course there's Diablohimself.
The first five realms in Gauntlet: Dark Legacy are swarming with Goddamn Bats (it's kind of the point of Gauntlet), but world 6, the Desert Realm, suddenly throws in Demonic Spiders in the form of the Desert Generals, whose psychotic fervor has the potential to arouse in the player the same real-life fight-or-flight panic mechanism as many a Left 4 Dead player has felt facing down a Tank - among stronger and more durable Goddamn Bats, and more chances to be attacked from all sides. A player who breezed through the last five realms may find themselves losing thousands of HP in this realm - fast.
Example for mid-game: Levels 15 through 30 in World of Warcraft are pretty frustrating compared to later on. The first 10-15 levels act as tutorial and are usually easy (provided you don't run into the wrong direction), but then it picks up considerably and you'll be seeing the Spirit Healer pretty often. And the level range features some of the most frustrating dungeons aswell, such as Gnomeregan, Shadowfang Keep and Blackfathom Deeps. And if you play on a PvP server, you'll face the most annoying gankers (bored high level characters killing low level ones just for giggles) during those levels as you'll be leveling in contested zones. After that, it only gets better. The expansion zones on the other hand are laughably easy, at least as far as solo-Quests are concerned.
In the Firelands, the first six bosses have become considerably easier after the nerf, but Ragnaros is much more difficult than any of them, particularly because if you let one Son of Flame reach his hammer in the transition phase, the raid will most likely wipe.
Mogu'shan Vaults begins with the fairly difficult Stone Guard, but then has the more manageable Feng the Accursed, Gara'jal the Spiritbinder, and Spirit Kings. Then comes Elegon, a very difficult DPS race that is even more difficult than the last boss of the instance. Some groups give up and go on to the first bosses in the next instance, Heart of Fear, until they are well-geared enough to defeat Elegon.
The Brawler's Guild matches are fairly easy during Rank 1-7, then comes Rank 8 where you fight a engineer pair Dual Boss with OHKO rockets, a necromancer who is only vulnerable when you destroy his adds that have to be stunned with a beam of light and can also OHKO you with one melee hit, and an arcane construct surrounded by a ring of highly-damaging explosives, before taking a break with an easy match against a gnoll who takes reduced damage but you're able to run over powerups to increase your damage output to exponential levels to mitigate it. Then there are the optional bosses, one of which is a cyborg version of your first opponent who is near impossible to kill with any max damage output lower than 65-70k because the third time he roots you in place he'll use an attack that is - you guessed it - an OHKO.
EVE Online has an ever steeper difficulty spike with 0.5 and 0.4 security space. The latter has no CONCORD, allowing player pirates to roam freely in search of juicy targets like you. In fact, a frequent occurrence is you running into a gate camp when you jump from an 0.5 system to an 0.4 system. Translation: you're dead and podded and you never saw it coming.
Guild Wars Prophecies is a cakewalk until you reach the desert, and then it ramps up. It ramps up AGAIN on the Ring of Fire. Factions goes from "reasonably challenging" to "murderous" when you reach the Kaineng Mainland (and the Undercity...dear GOD the UNDERCITY!!) and Nightfall does more or less the same a few missions in.
Everquest had particularly infamous difficulty spikes called "Hell Levels." These usually came along at already naturally awkward levels(30, 35, 40, etc.; where you're growing out of your current leveling zone), and amplified them by increasing the amount of experience needed to level by insane amounts; so much so that the next level will actually REQUIRE LESS experience than the hell level did. Also, 50-60 were considered a bit of a "hell bracket" since the needed experience jumped up to relatively high amounts because 60 was the original level cap(and thus had a LOT of xp "padding" that was never reduced when 60 ceased to be the cap).
EverQuest II has three different "tiers" you can play on - solo, group, and raid. Solo is designed to be handled by just about any player class with ease. Moving from solo to group requires a much more detailed understanding of how to play your class and function in a group. Moving from group to raid pretty much requires intricate knowledge of game mechanics. To make the spike more severe, for the most part you can only get group level gear by running group missions and raid level gear by raiding, meaning that someone trying to make the jump for the first time is going to be critically undergeared.
Shin Megami Tensei IMAGINE has the Old Ichigaya Camp Gold instance. If you decide to skip the lower floors, and just go right ahead to the boss room, the enemies that appear on the way there are fairly easy to defeat (most lv30 characters can kill them in 2 or 3 hits). Then you hit the boss room, and have Jikokuten ignoring knockback and hitting your skull with Almighty basic attacks, around 10 Gandharva spamming a skill with a huge area of effect that causes multiple status effects (including one that renders you unable to even defend) as well as powerful ice attacks (including one that can hit from halfway across the room) and another area of effect one that lowers all your status, and around 15 Gaki who are pretty weak and only have one attack, but once they start ganging up on you, you're easy prey to the spell-spamming Ganharvas. Granted, this can be turned into children's play if you have someone especiallized in using Erosion Hex on your party.
Also from IMAGINE, there's the Shibuya Metro instance. Despite the constant HP and MP drain throughout the whole dungeon, it's fairly easy, with all enemies being weak to one of the easy to get four elements. The boss room, however, has a boss with the most powerful electric spell, lots of HP, and over 10 minions that not only can heal him, but also love to use attack- and spell-reflecting skills. All the time. And no, the HP and MP drain does not go away during the boss battle. Also, the boss gets even stronger if you enter the dungeon with anyone else in your party, wether they entered the dungeon too or not.
Rayman: Dream Forest is a solid beginner world. A little tricky in the later levels, but not too bad. Band Land is when the gloves come off and what better way to show that then by putting the player through a six stage level full of musical notes that act like spikes and fewer power ups and 1-ups? Also, after defeating the boss of Blue Mountains, Mr. Stone, and receiving the fifth and final new power, the player is treated to a colorful world known as Picture City. Looks relaxing as well as a nice change of pace right? Right? RIGHT!? Say goodbye to a lot of hard earned lives from here on out!
Psychonauts turns absolutely sadistic when you get to the timed Escort Mission in the last level.
In all three Sonic Advance games, the first six special stages range from really easy to kind of tricky the first time, but the last is Nintendo Hard.
Sonic Unleashed has a smoothly escalating difficulty curve reaching its peak at Adabat. Then the curve becomes a straight line, crashing into the ceiling and staying there. It says something when the level designers deliberately place a respawning extra life next to EVERY checkpoint in the last level, including some that are impossible to avoid collecting.
Sonic 2 is generally nice and easy, but Chemical Plant Zone act 2 is quite a harsh snap for where it is in the game, and the game then throws another spike in Metropolis Zone, a spike which lasts right until the end of the game. Also Mystic Cave, considering its inescapable spike pits and crushing vines which force you to take your time and be careful in order to beat the level.
Sonic 4 will make you frustrated once you get to E.G.G. Station Zone.
Sonic Rush is even more brutal on that note, because once you get to Night Carnival in order to notice everything that allows you to get past that stage without falling into those Bottomless Pits, you have to play the game very differently than you're used to: in other words, Take Your Time and you'll survive. Probably. It's even more jarring when you play as Blaze as Night Carnival is the FIRST LEVEL, then it gets easy again until the 5th stage.
Sonic Generations gets more difficult starting with Crisis City. The Modern era overall is more difficult than the previous two and the levels are longer, and Crisis City is the introduction to that. Modern's Crisis City in particular is one of the hardest levels in the game, Classic's Rooftop Run has a lot of devious obstacles, and Planet Wisp overall is a Marathon Level. The bosses also pick up the pace to match.
Jak II: Renegade features not one, but many spikes over the course of the game. The first arrives at about the time you need to blow up an ammo supply and you are being chased by an indestructible doom tank. The camera is fixed as the view from the tank for a while, and the first part of the area is a bit hard to navigate. The most notable, however, comes during the escape from the Water Slums. You can't touch the water that is surrounding the tiny walkways you must navigate, the guards will infinitely respawn if you move incorrectly or dawdle in the wrong place, and you can take a total of 3 hits and live. Fortunately, the Krimson Guards are all graduates of the Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy. Unfortunately, there are so many of them that it really doesn't matter how bad of shots they are. And the game doesn't get any easier from there.
