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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.

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, especially if Hard Mode Perks are involved. Related to Earn Your Fun, when more skilled gamers find the default difficulty levels too easy for their tastes. Compare New Game Plus, 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:

  • 20 Minutes Till Dawn has a whopping 16 difficulty levels, with each one requiring you to survive 20 minutes on the previous level to unlock. As these Darkness Levels are the main form of progression, the line between difficulty levels and actual video game levels is blurred.
  • 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.
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  • 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.
  • 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 Permadeath 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.
  • In the Devil May Cry games, clearing a difficulty mode unlocks the next difficulty mode, and so forth... though some specific games put a twist or add more to that pattern.
    • In DMC1, Players start the game on its Normal difficulty, and upon clearing the game, it starts a New Game Plus on Hard mode on the cleared save file, and clearing that same save file on Hard mode will bring players to Dante Must Die mode. In later games, beating the "Must Die" mode unlocks the Heaven Or Hell difficulty (introduced in DMC3), and then that unlocks the Hell And Hell difficulty (introduced in DMC4).
    • DMC1 unlocks an "Easy Automatic" mode if you use specific recovery/revival times in the first missions.
    • DMC3 unlocks an "Easy" mode if you die three times on the Normal mode.
    • In the Special Edition of DMC3, beating "Hard" mode unlocks "Very Hard" (a mode that's not present in the original version), which further unlocks the "Must Die" mode, and so forth.
    • Specific games like Devil May Cry 4, DmC: Devil May Cry and Devil May Cry 5 allow you to choose between the starting difficulty modes when you begin a fresh save file. In DMC4 and DMC5, it's between Human (Easy) and Devil Hunter (Normal). In DmC, it's between Human (Easy), Devil Hunter (Normal), and Nephilim (Hard). Beating the game on any of the these starting difficulty modes unlock the Son of Sparda mode, and so forth.
    • In Devil May Cry 5, the fights against Urizen in the Prologue and Mission 8 are meant to be Hopeless Boss Fights. Should the player somehow manage to win anyway, they'll unlock the "Son of Sparda" difficulty. Doing it again on that difficulty will further unlock "Dante Must Die", and so on.
  • 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 mirrored tracks, harder CPU racers, and silver coins in harder-to-reach places.
  • Dislyte's Story Mode has three difficulty levels; Easy, Hard, and Purgatory. Hard has to be unlocked after clearing Easy and Purgatory is unlocked after clearing Hard.
  • Doom³: 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.
  • Dragon Quest I: An interesting case, which only shows up in the Japanese release. In this version, choosing to join The Dragonlord will have him give you a password. This password will send you to the start of the game, but with lower stats than normal.
  • 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 given two extra skills, chosen at random from a special pool. Thess 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.
  • Harry Potter: 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.
  • The Hard Mode of Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is unlocked by beating the game for the first time.
  • 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 and with only three hit points instead of six. Its remake, Nightmare in Dream Land, also unlocks Extra Mode this way, but the mode is slightly easier as saves are allowed here, but another mode, Meta-Knightmare, which lets you play as Meta Knight but without saves like the original Extra Mode, is unlocked upon beating it in turn.
    • Kirby's Return to Dream Land also features an Extra Mode that is much like the first game's. Unlocked upon beating the Main Mode at a certain percentage, this Extra Mode features stronger enemies and harder boss fights.
  • A recurring feature in The Legend of Zelda, often mixed with New Game Plus.
  • The Legend of Zelda CD-i Remasters have "Hero Mode", which is unlocked after completing the game normally. It doubles the damage from enemies and prevents you from obtaining the Canteen item.
  • The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn's Quest has three Idiosyncratic Difficulty Levels (Hobbit, Ranger and King), but on the PlayStation 2 and handheld versions, "King", is unlocked by completing the game once on either of the other two difficulties.
  • Luminous Avenger iX 2 has a Hard Mode that's unlocked by collecting all Emblems and entering a secret door located in the final stage.
  • In maimai, Master difficulty for a song is unlocked by achieving a score of 97% or higher on the Expert chart. Re:Master is unlocked alongside Master if it exists for that song.
  • Mario Kart:
    • Super Mario Kart has two difficulty levels at first (50cc and 100cc). Obtaining Gold Cup in the three standard Cups will unlock Special Cup, and obtaining Gold there will unlock 150cc (obtaining Gold Cups in 50cc won't unlock anything, not even Special Cup).
    • All games from Mario Kart 64 onwards, with the exception of Mario Kart: Super Circuit, have four difficulty levels: 50cc, 100cc, 150cc and Mirror Mode (the latter known as Extra Mode in 64 itself). The first three are available from the start, while Mirror is unlocked once you win all Gold Cups in 150cc. Mario Kart 8 received an extra level (200cc) via a post-release update, and can be unlocked at the same time as Mirror.
  • Mario Party: Later games in the series 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 Mario Party 5, you have to complete Story Mode in Hard; in Mario Party 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.
  • Max Payne: In the first two games, only the lowest difficulty (Fugitive/Detective) is available by default. You have to complete the game on this setting to unlock the other difficulties and game modes.
  • 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).
  • Metroid:
  • 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 sequels have each three difficulty levels: Sweet, Mild and Bitter. In all games, Bitter is accessible upon first completion. No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle also has an extra difficulty level (Special) for the Bizarre Jelly 5 Game Within a Game, which requires completing Hard Mode without losing a life. No More Heroes III goes as far as applying this to all the Side Job minigames, though in their case the difficulty levels are labeled with numbers instead (0, 1 and 2).
  • Most modern-era Phantasy Star titles tie difficulty availability to the character's level. The higher your level, the more difficulties you have access to. A few games like Phantasy Star Zero and Phantasy Star Nova tie difficulty unlocks directly to Quest progress, such as requiring you to clear a certain Quest on the hardest available difficulty to unlock the next difficulty for all Quests.
  • 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.
  • Progressbar 95: Progressbar 95, the system you start with, only has the Normal mode and the two special game modes available. Relax mode and Progress Defender are playable once you install Progressbar 95 plus and Hardcore mode is playable once you install Progressbar 98. The unlocked difficulties stay for all later systems and the four unlockable ones before Progressbar 95.
  • The Nightmare difficulty in Quake is hidden in a secret location in the Hub Level. The pool you dive into to enter episode 4 (even if you're in the demo, which locks you to episode 1) has a beam under it that you can land on, leading to the Nightmare portal.
  • Silent Hill 3 has ten additional Harder Than Hard difficulty levels beyond the initial Easy, Medium, and Hard. Clearing the game on Hard will unlock "Extreme I", which halves Heather's health and overall stats. Clearing Extreme I, in turn, will unlock Extreme II, which increases the enemies' durability and strength. Every difficulty afterward will increasingly up the enemies' stats, all the way to Extreme X. Clearing the game on Extreme X will unlock Heather's God of Thunder costume.
  • Slay the Spire: If you beat the game with a particular Character Class you unlock Ascension 1 for just that character. Beat Ascension 1 with that character, you unlock Ascension 2, and so on, up to Ascension 20.
  • Sonic Adventure 2: Each stage has has a hard mode version. 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".
  • Uphill Rush: Each cup has an easy, normal, and hard mode. You start with easy, to unlock normal you must beat easy, and to unlock hard you must beat normal.
  • 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.
  • Yakuza: In each of the games, the Legend/Ex-Hard difficulty is unlocked after beating the game once.
  • Yoshi's Safari: The hardmode unlock code is given out at the end of the game.

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