This particular valley of difficulty usually occurs between the opening chapter of the game (where there are so few options that it is hard to make a wrong choice) and the point where a player becomes able to understand and accumulate the resources at their disposal, significantly increasing their available options. It is essentially a symptom of Unstable Equilibrium.
Remember, Tropes Are Not Bad. Use of Early Game Hell can make progression infinitely more rewarding. Early Game Hell can also be the only time the game ever presents a challenge. On the other hand, sometimes developers are aware of this particular trope and give you a Crutch Character and/or A Taste of Power to compensate. In addition, this trope is often why the Healer Signs On Early. Another thing to keep in mind is that the player generally has less freedom in the early game, with less combinations of party members, items, etc to choose from, so players that spend a lot of time between battles optimizing these things are harder hit with this trope, while a Challenge Gamer that refuses to use new features as they're earned will be less affected.
Super Trope of Early Bird Boss, and often overlaps with Schizophrenic Difficulty. If there are difficulty options and the "Easy" mode is harder for whatever reason, that's Non-Indicative Difficulty.
Not to be confused with the way that early video games tended to be brutally unforgiving because the medium was too new to find a good skill/challenge balance, which is Nintendo Hard.
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The Zeon campaign in Gundam Crossfire, especially if you picked the E.F.F first. The early Zeon mobile suits are blatantly worse in every ways that matter (the wet paper-thin armour being especially problematic) and the early missions have you facing more and much more advanced enemy equipment than what the E.F.F has to fight at the same point of time. However, as newer and much better Zeon suits become available for purchase, the difficulty evens out.
Hello Kitty Roller Rescue's New Game+ has this when you play as Badtz-Maru. He has lower health than Kitty has—though by the end of the game he has more health than she does.
Ninja Gaiden Black/Sigma qualifies in Master Ninja mode (the Harder Than Harder Than Hard mode): you do the first chapter with no weapons, upgrades or techniques but instead of weaklings you fight the strongest and cheapest Ninja enemies. Reaching the first save point literally becomes the hardest part of the game.
The Legend of Zelda I and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link are very brutal in the beginning where enemies are strong and you lack decent gear and enough hearts to survive. As you progress, you'll find better items and your life meter will be longer, thus you can endure enemies a lot better.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past starts out very difficult, since most enemies will deal a full heart of damage even though you only have a three-heart capacity. It later becomes perhaps the easiest of the 2D Zelda games, since the difficulty curve doesn't keep up after you start finding better weapons and protective gear.
And once again the same can be said for Link's Awakening. The earlier bosses are likely to be the hardest due to your low heart capacity. In fact, Moldorm, widely considered to be That One Boss in A Link to the Past, is the first boss in this game! Conversely, the boss of the eighth (and penultimate) dungeon is laughably easy thanks to the Fire Rod.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask has a rough beginning due to some cruel factors that affect Link since the beginning. Since his Ocarina of Time was stolen, he's unable to travel back in time and thus unable to save his progress. Until he's able to revert the situation, he has to perform several tasks under a time limit of three days, which even pass on a much faster rate than in later gameplay sessions (each hour normally lasts 45 real life seconds, but in this first loop it only lasts 27 seconds; symbolically, this represents the urgency Link has to improve his situation).
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword has Hero Mode, which doubles damage done to you and eliminates recovery hearts. Once you get the Heart Medal (which takes beating at least three dungeons) and start amassing more Heart Containers, the game becomes far easier, but early on it is quite easy to die to even the simplest enemies.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is like this, akin to its predecessor. At the beginning, enemies are extremely dangerous and do a lot of damage, with those in Hero Mode being able to kill Link in just two hits. Then however you get the special tunics that double defence, more and more heart containers and the insanely powerful upgraded items... and the difficulty kind of drops like a stone as a result. The pattern actually occurs twice too, with Lorule's first few hours of gameplay being a bit like a repeat of the start (thanks to the much tougher normal enemies). Then after a few dungeons and sidequests, that too loses its difficulty.
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon has Thief Mode, where all of your stats (save for intelligence), HP, and MP are cut in half in exchange for 1600 Luck that goes up 160 each level. at the beginning of the game, enemies can kill you in about 2 or 3 hits and your attacks are incredibly weak, but as your luck goes up you can easily collect equipable items that more than make up for your reduced stats and max out your healing items. By the end of the game, even the Battle Arena can be easiest to beat in this mode.
Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia runs on this trope. At first, Shanoa has one weak weapon, meaning she will likely die many times before she starts acquiring more potent weapons and techniques. Once she does, the game drops in difficulty to become only very difficult, slightly below Nintendo Hard, once you learn which monsters are weak against which weapons.
Dark Souls! Early game, pretty much everything can one-hit-kill you somehow, you've got no clue where anything is, no weapon upgrades, no way to repair damaged gear, not enough souls to buy things like anti-poison moss and arrows and not enough stats to use any of the more powerful weapons. Not to mention not knowing what to expect, not knowing how hard the game can really be, and not knowing that you need to be on guard at all times. Late game, you've got the gear, you've got enough health to take at least one hit from pretty much everything (though not much more than that), you know to keep your guard up, and you either know or can guess the attack patterns of everything you come across.
Dark Souls II makes the early game even more brutal: you can easily miss getting your Estus Flask, and it starts with only one use instead of five. The game introduces more common healing items, but your supply will be limited until defeat a certain boss and get the merchant to move to Majula. Items the first game quickly gave an in infinite supply from merchants, including basic Titanite Shards, Poison Moss, Homeward Bones, and Prism Stones, you will only be able to buy a fixed number of until potentially very late in the game. Blocking starts out harder because shields that block 100% of physical damage are rare and/or have high stat requirements. Dodging starts out harder because rolls start with almost no invincibility frames, and only get as many as you had in the first game by significantly increasing your agility.