For many players, Earthworm Jim went straight Down the Drain the minute players entered the Tube Race level. Imagine a big glass ball that breaks if it happens to bump into a wall ten times, which you have to steer through a long, narrow obstacle course while being harassed by a dwindling oxygen meter. Fortunately, the immediately following boss fight makes up for it in terms of difficulty.
The sequel followed this up with The Flyin' King, an isometric SHMUP level where you have to escort a bomb on a balloon to the end of the level. And then the difficulty spikes again in Inflated Head / Circus of the Scars, which is pretty much Tube Race all over again.
In level 3 of the original Prince of Persia, you must first jump onto a precariously situated platform with a pressure plate that opens a gate three screens to the left. Then, you have to quickly rush over to the gate before it closes, making five jumps along the way, the last one being a particularly hard running jump. Miss one jump, and you fall to certain death. After this puzzle, the second half of the level isn't so hard, even with an invincible skeleton enemy — unless you die and have to start the whole level over.
Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones has a series of three levels back-to-back that are harder than anything that comes before or after it: a cerebral gear-turning puzzle, a trial-and-error chariot race and an unforgiving two-on-one boss fight, with exactly one save point between them.
Klonoa: Door to Phantomile is a pretty easy game throughout. The first level can easily be defeated without taking any damage, and the difficulty gently slopes, occasionally teaching you a new trick or introducing you to a new concept or enemy. Still, all the way up to level 5 keeps an easy-to-modest difficulty. Then level 6 comes along and bitchslaps you through a wall with hair-tearing timed puzzles and the precision platforming sequences from hell. Then there's bonus level that appears after that...
Treasure loves to put space shooter levels in their platforming titles. Depending on one's proficiency at the genre, they'll experience anything from a mild to extreme difficulty spike upon entering stage 6 of either Gunstar Heroes or Dynamite Headdy.
Treasure also like putting platforming sections in their shoot 'em ups. The severity of these spikes is similarly dependent on how accustomed the player is to the shifted genre.
Osman/Cannon Dancer starts out fairly difficult, but during the final areas it turns abusively so, by removing the ability to spam continues to reach the end. During most of the game, you respawn where you die, even when you lose your last life. In the last areas you restart from checkpoints after dying. Better think twice about wasting those Fatal Attacks.
Trine's last level combines platforming with a boss that constantly hinders your progress and tops it off with Rise to the Challenge.
5-2 in Super Mario Bros.. 5-1 is certainly harder than the last few levels, but nothing too nasty. 5-3 is just a revamp of 1-3 with smaller platforms and a Bullet Bill generator. 5-4 is a revamp of 2-4 with a few more Firebars. 5-2? Hammer Brothers on STAIRS.
World 3-3 is noticeably longer and more difficult than the first two castle levels (1-3 and 2-3) as well as the first two levels in the world, with long sequences of climbing towers with tons of Sparks moving around oddly-shaped platforms, Shy Guy-generating pots, and, for the first time, a variety of different doors to enter, not all of which will allow you to progress depending on which character you are playing as. The difficulty will spike again in World 4's dungeon, then AGAIN in world 5's dungeon. In the particular case of level 4-2, you're first greeted by a Zerg Rush of Beezos in a section that seems to last forever with only slippery ice terrain to work with, then some Nintendo Hard platforming. And there is no fourth mushroom in this level. And you have to fight Birdo. On ice.
In the Super Mario Advance remake for GBA, a game criticized for being much easier due to all the extra power ups, the Yoshi Challenge has this. Through the first ten levels you play, it feels like a good challenge for seasoned veterans, but still easier than the original NES and SNES versions despite only having 2-3 hearts per level instead of 4. Even 3-3 isn't so bad. Then you get to 4-2, which in the Yoshi Challenge quickly becomes That One Level. Survive the Beezo Zerg Rush onslaught, and you'll have to get two Yoshi Eggs from here without losing a life in the next phase. And you only have two hearts to work with. The difficulty only becomes reasonable again in 6-3.
World 3 in general is a huge difficulty spike over worlds 1 and 2. Let's put it this way, 3-6 is a souped up version of 1-4 and is by far the EASIEST level in world 3. The rest of World 3 contains mostly levels that alternate between underwater levels, cheep cheep Zerg Rush levels, and rising and sinking platforms where Boss Bass awaits and can eat you in a single gulp (unless you're invincible).
The game starts off as a not too challenging platformer that eases you into the game, even Iggy's Castle isn't so bad except maybe for the smasher in the autoscrolling room leading up to the simple boss battle, but even then it's not so bad. And then you arrive at Donut Plains 2, an autoscrolling cave level that's fairly dark, has rising and falling platforms that can crush you, cruelly placed death pits, and Goddamn Bats everywhere. Granted, it's not amazingly hard, but after the non-threatening Yoshi's Island levels and Donut Plains 1, this level serves as a real wake-up call about what's coming up later in the game. That difficulty won't be matched again until Vanilla Dome or even the Twin Bridges depending on your perception.
Happens once again in Chocolate Island, where the game goes from challenging but fun platformer to mean and nasty Nintendo Hard nightmare that pulls no punches in the blink of an eye. The game keeps its foot on the gas for the remainder of the game, until reaching its peak in the special zone.
Most of the levels in Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins aren't too difficult, but then you get to Wario's Castle, the final level, and you find yourself in a very long and difficult level compared to the rest of the game. To add insult to injury, there are no checkpoints (if you die at any point, even when fighting Wario, you have to start from the beginning).
The majority of levels in Super Mario Galaxy are very easy. Then they start getting a bit harder, but not too much, and then the difficulty of the last few stars (most of them corresponding to the galaxies accessed via the Garden dome) spikes to unexpected levels. Luigi's Purple Coins is an example of this.
Chuckie Egg gets harder quite steadily — the extra features in each round of eight levels are nicely balanced by returning to the layout of the easy Level 1. That said, the third iteration (with the hens and the Mother Duck) is much harder than anything up to that point, particularly from Level 21 onwards. Near the end, you may wonder whether it could get much harder, but the final Level 40 still manages to be another drastic leap in difficulty.
The first Harry Potter game was a fairly standard 3D platformer, with a few spell-casting or flying minigames and puzzles mixed in. Then at the end there is a boss fight, in a third-person shooter style that hadn't been seen all game, where the boss can kill you in one or two shots and you have no real offensive spells. He's a pushover when you figure out the trick to it, though.
Jed's tends to border on Schizophrenic Difficulty, with whether or not the player is attempting to collect all five of the stage's babies being a key determinate. Assuming you're only attempting to get through the level, the slope is simpler.
In Jumper, the first sector is patheticaly easy, and then there are sectors 2 and 3, that jump suddenly up. Sector 3 in Jumper Two is such a case too.
The first two chapters of Gish are relatively easy. The third chapter is a test to anyone who hasn't mastered the controls of the game as lava pools and more difficult jumps start to appear.
Kid Chameleon has a few examples: the first boss is quite difficult compared to the game up to that point, and the game after the third boss in general becomes significantly harder, with many levels containing routes through them that will kill you, levels which don't have conventional exits (or do but they're extremely difficult to get to), level loops that can make you play through the same levels over and over again until you go the right way, and many more of the hardest enemies. However, the worst of the lot is Bloody Swamp, a level so difficult most people who have beaten the game did so by taking an alternate path that allows you to avoid the level, and it is only midway through the third section of the game - though you also have to play through it if you take the route that skips you from halfway through the second world to halfway through the third. The levels after Bloody Swamp are far easier.
The Smurfs (1994) on the SNES and Generis have the final two Acts go from "hard" to "insane". The penultimate act is a single stage with omnipresent instant death (when the tree trunk bridge starts rotating under your feet, you have a split-second to jump or fall to your death); the last act has a frustrating (but hardly lethal) first level, a long and and dangerous second level (with instant death too from flies with The Virus), a short and dangerous third level and a Final Boss with One-Hit KillCollision Damage. You'll lose so many lives here that the only way to survive is to start the game from the beginning and collect Extra Lives one the way. (Fortunately, this has been somewhat toned down on the Gameboy Advance port Revenge Of The Smurfs, where at least you have infinite lives.)
