The first Contra game is widely considered to be among the most difficult NES games — and for good reason. If you touch nearly anything that isn't a powerup, you're dead. No passwords or saves, and if you lose three lives, it's game over — unless you use the Konami Code, of course, extending your potential death-count to thirty.
Even one of the powerups can ruin your game by replacing a perfectly functional weapon with a useless one.
The Japanese version of Contra: Hard Corps featured a life bar, allowing you to take a hit or two before dying. It was made in America, though.Contra: Hard Corps is widely considered to be the hardest game in the series. When it was released in Japan, the Japanese thought the same and put in a health bar. That said, with the difficulty being the same, if you can 1cc one you can do the same for the other.
Contra 3: The Alien Wars, for the Super NES, has multiple difficulty levels and the ability to choose to have more extra lives per continue, making it less frustrating than the earlier games. When set to Hard, however, the game walks the line between Nintendo hard and platform hell.
The recently released Contra 4 for the Nintendo DS is also considerably challenging, as not only do you have to worry about things shooting at you from two screens, but most Boss Battles are fought against a Sequential Boss.
Contra 4 also one-ups the missile-riding sequence from Contra 3 by making your handholds very tiny, constantly moving, opening, and closing, and then throwing deadly missiles at you from several different angles.
The Japanese arcade version of Super Contra allows players to replay the entire game on a harder setting after completing the game normally once and unlike the normal game, continues are not allowed, making it one of the more difficult Contra games in the series.
The Run-And-Gun shooter Moon Patrol actually starts out nice and easy, especially for an early '80s arcade title...and then it throws the Champion course at you, which quickly escalates from fairly challenging into downright Nintendo Hard. The Champion course is just littered with areas with multiple rocks on both sides of a pit, jumping sequences where your timing has to be just right, and sometimes a couple dozen airborne enemies on screen...sometimes in combination.
Arcade cabinet horizontal spaceship Shoot 'Em Ups à la Zero Wing are a famous example of this trope. An egregious one is Zed Blade, also known as Operation Ragnarok. After a deceptively easy start, the player has to fight ever-increasing number of enemies, most of which are pretty strong and require a lot of pummeling to go down. This would not be particularly deserving of note, if it wasn't that the player is required to avoid a veritable storm of bullets directed at him, most of which can't be shot down. This impressive amount of firepower is often shot by the enemies in such a pattern that there's no way to avoid being hit by at least one bullet. Since the ship has no shields and even one hit will result in a life loss, this makes the game practically unplayable... unless one uses an emulator and a cheat file to make the player ship invulnerable. Of particular notice is the last level, in which along with the usual hailstorm of enemies and bullets, there is a background boss that cannot be destroyed. It'll stay there until the end of the level, spewing even more bolts in the player's direction. This writer doubts anyone ever saw the end of Zed Blade before emulation came along.
In Japanese, a subset of games called danmaku are modern (or not THAT modern) variations that often feature extremely elaborate and beautiful patterns of bullet flows, especially for bosses, with hundreds and sometimes thousands of bullets on the screen at once.
Adding to the hardness, some danmaku games, especially Touhou, actually reward you for getting as close to the bullets as possible. Being able to "graze" bullets by having them pass through your sprite but not your hitbox earns you extra points for your score, but ups your chances of dying immensely. Thankfully, these games have mechanics to keep the grazing from getting too worthy of a keyboard/controller/arcade machine toss—such as offering plenty of lives, or the "death bomb" mechanic found in Touhou (which allows the player to use up a bomb rather than a life right after getting hit).
Touhou is particularly well-known for drawing in new players with its cast of cute girls, before they realize just how bullet-happy these cute girls can be. Even on Easy Mode, players not used to shoot-em-ups will find themselves wondering "how the heck do I dodge that?!" And on the harder difficulty levels, the game really starts showing its teeth—just search for a video of the game on Lunatic or its Extra stage. To make matters worse, although you can continue if you lose all your lives, continuing means not getting to see a good ending. The real kicker, though, is that, when it comes to Bullet Hell, Touhou is considered one of the easier games.
Other shooting games that have gained renown for being pretty hard include Mushihimesama, which writes the Curtain in Curtain Fire with capital letters (it is not unusual to barely see your ship among the thousands upon thousands of bullets as the difficulty starts to ramp up).
Project X gives you five lives to complete five levels, each one capped with a boss you'd be lucky to beat with ten. One of them even laughs at you when you die.
A variant of the danmaku, Ikaruga is often cited as one of the hardest games ever made. And that's not even regarding going for the evasive "S++" rankings. Part of this is due to the fact that, once again, Treasure found a way to make a shooter that encourages the player to fly into enemy fire.
It's also one of the few shmups that you can beat without firing a single shot (you get the special "Dot Eater" rank for doing this.)
