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Unlockable Difficulty Levels

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Some video games with Difficulty Levels don't just hand over the keys to everything immediately. Occasionally you need to earn the right to play them, which typically requires beating the game at least once.

This gating of content is frequently reserved for the Harder Than Hard difficulty. There are multiple possible reasons for this: it could be meant as a bonus for players that prove they're hardcore enough to beat the vanilla hard mode, it encourages players trying out the vanilla hard mode before letting them jump right into the Harder Than Hard mode, and/or helps pad out game time by encouraging multiple playthroughs.

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Mercy Mode is a subtrope where an easier than normal mode is unlocked when you do poorly.

Subtrope of Unlockable Content. As mentioned, may lead to Fake Longevity. Related to Earn Your Fun, when more skilled gamers find the default difficulty levels too easy for their tastes. Compare New Game+, in which a subsequent playthrough carries over content earned the first time around; the game may be made more difficult to compensate.


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Examples:

  • Ace Combat: In older titles, unlocking the ultimate Ace difficulty mode usually requires you to finish the campaign at least once on Normal or Hard.
  • The Angry Video Game Nerd Adventures: Completing the game on "Old School" difficulty unlocks "Hard as Balls", completing that unlocks "Fucking Impossible", and completing that unlocks "YOLO".
  • An Untitled Story: Completing the game on "masterful" difficulty unlocks the "insane" difficulty, which is like masterful but you are a One-Hit-Point Wonder.
  • Bayonetta and its sequel have the Hard and Infinite Climax difficulties locked behind beating the entire game on Normal and Hard, respectively.
  • BioShock Infinite: In order to play in the much harder 1999 mode, you must either beat the game in regular mode or enter the Konami Code.
  • Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon: Only Normal difficulty is available from the start, but you unlock the other two depending on how you played the game. If you recruit all 3 party members, you unlock Nightmare mode. If you kill all 3 party members and take their soul powers, you unlock Ultimate mode.
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  • Bullet Witch: From the outset, players can start the game on Easy, Normal, and Hard modes. After clearing the Hard mode, players can replay the game on Chaos mode, and upon clearing Chaos modes unlocks Hell mode.
  • Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2: The difficulty level depends on how fast you can complete The Pit in the S.S.D.D. tutorial level. If you complete it under 40 seconds, you can unlock the Harderned difficulty, and if you complete it under 35 seconds, you can unlock the Veteran difficulty. Otherwise, these two difficulty levels are locked.
  • Crescent Pale Mist: You start out with Pumpkin Knight (Easy), Magic Knight (Normal), and Sacred Knight (Hard) difficulties on a new save file, but the two higher difficulties, Terror Knight (Fear) and Knight of Nightmare (Planeriel) require you to not only find an item hidden in one of the stages, the former also requires you kill a total of 8,000 enemies and beat Sacred Knight mode to unlock it on the original PC version, and simply beating that difficulty unlocks the latter.
  • Cuphead: An "Expert" difficulty becomes available for all the levels after beating the game once.
  • Cytus II: Unlocking a song will give you its Easy chart, and usually its Hard chart too. However, with a few exceptions, the Chaos chart is locked. To unlock the harder charts, you need to view certain iM messages, which are unlocked by leveling up the character associated with the song.
  • Dead Space: All 3 of the games offer a Harder Than Hard mode once you've beaten the game.
    • Dead Space keeps the Impossible difficulty locked until you've beaten the game.
    • Dead Space 2 features the Hardcore difficulty where you can only save 3 times.
    • Dead Space 3: Unlocks a reworked Hardcore difficulty featuring Perma Death and two other modes, one of which which disable Co-Op Multiplayer and makes the game play more similarly to the previous titles, and one which turns off the Money Spider effect, forcing the player to craft resources.
  • Devil May Cry: Players start the game on its Normal difficulty, and upon clearing the game it starts a New Game+ on Hard mode on the cleared save file, and clearing the same save file on Hard mode will bring players to Dante Must Die mode.
  • DmC: Devil May Cry: Players can choose between Human (Easy), Devil Hunter (Normal), and Nephilim (Hard) difficulties when they start off a fresh save file. Beating the game on any of the three difficulties unlocks the Son of Sparda (Very Hard) mode, then beating the game again on that difficulty unlocks Heaven or Hell mode where you and the enemies can die in a single hit, and upon clearing that difficulty finally unlocks Hell and Hell mode, which only makes you die in a single hit instead.
  • Diablo II: Beating the game once unlocks the "Nightmare" difficulty, and beating it on "Nightmare" unlocks "Hell" difficulty.
