Digimon World 3 for PSX was released by 2003 but had several quirks one would expect to see in the first-era RPGs. The enemy set changes brutally from one area to another, and if an incautious player take the wrong turn he may end fighting enemies that can defeat your whole team without getting damaged. Status effects are outright broken and bosses tend to abuse them, while you only get to learn such skills near the endgame. Every now and then you're forced to fight against a Giant Space Flea from Nowhere who is very powerful (woe you if you show up without full health), and some sections of the game are just impractical to figure out without a guide, to say nothing about special digivolutions that require specific stat training and digivolution levels.
Rogue Galaxy for the PS2 is an absurdly difficult game, because enemies dish out damage like crazy and none of your party members can learn healing spells. You have to rely on items to heal and using items takes stamina, which is subtracted from the same bar you need to attack, use skills, and move about the battlefield. If your stamina gauges run out, you have to wait for it to fill up in real time while enemies thrash you. Some monsters require specific weapons to kill, too. Oh, and this is a Level5 game, so expect lots of Mimics—and in this game, Mimics automatically start you out with an empty stamina gauge and can spam a wide area of effect attack, wrecking your party before any of you can even move.
Phantasy Star II is unusually difficult for a console RPG. Many of the Random Encounters are strong enough to threaten a Total Party Kill. For example, in the first dungeon, most enemies are fairly weak, but once in a while, you'll encounter an enemy named "Blaster" whose attacks hit your entire party for substantial damage. If you haven't done some serious Level Grinding, you'll probably lose the battle. Additionally, despite abandoning the first-person perspective used in the first Phantasy Star game, you will get lost in the game's dungeons, because the mazes are just that complicated. You can see for yourself how confusing they get!
The World Ends with You, while manageable for most of the story, gets unusually difficult at the end. You fight several bosses in succession after you're last able to save, the last one possessing absurd HP totals, and one death sends you back to the checkpoint.
The most unbalanced game in the Final Fantasy series is clearly Final Fantasy II. Frustrating levelling system aside, every dungeon is full of rooms which may be the place you need to go, or may contain something useful, but 90% of the time they're completely empty, but for some reason teleport you to the middle of the room to walk back out, leaving you incredibly susceptible to attacks by high level monsters. This isn't rare. This is the norm. To quote Classic Gaming Review:
"Final Fantasy II will do everything in its power to beat you down. It is a pair of simultaneous battles on two separate planes. The first is the fictional struggle of Frioniel and the rebel forces against the might of the Paramekian Empire. The second is the very real battle between you, the player, and Final Fantasy II, in which the game attempts to foil your efforts and demoralize you from ever playing again. As you try to beat Final Fantasy II, Final Fantasy II tries to beat you."
[...] "If your will somehow remains unbroken at this point and the game is still turned on, Final Fantasy II will begin administering electrical shocks through the controller."
On the flip side, the game isn't as hard overall as Final Fantasy 4 DS. FF2 is extremely unbalanced- While that means monsters in the first turn who can kill you with ease, it also means being able to power your team up to truly absurd levels using the poorly balanced level up system. It's more a test of endurance than a mental challenge.
Final Fantasy III was already difficult on the Famicom, thanks partially to a lack of save points, justified by hardware limits. Then it was re-released on the DS, and rather than add save points, the best jobs were nerfed, and the bosses were granted double turns and much greater HP. You'll have to Grind, Grind, Grind if you ever hope to finish it. You are forced to beat the dungeon and its five bosses in one go, with death meaning having to do it all over again from beginning), and there is Garuda.
The DS remake of Final Fantasy IV fits this to a T. While the original in the U.S. was somewhere between the Japanese release and the later Easy Type version, this is in a league of its own. To count the ways...
Enemies will murder your party outright when you encounter a new set. Either in sheer numbers (good luck with 6 death zombies) or because they have some powerful AOE spell that they can cast over and over, for free.
Encounters tend to happen every two steps, tops.
No amount of Level Grinding can save you... mostly because enemies give abysmally low amounts of experience points.