Many players never got past the first chapter of Dark Cloud because the very beginning of the game can be sheer torture: before you have access to a shop, you get a VERY limited cache of supplies from the mayor of Norune; your weak weapon needs to be repaired frequently (and God help you if you run out of Repair Powder at a critical time), you may or may not luck into a Healing Spring in the random dungeon layouts, and heaven help you if you manage to get poisoned. Even after you finally get access to the game's first shop, it doesn't get MUCH easier, because the enemies in the first dungeon don't drop much money and the item prices are ridiculous. Add to that the absurd difficulty of the final boss of the first dungeon, and a lot of players gave up on this otherwise excellent game before they could really open it up.
Deus Ex starts the player off with few skill points, ammo, and medkits, all to hammer in that the player has many more options than just shooting their way through.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution's first level has Jensen fight against Spec Ops soldiers without any augmentations, including HUD, health meter and radar. It's not impossible but very easy to die if you botch a shot or get detected. Even more annoying when attempting a Pacifist Run, as Jensen has no non-lethal weapons and can't do takedowns yet.
Most Devil May Cry games count for this trope. At the beginning of the game, Dante (or Nero) start out with their basic sword, guns, weakest maneuvers, very little health and MP (Usually NO MP at all), and the enemies can still kill quite easily. 3 seems to like throwing concepts of difficulty curving to the wind, putting you up against tough bosses right at the start. Even though you face harder enemies later in the games, the ability to repeat stages and grind through means that it's possible to level up faster than the difficulty curve can keep up with. Typically, the games get easier after a few life bar increases, the acquisition of way to deal with crowds of enemies, and getting the ability to double jump. Even worse is that the original DMC lacked the option of allowing players to freely choose and revisit previously completed missions. Unless you've been doing well enough to earn enough orbs, you're going to need to do a lot of backtracking to respawn enemies for grinding purposes, lest you struggle your way through the rest of the game.
The total conversion plug-in for Escape Velocity: Nova: Colosseum, can start out extremely hard as you're stuck with a fighter that was about to be recycled, barely any credits to modify anything, and the opponents are already tough enough as is.
The other Escape Velocity titles can be challenging early on as well, it's hard to make a living in that tiny shuttle of yours.
God Hand, while hard throughout, breathes this. You get your ass kicked a lot in the early going, with the sliding difficulty going UP the better you do. There is one particularly egregious example on Hard Mode: a room in 1-5 that you must go to where you have to face four waves of thugs, at least one of which will transform into a demon most of the time, the last wave of which has tons of HP, with a very limited moveset, in a cramped space, AND with the difficulty meter locked on DIE, is almost guaranteed to result in a chucked controller.
Gothic is purposefully built on this to give a feel to character progression, making The Nameless Hero taking a level in badass all the more noticeable.
Try Infinite Undiscovery on Infinity. The first fight with the Player Character alone against two Mooks is easily the hardest fight in the game, because you'll die in 3 hits and barely do Scratch Damage. Most players find the only way to survive that is to get one of them stuck on a piece of furniture so you can deal with them one at a time. Even then, it will require near-perfect use of the parry move, because you'll die from a few hits and there's no way to heal. The game really only becomes comfortable at the second dungeon when you can finally start to Level Grind.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep has this as Aqua. As the local Squishy Wizard, she's largely reliant on magic... and doesn't really start getting many good spells until the third world. Then the game becomes much easier. Ventus also has this trouble. In the first required world he visits, there's very few enemies, they all offer very low exp, and he doesn't even learn the cure spell until afterwards, which means that when he confronts the first boss it's a very stressful battle. Thankfully the next two worlds feature more frequent enemies that give out better exp, making it easier for him to quickly get stronger after that rough beginning.
In both Knights of the Old Republic games, you start without the Force or a lightsaber, resulting in very slow fights. Once you become a Jedi (KOTOR I) or build a lightsaber from collected components (KOTOR II), the game becomes much faster.
Jedi Knight II similarly starts you out with a few levels as a Badass Normal, made challenging by the fact that in this game blasters really are clumsy and random, and the Stormtroopers have apparently learned to shoot straight. Getting hold of your lightsaber, even with the weak starting skills, is a palpable relief.
Mass Effect 2 hits this in a New Game+Insanity run, since the enemies are scaled to your level, but your weapons are stripped of all upgrades. The hardest levels are either Freedom's Progress, where you're restricted to the crappy default weapon loadout, or Horizon, where you come up against the full might of the Collectors, including a Goddamn Praetorian. Mitigated if you're starting from the first game, or from scratch (which isn't recommended for story reasons) as the enemy's power is scaled to Shepard's level, and assumes you have stat upgrades. if you don't...
Secret of Mana is at its most difficult without magic, which not only deals a majority of the game's offense for a while, but allows you to stunlock the enemies in place, and can hit a target no matter where it is. It's telling that the boss most players consider to be That One Boss, Spiky Tiger, is the last one you have to fight before you get magic.
The Witcher 2 is most difficult during the prologue, where Geralt has only the most basic skills and has to fight groups of enemies who can kill him in a few blows, and first chapter, which hosts many of the game's most difficult boss fights. To make it that much more worse, the game started out barely having any sort of tutorial at the start, expecting that you already understand its timing based combat mechanics. If you've never played the first game and have a habit of setting difficulties at harder modes, dying a few times the very first moment you take control was expectable - and even if you have played the first one, enough was different to make the combat extremely confusing. Fortunately, a more in-depth tutorial was later created and patched into the game.
Kingdom Hearts when playing through on the hard difficulty. The first couple of bosses will just wreck you, especially if you do Olympus Colosseum before Wonderland. The game is just brutal until you beat the Deep Jungle and get the Cure spell. It's actually some kind of amusing to watch bosses that you probably didn't even notice had attack patterns on your first play through three-hit KO you over and over again.