  • Diddy Kong Racing: By beating Adventure mode once, you unlock "Adventure Two", which features harder CPU racers and silver coins in harder-to-reach places.
  • Doom 3: After beating the game for the first time on any difficulty, players can unlock Nightmare difficulty, but if the player know their way around command-line arguments or changing a certain game setting in its config file, they can unlock it immediately without the work.
  • DOOM (2016): Beating the game on Hurt Me Plenty or higher unlocks Ultra-Nightmare, which is the same as the already brutal Nightmare difficulty but makes the player go through the entire game in a single life without saving or checkpoints, and if they die at any point on Ultra-Nightmare, they start back over from the beginning. Similarly to Doom 3, however, it can also be unlocked early via a command-line argument or config edit.
  • Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 3: You can unlock additional difficulties by beating the game on Very Hard. The first one is called Z-difficulty, where enemies gain better AI and stats. Beating Z unlocks Z-2, which adds more of the same. And beating Z-2 unlocks the final difficulty, Z-3, where the opponents all have maxed out stats and a near Perfect-Play A.I.. Everyone from Raditz to Gotenks will be a nailbiting fight because Computers Are Fast.
  • Eternal Senia: Hydrangea After The Rain: The Hard stages are unlocked after completing the Normal stages, and the Nightmare stages are unlocked after completing the Hard stages.
  • Game & Watch Gallery: Every game in the collections has two difficulties of easy or hard (excluding those with a multiplayer function). If one gets 1000 points on either difficulty for the modern version of a game, a very hard star mode is unlocked for that game (again with the exception of games with a 2-player).
  • Fairy Bloom Freesia: Start at Normal, defeat that to unlock Hard, and defeat that, to unlock Cruel.
  • Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade: Hector's story is unlocked after completing Eliwood's story, and has four extra chapters (two main and two gaiden chapters) while being harder overall. This can be kicked up a notch with "Hector's hard mode".
  • Fire Emblem Awakening: Completing the game on Lunatic Mode unlocks Lunatic+, which is similar to Lunatic, but every enemy is randomly given two extra skills, chosen at random from a special pool, these skills are enemy exclusive, and extremely unbalanced, such as one that makes all attacks hit, or regular skills with their activation requirements removed, so they always work.
  • Fire Emblem Heroes: Each Story Mode chapter can only be played on Normal initially, but completing the chapter unlocks the Hard and Lunatic versions of their maps. The bonus maps also have Harder Than Hard difficulties in Infernal and Abyssal that require beating Lunatic to unlock.
  • Fortune Summoners: Nightmare Difficulty is unlocked after beating the game once.
  • The Harry Potter game "Quidditch World Cup" features four levels, only two of which are unlocked at the start. Comet 260 is the lowest level, Nimbus 2000 is the medium difficulty, Nimbus 2001 is hard, and Firebolt is expert. Nimbus 2001 and Firebolt require several Quidditch Cards to unlock.
  • Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA: You must play a song on Medium difficulty to unlock its Hard chart, and beat its Hard chart to unlock its Extreme chart. The arcade game and its PlayStation 4 port have Hard unlocked from the start, but you still need to unlock Extreme.
  • Hyper Princess Pitch: The code to the Unwinnable Joke Difficulty is given upon clearing hard mode.
  • I Miss the Sunrise: There's a super hard difficulty unlocked with a cheat code.
  • Iji: Ultimortal difficulty is unlocked after completing Extreme.
  • Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony: Divine and Judgement difficulty levels become playable once you purchase them from the shoppe.
  • Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance: The Harder Than Hard Critical Mode can only be selected after the game has been beaten once.
  • Kirby:
    • Kirby's Dream Land: Extra Mode (basically the hard mode) can be accessed anytime with a code, but the game itself only shows the code after you beat the main mode once.
    • In Kirby's Adventure, you unlock Extra Mode upon getting 100% Completion. Here the whole game has to be beaten with no saves. Its remake, Nightmare In Dreamland, also unlocks Extra Mode this way, but the mode is even harder since your health is halved.
    • Kirbys Return To Dreamland also features an Extra Mode that is much like the first game's. Unlocked upon beating the regular campaign, this Extra Mode features stronger enemies and harder boss fights.
  • A recurring feature in The Legend of Zelda, often mixed with New Game+.
  • All Mario Kart games from 64 onwards have four difficulty levels: 50cc, 100cc, 150cc and Mirror Mode. The first three are available from the start, while Mirror is unlocked once you win all Gold Cups in 150cc.
  • Later Mario Party games have each a Brutal or Intense AI level that adds to the standard Easy, Normal and Hard; the method of unlocking it depends on the game itself (in 5, you have to complete Story Mode in Hard; in 7, you can purchase it in the Duty-Free Shop with the mileage points you accumulate in the other modes; and so on).