Psychosomnium has the unexpectedly difficult spike-covered corridor near the end, where you have to fly through a curving path without touching any of the walls. It's so tough, compared to the rest of the game, that there's a cheat code specifically to get rid of the spikes.
Mighty Bomb Jack has the fourth stage, which is longer than earlier stages and is in multiple parts.
Banjo-Tooie increases drastically the difficulty through the second half of the game. Compare the relatively flexible Jolly Roger's Lagoon to the larger and more intrincate Terrydactyland, which in turn is followed by the even more difficult Grunty Industries.
The first difficulty spike in Something occurs at "Dat Bass!" The level has Boss Bass, but this time Boss Bass is immune to fire, so Fire Mario can't kill him.
Oh No More Lemmings has five difficulty grades for its puzzles: Tame, Crazy, Wild, Wicked and Havoc. The Tame levels are all pretty much walks in the park: 20 of each skill, four minutes, save 25 of 50 Lemmings and most times it's easy to save all 50. The other four grades, however, are total nightmares with little to distinguish each grade in terms of difficulty.
Luckily, the Dolled-Up InstallmentDr Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine was toned down somewhat, having more of a difficulty curve. Although it does have at least one spike.
Marble Blast Gold has a noticeable difficulty gap between beginner and intermediate, and between intermediate and advanced. Even worse the beginner and intermediate stages only have 24 levels each, but advanced has 52.
Levels 1 to 10 of Repton are pretty easy (once you know how to do the Repton shuffle, but that's more Guide Dang It than difficulty as such)... but the next level is "Giant clam".
Chips Challenge starts easy, staying that way during the first 22 levels. But then come levels like Blobnet (23, due to enemies that move randomly) and Blink (25, for it being a maze with teleporters), from which the game quickly increases the difficulty level. And the number of levels in total is 149.
Real Time Strategy
Command & Conquer Red Alert 2's penultimate Soviet mission. You needed to defeat Yuri's forces for good, but this was the only mission where you had to constantly hold out against enemy forces. It was also very difficult to break the base defenses without resorting to exploration or Guide Dang It behavior. At least you could build a nuke silo to hit the objective directly.
Operation: Red Revolution was hard, yes, but could be made very easy with a couple of tricks. Most importantly, capture one of the power plants on the hill near the start, then cover the cliffs with turrets and Tesla coils. The start of Operation: Chrono Defense, the final Soviet mission, is hell. The Allies repeatedly teleport tank divisions into the middle of your base while you're still setting it up. Build order is crucial, as you need to balance power supply with the all-important turrets that will save your base. And if you get the order wrong and lose power, all your construction rates drop.
The final Allied mission in the original. The Soviets have two bases, on of which is very close to where you set yours. It's small, but will get big if even you don't take it early. Even when do, you will still be under nearly constant attack from the other, very large base. In short, you are in for a very long fight. Add to this, the Soviet faction in the game is broken, you will only win fights against them through sheer numbers. As a silver lining, one of the attack routes the Soviets stupidly use goes through a fairly big lake that, so you can get an added punch from your destroyers (which outrange most of the Soviet units) and cruisers (best range and firepower in the game, but their shots have a sad tendency to miss, but they're worth it). You also get to use the Chronosphere to move a cruiser to a lake the Soviet base and pick off some of their buildings.
The fifth Soviet mission in the same game is also surprisingly difficult. The idea is to capture a Radar Station to find out what the Allied are planning. The problem is that there is a huge island filled to the brim with ressources the Allies will land on with a Mobile Construction Vehicle via naval transport should you even think of building a submarine facility. Once they did just that, the mission becomes stupidly difficult because the base over there gives them ressources to the base next to yours which will begin Zerg Rushing you with impunity. Surviving the onslaught won't help much either because you'll still have to get rid of the island base which by that point would be too big and too well defended to send your own navy transports with tanks over. The solution is the newly-introduced paradrop ability of the airfield - landing infantry on the island will still make the Allies send their MCV, but as long as you play Catch Me with your infantry while shooting it, it cannot deploy. Scratch Damage will eventually destroy it, disabling the Allies from getting anything meaningful out of it.
Starcraft had a few levels that tested people's patience. Protoss mission 7 had the player fighting against an army of Protoss that was further up the tech tree. This lead to some frustration, as the presence of Arbiters and Carriers made it difficult for anyone to reasonably counter the enemy. Most players won by massing troops or Photon Cannons instead of using any real strategy. In Brood War, Terran mission 8 got rather ridiculous when the Zerg sent in a much harder to kill Ultralisk every few minutes to harass your troops. The worst offender had to be Zerg mission 8 and 10 (in Brood War), with the former having a deadly Zerg/Terran air force, and the latter had two powerful Terran and a Protoss attacking players at once.
StarCraft II's last mission is significantly more difficult than, well, any of the previous ones. Except maybe Supernova.
Warcraft II: the final Human mission is considerably more difficult than all the previous ones, as the computer will constantly send dragons to attack you even as you're trying to build your base from scratch (fortunately, guard towers are your friend). Also doesn't help that you start off with a sizable army and no farms, forcing you to either kill off your own troops or build a zillion farms before you can even start training additional workers to increase your income rate.
All Age of Empires campaigns (and most of the Age of Mythology) raise the difficulty exponentially with each scenario. Tough requirements while giving you limited armies\resources? Enemies that start to build wonders? Being forced to break into a heavily guarded town the other side of the map? Anything goes!
Definitely the case in the Guitar Hero games...you'll be progressing along fine, then suddenly you'll hit a song that has an insanely-hard passage that you'll have to practice for a day just to pass.
"Raining Blood" from the third game is infamous for being That One Song.
In "On Tour", first it hit you with "I Don't Wanna Stop", with a hellish solo near the end; then it hits you with "I Know a Little", which has a slightly less difficult solo, but at the start of the song, before you get any star power. Then it takes a sledgehammer to your balls with "Through The Fire And The Flames".
The first Rock Band game gave us Run to the Hills on hard drums, which was so beyond anything else in that difficulty tier that most veteran players advised newbies to start the game again on a higher difficulty setting when they reached it, rather than spend hours futilely flailing away at a song that was tougher than many of the Expert tier's end-game songs. Of course, then you unlocked the same song on Expert and realized that the game had been going comparatively easy on you up to that point. note A note on "Run To The Hills": it uses a very fast "disco" beat in which two hands alternate on the hi-hat and one of them moves to hit the snare. On Expert, this means keeping a steady alternating rhythm. On Hard, every other 16th hi-hat hit is removed, resulting in an xxx-xxs-xxx-xxs pattern (where x is hi-hat, s is snare, - is a rest). While it is technically much easier, some people found this to be just as hard or even harder to keep rhythm with than Expert. Rock Band 2 changed this system with songs like Everlong to convert very fast disco beats into regular beats, removing the 16ths entirely. This means that on Everlong and some other songs, you now hit a hi-hat at the same time as the snare. These hi-hat hits don't exist in the real songs, but make much more sense as a real drummer would do the same thing if they wanted to slow down the drum-work.
Rock Band 2 followed this up with Everlong, which, while slower than Run to the Hills, has a much less intuitive bass pattern. Of course, once you get past Everlong, there are five more songs that take the difficulty to ridiculous levels: Battery, Shoulder to the Plow, Painkiller, and Panic Attack are difficult (and decently long), but Visions takes the cake. Visions has the fastest blast beats in the game, the bass is very fast, and the pattern is very technically complex. Many players can five star every other song and still can't pass Visions.
Rock Band 2's Sound Guy challenge, if there's an Expert drummer in your band. It ends with Everlong, ranked the 5th hardest song on the disc, and it's not under-rated; it's filled with high-speed 'tika-tika-tika-tika' hi-hat hits that will fail out most players unless they've been breezing through everything else up to that point. The silver lining is that if you can beat it once, you probably won't fail it afterwards, and you can switch down to Hard with little if any penalty.