Gran Turismo games can have this for anyone not used to how cars actually handle, or any real working knowledge of cars. Usually the game starts you with just enough money to buy a reasonable second hand car, but that's about it. Yes, you can take the licencing test right away to learn all about driving theory and cornering techniques, but they tend not to reward you with money, and the good car prize is often only for getting all gold, something a new player won't manage. Hence, there's every possibility you could unintentionally buy an awful early car, and have no option other than to repeatedly fail at races until you've got enough pity money to buy something better. The game usually gets easier once you've had a bit of experience on each track, and have managed to scrounge up enough cash to buy/mod up a winning car.
When you begin Wangan Midnight Maximum Tune, you begin with a bone stock vehicle that can maybe hit 240 km/h tops, in contrast to the 340 km/h that a full-tuned vehicle can achieve. A full tone requires completing Story Mode, which, depending on the game, takes 60, 80, or 100 stages. Until then, it's the only worthwile mode to play because you just won't have the power to take on full-tuned vehicles in Ghost Battle or Versus Mode. There is also no point in taking on Time Attack mode, though the games recitify this somewhat by providing a "special car" mode (in the original Maximum Tune and its sequel) where you drive one of the three protagonist cars from the manga, or an "official machine" mode where you use a non-customizable, full-tuned car.
The Bioshock series is distressingly fond of this.
BioShock 2 keeps up this grand tradition by stick you with your weakest stats and shittiest gear right at the beginning of the game, when it really does seem like the game is also at its most determined to kill you. It's the same deal with the resource grinding, only that you now have to defend the Little Sisters against hordes of baddies prior to getting any Adam for upgrades, after you've busted your hump to bring down their big daddy, and then big sister has to have a go at you before you can upgrade.
BioShock Infinite is this all over again, especially before you get the regenerating shield. You can't carry any health kits or salts this time, so you need to actively go get healing items. This is hellish on Hard, and more so with the 1999 Mode difficulty, before Booker has his shield, as getting shot once is a risky proposition, and there are several turrets around that laugh at his starting pistol and its poor ammunition capacity.
Both Borderlands games tend to be rough in the beginning. You have little money, a narrow selection of mostly bad-quality weapons (especially in the first game; the second one hardly ever generates completely unusable pieces of Vendor Trash like its predecessor was prone to doing), no shield, no artifacts, relics or class mods to boost your stats, and you can't use the character's special ability until level five. This means you'll spend time grinding for levels on weak enemies and searching respawning chests for decent loot, which at this point includes health pickups and any ammo you can lay your hands on. Once you get a decent shield (which can effectively double your HP if you get a decent one), unlock your special ability, and find elemental weapons, the games start to ease up.
The sequel averts the trope with bonuses you earn from getting badass ranks. The bonus stats apply to all characters you use, which means you can have an easier time getting into the game every time you use a new character. You can still play the trope straight by turning the bonus stats off.
In vanilla Shadow of Chernobyl, you are stuck with a leather jacket that barely qualifies as armor and a pistol for the very early game. The first fight is one of the hardest, because you're up against several bandits with better protection than yours and sawed-off shotguns that can blast through you like tissue paper, while you're stuck with an inaccurate pea-shooter. After finding some more decent ranged weapons and armor* or download a Game Mod where guns behave like guns and not pieces of rubbish, the game gets much easier.
Despite the Renegades, the first faction you get in a war against in Clear Sky, being much less well-equipped than any other faction, the entire battle occur in the Great Swamp, an extremely flat area covered with tall grass and reeds that can hide their approach and little to no cover anywhere. Add to that that fact that you have barely more gear than at the start of the Shadow of Chernobyl example above, and suddenly it doesn't seem that outlandish to say that fighting Monolith is easier.
Call of Pripyat avoids this by giving you some gear on par with other people in the starting area.
PAYDAY: The Heist is extremely difficult for new players or players that have reset their levels. You only get to use an assault rifle and a silenced pistol. Until you level up your class trees several times, you won't have access to better guns to kill stronger cops, an ammo bag, or a medical bag. Until you get better stuff, expect to conserve your ammo and to take lots of cover to preserve your health.
Hack and Slash
The hardest boss in the first Diablo is the Butcher, encountered at level 2 and quite capable of surviving all your mana potions and staff charges and killing you in two hits.
Final Fantasy XIV can be hell for any new player that isn't a Conjurer or Arcanist (including the advanced jobs in those branches) simply because all other job classes lack healing abilities and the variations of potions don't heal enough once your maximum HP gets high. Luckily, your HP regenerates naturally and it goes quicker when not in combat, though you're better off relying on other people to heal you if you're not a magic user.
On 1st playthrough of Kingdom of Loathing, the player is under most of the restrictions of Hardcore mode, and have none of the benefits of New Game+. It becomes marginally easier each ascension until you gradually accumulate the skills for an optimal run. The Special Challenge Paths more or less try to equalize the difficulty between newbie and veteran players.
Open World RPG
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind has an extremely lop-sided progression, but once you get a decent pile of gold (not hard, even without exploits) and a trainer, you quickly become a god slayer.
After you run through the tutorial section in Far Cry 2, the game dumps you in a Wide Open Sandbox where nearly every person you meet outside Pala wants to kill you. If you don't know to start working for the gun shops immediately to unlock a good supply of weapons, you'll be stuck using the broken weapons that enemies drop.