  • Mass Effect: Completing the game unlocks the Hardcore difficulty setting. Beating that in turn unlocks the Insanity difficulty.
  • Mega Man Legends: The easy mode is unlocked by completing the hard mode (which itself, is unlocked by beating the game on normal difficulty), making it a Bragging Rights Reward.
  • Mega Man Zero: in all 4 games, the hard difficulty is unlocked after beating the game in normal mode once. There's also the special "Ultimate" difficulty (only in second game onward), which requires Gotta Catch Them All to unlock (all Cyber Elves in Zero 2, all Secret Disks in Zero 3, all enemy parts in Zero 4). Said difficulty lets you play with most of the good stuff unlocked from the start, plus enabling instant Charged Attack by button commands (ala fighting games).
  • Several Metroid games have an unlockable Hard Mode (known as Hypermode in Corruption and the Trilogy compilation), accessible once the game is beaten for the first time.
  • Mighty No. 9: Players start out with Normal mode upon start from a new system save file, and after beating the game for the first time, they unlock Hard and Hyper modes. Maniac mode is however only available as a DLC.
  • No More Heroes and its sequel have three difficulty levels: Sweet, Mild and Bitter. In both games, Bitter is accessible upon first completion.
  • Pokémon Black 2 and White 2: The games have unlockable difficulty settings after beating the game, which are different between the versions. Black 2 contains a Challenge Mode, which raises the level of trainer Pokémon, with the Gym Leaders and Elite Four using held items, having new movesets, and an extra Pokémon on their team. Meanwhile, White 2 contains a Easy Mode where opponents have their levels lowered. These modes aren't necessarily version exclusive, but to get the one that your respective title doesn't have, they must be sent from another player with the opposite version who has the mode unlocked on theirs via the "Unova Link" feature. Doing this will also allow the receiving player to make use of the mode from the start.
  • Sonic Adventure 2 has a hard mode for each single player stage. Unlocking them requires clearing the first four missions of said stage with hard mode serving as the fifth mission.
  • Sonic Heroes: Once every emblem is collected and every stage and boss is cleared with an A rank, Super Hard Mode is unlocked. While the stages are more difficult, the bosses are not fought.
  • Soul Calibur VI: Initially, arcade mode can only be played on Easy, Normal, Hard, and Very Hard difficulty. You have to clear Very Hard with a gold rating (completion time must be under 12 minutes) to unlock the Legendary difficulty setting, which also unlocks the "Glory Awaits" achievement.
  • SUGURI and sora: In their unlockable Match Mode, where players can re-fight bosses on a 1-on-1 fight without going through their respective stages, they have access to Easy, Normal, and Hard difficulty levels for each boss. After beating them on Hard, it unlocks the Special difficulty, which not only makes the bosses much more brutal than the previous difficulties, they also employ powerful unique attacks only on this difficulty.
  • Tyrian has three hidden difficulty modes past the first three. When unlocked using certain codes, they are labeled as "Impossible", "Suicide", and "Lord of the Game".
  • In Viewtiful Joe games, beating the game in Adults difficulty will unlock the V-Rated difficulty, which in turn will unlock Ultra V-Rated difficulty when played through and completed.
  • Wario Land 4: The game starts out with two difficulties available to select when starting a file, "Normal" and "Hard". Beating a file set to the "Hard" difficulty for the first time unlocks a third difficulty option, "S-Hard".
  • Wolfenstein: The New Order features four custom difficulty settings, each of which is unlocked by recovering fragments of code from within the game and entering them in a special menu screen. Game modes unlocked include "999",note  "Walk in the Park",note  "Hardcore",note  and "Ironman".note 
  • Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus: The "Mein Leben!" difficulty disables saves and forces the player to start from the beginning if they die. It must be unlocked by completing the game on the next highest difficulty, "I am death incarnate!"
  • The Wonderful 101: Hard mode is locked until after beating the whole game on Normal, where any level can be played on Hard after that. Similarly, 101% Hard is unlocked after beating the entire game on Hard. Each and every level must be cleared on that difficulty individually to unlock the one above it: you can beat the game on a lower level and pick whichever order you want to clear the levels on the higher difficulty, but the game keeps track on which levels are beaten on which setting, so 101% Hard cannot just be unlocked by jumping straight to the final boss or the epilogue on Hard.
  • The World Ends with You: You start off on Normal and unlock the other difficulty levels with stickers. Easy is earned on day 3, Hard at the start of the second week, and Ultimate can be purchased in the post-game. This is important because Noise drop more and better pins on higher difficulties.
  • Yoshi's Safari: The hardmode unlock code is given out at the end of the game.

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