Items you need also tend to be scarce, and they're ridiculously expensive.
Thanks to New Game+, though, the game is only somewhat difficult the first time. It becomes laughably easy the second and third playthrough.
Final Fantasy V is no joke either after about the 3rd boss. It is only for hardcore players who know the wrinkles of old school Final Fantasy. You need to know what you're doing with the job system or you will get stomped by the bosses, namely due to levels not increasing any stat other than HP. Your damage / defense / etc. are all based on your current job and equipped gear. Money is a big problem as well as items and equipment for multiple jobs are very expensive.
The first few Dragon Quest games certainly qualify although all the games in that series are harder than average. Unless you're using an Emulator, you are going to get destroyed. It doesn't matter how good you are at the game, enemies curb-stomp you. Oh, and II? Hey, let's make a dungeon that's impossible to get through unless you use trial and error gameplay, or a guide! Did I mention that your spellcasters can't survive being glanced at by anything, and you're rarely told anything? Puzzles are of the Simon's Quest type, like "use X item at Y tile on the world map to reveal a cave" or "search a random tile for a vital item".
Ultima VIII: Pagan was infamous for its insanely frustrating jumping puzzles, which were likened to Super Mario from hell. Despite being an RPG, the developers decided to add "arcade" elements like running and jumping puzzles. The shoddy interface, poor physics, and the ridiculous save/load times didn't help one bit. The patched version fixed this by allowing targeted jumping and making the platforms stationary.
Odin Sphere. The game pretty much flat-out gives you infinite lives straight off the bat, and take our word when we say you'll need them. Almost every boss — and a fair few sub bosses — are That One Boss, and most four- and five-star levels are full of swarms of Goddamned Bats. It is made exponentially more difficult by the sheer loving detail put into the animation - which means you'll spend a good three seconds doing anything, from simple attacks to eating health items. Meanwhile you will be swarmed by enemies. Your character is knocked back by enemy attacks. Enemy characters are not, and will continue to attack through your attacks. Several levels also require a potion to prevent an automatic ongoing status ailment. The often stuttery frame rate will also prevent your actions from registering on a regular basis. Hello, Fake Difficulty.
The PS1 title Legend of Legaia. The "fighting game" battle system, while neat at first, quickly became extremely tedious and past the first couple dungeons, it made most NORMAL battles last close to five minutes. Worse, from the middle of the game onward if you did not spend obscene amounts of time grinding then you didn't stand much of a chance against the bosses.
This is in large part thanks to the poorly thought-out combat system. It was like most RPG fights on the SNES, except for the targeting. You could not target individual monsters. You could target groups of monsters. If using a multi-target spell, it would hit the entire group. If using a single-target spell or physical attack, it would hit a single random monster from the group you selected. In random encounters, you'd get groups that where arranged in "1 imp, 1 lizard, 2 imps" or such. In boss fights, you'd see "4 bosses". That's right, all in one group, making it impossible to focus on taking them down one at a time. Many boss fights boiled down to picking attacks and hoping the RNG picks out the right targets this time. Hoping to spam multitarget spells? Too bad, the tank doesn't have magic period, the hero's spells are especially effective, and on top of that the power of multitarget spells drops to a literal fraction when used on more than one critter: cast a multitarget on a group of 4, each one takes 1/4th the damage the spell would normally do. As multitargets are not stronger than single-target spells, this makes them nearly useless. You're actually better off with the "pick skills and pray they hit one target" method.
Lufia: Rise of the Sinistrals, the second game in the Lufia series, is an RPG that also happens to include several extremely difficult puzzles, most of which are not optional. A determined player may also manage to stumble upon what an NPC calls "the world's most difficult trick," which consists of a particularly difficult variation of the Klotski puzzle. Fortunately, that one is optional.
The Legend Returns let you have 9 members at max in a single battle toward the endgame, but the battle system allows only three from each row to attack/heal/buff per turn, you get a game over if all frontline units are defeated, and bosses are hard as hell, especially the ones with "call backup" ability and hit-all attacks which will hit EVERY characters in your team.