Far Cry 3 starts with you having just two health units, minimal capacity for anything, being able to carry hardly any ammo, you have only the most basic skills, and enemies who hardly give you any loot. Oh, and they are all over the entire map. The game gets so much easier as you progress and expand the tatau. It's done this way on purpose to make you feel like you are becoming a badass motherfucker. And it works. The most important things to get quickly are improvements to stealth, health, and weapon and ammunition capacity. Unfortunately, this leads to the late game being typically too easy. Annoyingly, the game prevents you from upgrading too much until you reach certain points in the story. This leads to the infuriating problem of the game not letting you acquire skills which would have been VERY helpful until after you needed them most.
Fallout 2 has the publisher required Temple of Trials tutorial era. In a game that otherwise encourages multiple paths and non-violent solutions, only the "boss" of this area can be reasoned with (the ants can't). If your character is anything other than an melee/unarmed fighter (you have no firearms here) 2/3 of your attacks will miss and may fail to kill the enemy even when they do hit. Further, there is a very limited number of healing items (and the ones that are present have side effects that make you even less accurate) with no resting ability. Unsurprisingly the main mods for the game give alternative ways to complete the Trial without having to fight the boss directly.
Fallout 1 falls under this as well, to a lesser extent. Since encounters don't scale to your level, you can run right into a pack of radscorpions right out of the Vault and get slaughtered.
Same for Fallout 3, where you can get curbstomped by early random encounters, such a Talon Company Merc squad, a Giant Radscorpion, a Yao Guai, or a Deathclaw, when you're probably only armed with a pistol or hunting rifle. With the Broken Steel add-on, you can run into a Super Mutant Overlord as early as the GNR Plaza, and a Feral Ghoul Reaver or two in the Taft Tunnel.
Fallout: New Vegas is even worse, with its Beef Gates that will curbstomp you if you go to the wrong place too soon, and the overpowered hit squads that you WILL encounter once you get a bad reputation with either of the main factions.
Minecraft. Entire guides have been written on how to survive the first full day, and what you should set about doing immediately. For the uninitiated, this is because the game starts you with nothing. No weapons, no tools, no food, and no real idea or explanation of how to get them. Just you, dumped into a random landscape, with ten minutes before nightfall, when the monsters appear. In that time you need to prepare some form of defense, even if it's just a basic shelter. The game gets much easier once you have a shelter, some cobble weapons (at least), and have learnt a few ways to craft all the stuff you'll need to survive against the enemies.
This has been mitigated somewhat. Somewhat. The game now has a loose tutorial in the form of achievements. Although they are more like waypoints. You can check achievements at any points and they will generally point you to the next level, such as, from the first real one that requires you to get wood, it will encourage you to make beginning tools, and then more complex branches of each, like killing a monster for the sword or upgrading the pickaxe for the mining. This does remove some confusion about it, on the other hand even if you know what you're doing you still might not be able to get materials needed for an easy first day.
The first levels of the first Kid Icarus game are probably the hardest (which makes sense; you actually are in Hell, after all). Pit starts out with a tiny health bar and a weak bow with poor range. The first levels also scroll upward, and due to Ratchet Scrolling you die if you fall past the bottom of the screen. Once you've completed those levels though, most likely gaining some health and weapon upgrades along the way, it gets much easier.
While it stays Nintendo Hard throughout, La-Mulana is hardest at the beginning, when it has the learning curve of a brick wall. The game opens with your pathetically weak character, armed with a single clumsy weapon, running around a confusing jungle. How do you get into the ruins? What's the best item to buy with the few coins you can find? How do you save? It doesn't let up after you get into the Guidance Gate, which, at first glance, is filled with nasty traps and unclear puzzles. Veterans will know to make a beeline for the Grail, Shurikens, and Knife, but new players will suffer until they figure out the game's general train of logic.
Reading the manual confirms this was intentional. The developers wanted to make a game that recalled early sidescrolling adventure games, and purposely made it this hard to weed out anyone who wasn't really interested.
Metroid is very difficult in the start due to starting out with just 30 energy points out of the maximum 99 (Yes, you don't even start at full health) and a weapon whose shots only go a third across the screen. This makes killing enemies very difficult and if you're not careful, you will die a lot. Once you get better gear and more energy tanks, enemies become easier to deal with. The GBA remake makes the game a lot more bearable when staring a new file.
Metroid Prime 2's Dark Agon Wastes is one of the most frustrating areas of the game, simply because of the Dark World life drain. Without the Dark Suit, your HP drains at almost five hit points per second, meaning you have to dash from safe zone to safe zone. After the Agon Wastes, you get the Dark Suit and can navigate the dark world with ease.
Mega Man games get easier as you go on because you're getting new weapons from each stage, allowing you to bypass challenges easier. This includes gathering the weapons that each individual Robot Master has a weakness to, the likelihood of having such increasing as you gather more (unless you have a guide).
Freeware Metroid VaniaSoldexus starts out obscenely difficult- it takes very few hits for you to die, and the enemies are placed in layouts that make it all but necessary to fight your way past them no matter which way you're going. Once you've gotten some upgrades (particularly extra defense that effectively means more health), things get much more manageable.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4's Episode Metal is difficult at first because you go have to go through the 4 main zones of Episode 1 in reverse order.
The first tier in the PS2 version of Guitar Hero II. When the game was re-released on the Xbox 360, 3 of the original 5 songs from tier 1 were moved to tier 2 while two new tracks were added to tier 1 and two songs that were originally in tier 2 were moved down.
Both Baten Kaitos games suffer from this to various extents. The battle systems are quite complex and not beginner friendly. Just to add to that, the first game makes you spend a long time with only Kalas in your party, which slows battles to an absolute crawl and gives you little margin for error.
Origins, being the difficult game it is, really tries to mix this up. You've got a short section with no party members other than Sagi, a nasty Early Bird Boss, and several scenes where nothing particularly interesting happens. Just to add to that, new players are going to have a hell of a time with the battle system and the rather steep difficulty curve, while veteran players learn there's no EX Combo options until a couple hours in. The game gets infinitely better once you meet Quaestor Verus, though.