Both Guitar Hero and Rock Band feature a general Difficulty Spike when moving from Medium to Hard on guitar or drums. Guitar charts start including the orange fret, meaning that you have to start moving your hands around instead of having your four fingers sit on green, red, yellow, and blue all the time. On drums, the bass pedal finds itself on the off-beats more often, forcing some extra limb independence out of players, and that's not taking into account the presence of drumrolls and fills with much more notes than one would see in a Medium chart.
Some Rock Band songs start off fairly easy, then they throw you for a loop with a vicious solo section which can easily screw up your entire run, "Can't Be Tamed" "According To You" and "Forever" are all prime examples.
"Canned Heat" from EBA also counts, as it's the only song which has its taps on the offbeat. If you're not ready for it, you'll lose quickly.
In beatmania IIDX, you don't fail a song by running out of life, but you do need to finish with your life meter at 80% or higher to clear it. Many songs will abuse this by having sudden jumps in difficulty at the end; some of the biggest offenders are Holic (Another), Blame (Another), Contract (Normal) (the rest of the song is fairly easy in comparison), and Inori (Another). This issue is subverted Go Beyond!! (Another), which has its most difficult part in the middle of the song, and the rest of the song is easy enough for someone who can clear level-11 songs to easily recover in. Many players avoid this by setting doing the "Hard" route for the life bar. In this, as long as the life doesn't reach 0%, you pass.
Many Rhythm Games have this on a select few of the hardest songs.
On Dance Dance Revolution, there is a huge gap in difficulty between most 9's and most 10's. A player who can easily get a Full Combo and/or AA on most 9's may barely scrape by with a B on a typical 10. The gap was slowly smoothed out over the years, only for Konami to release a new batch of charts so hard that they created a new gap, just as big but further up.
Also from Bemani, the difficulty progression in pop'n music stays relatively constant up until you reach Level 28, which is where the notecharts start throwing more advanced techniques (scales and jackhammers in particular) at you. Spikes also occur at Levels 32, 35, 38, and each level thereafter. Then, as with Beatmania IIDX, there are a ton of songs that will devolve into total notejam in the last ten seconds or so. Playing with the Extra Stage lifebar cuts out the 80% requirement, but you need to get specific combined level scores to access it-and from the 16th mix onward, the criteria were raised enough to make it nigh-impossible without using ojamas.
DJMAX Technika's Weekly 27 course, available only from July 12 through 19, 2010. Stage 1 is Enemy Storm [PP]; one of the easiest stage 2 songs in Popular Mode. Stage 2 is Cherokee [PP]; a few steps up but still doable for some. Then there is Stage 3, A.I. [TP], which is many steps harder than Cherokee thanks to a rather annoying repeat note segment at the end.
Hatsune Miku Project Diva has a fairly reasonable difficulty progression with every song being completable with enough practice. Then you get to The Dissapearence of Hatsune Miku and your head explodes.
Re Rave's difficulty takes a flying leap from Level 8 to Level 9, when the different note types suddenly start hitting you all at once, like having to sustain a long Follow Note while hitting random Omni Notes that appear all over the screen.
Rhythm Heaven progresses at a simple rate for the first five stages. Then the game smacks Rhythm Rally in your face, one of the least lenient mini-games in the game. Then the game smooths out again, and finally hits its head with Big Rock Finish, which doesn't allow practice for 6 of the 8 playable songs, immediately followed by Frog Hop, the longest song in the game. Then the game crashes the ceiling through your body with Lockstep, a game that is downright impossible for first-timers; Space Soccer, which nets you a fail if you mess up twice; and Remix 6 which is the first Remix to fake you out by switching minigames mid-tap. Then comes Round 2, which elongates, quickens, and/or adds effects that make focus difficult, and getting all perfects.
In Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, almost every song is available in three difficulties: Basic, Expert, and Ultimate. The increase in difficulty from Basic to Expert is reasonable. The increase in difficulty from Expert to Ultimate is absurd. A player who is good enough to Perfect Chain an Expert-level song on their first attempt is probably going to fail that same song on Ultimate difficulty within ten seconds of starting.
Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time and Darkness has a nice progression...until you hit Hidden Land. In the previous dungeon, you would face Seel, Staryu and Kingler, with the occasional Dragonair appearing every now and then. Suddenly, Dragonite, Garchomp, Magmortar and Rampardos start to raid your team with no mercy, coupled with a boss battle that can easily be That One Boss for the unprepared.
The post game follows quite nicely until you hit Miracle Sea. Enemies that return the damage dealt automatically and Octillery by dozens pelting you with Game Breaker moves from the other side of the room.
In the first games, Sky Tower is markedly harder than anything you've previously done, featuring ghosts that can move through walls, changing weather, enemies with attacks that hit the entire room, and potential Monster Houses that can be extremely dangerous.
The Binding of Isaac is already a brutal game. However, beat the game once and the Final Boss is demoted to Climax Boss and more floors are added afterwards. In these floors, everything does a full heart of damage unless you have The Wafer...which you can't get until you beat these floors multiple times. This is essentially where the game gets serious.
The Peaceful Rest Valley. Up until that point, the only challenging part was the Giant Step dungeon, and even that's not too bad if you're well-equipped. Peaceful Rest Valley teems with Demonic Spiders, especially the dreaded Territorial Oaks. It doesn't help that it takes forever to get out.
The mine is another major difficulty spike. It's a long maze level swarming with poisonous enemies, requiring you to find and defeat five giant moles. The first time playing, you will get lost and spend a long time aimlessly wandering. And it doesn't get any better afterwards; almost immediately you get forced through the Fourside Department Store and Moonside, both of which are even more difficult.
The final boss is especially notable. Although several of the Koopalings were timed boss battles, and Fawful had some hard-to-avoid attacks, they weren't too hard to deal with. Even Bowletta isn't that hard...and then you reach Cackletta's spirit. Mario and Luigi are reduced to 1 HP each, and most of the time the boss will attack first, using up to four attacks. The attacks are brand new, and if you die, you have to beat Bowletta again before getting another chance to analyze (and hopefully dodge) the attacks. It's common for an unsuspecting player to die before getting a single hit in, and the boss only adds new attacks from there.
Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time also had a difficulty spike with the final dungeon, and especially with the final boss(es). In both games, even the normal enemies in the final dungeon are a huge step up from what has come before them.
Mario & Luigi Dream Team has Somnom Woods, where the puzzles get more confusing, the enemies often become Demonic Spiders with a ton of health (especially the Beehoss) and two fairly difficult bosses lie in wait near the end. The final dungeon after this area is even harder.
It also has one earlier in the game with Mount Pajamaja, which has surprisingly difficult enemies, a Plot Tunnel which acts a temporary Point of No Return (in the dream world version) and the first potentially aggravating giant Luigi boss.
In the PS3 game Folklore, the difficulty level in the final level, the Netherworld Core, is far greater than all previous areas.
Golden Sun has a large difficulty spike whenever you enter one of the 4 elemental lighthouses.
Final bosses don't tend to count for this trope unless particularly absurd — like in Golden Sun: Dark Dawn! At the very end of a 20-30 hour game that got a lot of flak for being trivially easy from the start all the way through the penultimate triple boss (you may well never have the slightest pressure to touch your inventory in combat throughout the game), the Chaos Chimera is quite suddenly very, very powerful and grueling on the scale of the previous games' Bonus Bosses.
Dark Dawn's version of Crossbone Isle is a certified Brutal Bonus Level. Hope you did your level grinding and got all the Djinn.
At the end of the first half of Final Fantasy VI, the Floating Continent has a sudden jump in the difficulty of random monsters compared to previous locations.
Final Fantasy VIII contains a particularly nasty example, whereby a strategy that you can use to go through the entire first three discs will become entirely useless for the last one. If you've been going through the entire game with this strategy alone while not building up any other strategies, you may be screwed.
Chapters 12 and 13 can be pretty challenging if you didn't grind a lot in Chapter 11. You can't go back to the Ch. 11 area until right before the final boss, and there's no clear indication at the end of Ch. 11 that you should train.