EverQuest is designed to allow you to play by yourself until level 5 to 10 or so; after that, the game becomes rapidly harder to play alone until it becomes outright impossible for all but some specific character classes that can avoid direct combat. Some choice Nintendo Hard decisions:
Not giving you any in game map nor even a compass, combined with...
... Making towns extremely large and maze like (the wood elf town and dark elf town are somewhat legendary for this), to say nothing about dungeons.
... Starting night blind races in incredibly dark zones (Tox Forest).
Making it so that if you discover you need to flee a battle, you cannot (due to the game slowing you down when you run low on health, and increasing the chance of you being stunned when attacked from behind)
Oh yes, and mobs never, ever stop chasing you (unlike, say, World of Warcraft). The only way to escape is if you load into another zone, or the mob dies, or you die... or you aggrodump the pack onto some other poor, unsuspecting player. The last option is a bannable offense, by the way. A panicked cry of "Train!" means something in this game.
Requiring players who ARE grouped together to spend literally weeks just getting keyed for certain dungeons (finding random items that allow you to finish a quest for a key, often with drop rates of less than 0.1%)
Making your character lose all their equipment upon death, requiring they find their way back to their corpse, without any equipment.
Making characters lose 10% of a level upon death, undoing literally days of work for one mistake.
Having powerful aggressive enemies in low-level zones, such as Level 30 griffins in East Commonlands, a zone where Level 12 players ventured.
Some levels (the infamous "hell levels") require 4 times the amount of XP to progress through, meaning the 10% of a level upon death becomes, essentially, 40%
The later expansions were increasingly geared towards the 1% of the player base which had finished the previous expansion (the so called "über guilds"), meaning that there are rapid plateaus of difficulty — the idea being that you are expected to spend months "farming" bosses by killing them over and over in groups of literally dozens of players to get the equipment required to take down the next plateau's bosses.
Due to the game originally being envisioned as a Pay Per Hour system, as most online games were when the game began development, some of these decisions were extremely suspect.
Some of these decisions were later undone, notably, the modern game has a sub-par compass and map system; characters can recover their corpses using an NPC in game (although this requires a decent amount of in game resources to do); Hell levels were smoothed out; and while it is still utterly impossible to solo in the game for most classes, the addition of instanced dungeons allow quick groups to band together for an afternoon's worth of gaming.
And if that isn't insane enough, nearly every other MMO afterwards seemed to think that all of the timesinks, frustration and the kind of game design that would be considered horrible in a single-player game was a good thing.
Vagrant Story has a system called Risk points. The higher the Risk, the more damage you take (and dish out) and the worse your accuracy. At 100+ Risk you'll be missing four out of five times. And the way it raises is with successful combo attacks. This makes Vagrant Story probably the only video game in history that actually punishes you for playing the game well. Most of the random enemies encountered are even harder than bosses, because some weapons don't work on them at all due to elemental and weapon attributes. You also have invisible traps AND out-of-the-blue enemies in inescapable dungeons. Not to mention the final boss has a special attack that can kill you even if you have only 3-5 points of Risk Points and it cannot be blocked with magic buffs. And the enemies that can use an instant death spell on you... and you're only controlling one person for the whole game.
The supposed "first level" missions in Icewind Dale for the PC were so difficult and so prone to cause the death of the PCs that most new players to the game were told "right after you begin the game, use the cheat code to boost yourself to third level.''
Only if they've never played another infinity engine game. Baldur's Gate veterans could hit the ground running and solo with practically any character class even during their first playthrough. Anyone familiar with AD&D could do similar as well, since they'd know that the game was more about tactics rather than level or equipment. Condoning cheating simply robs the player of valuable learning experiences.
Worse are the later Single-Character missions, especially (of course) at Hard difficulty. Just when your party is balanced enough at rock-paper-sicssors tactics to make it through the main game, you have to pick a single character to survive a long sequence of varied types of enemy.
