As video games have evolved, one thing that’s been noticeable in recent years is the welcoming balance on display, like difficulties with robust scaling, accessibility options, or maybe just skipping a notorious part entirely. It’s nice that in the search for video games to be the ultimate medium, care has been taken to allow for all audiences. For now though, we strive to find the hardest levels in games that players are looking to break their minds – and controllers – with.
In this short listicle, we’re dedicating time and attention to some truly infamous trials and tribulations, ones which push the limit of what a feat can entail, including continuous onslaughts of bullets and bombs, threading the needle in perilous platformers, or simply not knowing where the hell to go in some instances. There’s something for everyone here, but first some ground rules:
- No bosses are taken into account. The difficulty of a boss is more subjective than most.
- No modifiers or roguelike games – the randomization can make or break certain runs.
- The level in question can’t be hard due to bad design. Something like Bioshock Infinite’s graveyard section is a good example of this, with the awkward endless loop players can find themselves in.
With that out of the way, let us begin to grind our teeth into dust, feign throwing controllers out the window, and take deep breaths.
Trials Fusion - Inferno IV
Trials has always gone out of its way to humble the players it attracted, and this has always shown in the form of “Inferno” tracks. The grand finales of the games they represent, it would be Trials Fusion’s “Inferno IV” that would become the legend, the searing trial by fire built by RedLynx to stun players past, present, and future. One look at its opening obstacles tells you everything you need to know.
A lot of the difficulty comes from mastering “Ninja” mechanics, a skill set reserved for the upper echelon of Trials players, and cultivated by RedLynx themselves. Front wheel control, tail hooks, vertical riding – all of it is utilized to fantastic effect in Inferno IV, demanding at least a good understanding of how it’s executed in order for the player to succeed. It’s a fitting teeth-grinding finale, and one that would solidify Trials Fusion as the blueprint for Trials fans everywhere, thanks to its robust level creation tools.
N+ - Episode 47
Part of the genius in minimalist platformer N+ is the ease of access with which you can access its content. There’s 50 episodes of 5 levels, with those 50 episodes sectioned in sets of 5 to choose from in any order, ranging from visual gimmick levels to meticulous physics-based ragebait. While it takes some getting to from Episode 45 onwards, Episode 47 is all of the latter, and all of it is the kind of blissful rage you so very rarely get.
This episode has it all! Gauss turrets firing nonstop in “There For the Taking”! A wave of shock drones beneath a bed of mines in “The Abyss”! Loop-de-loop rocket chases in “Trance Gate”! Top it all off with the claustrophobic squeeze of “The Return of Forever,” and you see your platforming skills stretched to the limit, all in the pursuit of precious, pixelated gold. Life’s most valuable commodity, you see.
Runbow - Bowhemoth
Beneath its unique color-switching platform mechanic, there exists a deception to the difficulty of Runbow. 13AM Games’ jaunty answer to the party platformer starts out with capsule levels, king-of-the-hill-themed modes, and a swingin’ roaring '20s soundtrack from Dan Rodrigues. Upon completion of the game's campaign however, you’re given the chance to overcome the “Bowhemoth,” an endurance test unlike any other.
Set inside the bubbling stomach of a massive winding monster, the sheer length of the Bowhemoth is the least of your concerns. A potential runtime of 60 minutes is enough to make your heart sink, and over the course of this, the game manages to switch its hazards thoroughly, and with great effect. From dizzying ascents, to mad dashes, to endless fireball dodging, it’s a test of timing, agility, and precision, and one of the finest examples of hardcore platforming greatness.
Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse - Stage 9 - Inner Halls
Of all the NES titles that sit inside the pantheon of legendary difficulty, Castlevania is one that always felt immensely gratifying to complete. While a frustration factor is in almost every release of the monster-slaying platformer, Castlevania III specifically manages to strike a balance between unequaled intensity and pushing the boundaries forward of its level design and gameplay variety. Nowhere is this more prominent than in Stage 9, which manages to utilize the most terrifying element of any NES Castlevania title: Stairs.
Yes, those precarious two-dimensional things, limiting your movement, and as lethal to you as the legendary Dracula himself. Alongside out-of-reach bone dragons constantly spitting fireballs, and the infamous wavy flight patterns of Castlevania’s more infamous enemies, you also have to account for the screen-shifting mechanic. Fail to predict a single move, and there’s a good chance you’ll be hit by an enemy that didn’t spawn in yet, a punishment for brawny over-confidence. A level so difficult, it offers the rare moment that the boss, a doppelganger of your chosen character, is a complete breeze by comparison.
Paint The Town Red - Arena Challenge 4
Even at the best of times, Paint The Town Red can be a brutal affair. The first-person brawler with voxel-based graphics is quick to insert thin but durable strategies in each of its modes, whether it’s the scenarios set in trope-heavy locations like biker bars or prisons or the roguelite mode “Beneath.” It’s the Arena where you’ll find the game's heaviest punches however, and while most of them consist entirely of boss-rush affairs, Arena Challenge 4 is a specific kind of daunting due to its left-field enemy inclusions.
Consisting largely of enemies unique to “Beneath,” the unique functionalities of these men and monsters, along with the lack of items, is a mix of shortcomings and underdog fury. Knowing when and where to use the game's power-ups like “Smite” or “Berserk” is essential for surviving the next wave, and the constant close-quarter punch-ups will have you relying on more than just circle-strafing. Only when that final beast falls, and the crowd can be heard cheering, can you relish in your victory.