The original Baldur's Gate, like all Dungeons & Dragons-based games where you start at level 1, can be extremely unforgiving for the first one to three levels (depending on your build), since you start with just the basic equipment (unless you exploit the character export function during the illusionist's quest), minimal skills, measly 4-10 HP, and just one companion in the party—who likewise has weak equipment, skills, and health. Fortunately, it is justified by both characters having been forcibly expelled from a previously very sheltered life with no idea how to survive on their own.
The NES Dragon Quest games are all Nintendo Hard, but special mention goes to Dragon Quest I at the beginning. You start out with 120 G, which gives you a choice of either buying a club and losing out on armor, or buying armor and having to fight with a glorified stick. Times might be tough, but seeing as how the king's relying on you to save his daughter and his whole kingdom, you'd think he could at least give you a loaner or something.
The early game in EarthBound is more difficult than many later parts. Before you get a proper party, you have to fight several early game bosses note Frank, the Gigantic Ant, and the Onett police force and go through Peaceful Rest Valley. Once you get Paula and can level her up enough for her strengths to shine, the game gets much easier.
In MOTHER 3, the first three chapters are told from the viewpoint of three different characters. While it's undoubtedly an excellent storytelling choice, getting yanked away from the characters you've leveled up and gotten familiar with is a bit jarring. This comes to a head in Chapter 3, where you have to play as Salsa for the entire chapter, including fighting a freaking tank at the end.
Etrian Odyssey, an already hellish game, makes the early game hard even by its own sick standards. Patching up party members and replacing your Warp Wirestakes up all the money you earned getting the injuries, giving you no cash for even basic equipment. Running into FOEs means an instant game over. Skill-heavy characters like mages and healers run out of TP after only a few battles, reducing them to plinking with daggers for Scratch Damage. It's not until you can level up a few times and get some decent skills that you can start saving for better gear. Even worse, the first game in the series does not let you reset your skills until halfway through the game, meaning if you made bad decisions assigning skillpoints before the first boss, you may have to train an entire second team almost from scratch...
In Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard, you can use a password obtained at the end of the original game to get recognized as the same guild. None of your characters transfer over; you're still going to be training up a new team of heroes, but you'll still be viewed as old pros. And while this lets you access some special encounters down the line, it also means that, because you're such experts, the guards at the start of the labyrinth won't bother giving you some Medicas to help you get started.
Golden Sun The Lost Age has the beginning become very tough if you decide to play it on Hard. All of the monsters' stats are given a 1.5 multiplier boost, which means you will have to level grind far more often than you did in a normal play through just to survive and make a dent in the enemies' boosted HP and/or get lucky with rare drops. Dying in Hard mode will be even more brutal due to how expensive reviving allies at a sanctuary will be and the Water of Life item being extremely rare to find.
The power curve in Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory is built around the assumption you'll be clearing dungeons multiple times after meddling with them via the Scouting system, meaning the early parts of the game (before this mechanic is introduced) are absolutely brutal. You have only a couple of small dungeons to grind in, lackluster equipment, and filling up the EXE gauge to give yourself a vital power boost is so arduous you'll almost certainly need to retreat to heal afterwards (resetting the meter by doing so). The developers seemed to have noticed, too; right at the start of Chapter 2 (where you encounter the first non-plot boss that will mop the floor with you) very potent HP boosting accessories are made easily available. It's not much, but it's something.
Mario & Luigi: Dream Team is this trope when playing in Hard Mode. Later on, you can grind, get decent special attacks, get good gear and badges and who knows what else. In the beginning? You've got obviously bad stats, a near non existant choice of gear and badges, semi useless items you can only carry ten of each and enemies that kill you in two hits due to doing about 7 times the amount of damage per attack as in the normal mode. It's bad enough the game's producer apparently died in the tutorial when testing.
The whole Hero Gauge/Invincible Action mechanic falls squarely into this in Resonance of Fate. To elaborate, Resonance of Fate seemingly plays like a tactical turn-based RPG, which massively hampers the playable protagonists if you do play it as such. However, Hero Gauge usage allows for actions that "break" such turn based rules (one example being allowed to attack multiple times while moving in a single turn). However, Hero Gauge consumes Bezels, a resource which is also consumed when any character depletes his/her health points. Furthermore, completely consuming all of them will all but guarantee a Game Over. This trope comes in full play as in early game, you are only given three Bezels. Later on, you gain more Bezels, and enemies come in varieties which replenishes more when attacked, in addition to already having upgraded/customized your guns as well as having higher levels. This is not to say it makes the game much easier, but definitely much more manageable.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is considered a horrible uphill battle at the beginning due to the grueling Press Turn combat system and how easily you can get destroyed if you don't learn to abuse it yourself. Once you reach Tokyo, however, things become far more manageable as you start getting the heavy weapons. It's especially brutal in the tutorial segment as you have ~100 hit points, no other party members or repeatable healing, and all enemies come in groups of at least two, each of who deals ~60 damage when they attack.
Stargazer starts your party off at level 0. Yes, level 0. And while at level 0 you can only do one 1 point of damage per hit at best, and even the weakest of Random Encounters can completely trash you. It's pretty much up to luck whether you live long enough to gain enough levels to put up a good fight.
Persona 4 hits you with this as well. While there exist certain Personas and abilities that make the early bosses cake (Good luck with that), the low power and small party options will turn against you very quickly. After about the second dungeon, it gets easier, aside from the occasional That One Boss.
The playable epilogue "The Answer" in Persona 3 FES is already incredibly hard, and it certainly doesn't help that you need to clear the first dungeon in order to access Paulownia Mall and stock up on healing items and equipment.