The Fushigi No Dungeon series in all its iterations—Shiren The Wanderer, Torneko: The Last Hope, Chocobo's Dungeon, and quite a few others—exemplify this entire trope to the max. The entire game is based on the premise of Roguelike dungeon exploration, with many of the same specifications, in particular that the hero has but one life. The catch: you also can't save levels, gear, items, power-ups, nothing. If you should happen to die (and you will), you are forced to restart at a checkpoint with nothing but your fists and a moderately powerful healing item and Level 1 experience, usually with a dozen hit points. A single mistake can lead to rapid death, the dungeons are randomized and often "themed" (e.g. nothing but Scrolls, traps everywhere, constant damage due to heat), you must stay fed or the hero will die and quickly, monsters spawn infinitely, traps are hidden in the worst places, and the worst of it? When you finish a dungeon, you revert to Level 1 again, and in some installments give up all your equipment, essentially starting from scratch. Some give you a leg up, like allowing you to take a few items in or store things so they don't get lost when you die, but not much else.
The worst of the lot is the original Shiren The Wanderer on the Super Famicom. It had one checkpoint: a hut at the very beginning of the game. If you died at any point, you went all the way back there, and needed to slog through all the dungeons again to get back where you were, minus any XP or items. It's brain-breakingly difficult and often quite unfair.
If you poke around uStream you can often find Japanese players playing Jokenji Asuka Kenzan, a sequel to Shiren, only much more difficult. It's not uncommon to see it modified to insane levels, like "no weapons" or "1 HP per level".
In Resonance of Fate, battles can be absolutely brutal because leveling up actually increases the amount of Hero Gauge points lost when taking Scratch Damage (it goes up every 1000 HP). The Hero Gauge is basically what keeps your party alive: you can use it for super attacks or refilling HP, but if it empties, your party becomes basically useless. Considering that the Hero Gauge increases are limited by the story, and people usually think that leveling up HP in RPGs is a good thing, the pacing is a recipe for disaster. Not to mention that the customization for weapons (the real way to get stronger) is also limited by the story. Oh, and the whole party goes down if one character dies. Oh, and retrying after a Game Over costs an increasing amount of in-game currency. And this is just Normal Mode—the game has seven harder difficulties to tackle afterwards!
Many old first-person RPG dungeon crawlers are ridiculously difficult by today's standards, what with having to make your own maps, teleporters that drop you into identical-looking areas, pitch-black segments of the dungeon, really strong monsters, secret doors indistinguishable from walls, and just about every other cheap trick in the book.
Etrian Odyssey tries its hardest to recapture this, with huge dungeons you have to map yourself, enemy encounters that are either extremely strong or love status effects, expensive equipment and items, and of course the infamous F.O.E.s.
Atelier Lilie, the third game of the Atelier series (and one not released in America), has a reputation for being hellishly difficult compared to its contemporaries. It perhaps is not "hard" in the traditional, Battletoads sense, but getting anything other than a very "generic" ending requires that you plan out your entire approach to the game before you even start playing; you must plan what you'll do ahead of time in terms of whole game-years. And a lot of the endings require that you do a lot. The amount of planning required makes this one Nintendo Hard for a lot of folks and hurt the sales of the game.
MOTHER is often considered the most difficult of the series. A very high encounter rate that plagues you through out the game even if you're not trying to level grind, but you will have to a lot thanks to the Difficulty Spike found in later areas in which almost everything is a Demonic Spider. Word of God confirms that the final area is highly unbalanced due to wanting the game finished soon.
The 7th Saga for SNES is definitely up there. Monsters do grotesque amounts of damage to your paltry HP and give little experience or gold (and have unlimited MP of course), both spells and attacks fail very often. Oh, and there's a group of other adventurers roaming around trying to complete the same quest as you are, and are always a couple levels higher than you are. If you run into the wrong one at one of the forced fights with one of these guys, the game can be very nearly unwinnable.