Thumper - Level 8
Now, technically I am cheating with this, if only because the space opera of Thumper includes what can be barely called bosses within each level. However, their inclusion within this rhythm-action cosmic horror largely extends to a visual flourish, or a bombastic intermission, and it’s the run–ups to them that are the main course. The best way to describe it is like if Polybius was real; an addicting descent into dimensions you were never meant to see, your eyes glued to the screen as your space beetle dodges inhuman monoliths, and Stage 8 is where it coalesces into a rhythmic ultimatum.
While the finale of Stage 9 is paced more appropriately, Stage 8 is infinitely faster, piling on some deceptively complex hazards for the player, the onslaught of which you can never be truly prepared for. The saving grace of checkpoints and infinite lives are enough for the player to carry on, but the ease of which this can turn from a 20-minute track into an hourlong fight against Eldritch beasts is admirable. If anything, completing Stage 8 is a sign that you’re more than capable of finishing the game off.
Pokémon Yellow - Silph Co.
Picture yourself in your youth, and you're with your friends at school, learning about Pokémon for the first time. The cards are cool to collect, even if you don’t know how to play them, but thankfully, there’s a whole Game Boy Color game for you to figure out instead. You start to have fun, you’re collecting badges and beating your rival, who you've named “FART” for maximum effect, but your search for a 6th badge in Saffron City is held back by Team Rocket shenanigans at Silph Co.
As a kid, the idea of an 11-story maze filled with teleportation pads is enough to make your heart sink, but if you were the kid with a copy of Pokémon Yellow, you'd have to deal with a truly gaudy rival battle. While Gary (read: FART) didn’t have an Alakazam like his Red & Blue counterparts, the inclusion of a pretty fierce Sandslash immediately nullifies your star Pikachu. Garnish that with a 2nd Giovanni fight right afterwards, including more ground Pokémon for your Pikachu to be beaten by, and you have a childhood task that made Saffron City a truly cursed place to be.
Also, that Transylvania-esque music too, with the theremin substitute? Maddening.
Dark Souls - Catacombs
Since its explosion in the late 2010s, Dark Souls has always been at the forefront when it comes to the discussion of difficulty in video games. Gone were the days of accusing quarter-munching arcade games of being unfair, now you had an easier target, one which saw no quarter for more susceptible players. After beating your first boss, the Firelink Shrine offers multiple paths to choose from, and given its rather large entryway, you’d be forgiven for thinking the cliff-side entrance of the Catacombs would be your calling.
While more seasoned veterans of the RPG series save the Catacombs for a later date, there exists an enemy that can make any Dark Souls player, rookie or pro, shiver at the sight of: Bonewheels. The sound of one turning your armored character into metal mulch is only one of the reasons this area in particular is so debilitating and oppressive. Add on the inclusion of strategically placed necromancers to respawn skeletons infinitely within their area of effect, and you have an area that’s quick to see you become part of the skeleton army it hosts.
Blood - E1M6 - The Great Temple
In the ongoing rise of boomer shooter glory, titles like Boltgun, Prodeus, and Ion Fury have yet to come close to the sheer rage one might feel while playing something like Blood. An infamously difficult title, thanks to its common hitscan enemies having notoriously fast reactions, there’s an insanity on display that only protagonist Caleb can abolish. I mean, if Duke Nukem or the Doom Slayer had to play a level like “The Great Temple,” they’d probably end up as one of the terrified civilians you see in-game, blubbering and running away from danger.
In the penultimate level before Episode 1’s boss Cheogh, “The Great Temple” hosts a near-unfeasible ascent of cultist slaying, as well as being a jumping-off point for anyone who isn’t willing to quicksave religiously. With an enemy count well over 100, even on the lowest difficulty, the traps and kill boxes developer Monolith set up here aren’t just hard, they’re downright hostile to the player. Once you’re through with it however? You’re left with the only way to celebrate a victory like this: with the world’s longest exhale, and a middle finger to the screen.
Perfect Dark - Carrington Institute – Defense (Perfect Agent)
Alongside its spiritual predecessor Goldeneye 007, Perfect Dark’s handling of difficulty is both unique and admirable. The harder your chosen difficulty, the more objectives are added, adding a layer to strategic advancement due to smarter enemies, as well as allowing the levels to open up as glorious playgrounds. Towards the end however, you’re shifted into a tunnel of aggression and demand, and nowhere is this more apparent than in defending the Carrington Institute on Perfect Agent.
Intense doesn’t even begin to describe this list of demands by your handler, the titular Daniel Carrington. Set against the backdrop of a hostile assault by both Datadyne and Skedar alien forces, protagonist Joanna Dark has to do it all; re-calibrating turret defenses, hostage situations with heavily shielded enemies, destroying evidence, and finally, defusing a bomb in two minutes which has its own large squad of aliens in disguise attached. It’s a pyrrhic victory for Joanna Dark narratively, but an achievement for the player when you save the day.
Well, there you have it, 10 of the hardest levels you can attempt to conquer right now, and the best of luck if you do try. There's a whole treasure trove of titles out there with similarly inscrutible levels, and ones you're probably already aware of that didn't make this list. From childhood challenges, to more recent rumblings, what levels have made you struggle to complete a game?