Most Pokémon games start out slower than molasses. This is because you have few Mons available to you to build a proper party, and because the game prevents you from leaving the early area until you beat the first Gym Leader. This means that you have precious few trainers to draw experience from, forcing you to Level Grind off of wilds, and no way of Money Grinding at all. Once you beat the first Gym Leader the game generally gets a lot more free and easy, with the exception of an occasional That One Boss.
The games have generally gotten better about this from Gold/Silver onward. The remake of Red/Blue offered several alternate solutions to the first Gym: giving Charmander a Steel-type move early on (Super Effective against Rock types) and allowing you to catch a Fighting type (Super Effective against Rock) as well. Later games also give you the ability to record phone numbers of certain trainers so you can challenge them again later on, giving you a source of income in a sense.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is awfully difficult when you begin: you start out with bottom-barrel equipment, a handful of mediocre abilities, poor stats, not enough money to fix this, and no idea where anything is. Combined with most areas having a chance to spawn high-level enemies and the enemies you can beat dropping low EP, the early-game is a desperate scramble. Once you've got better equipment and abilities things become more reasonable.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is very hellish once you leave the easy-goingstarting town of Seyda Neen. Even the standard local wildlife will be a challenge until you increase your skills and acquire better equipment, and anything stronger will serve as a Beef Gate. It's encouraged to complete first few assignments in the main quest, as well as the first few missions for the local guilds, as these are largely easier quests and are rewarding enough to purchase training and the aforementioned better equipment. Progression is largely lopsided, however, and once you start increasing in levels, you'll go from schmuck to god-slayer very quickly.
Real Time Strategy
Homeworld 2's multiplayer does this with the Vaygr race. Sure, their strikecraft is all you need to win and in fact the Vaygr's strongest asset. However, with expensive upgrades and the fact that Vaygr Carriers can only have one production module at any time (though this game averts No Recycling, alleviating it somewhat), early game Vaygr players are in constant want of a large Resource Unit pool and a stable source thereof. Once they get the ball rolling and their strikecraft butt large enough though, Vaygr players can start their Zerg Rush or wait to make an even larger butt of massed units, thereby (almost) ensuring victory. In other words, the best way to take out a race known for their Zerg Rush is to Zerg Rush them first.
Every level in Populous is hardest at the beginning. Since your mana is dictated by the population of your tribe, and you almost always start with only one or two, you barely have enough mana to raise or lower land at the beginning. This is compounded by the fact that later levels manage difficulty primarily by giving the enemy a very good start location and a massive initial population, making it easy to get crushed by them early on if you're not careful.
Total War Shogun 2 progresses from early game hell, to middle game heaven, and then to late game hell when "RealmDivide" kicks in. At the start, you'll struggle to balance fielding an army and developing your provinces as your aggressive neighbouring factions torment you relentlessly. Expect to be short on funds as you exempt newly acquired provinces from taxes to maintain public order and field armies of mostly ashigaru units to Zerg Rush your enemies. Eventually, once you've carved out a nice territory and establish trade relations, your economy will rebound so you can start to produce stronger units and develop your cities. Things will go swimmingly for a while as your high grade troops carve through Japan like a warm knife through butter...then Realm Divide will kick in and everyone will be against you. This can be especially jarring to players coming from Rome: Total War and Medieval II Total War where you might spend you first several turns doing nothing more than beginning to build up your cities and waypointing your starting troops. And even then, the worst you generally have to deal with early on are the weak "Rebel" factions.
The second level of the Russian campaign in Empire Earth has you fighting multiple superpowers with advanced technology right off the bat, compared to the previous game where you faced a single base.
In Nethack and other Roguelike games, experienced players can pretty much guarantee a win, but still run the risk of running into a Demonic Spider and dying before they can insure themselves against such threats.
The top four killers in online Dungeon Crawl are early game monsters (hobgoblin, kobold, gnoll, snake) for a very good reason, with even the much-maligned Sigmund achieving a mere 7th place. No matter what your selected background is, a streak of missed or undamaging attacks can result in one of those low-HP monsters getting up in your face, bashing you with an enchanted weapon. In the case of snakes, minor poison can be deadly, as you have no HP buffer to work with and might not have a healing potion to counter it. Potions and scrolls are scarce and unidentified at that point; reaching for one in an emergency can give you something completely useless or even harmful.
In Castle of the Winds, the very first battle the player encounters is against a kobold. This battle verges on sheer luck territory, especially if the first spell you chose wasn't the healing spell. Then you can grab the armor on the ground, start making money to buy new equipment, etc. and it gets easier, but barely. The snake enemy that poisons you is a trifle when you have tons of HP and mana to cure the poison, but early on you can find yourself in a position where you just have to go back to your last save or start over, because that next keystroke is going to kill you.
A Dwarf Fortress is most vulnerable in its first year, when population is still low and security hasn't been constructed yet. The more challenging the embark conditions, the more hellish the early game, but as a fort develops over the years, the difficulty flattens out. A fort that survives 2 years can probably sustain itself through the worst of the late game.
The slightest mistake or miscalculation in Adventurer mode can end a career very early. Even demigods need to spend time developing themselves through non-combat skills (swimming, sneaking, throwing, etc) before they can get a fighting chance.
In FTL: Faster Than Light, the magnitude of Early Game Hell depends upon which ship you start with. Some ships, like the Kestrel, the Rock Cruisers, or the Federation Cruisers, start off reasonably well armed and equipped for the early sectors. Then you have some, like the Zoltan Type B, the Stealth Type A or the Mantis Type B, that need a few upgrades before they can reliably go toe-to-toe with whatever they encounter. Finally, you have some like the Stealth Type B or the Engi Type B, which have so many problems in the early sectors that most people consider them 'challenge ships'.
Shoot em Up
In Chicken Invaders, your firepower grow much faster than the hitpoints of the monsters. Thus, the second level is normally easier than the first.