MS Saga: A New Dawn's difficulty is okay until you lose the White Mage, Aeon, leaving you with only one effective healer with enough TP to handle the massive healing jobs. Tristan has Full Heal, sure, but he'll be busy spamming Fin Funnel before he has a chance to use his very low TP to heal the others. Upgrades are extremely expensive, and you'll be stuck with very underpowered suits by the endgame unless you do serious Level Grinding to take on numerous cloned boss machines and Burning Gundam in order to get stronger units. Bosses and crystal marked enemies hit very hard and merciless due to the fact that you must be able to handle their fixed action patterns by that time.
Many of the early Wizardry games are known for their ruthless difficulty. Many of the puzzles are nearly intractable without a guide, in battles you are often hugely outnumbered and can be (very) easily incapacitated in a single turn. The worst offender is probably Wizardry IV, in which levelling was literally impossible (you had to complete the dungeon level to increase your abilities), and featured many puzzles of rather maddening difficulty. Even getting out of the first room of the first level requires a degree of off-the-wall intuition. Wizardry IV is often considered to be one of the most difficult CRPGs ever made.
This game was difficult by design. Wizardry IV (in which you play the original Wizardry's Big Bad) was unashamedly touted right on the box as "For Expert Players Only". Not only was it Nintendo Hard, but it also featured elements of Trial-and-Error Gameplay.
Both a Touhou fangame and tribute to Wizardry-style CRPGs, Touhou Labyrinth may not have permadeath, but it does feature absolutely unforgiving enemies. It's common for bosses to tear you apart the first few times you attempt to fight them, and on later levels of the labyrinth, even normal enemies will be absolutely hellish to fight. As if that's not bad enough, the game's superbosses will rip you to shreds unless you're prepared to level grind like crazy.
Before they patched, the sequel to The Witcher was like this. Within minutes of teaching you the basic controls it has a swarm of enemies gang up on you. Many people could not complete the first quest.
Also, on highest difficulty, death is final. If Geralt dies the game automatically deletes all your save files, meaning you have to start over.
Baten Kaitos Origins, a vicious example of a Sequel Difficulty Spike. It got rid of the Fake Difficulty that Eternal Wings suffered from, and replaced it with real difficulty. While it starts out reasonably challenging, the game quickly builds all three of your characters into Difficult but AwesomeGlass Cannons. Most enemies can cut through your health in just a couple turns, and bosses have specials that will utterly devastate your party. Level Grinding and item farming won't help you here; skill, quick thinking, patience, and reflexes are what you'll need to get through. Fans have compared it to Shin Megami Tensei and Dark Souls, and with good reason.
Demon's Souls. Yes, it is insanely, frustratingly, tear-inducingly hard, but it's because it's a game that DEMANDS mastery. A dedicated (and PATIENT) player will slowly inch his/her way through the game, slowly learning stages inside out and building his/her character up. With persistence, the player might even thrive. But after beating the game, it's new game plus time, which is even HARDER!
And after beating that, it's on to New Game++. And then New Game+++. There is no known limit. While the jump in difficulty between everything but the first plus is lower, there is no limit to the amount of pluses, and it gets harder each time.
The tagline for Dark Souls is "Prepare to Die". It's not kidding. Even the weakest mooks can kill you in seconds if you're careless. And many of the bosses could be considered examples of That One Boss. The environment is also trying its best to kill you, with traps and bottomless pits aplenty. Level grinding only gets you so far, the game will punish you if you don't learn from your mistakes. And just when you think you've got the hang of things, New Game+ ramps up the difficulty.
Some gamers have noted/complained that Dark Souls II is somewhat easier than the original, to the point where they'd recommend it as an introduction to the series. Then New Game+ outdoes the same mode in Dark Soulsbig time.
The story mode of Pokémon Colosseum is probably the most difficult in the "main" series. Because of the game's focus on "Shadow Pokemon" and snagging Pokemon from trainers, there is an abysmally low pool of Mons to choose from—less than fifty, in fact. The fact that you have to steal Pokemon from trainers means that while trying to catch Pokemon, the trainers will be assaulting you with their own. Bosses have Legendary Pokemon at their disposal, and unlike the main series utilize actual strategies beyond Poor, Predictable Rock. The sequel, XD, dialed back the difficulty significantly, although it still does have you catch seven high-level Pokemon, mostly Legendaries, in a row without saving.