Sin And Punishment is easy on easy mode. And then normal mode makes your shots do less damage, you take more damage, and heal less. Took you forever to beat Normal mode? Happy joy, you just unlocked Hard. Good luck making it to the final boss, much less beating it. Beat that? Go for Turbo/double-frame mode.
The second game doesn't seem to have lowered the difficulty any, either, and perhaps might even have raised it. Good thing the point controls make aiming so precise, because you're going to need every edge you can get.
Another part of the first game's difficulty is how utterly strange the game's controls arenote The default control scheme on any controller is to use the left side only, with the triggers, analog stick, and D-pad being the method of control. The normal buttons are completely ignored., which take quite a bit of getting used to. Fortunately, the Wii controls in the second game pretty much fix this problem.
Radiant Silvergun, which is just long and hard as hell. Although it is one tiny step below Bullet Hell genre, it makes up for it by more complex game mechanics where just holding down fire buttons isn't the best thing to do.
And the less said about infamous titles like Pulstar or Viewpoint, the better...
Most of Cave's shmups became notorious for their elaborate scoring mechanics, and their difficulty; their most successful titles have earned the attention of non-competitive shmup players and score-competitive ones alike, and are often ranked high in terms of player preference. It wouldn't be much of a stretch to say that Cave has defined its own standards of difficulty, where Nintendo Hard isn't enough to express it. For example, the Touhou community has created a hacked version of its 6th game that's inspired by Mushihime-sama's Ultra Mode. Now, for your viewing pleasure
Cave have made some of the hardest shoot-em-ups ever, and some of the hardest games ever, period. One of their games, ''Dodonpachi Dai-ou-jou'', was out for a year and only 5 people in the entire world had beaten it. And these were all "professional" Japanese shoot-em-up players. Ultra mode in ''Mushihime-sama Futari'' is pretty much legendary in terms of difficulty - you're lucky if you survive more than 30 seconds, and beating it in a single credit requires getting through Ultra Mode's TLB form of Larsa where she's floating by herself. She has a bomb-shield for the entire time, and two lifebars (in addition to the lifebar she had while on the dragon)!
The "Black Label" limited edition version has God mode, which features a Bonus Boss with extremely difficult requirements to encounter her. To get Spiritual Larsa you have to beat God Mode without dying at all. Spiritual Larsa herself actually is relatively easy though, especially compared to Ultra's TLB form, not counting all the resources you'd have left over if you're good enough get to her. Only her last attack is actually dangerous, and it's the only attack that has a bomb-shield.
And then Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu came along, and then Black Label came after that and introduced the elusive Zatsuza. Why elusive? Because for over a year, the only evidence of its existence was a track on the OST marked "Secret", because nobody was awesome enough at the game to even see it, to the point that most people just started thinking it was just a Cut Song. And for the record, Zatsuza has also managed to one-up Spiritual Larsa.
The Video Game/Espgaluda games, however, are probably the easiest Cave shmups due to the inclusion of the "Kakusei Mode" that allows the player to slow down the bullets onscreen.
The Darius series of shmups, particularly Darius II and Darius Gaiden. In Darius II, the player's ship is huge relative to the enemies, and Darius Gaiden attempts to piss players off with nigh-unavoidable enemy attacks and cheap bosses, several of which fire the dreaded, hard-to-dodge homing lasers, and a rather annoying Dynamic Difficulty system where powering up for the first time raises the difficulty, with the new difficulty depending on what tier of stages...what's that? Did you just die twice on the final stage and get reduced to the weaker laser shots? Too bad, Taito doesn't care.
The R-Type series. What it lacks in Bullet Hell, it more than makes up for it with its challenging stage designs and enemy placements, which determined players must memorize. Credit feeding and/or savestating will quickly become your best friends in practicing the stages.
Armed Police Unit Gallop, aka Cosmic Cop, a Gaiden Game to R-Type, is even more Nintendo-hard than its brethren.
Much of the Gradius series is a test of patience and being able to recover out of a death that strips you of all of the powerups that keep the game easy. The arcade version of Gradius III (not Arcade difficulty of the SNES version, but the original arcade version), in particular is a notorious example; the first stage alone will make you CRY.
And if you manage to make it past the dreaded 3D segment and Moai stage, you'll start raging at the end of the ice stage, with flying ice cubes that seem to be magnetically attracted to Vic Viper. Plus you have to face the boss too. And have fun during the final level's "escape sequence" after you kill the final boss.
Gradius Rebirth. Take 5 of the most frustrating level types from the Gradius series, add in some more stuff that kills you, and make you go though them repeatedly, each time changing the set up and making things shoot faster to the point where you can't even move without being killed. Oh and the reset points? Typically have the powerup enemies just about to exit the screen, making it hard to also grab them for a chance of survival.