While they aren't required, some of the later Mission Stones represent ludicrous difficulty spikes, along with some of the enemies that wander Gran Pulse. It's quite possible to beat the game without ever bothering with the upgrade system, for instance. But if you get far enough along in the Missions? Yeah. Need upgraded EVERYTHING - which probably takes you as long or longer to do than beating the entire game, storyline-wise. Oh, and those wandering turtles.. Guide Dang It.
Boss fights in Tales of Vesperia tend to be rather jarringly difficult in comparison to the average random battle, but especially during the fight with Gattuso some players chose to change the battle difficulty to "easy". This spike in boss difficulty takes place, oddly enough, about five hours into the game.
Same with Alexei, but it tends to be amplified after traversing the Disc One Final Dungeon and all gels and life bottles have been exhausted getting to the boss.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is a pretty easy game to get through, provided you have even a small idea of what you're doing. Then you hit the final area. All of the enemy numbers that had been missing through the rest of the game come to bite you in the arse. That nice, skilled, diplomatic character you played? Toast. You won't even make it to the final boss without spending all of your money on healing items and saving often, or lowering the difficulty level. The boss itself has the nasty ability to one-shot weaker characters, ignore your attacks, and recover himself multiple times.
This section is even more annoying as a Dark Side character, when you are stuck with a recently returned and recently nerfed NPC. You can't opt out of taking them in.
For a combat-focused character it's fairly easy though. It's the ones that focused on other skills that get it in the shorts.
Fallout Tactics does this pretty much every time the story shifts focus. You start off with leather armor and conventional weapons, fighting raiders. When your squad moves on to battling the beastlords, if you haven't learned the value of stealth in your tactics you will have to if you want to survive, let alone complete missions. Plus you encounter Deathclaws, which are suitably lethal. From then, you go on to super mutants, with the first major difficulty spike (though at least the game forewarns you), where no matter how clever your tactics are, if you don't find a good gun soon you will simply not have the punch to kill the mutants. After you defeat the mutant leader, you then seem to have hit a difficulty plateau, as your next mission involves the Reavers, technophiles who practically worship their creations...but that's a fake-out, as you now have to deal with robots, which can shrug off attacks that would shred even the toughest super-mutants.
Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura seems rather tricky in and out of Shrouded Hills, lobs you enough easy experience in Tarant, only to send you to the Black Mountain Mines, which will surely kill you once or twice even if you know what to expect.
The main problem is that a) Arcanum's combat system has its flaws, b) the Black Mountain Mines are a pure dungeon crawl against enemies that do damage to melee weapons if you attack with them (or do damage to you, if you use your fists). Add to that significant portions of the game being cut-off until you finish the Black Mountain Mines...
The Bloodmoon expansion is especially guilty of this, Hircine is not even the worst part, he was pretty easy compared to this: A player who can't be harmed (literally, using constant healing amulets or something similar) in all of Vvardenfell will have a challenging game on Solstheim, the Isle of the Bloodmoon EP. Still, it won't be too hard. That is, until you chose to finish the main quest as a werewolf. Then you're stripped off all your items and magic spells and face >30 enemies who are about as strong as you and attack in packs of 2-4, everything without a chance to heal yourself. To make things worse, if you manage it, your reward will be less than it would be if you took the easy path.
Also simply starting a new game with the expansions installed. Whenever you go to sleep, you have a chance of an assassin being near your bed when you wake. This assassin, meant for players who had already beaten the original game, will quickly kill you at low levels.
Pokémon games will normally have a huge level difference between the team of the final gym leader and the team of the first member of the Elite Four...and the champion of the Elite Four is in a whole different weight class.
Pokémon Diamond and Pearl/Platinum and Pokémon Red and Blue/Yellow/Green throw an extra curveball by having the champion have a Pokémon with no weaknesses. note Spiritomb and Alakazam, respectively. Remember that the first generation had no Dark type, Ghost was bugged, and Bug was nearly useless, making pure Psychics like Alakazam effectively weakness-free.
After the Elite 4, it only gets worse. There are usually various bonus battles scattered across the region, including rematches with upgraded Gym Leaders and the Elite 4, who now all have a new team of Pokémon from all across the world (instead of being limited to the region the game is set in), usually in their seventies. The Rival also gains a few extra levels. And then there's the Battle Frontier...
Pokémon Black & White add a new spin: by the first time you reach the Elite 4, their levels will range from mid 40's to 54. Once you beat them and upcoming opponents you'll unlock the rest of Unova for exploration... where even the average trainers will have their pokémon above level 60. Grinding at the Elite 4 is out of question, because suddenly their weakest pokémon are above level 70.
To compensate for this, some of these Level 60+ Pokémon aren't fully evolved for whatever reason and give decent amounts of exp when beaten. However, this makes the trainers that are using final forms difficulty spikes in comparison to the ones that aren't.
HeartGold and SoulSilver are particularly egregious. The highest-leveled Pokemon in the Elite Four is level 50. The Kanto gym leaders have Pokemon in the 40s and 50s. However, Red's entire team has levels in the 80s.
Except inbetween battling the Elite Four and Kanto Gym leaders the first time and Red is the rematches with the E4 and the Gym leaders. The Gym leaders get up in the 60s range and the Champion Lance gets into the 70s.
Depending on how you look at, the original games are less or more crazy. Blue's best Pokémon are Arcanine, Gyarados and Exeggutor, at Lv. 58. What's Red weakest mon? Lv. 73 Espeon, FIFTEEN levels higher. Five less than in remakes (Lv. 80 Lapras versus Lv. 60 Pidgeot) but when you think about... Gym Leaders and E4 don't get upgrade. The strongest trainer you can easily rematch is Lance, with Lv. 50 Dragonite. That's lower than Blue's weakest Pokémon! With wild Pokémon, it goes up to Lv. 52 Parasect in Mount Silver. However, it is only Crystal. In Gold/Silver, it's Lv. 51 Golduck. And then find where they appear! In other words, prepare for LOT of grinding.
In GSC, while the Elite 4 doesn't upgrade, there's also a slightly lesser spike between Blue and Red's levels. Fortunately, in the remakes, the Elite 4 does upgrade to help you level grind better. Of course, you'll need every bit of grinding you can get in preparation for Red.
Pokémon Colosseum is also this way when you hit Realgam Tower. Everything up to the final boss is level 47 to 49 max. But then you hit Nascour, who's in the 50s,and then Evice and all his team is 60 and 61. Prepare to go enter several Colosseum battles to get your team high enough to beat him.
Mega Man Battle Network. An interesting case, as the series as a whole spikes difficulty distinctly at each installment. The entire first game is basically an extended tutorial sequence for the rest of the series. Sure, there are a couple places you can get trashed (Magicman says hi), but the game actually expects you to not be particularly adept at the quirky combat system just yet — you don't notice at first because you're still adjusting to the mechanics, but there's a ton of leeway. MMBN2 stops pulling punches when you get to Quickman and is never forgiving enough to do so again. By 3, there is no Warmup Boss — the first one is downright vicious. 4-6 are just plain ornery.
Then you go back and play the series in sequence again and realize the following. Tactics, reaction time, maneuvering, and mistakes that would let you S-rank an opponent in the first game would give you about an 8 at best in BN2, 4-5 in BN3, and would in all likelihood get you outright killed in the last three.
Each game also has a massive difficulty spike upon entering the Undernet. Say goodbye to the slow, cutesy Mets, and get used to your deadliest virus no longer being a Bunny. Say hello to meteor-raining mages, Spikies that move faster than any Bunny you've seen so far, arena shenanigans, and absolutely brutal enemy combinations that will happily murder you and eat your source code. Granted, it's not too hard to adjust to, but the sheer spike in difficulty more than makes up for it.
Mega Man 1 also had a notable but optional one. The boss often fought first, Cut Man, is usually followed by Elec Man in the weakness chain.
Occurs a few other times in future games. Mega Man 2's Flash Man is pathetically easy if you know his weakness. Who is his weapon used for? Quick Man.
Toad Man is, with a certain trick, the easiest Robot Master in the series. His weapon is the weakness of Bright Man, who without a different certain trick, is probably one of the hardest Robot Masters in the series.