Starfighter Sanvein is a top-down room-clearing shmup, where rooms are tiles arranged in hexagonal patterns. Since your attack power is determined by how many rooms you have cleared that is adjacent to the room you are currently on, you always start with 0 power for both your main and sub shots. Not only this is bad enough, but the Very Definitely Final Dungeon is a Boss Rush floor, with exactly 7 tiles.
As soon as the game gives control to the player, Resident Evil 2 throws zombies at you in nearly every direction from the very start. If playing on normal, you won't have enough ammunition to fight them all, forcing you to run. The controls have a definite learning curve to them; expect to die a lot in the early stages (if not the very first screen) if you're not well accustomed to "tank-like" movement.
Resident Evil 3: Nemesis. The reason? The Recurring Boss the title alludes to. The first encounter Jill has with this ten-foot-tall brick outhouse is by far the hardest, since you only have a pistol (and, if you know the game, a shotgun, a few herbs and a health spray) but Nemesis' total health is constant in all encounters - which is to say, very high. It's a bout that's guaranteed to give trouble even to veterans of the series. And sure, you can run from the encounter, but if you're playing on Hard Mode, that's no Eagle Parts A for you. By the time the second encounter rolls by, you've already got far more healing items and one of the two high-powered guns the game has to offer, and Nemesis will often favor standing back and rocketing you instead of breathing down your necknote at least until he runs out of ammo, and you can disrupt his aim by shooting him. Even the mandatory boss fight with him mid-to-late game, where you're permanently poisoned, is several degrees of magnitude easier.
Similar to the second game, Resident Evil 4 can be terrifying and brutal in the beginning village sections, where the player is unlikely to have enough supplies or ammo for their guns to effectively fight off the villagers (including Dr. Salvador), let alone get any gun upgrades. You're lucky if you can escape by the skin of the skin of your teeth.
Resident Evil 5, in the very first level, throws you into an area where you have to fight off an endlessly respawning number of Majini and a Boss in Mook Clothing that can reduce you to dying status in one hit on easy, and just kills you in one hit on any higher difficulty. Worse still, said fight starts in a tiny building in an equally small area with no cover where you're Zerg Rushed by tons of enemies. The only way out is when the Boss in Mook Clothing smashes the wall open for you. All you have is a handgun, Sheva's special A.I. will have her dying constantly until you figure out how to babysit her, and you're damned well staying put until the game decides you can leave.
Table Top RPG
In Dungeons & Dragons a first level character starts off with enough hit points to be killed by a single critical. In some versions (e.g. 3.5), the squishier types are weak enough to be slain by an ordinary house cat.
Additionally, Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards is a major issue in 3.5 and before, and tends to benefit players more than monsters — most monsters have more limited casting than a wizard PC, or just have a short list of specific powers, while a player spellcaster tends to have an absolutely massive array of options available to them as they grow in power. And powerful, versatile spellcasting limits randomness in general (since the best spells just automatically resolve problems with no roll), which tends to benefit players more than monsters (because players have to succeed every time while the monsters just have to TPK them once.)
Turn Based Strategy/Tactical RPG
Video Game/Civilization games can be this, if you have an early warmonger civ as a neighbour. Bonus points if you're Venice from the Fifth Game's Expansion, Brave New World. If you manage to survive his attack or somehow he doesn't declare war on you, you can try to take him down since his advantage is gone after going up to a certain era (Medieval or even Classical).
Disgaea 1 through 3 tend to have somewhat punishing, but reasonable difficulty curbs that make the early game fairly easy if well-played. Disgaea 4, however, is ridiculously punishing early on, with the enemy level average easily pulling away from yours if you don't go back and grind, which is incredibly inefficient since you likely having unlocked a good leveling map or the skills to made use of them. Once you get past around chapter 7 or 8, the game becomes slightly less cheap and more Nintendo Hard.
Fire Emblem as a whole falls into this, as early chapters are the only ones where accuracy is a frequent issue and one miss will cause a unit to die due to not enough buffer HP/defense. This issue is compounded in hard modes due to the enemies being tougher, but because a healthy number of your units are defectors, these bonuses eventually work in your favor. The 10th game is one of the bigger offenders, as unlike most games where the best units come at the start and latter units are mostly to replace ones that die, the first quarter is populated either by units that are terrible (Meg, Fiona, Leonardo), leave, taking their XP with them, and leave the team even further gimped once they leave (Ilyana, Nailah, Tormod and co, the Black Knight.) and even the decent units (Zihark, Jill, Nolan, Micaiah, Laura, Aran, possibly Edward) are frail and/or have hideous accuracy at first, while the next two chapters have Lightning Bruiser badasses on your team from stage 1.
Jagged Alliance 2 forces realistic weapon ranges while sticking the player with pistols and the rare SMG. Unlike STALKER, the environments and combat system make closing the distance impossible, and sticks the player at the mercy of Randomly Drops, allowing the computer to have long arms while you don't.
Valkyria Chronicles pretty much peaks early on in Chapter 7, an absolutley brutalFinal Boss Preview, but gets much easier later on, when your troops have leveled up and learned how to actually hit things. Some classes get access to new weapon types at higher levels, the most notable being Flamethrowers for Shocktroopers, which let you One-Hit Kill enemies in cover and then take the cover for yourself, GREATLY simplifying the game. You also get Smoke Rounds for the Eidelweiss, a Machine Gun that fires 30 shots(when even 3 hitting the target's head is enough to kill) and Alicia awakens her Valkyria powers and becomes even more of a Game Breaker than she was before. Early chapters are near impossible to A-Rank without a New Game+, but play your cards right later on and you'll be getting A-Ranks left-right and centre and, apart from a few examples of That One Level and Guide Dang It, you're unlikely to have much trouble. It pretty much feels like you're an army of Quadratic Wizards facing an empire of Linear Warriors.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown has this in spades. You'll spend your early days commanding four extremely panic-prone rookies wearing kevlar and shooting assault rifles, running around frantically as the entire world begins to panic and you can't stop it. By endgame you've got six badasses in power armor, blowing away aliens with plasma guns, and the world has calmed down because you got this.