And you can't practice all of that later stuff unless you're on the PS2 version (thanks to stage select), because this version offers no continues. And the escape sequence? Dear God, when I got to that, I gave up.
Gradius is so hard that one of the creators made the Konami Code because he couldn't beat it.
For many players that had played the infinitely easier SNES version, trying the original [[Gradius Gradius III]] arcade version tends to be a complete bitchslap to the face. Yeah, so we're going to shift the enemies around, speed them up, make them much more dogged in their pursuit of you—oh, and while we're at it, you might want to know some of the more useful weapon configurations didn't exist here and the bosses are more resilient. Finally, if you lose all your lives, you don't even get to continue. Have fun!
The Asian and World arcade versions were somewhat easier than the aforementioned Japanese version, which was the basis for the PS2 port.
Abadox looks like Life Force - and it is a damned good shooter - but there's one little problem. When you die - and you WILL die - you lose all your powerups. Standard shooter fare, right? Did we mention that if you don't have speed powerups, you control like molasses in January? This in a game full of tight turns, fast-moving landscapes and (especially in the later levels) enemies as fast as you are with speed powerups. It fits with all the old shmup tropes - huge sprites, One Hit Point Wonder and the like - but quite simply, this game is a psychotically hard example. Beating it without using the all-powerful code or savestates is an incredible achievement, on par with one-life-running Battletoads.
And if you do manage to beat the game, you're rewarded with the opportunity to replay the game while invincible. Yup, once again you can only get the Game Breaker by proving you don't need it.
While otherwise a great game, Apogee's side-scrolling shooter Stargunner is incredibly difficult. Even on the easiest difficulty, the guardian bosses every three levels, and especially at the end of an episode, will eat through your available lives like popcorn, and you only have a maximum of nine. The rapid loss of lives when facing the bosses tends to either come from them having incredibly powerful weapons and being really good shots or just simply being extremely maneuverable and colliding with your ship.
The fact that you can save and load your exact gameplay position makes the game a good deal easier. But the fact that no other shmup known to man gives you this option makes realizing the said ability infinitely more difficult than it should be.
Battle Garegga. If you can handle the realistically-colored bullets, prepare for a different dimension of hurt: the rank system. Playing normally, the game is practically Unwinnable by Design in the last two stages; you have to do some rather counterintuitive-looking strategies like deliberately not powering up (because higher firepower raises the rank more) and deliberately dying (only way to reduce the rank). The latter also means you need to take full advantage of the point-based extra lives; it's been argued that playing for score (a feat that 99% of gamers don't care for) and playing for survival are one and the same in Garegga.
Sub Terrania, for Sega Genesis, is an unusual shoot 'em up that has the player pilot a small sub/fighter craft around sandbox caves and gun down aliens and robots while trying to rescue survivors and retrieve sub modules (in the first half of the game) and simply clear obstacles (in the second half). The difficulty stems from several factors: 1) your fuel runs dry pretty quickly and there are only a handful of fuel stations (which can each only be used once) throughout the levels, usually far away when you need it; 2) your shields also drop quickly, and shield recharge stations (also one use) are very rare—some levels don't have any; 3) the controls, while not clunky or unwieldy, are extremely touchy, requiring very delicate applications of thrusters and turns, or you'll smash into a wall and explode. Also, you can't float in place if you need to shoot sideways, so you constantly have to adjust your orientation and give a light thruster boost before turning again and continuing to shoot (giving enemies plenty of time to smack you around).
Also, once you reach the underwater section of the cave system (the second half of the game), gravity increases drastically for some reason, meaning a faster consumption of fuel and an increased danger of overcompensating and slamming into a wall.
Bangai-O Spirits for the DS is hard and knows it. The game actually tells you how to do the Invincibility and Infinite Limit Break cheats in the Tutorial, because they know many people will need them just to beat some stages.
The Terminator 2 on the Game Boy. Unless you have the manual or a walkthrough or the patience to jump randomly, you're not going to know that the little flashing blocks are in fact help cubes that give hints. How bad is the game in terms of difficulty? Here's a rundown:
You start the first level in an apocalyptic future. You have to shoot the beacons at the top of each tower in the order of tallest to smallest. Get the order wrong and its game over! Anyway, once you get order right, you must fight an annoying boss. Once that's done, it's the next level.
It's Level 2 and you're health hasn't reset. You only have one life and no continues and so far there are no health picks. Down below is another box that starts a timer and you have no idea where to go. If you die here, it's back to Level One. There's a hallway in this level where, if you want to pass, you have no choice but to get hit by some land mines due to a too-low ceiling.