Enemies get much stronger after completing Hollow Bastion in Kingdom Hearts. The game itself even tells you that they have.
In the final level of Chainof Memories, be prepared for all of the previously easy enemies such as Darkball and Shadows to be upgraded to ridiculous levels, with them using 0 cards strategically, 8's out the ass, and generally being royal dicks. You literally have to have a deck of nothing but 9's in order to win.
Note, however, than 100% of the 0 Card Breaks come from fucking Neoshadows.
In Avernum 4, the difficulty curve is very gentle — until you hit the Eastern Gallery, at which point it shoots sharply upward, before settling back down to a more moderate climb for the rest of the game. Wall, thy name is Chitrach.
MS Saga: A New Dawn has a high spike after you lose one of the main healer, Aeon, and the choice of worthwhile mobile suits are limited to the five Gundams from Mobile Suit Gundam Wing series and the Burning Gundam, all which require you to go fight loads of That One Bosses with only two healer at max and a few melee tankers, one with very outdated unchangable suit to boot.
Mass Effect 2 on Insanity is manageable during the first recruitment missions. Definitely very challenging, but if you've practiced, they're reasonable. Then...you get to Horizon and fight the Collectors. Pretty much anytime you fight the Collectors, it's like this.
Just imagine it. First you've got the regular Collectors who have stronger weapons and shields than almost any other enemies in the game. Guardians and Assassins will beat you down. Then...Harbinger shows up and Assumes Direct Control. This guy will constantly spam fireball attacks and use a certain attack that will knock you out of cover allowing you to be hit by an immediate fireball and fire from the other Collectors. Then you've got the Scions who will constantly move forward with an attack that keeps your shields drained for about 30 seconds if it hits. Two shots from it, and you are dead. Finally, there are the Praetorians. You'll have to go through this hell a few times over the course of the game. But it is satisfying as hell to get through.
Horizon is generally considered to be the hardest level to get through, simply because you're up against the full might of the Collectors, but your choice of weapons or squad members is limited. The Collector Ship is easier, simply because you get advanced weapon training there and have something that can deal with those damn Scions.
The Suikoden series of games follow a general pattern: The majority of the game is smooth and easy to handle, with random encounters increasing in difficulty but never becoming unmanageable, and relatively few bosses that are usually fairly simple, with maybe one or two of those kinds of bosses. Then the Final Boss or series of bosses comes up, and they are a hitpoint-munching game-over machine. They tend to be about five or six times harder than the entire rest of the game.
In Dragon Slayer, the fifth through eighth monsters have 5,000 HP, 7,500 HP, 10,000 HP and 20,000 HP. Then the ninth monster has 300,000 HP.
Dragon Quest VIII's Bonus Dungeon has a boss at the end of it, and you must go through it each time to defeat a new one. The Darksteel Dragon is much more difficult. He has far less HP than his predecessors, but his defense is so high that, barring critical-or-miss attacks, you won't hit him that often. Also, he gets triple attacks.
Before that, there is a certain mandatory random encounter with a pack of wolves that is certain to get you killed multiple times if you don't know what you're doing.
All of Dark Souls is hard, but Blighttown, with its maze-like layout, powerful, toxin-inducing foes, difficult to see toxin-inducing snipers, is where things really start getting tough. Another difficulty spike is Sen's Fortress, which comes immediately after Blighttown. The area is a convention center for booby traps and considerably strong mooks than previously encountered.
Monster Racers has Eurasia. The first two areas, Oceania and Asia, are easy to the point of being silly, usually being cases of "hold right to win." There are a couple oddballs (such as the Breeder's Cup), but for the most part, they're easy to moderately difficult. Then Eurasia smacks you in the face with snowy terrain (one of the most difficult to race on), high-leveled enemies, and much more brutal AI. And it only gets harder from there.
The second spike comes once you get to the Amaterasu server, but the game is infamous among those who played it in that wild digimon can vary wildly in power from just one screen to the other, with absolutely no indication that you have just stepped into an area that you really shouldn't be in at that particular point in time. If you go out exploring too far in the wrong direction you can easily run into a super powerful wild digimon that your team won't possibly be able to defeat (given that the game's encounter rate is fairly high it may be difficult to get out of an area like this without dying).
Early on in Final Fantasy X, the monsters are pretty weak, and if you know who to use on what, will usually go down in one or two hits. Then comes Macalania Woods - the monsters are more durable, and they'll be using attacks that unless you've leveled properly will be putting down everybody but your tanks.
The first several hours of Xenogears are pretty easy; a couple of the Gear bosses might cause some trouble, but nothing some basic strategizing won't fix. Then you enter the Nortune Sewers. All of the enemies hit hard, many cause status ailments (practically unheard of until this point), the area is a maze, and just initiating the boss is a puzzle that might result in the player wandering around for some time. Also, said boss is one of the most maligned in the game.
In the Neopets browser game NeoQuest II, the game's difficulty fluctuates, but there is quite an increase about halfway through Act IV, first when you fight The FourFaeries and the optional Hubrid Nox. Then the monsters in the Nox Mountains and the Goo Bog have stronger team synergy than seen before, with powerful spellcasters that aim for your mage and living slimes that slow your team and haste themselves. The spike ends right when you fight The Esophagor, and doesn't come back until the end of Act V.
In Robopon, around the fifth or fourth-ranked competitor of both games, things get hard fast.
The World Ends with You gets harder with each week in the story. On-field enemies get stronger and the boss fights become a lot more challenging, with some requiring you to really think in order to figure out their weakness. The fact that you have to adjust to controlling Neku's new partner in each week only adds to it. The game's control scheme involves using Neku and his partner simultaneously in battle (Neku on the bottom screen, his partner on the top). There's an AI that controls the top-screen character if you don't but it's not that good, which means you'll have to get the hang of it fast and you definitely need too, since you share the same health bar and some of the later boss fights involve fighting a boss on each screen.
Shoot Em Up
Old-time gamers would reference the arcade game Sinistar. If you were on the ball, the first level was a snap. The second was absolutely brutal, and it just got worse.
In the flash game BloonsSuperMonkey, the game get so much harder after the first MOAB in the first game. It gets worse in the sequel, as the first MOAB is stage five!!
The first three and a half stages of DoDonPachi are designed to break you in. The rest of the game is designed to break you.
And then there's the second loop. And then there's Hibachi, who makes the entire rest of the game look like cheesecake.
True to its predecessor, DoDonPachi Daifukkatsu's first 4 stages are pretty easy. Then comes stage 5, which is significantly harder. If you make it into the second loop, stage 2-1 makes stage 5 look like cake, and it only gets harder from there. And of course there's Hibachi.
Continuing the trend, DoDonPachi Saidaioujou's 4th stage is as hard as the first 3 stages combined, stage 5 is twice as hard as stage 4, and Hibachi is as hard as ever. Except this time there's a second True Final Boss, Inbachi, who makes even Hibachi look like a piece of cake.
Many fans of the Touhou series would actually feel weird with a game that didn't include at least one difficulty spike. It's very traditional that the game gets into its real difficulty level only around level 4 or so, being comparatively easy before. Some particular games do it one level before, some it one after, but the fact that there will be a difficulty spike is unavoidable.
Also, the gap between Hard and Lunatic tends to be much bigger than between Easy and Normal and between Normal and Hard.
The most pronounced spike is in normal mode of Ten Desires...it's the Final Boss. Within the same game, the overdrive version of a spellcard is often vastly worse than any of the other versions, including lunatic.
Except for Yuyuko's overdrive. You don't even have to move from where you start in it — that's less movement than for "Icicle Fall -Easy-" itself!
The first stage of Toaplan's Flying Shark/Sky Shark is only moderately hard, but the "moderately" part goes away after that. Doesn't help that it has Fake Difficulty by way of Gradius syndrome.
Blazing Star turns nasty when you're up to the boss of stage 3, which attempts to overwhelm you by boxing you into a very small space with its attacks, then sprays bullets maniacally in its last form. Stage 4 has enemies that appear so quickly the game has to warn you where they're coming from, and a boss that throws destructible bullets which end up blocking your shots, while frequently trying to ram you. Stage 5 has wall-mounted turrets that fire bullets in every direction at once, and a boss that does the same for one of its attacks but in a denser spread. Stage 6? Let's just say, I hope you know how big your ship's hitbox is.