Final Fantasy Tactics is very difficult in the beginning due to you having access to only a few basic job classes (Squire, Knight, Archer, etc.). Accuracy for many abilities are generally poor, including the critical Life spell for the White Mage (yes a revive spell can MISS). By the 3rd story mission, you'll be fighting a group that have Black Mages on their side and their spells can hit you pretty damn hard while you are most likely relying on the use of Potions to heal at this point. As you level up and unlock more advanced job classes, you can start kicking butt with little effort and you can boost accuracy on some of your moves to ensure they don't always fail. And this is before you get the game's resident Game Breaker.
This holds true for a lot of opening games in Crusader Kings II especially if you're playing as a kingdom with few provinces or some counties and duchies with powerful rivals. But it's especially true if you're starting out as a Zoroastrian ruler (and you're determined not to convert). Basically you start out with no advantages except a large starting army (if you're playing the satrap of Karen) that cannot be replenished, virtually no one to make alliances with because of religious differences, and completely surrounded by hostile pagan and Islamic rulers who can gang up against you and will sooner or later, and probably sooner, attack you - and even if you do survive for a couple of centuries you'll probably be right where you'll have to deal with swarms of Seljuk Turks. Even strategies posted online by veteran players can only recommend the "gamey" strategy of pledging allegiance to a neighboring Muslim monarch and exploiting the game's mechanics to try to seize their territory from within, or at least play aggressively and rely on luck, or just pick a stronger and more secure pagan ruler and convert to Zoroastrianism (which is itself tricky, since it usually means you'll have to capture a Zoroastrian woman and make her a concubine).
If that's not stressful enough, in Europa Universalis you can try to revive the glory of the Byzantine Empire - starting just a few decades before it was invaded in real life. You have only a few provinces (with ocean and enemy territory between your capital and them), an all but nonexistent army and navy, are surrounded completely by a much stronger enemy who wants your capital province and will work to claim it, and your only ace is that your capital province is a trade center, which really doesn't do you much good all things considered. Although unlike the Zoroastrians mentioned above, there are nearby powers you can form alliances with, they tend not to do much if any good unless the Ottomans find themselves in a bad position early on, which rarely happens. Recommended strategies also tend to be "gamey", like exploiting the peace treaty and vassalage systems to gobble up territory in eastern Europe before the Ottomans can. Luckily the game does give the player considerable bonuses just for being able to expand into the Byzantine Empire's old territory, but most games played as Byzantium won't even make it to that point. The Muslim equivalent to the Byzantine Empire is Granada, with Castile (most likely Spain later), usually in conjunction with Portugal and Aragon, filling the role of the Ottoman Empire. IV even offers players who manage to pull off conquering all of Spain and Portugal as Granada the Re-Reconquista achievement.
Mario Golf on the Nintendo 64 and Gamecube are difficult to play for the first time due to 80% of the characters being locked and forcing you to use weaker characters who cannot hit the ball very far. To unlock better characters, you have to beat them in a head to head competition and the rivals will always have hit the ball farther than you.
Shira Oka: Second Chances is built on this trope: your character starts out as a self-proclaimed loser with pathetically low stats, but you get to pick up more stat points and better quirks on successive playthroughs and the "Groundhog Day" Loop thus becomes progressively easier.
Startopia can be this, depending on the level or sandbox options. Regardless of specifics: you'll not have a lot of energy, and what little you have goes to Arona Daal to buy raw materials and basic facilities. Low energy means power shortages, and guests that were only minorly upset that your station isn't a four-star locale will become really irritated when things shut down. It's inevitable, though, that you'll be able to become nearly completely self-sufficient by making your own goods. It'll get to the point where you'll need to buy another Energy-storing building because you've overloaded the first. Sooner or later, you'll need a third. You'll need a fourth one before you realize it, and the fifth one is practically instant. Before you know it, you'll experience an economic version of The Singularity.
X3 Reunion and previous X-Universe games are infamous for dropping the player into the universe in a crappy ship with next to no money, no upgrades, bad weapons, and no tutorial. Trading is painfully slow and combat usually results in a Pirate fighter curb-stomping your little ship. Later games alleviate the issue by having alternate game starts give the player a better ship or more money, and rewarding the player more for doing the more numerous plot arcs and randomly generated missions.
The later games also give you options to enhance Early Game Hell, such as Terran Conflict's Goner Witness start. You get the Goner Ranger, which is completely unarmed and agonizingly slow, and 350 credits. That's enough credits to buy a handful of Energy Cells, the cheapest ware in the game.
The very earliest stage of Starbound, especially during the game's early beta. The game starts you off with only a broken weapon to defend yourself with, plain clothing for armor, and the only tool you have to manipulate the world around you is a Matter Manipulator that verrrrrry sssssllllowly chips away at the world. In order to make the most basic tools (some of which aren't initially that much faster than the manipulator), you'll need to chop down an entire tree with only the manipulator's "wiggles" and break off around ten pieces of stone. Once you make proper tools, however, things do start to move at a better pace and exploring becomes much easier.
If you choose the Career Legacy Mode in 2K Sports's College Hoops series, you will be put in this situation, as you will have to start out as the head coach of a struggling, lower-tier basketball program. It doubles as Truth in Television as most of the lower-tier Division I schools do not have the resources to attract even three-star recruits on a consistent basis.
The early game in Real Life is so difficult for humans that we have to have higher-level characters twink us for a decade or more just to give us a chance to survive.