There is a third level which requires the Player to rewire a T-800's circuitry in 3 progressively more difficult stages, in a jarring transition from Side-Scrolling Shoot 'Em Up to Puzzle Game. The idea is to move the cursor around the screen and change the junctions in a 'map' of circuits, so that when the timer hits 0 the released charges of energy travel from one side of the screen to the other, thus completing the circuit. The first is fairly obvious, though the timer is unforgiving. The second requires a keen eye and much practice, with an even shorter timer. The third randomly releases charges from any 4 of 6 possible junctions into an Escher-esque landscape of broken paths, which must be negotiated in just 20 seconds. And the charges have only 5 seconds to make their journey, which means you lose (the game ends and you have to start over from the very beginning) even if you manage to complete all the paths, but one of them takes a split-second too long to arrive. There is no fourth level.
The obscure Jim Power: The Arcade Game has not only the usual "all manner of obstacles" business as well as Jim himself phasing out in seconds after touching any hazard or enemy, but there is also the SHMUP sections where the ship you are flying is pretty slow (read: annoyingly slow) and there are enemies that toss tons of bullets at you. And, of course, there are the Zig-zag segments in which the autoscrolling randomly speeds up and slows down. Watch Youtube L PerKikoskia's LP of the game and you'll see how frustrating this game gets... even the very first level is insane.
For all it manages to avoid The Problem with Licensed Games, Astro Boy: Omega Factor is a bastard in later levels. The first playthrough is all right, but once you enter the second one, every enemy doubles the amount of damage they can do. By the time you reach the last level, forget your health bar - you can take maybe three hits. Did I mention some enemies randomly don't go into hit-stun, meaning they can freely attack you while you hit them? And that many of the flying stages are Bullet Hell? (This is a Treasure game.) Oh, and the entire second half of the game is a massive Guide Dang It. Still surprisingly fun.
It's true the first playthrough is doable... unless you're playing on Hard Mode, which truly lives up to its name. Have fun trying to get past the second boss. You'll have a hard enough time just getting to him.
One boss late in the second playthrough is about five times bigger than Astro. Super attacks only do about 10% damage. And the worst part? It can kill you in only. One. Hit.
Said boss has laughably simple pattern though; those that remember they can dash through enemies usually beat it on the first try.
Konami's forgotten vertical shmup Lightning Fighters came out the same year as Raiden, but is considerably harder. Has moments of Fake Difficulty in the later levels, as well as suffering from "Gradius Syndrome".
Capcom's 19XX series which has you fighting through storms of projectiles and enemies and plenty of bosses which take the form of HugeExpensiveSuperweapons.
Adventures Of Dino Riki: In this game, Dino Riki is armed with throwing rocks and must contend with hordes of fast-moving enemies, quicksand pits, bottomless chasms, and river crossings where he must be extremely careful with his jumps or else he will end up in the drink.
Ace Combat 4 had a level that where the majority of the point items were into craters on the top of plateaus. That ascended 2500 feet in the air. To get them, you had to take your jet to nearly double that height, and nose dive until you came in firing range, which is in the hundreds of feet measurements. Okay, somewhat beatable if you can pull out and zoom away for another run. Now, tack on the bad guy's super weapon, which was capable of shooting down everything above 2000 feet within operational range instantly (operational range being nearly an entire continent the current combat zone just happens to be on) and fires something on the order of once every five minutes, forcing you to abandon precious time trying to make your runs. Then, even if were to get the points necessary to beat the level, you still had to wait for the mission to time out, and endure stuff shooting at you and the superweapon.
Sunset Riders is essentially Contrain the old West, and for good reason. Multiplayer made the game easier, there were powerups for your gun, but you still had to master aiming and effectively making use of cover; not to mention the stampedes and one-hit kills. Then there's The Smith Bros...
Don't let the playful graphics in Aqua Rhapsody fool you. Fast and precise mouse movements are a MUST to make any decent progress in the game.
Rayxanber II for the PC Engine not only forces R-Type-like memorization, but has weapons that are underpowered for defeating the fast-moving enemies, some of which will completely encircle the ship.
Syder Arcade on Pure difficulty. It's a good thing that powerups carry over from previous stages, because you need EVERY edge you can get.
Recca is the Ur Example of Bullet Hell. Except, unlike most bullet hells, it's EXTREMELY fast paced and frantic. You get no continues, you lose all powerups when you die, note although considering how many enemies are on screen at once, that's not as big a issue as you'd think the bombs need to be charged note although you do get a unlimited amount of them, it's difficult to find time to charge them. The game has little slowdown for the most part note Impressive considering it's a NES game with a ton of things going on at once and in general it doesn't fuck around. The credits even state that Recca is a "Super Hard Shooting Game" Then there's hard mode, which changes the entire game around to make it even harder, and Zankai Attack, which puts the "Bullet" in Bullet Hell.
Army Moves was largely responsible for giving Spanish company Dinamic its reputation for making games with wonderful graphics but ludicrous difficulty. The first two stages of the Gameplay Roulette feature player vehicles that go down in one hit from any of the constant swarms of enemies from all sides. Collision detection only aggravates this.