In Beat Hazard you can consider yourself screwed when the music gets quiet.
All of the Raiden games do this around Stage 3, but Raiden IV takes the cake, increasing its bullet density to near Dodonpachi levels. Not to mention the second loop and True Final Boss.
Raiden II has an especially large spike in the second and third levels on the higher two difficulty settings. Sniper tanks, sniper tanks, everywhere.
The first 16 tutorial levels for Bangai-O Spirits teach you the mechanics of the game. The 17th (last) is an average difficulty level. On a scale of 1 to 100, the first 16 are all 5s or below, and the last is a 40. This is mitigated a bit since one of the demos shows a way to beat this one with the loadout given.
Rez's third area takes a nasty leap in difficulty. Then there's the boss, which is much harder than the first two.
Mushihime-sama Futari's Original Mode has a massive one shortly after the stage 3 midboss. The section of stage 3 between the midboss and the boss is harder than the first two stages combined, and so is the stage 3 boss.
Heavy Weapon After the rather manageable Dictastroika (with a rather easy boss, War Wrecker), you go into Zamblamia where you fight blimps with tons of health and explode into a shower of hard-to-avoid, indestructible purple balls, and a durable helicopter enemy that spams homing missiles. The boss at the end "Kommie Kong" is also a Wake-Up Call Boss to those playing the PC version.
Black & White 2's levels are pretty easy with the AI throwing a couple of battalions of troops at your villages every so often, easy to defend against provided you have wall, a troop of warriors yourself and if that fails you can send out your creature to fight while you causally build up resources. In the last level you face full on assault by multiple cities at the start, you've got restricted resources and then your whole village is destroyed by a volcano and while rebuilding you'll be constantly attacked.
Sim Copter, as bizarre as that sounds. Start up a custom map, and try to adjust the sliders that control the chance of a mission spawning. The result is not for the faint of heart.
Freespace 2 to some extent - the first three missions are a warm-up, most of the rest of the game has a normal progression...
...then you are promoted to Squadron Leader of the elite 70th Blue Lions and are immediately given a near-impossible escort mission - where much of the difficulty comes from your reinforcement wing being absolutely green, despite flying in supposedly elite-only fighters. The following two missions are definitely on the high-difficulty side as well, but the final mission is a bit of a cool-down.
Harvest Moon Frantic Farming: Most of the characters' story modes are fairly straightforward. Most have a gradual increase in difficulty, and the boss battles with the Witch Princess are basically Survival Mode battles in disguise. And then there's Vaughn's final stage. You have to score 100,000 points in five minutes. You haven't been required to do more than 75,000 before (and won't be required to for any of the other characters). Vaughn's special skill (Instantly harvesting any big vegetables on the field) is totally at the mercy of the game board and your two AI partners are near useless. Beating Vaughn's last stage is practically a Luck-Based Mission.
The Battle of Yavin from the original X-Wing. Most of the game has Schizophrenic Difficulty, even after the Redemption mission. The three missions comprising the assault on the Death Star ratchets up the difficulty significantly for the rest of the game. There are lesser difficulty spikes in the final missions of the two previous Tours of Duty, but these are nothing compared to the Battle of Yavin.
Going to the next division on the Soccer games, FIFA Soccer and Pro Evolution Soccer. Because your team will probaly go to the next division unprepared, you're going to have a hard time dealing against the opponents because they can be way better than you. This can bite hard if you go up to the 1st division, because that's where the powerhouse Clubs reside.
Punch Out Wii has Bear Hugger, who's much trickier than his predecessors (every fighter before him had a method to knock them down with one hit; the only way to do so with Bear-Hugger is with a three-star punch). He also marks where Title Defense gets painful.
In Mario Power Tennis, the tournaments aren't too bad; even a moderately skilled player can get through them without much difficulty. Then comes the Planet Cup, the final cup of the Star Tournaments, specifically the Doubles version. The difficulty bumps up substantially between the Moonlight Cup and the Planet Cup, almost to a shocking degree. If one's skills aren't up to par, the Planet Cup will almost certainly push the player to the limit.
In All-Pro Football 2K8, the Los Angeles Legends are a My Rules Are Not Your Rules stacked team which had far more elite players than you were allowed. They were all but guaranteed to make the playoffs, so unless you got lucky and someone else took them out, you would wind up facing them at some point in your quest for the title.
A massive chunk of the browser game Winnie the Pooh's Home Run Derby's notoriety and Surprise Difficulty comes from its brutal difficulty spikes. Eeyore through Piglet aren't difficult once one gets the controls down, and while Kanga and Rabbit will catch unsuspecting players off guard they are manageable with practice. Then come Owl and Tigger, whose gimmicks (zigzagging and invisible pitches respectively) will have a player tearing their hair out in frustration. And lurking beyond them is Christopher Robin himself, who can throw any pitch in the game at incredible speeds, and the home run quota needed to beat him gives one absolutely no margin for error.
Stealth Based Game
The original Thief: The Dark Project suffers a huge difficulty spike going from Mission 4, 'Assassins' to Mission 5, 'The Sword'. The Gold version adds a new mission, 'The Downwind Thieves' Guild', between the two specifically to smooth the bump a little.
The original Tenchu has a bit of an erratic difficulty curve: the first 3 stages are the learning steps, with the third being a bit more challenging but still manageable. Stages 4 and 5 (which, coincidentally, weren't part of the original japanese release) are longer, more complex and mook-filled than before. Stages 6 and 7 are quite more toned down (specially the Manji temple, where the player can cut to the chase and go directly to the boss). And then comes Stage 8, set on a mountain top where there's a lack of hiding spots and an overabundance of Bottomless Pits, plus archer mooks who can snipe at you from the other end of the chasm. The last two stages are slightly easier by virtue of lacking any Bottomless Pit (though the last one is three times as large as any previous one).
The second game isn't as bad, as long as you're not going for the Grandmaster ranking since, unlike every other game in the series, the requirements for the rank change from level to level. So, some levels let you a bit of leeway in terms of Stealth Kills/being seen, while others force you to Stealth Kill every mook in the entire stage while not being seen. Even still, Ayame's Story Mode is a more straight example, throwing in a "Not Be Seen or Game Over" requirement in Stage 3, and the tricky Stage 8 and its respective boss, Kotaro the Tiger, which if it gets you on your back, can pretty much end the battle unscathed.
Dead Space is a fair challenge save for the (turret mini-game) in chapter four. It is mandatory that this part is completed to advance in the game. The reason this portion is so difficult is that the margin for error is strikingly slim compared with the rest of the game.
Fatal Frame is fairly manageable during the 1st Night. However, the 2nd night increases the difficulty dramatically. There are more ghosts and they are far more powerful and harder to target. The Blind Woman in particular is prevalent throughout this night and has a tendency to teleport around the room before rushing the player.
Third Person Shooter
Playing Max Payne on the level "New York Minute" is like shooting yourself in the head. You get a minute per section, and you can only get about 4 seconds per kill.
While Oni isn't exactly an easy game, the difficulty of level 11 comes out of nowhere with three tough bosses in a row, broken up by fights against some of the toughest mooks in the game, along with very meager supplies; most of which is gotten off the bodies of your enemies, then the game goes back to the normal overall difficulty curve for the rest of the game.
The absurdly difficult final section of level 3 tops that easily. Good lord, the death count nearly reached the triple digits. At least the next level went easy on the player after that onslaught. An honorable mention goes to level 12. Dodging five sets of trip lasers (which are armed with near-fatal Mercury Bow rifles) at the start makes for some frustrating gameplay. It's not quite as sadistic, but agonizing, nonetheless.
Turn Based Strategy
Chessmater 3000 added a feature to make it easier for less experienced players - a slider that controlled the percentage of moves it considers. Because of how AI systems work, this led to a difficulty spike where some players can always defeat it at 99% difficulty but always lose at 100%. Chessmaster 4000 corrected this by using move strength rather than hiding random moves from the AI.