Absurd difficulty can be found in the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon series, although these are mentioned under "Roguelikes."
The web game Clash Of The Dragons has horrendous enemies, some that can easily kill you in one hit. To make matters worse, there are limited cards purchasable from the shop unless you bribe your way to victory, meaning that eventually you'll be walking up a creek without a paddle. And to add insult to injury, there's an Anti-poop-socking feature and tons of enemies, meaning that you can spend weeks trying to beat a single level or even a single quest.
Nintendo Hard is the default difficulty for any Shin Megami Tensei game. Rampant abuse of One-Hit Kill spells in games where you only need to lose your main character to game over, a spell naming system that practically requires the player to learn a second language to know what everything does (fortunately, the naming's fairly consistent, so once you learn the language in one game you won't have as much trouble in other games), and the frequent use of a "characters get extra turns for exploiting weakness" mechanic which can frequently lead to the player either mopping the floor with a tough encounter or the easiest encounter annihilating an entire party before they even get a chance to move.
The Fallout: New Vegas add-on Dead Money. Oh, where to begin? You're stripped of all items in your inventory when you begin the adventure, so you have to make do with what you can scrounge up. The entire location is filled with pockets of poisonous gas that erase big whacks of your health (even if you have the perk that makes you immune to regular poisons) and liberally salted with mines, frag grenades, and bear traps. Your character has an Explosive Leash locked around his/her neck, which will go off if he/she gets too near any radios or intercoms (some of which you can't turn off or even destroy) or if any of the NPC companions are knocked out at any time. And the only enemies around are Demonic Spiders that don't take extra damage from head shots, wield weapons that have a high chance of crippling a limb with each hit, and have a tendency to get back up after you kill them. Have fun.
And if that wasn't enough for you, the Final Mixes for Kingdom Hearts II and Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep offered an ability at the game's start when playing Critical: EXP Zero. Aside from bonus stats earned from boss fights to make it plausible, the most hardcore of players are given the opportunity to Low Level Run the games on their hardest difficulties at Level 1; by the end game, pretty much everything can kill you in one or two hits if you don't have certain abilities and the sheer skill to prevent it.
Guild Wars 2 manages this on some of its jumping puzzles. Most have only one correct path which can be difficult if not impossible to spot on your own. Many jumps are extremely exacting, allowing only a slim margin of error for positioning and timing. Enemies are also present and can interfere with knockbacks, slows, crippling, and all other manners of annoyance. If you die without a partner, your only choice is to start the entire puzzle over again, which may also be required if you miss even a single jump.
One particularly aggravating puzzle has a ceiling located at just the right height so if you don't jump at exactly the right moment, you'll be knocked to the ground and have to spend a minute running back to the jump.
Super Adventure Box, a retro-inspired Game Within a Game, is clearly designed to evoke memories of Nintendo's golden days. While the main paths through the levels are relatively simple in comparison to the jumping puzzles, getting 100% Completion requires grinding through some especially exacting jumping puzzles. And that's before you enter Tribulation mode.
The final boss fight in Baldur's Gate: Throne of Bhaal becomes this if you have the Ascension mod installed. Amellisan is already a Marathon Boss by herself, but with Ascension she turns the fight into a Boss Rush by summoning the Big Bad and his Dragon from the second game, then summoning the Five-Bad Band of this game. Oh, and she keeps summoning her Demonic Spiders while this is going on. And all this can be potentially followed up by her getting Sarevok to Face-Heel Turn if you don't redeem him, impress him enough with your evil-ness, or use a mod to romance him and turning Imoen into the Slayer, which deprives you of two party members, one of whom is generally regarded as the best in the game. Have fun.
Robopon is published by Atlus. Enemies can be surprisingly strong in dungeons and the bosses can be obscenely difficult if you don't come prepared.