Final Fantasy Tactics somewhat bizarrely has its difficulty spike midway through the game. The Riovannes castle is absolute murder, first with an Annoying Duel Boss (Weigraf) then That One Boss (Velius) then finishing with the Escort Mission From Hell (lemming-Rafa). Nothing that comes after that point is anywhere near as brutal as Riovannes.
If your levels are low, the Golgorand Execution Site will force you to gain some more. The time mages, archers, knights (dark and otherwise) are a well-oiled player-killing machine.
Final Fantasy Tactics A2 has this for its Bonus Dungeon. The dungeon is made up of several floors followed by the top floor, so you'll have several rounds of fighting. Most of the enemy levels range from 45-55, but when you hit the top, the enemy levels suddenly SHOOT UP to level 90-99! Unless you had spent tons of time level grinding, most players will be totally caught off guard. Just to insult you further, the enemies on the towers' top floors will be able to take extra turns and cast Haste on themselves.
Of note is that all enemies in said dungeon get a turn at the start of the battle - no matter anyone's speed stat - so you can't just grind and kill them before they have at least a single turn. Or, far more likely, 5-6 turns, as that first turn is almost always spent casting Light Curtain, which hastes the already ludicrously-fast enemy party.
The last two maps of Disgaea are simply murderous. The penultimate battle pits you against a major villain who isn't terribly tough himself, but is protected by a whopping eighteen guardsnote Note the game engine will only allow something like 24 entities on the map at once, so your usual unit cap is artificially lowered until you manage to kill some of them off.. Nearly two-to-one odds against your party, and comparably levelled too. Then the final boss inverts this problem- his guards are fewer and not as tough, but the boss himself is so ridiculously overpowered that all but your most powerful characters can't even scratch him. Even with a few of those characters on your side, it's a hit-and-miss fight because he'll occasionally use a standard attack to kick off a Counter war. All those times you laughed at enemies who you dealt the deathblow to with a Counter-Counter? Feel their pain, dirtbag.
Disgaea in general is a little tough between the late game story, up to where you can complete the Cave of Ordeals, and then later after you've defeated Priere and Marjoly. The real reason is because by about chapter 11 in the story, enemy levels start spiking and you need to start level grinding to survive, whereas before you could usually stay competitive just by leveling normally. From there on you need to deliberately stop and level grind, but until you can mid-way through the Cave of Ordeals it's difficult to do that. Then, once it's time to take on Baal, the previous level grinding areas just aren't giving you effective returns anymore.
All of the Disgaea games have a similar difficulty curve; the levels raise by around ten in the first six chapters, then start shooting up by five or so levels per map in the last seven or so; although this is only preparation for the post-gamecontent, which goes to absurd lengths to top itself.
Only 3 missions into Advance Wars you're hit across the face with Air Ace. Not only does the enemy get a factory to manufacture units while you don't, not only are you grossly outnumbered by air units with little means of defense, but the enemy CO is Eagle. The already deadly overpowered air units gain a 20% power boost and fuel bonus under his command, and his CO Power lets him strike twice in one turn. Good luck.
Provided Air Ace left you standing in one piece, you'll run into Blizzard Battle a few missions later if you chose the Max route. The goal is to capture 10 properties, which is easier said than done. Your opponent has you outnumbered 13 to 7, and already has 6 properties to your 3. Worse still is his CO Power, which not only weakens you but also reduces your movement range while he gleefully moves unhindered.
The third mission of Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising, though not impossibly hard, is a cruel spike in difficulty compared to the earlier missions. Your opponent is Lash, the best commander in the entire game next to Sturm himself, and your using Sami the weakest of the three Orange Star commanders. Not only does the enemy get a factory to deploy new units while you don't, but you also only have seven turns to win the battle. There's very little room for error; even playing the level flawlessly still typically ends on turn 6 or 7.
Mission 10 in Advance Wars: Days of Ruin is both harder than anything before it and harder than a lot of missions after it. It's the first time your enemy has both production facilities and the money to take good advantage of them, and he additionally has a strong offensive force around his base. The enemy also tends to dig in rather than charge (which is odd given the enemy CO for the mission is the Beast, who usually did the exact opposite previously), meaning you have to roust him out, which is going to cost you some units.
The original Panzer General has a nasty spike on the third mission—the invasion of Norway—but only if you have received major victories on both of the first two missions. Your "rewards" for doing so well on the first two missions: your first naval battle, which is easily lost yet critical to the mission; your first real air battle; the first time the weather turns against you, introducing low visibility, uncrossable rivers, and making your air forces useless; and a nasty journey through rough terrain between the final two target cities, meaning even if you make it that far you are likely to run out of time traveling through the wilderness.
Fire Emblem Awakening has three difficulty levels: Normal, Hard and Lunatic. The jump from Normal to Hard isn't too major, it just provides a minor bit of Early Game Hell. The jump from Hard to Lunatic, on the other hand, is massive. And then beating Lunatic unlocks Lunatic+, which... let's just say some of the early chapters are considered a flat-out Luck-Based Mission and leave it at that.
Twisted Metal 2 had a very strange difficulty curve. The eight levels went something like this: very easy > hard > very easy > average > very easy > hard > OMFG COMPLETELY IMPOSSIBLE > average.
The difficulty of a level was inversely proportional to the amount of cover you could find, with the easy levels having places where the AI wouldn't even go. The second level was fairly easy, but only if you managed to pick up the full health before either an opponent grabbed it or the ramp leading to it got blown up taking all of the cover and the lightning generator with it, in which case it just got a lot harder. Then suddenly that seventh level had nine opponents in a small square field with no cover other than two windmills that explode after ten seconds of enemy fire. Good luck.
Twisted Metal 3 has two notable spikes up: the first in the second stage, which is pretty much Holland minus hiding spots and a not so easyMini-Boss. All following stages are more or less not that hard afterwards, and then one reaches the 7th stage, Egypt. It's also sorta like Holland, except the hiding spots don't break down and the general terrain has thousands of bumps, making handling and avoiding enemy fire very tricky. The final stage wouldn't probably be as hard if it wasn't for the 5 pannels the player must destroy so the enemies stop respawning after death.
Wide Open Sandbox
Saints Row 2 difficulty rises pretty evenly, as long you're following all story threads at about the same rate, collecting sidequest rewards as you go. The game likely expects the rest of the game to be completed before starting the Epilogue chapter...and it's highly recommended, as the difficulty leaps in each mission are tough to scale even for completionists.
Non-video game examples:
The first few legs of The Amazing Race are typically very straightforward, but generally around leg 3 or 4 (though this is not a concrete rule, as some seasons never have a Difficulty Spike, while Season 10 had its spike in the first leg) the handholding stops and the difficulty ramps up. This leads to some teams being a part of the lead pack for the first few legs, but ultimately dropping off and finishing in the middle of the pack. The most obvious example would be from leg 3 of Season 6, the infamous hay bale Roadblock, considered by many to be the hardest task in race history (it reduced one racer to tears).
The last two seasons of America's Next Top Model have added a challenge where the contestants must participate in a music video. A music video. Where they have to sing. Yes, that's right, the chance of being a successful Top Model lies in the hands of whether or not you can do something completely irrelevant to your profession and entirely separate from what you have practiced yourentire fucking life. Needless to say, the two models it killed off also happened to be considered the ones most adept at, you know, modeling.
Many players feel this occurs once you make it to the vertical playfield in Banzai Run.
The FA Cup is seeded so that teams from different levels of the game enter the competition in different rounds. The preliminary rounds are between the, mostly amateur, non-league teams with the professional sides of the third and fourth divisions joining in the first round proper. The level spikes again with the third round when the elite clubs enter. Somewhat subverted, in that the smaller clubs actually prefer the most difficult matches - away to one of the best sides - for financial reasons.
The people in charge of the Scripps National Spelling Bee used to call Round Three "the Lawnmower Round". On at least one occasion, it took out two-thirds of the competitors. The word-selection committee eventually readjusted their entire method of ranking words simply to get around that.