Many people say that modern video games have become “easy” to play. A strange concept, since most of the older gaming generation have rose-tinted memories of “Nintendo Hard” games that were impossible to beat in one sitting. The problem that many neglect, however, is that most games were intentionally hard because of their length. Since most difficult platform or shooter games had at most seven to eight stages in them, the difficulty had to be an obstacle to elongate the experience for young game players.
Difficulty in games is a strange aspect to measure. Many seem to prefer more difficult games, but most games boasting high difficulty become tedious quickly. The Souls series by From Software, while lauded for it's difficult gameplay and presentation, are perfect examples of games trying too hard to be a challenge, and often employing cheap deaths to prolong the experience.
Meanwhile, games with simple difficulty are often derided for being kiddie and derivative. Role-playing games in particular are often criticized for "simplifying" their content over time. Many RPGs have gone through this phase before, such as the Elder Scrolls series and Mass Effect, which have over time streamlined their gameplay approaches to make the games more accessible.
Difficulty seems to be one of the few aspects of a video game that is used as both a specific criticism and a defining feature, which does make it a unique aspect of video game culture. Yet the biggest problem in the end is people putting too much stock into such debates. A game can have any degree of challenge to it, but it's often dependent on the type of game itself. The complexity of mechanics or design of the game world can enhance or hinder the challenge, which really boils down to what type of game you are looking to play, allowing masochists and casual players enjoying titles at their leisure.
If there is anything to be said about difficulty, however, some of the best games always offer a challenge to the player in moderation. A sort of Goldilocks mentality if you will, a game that is "just right" really shines in regards to the experience offered. For me, puzzle and adventure games tend to fit that bill the best, but they have to by design in most cases. The reason for popular titles like Professor Layton is due to the challenge it presents through another means, focusing on our critical thinking process and spatial skills without mocking or punishing us excessively for our mistakes.
One game that seems to be neglected in that field is a rather underrated title, found only on the PSP, DS, and Xbox Live Arcade, called Exit. Developed by Taito and released in Japan in 2005, Exit is a puzzle game with a platforming twist, giving you a time limit and clear objective in each stage to rescue and escort hapless citizens out of precarious jams. Starring as Mr. ESC, a skilled runner and escape artist, your job is to help guide Mr. ESC through various challenges, rescuing people in peril before time runs out.
The task of course is easier said than done. Many of the puzzles in Exit are short, but due to their time limit, they are still filled with tension. Another strength of the game is that you need to use your skills as Mr. ESC and the skills of citizens you are rescuing to complete a level. The citizens are not just bystanders, they are active participants in the puzzle solving, flipping switches or breaking blocks for Mr. ESC so that they can safely make it to the exit in time.
In a way, Exit evokes a Lost Vikings feel, a co-op, puzzle-platformer utilizing the skills of each character in the given situation. The Lost Vikings was a sleeper hit in the early 1990's, offering a mix of unique gameplay and a fair degree of challenge to players back in the day. In Exit, your companions are the people you happen to be rescuing, which shows that while Mr. ESC is a skilled individual, he is not Superman and needs help to achieve his goals. This adds to the challenge in each level; where to strategically place yourselves to flip a switch behind a blocked door or gap in the floor, for example, requires a degree of quick preparation between Mr. ESC and the survivors.
The beauty of Exit is through the moderation of its difficulty. The puzzles are all spatial and stage-based, meaning there is a solution if you figure out the order of sequence. This can sometimes be real easy, or real difficult, depending on how quickly one can process information. Thankfully, Exit is designed for pick up and play in mind, thanks to its handheld origins, so the most difficult puzzles, while perhaps taking a few tries to solve, won’t take longer than five to ten minutes given the time limit you have.
The amount of puzzles also adds to the experience. Exit contains at least 100 puzzles in the main game, plus another 100 that can be downloaded to the PSP. The Xbox Live version collected these puzzles into one single volume, offering over 200 different scenarios for you to pick your brain. With no need for a narrative and only playing for high scores or time limits, Exit is very simple in this regard but very effective in challenging the player through a multitude of situations.
For me, this is what game difficulty should be like. It should be a challenge, but not impossible to defeat based on player deficiencies or cheap design. Some puzzle games tend to fall into the trap of fuzzy logic by being just too esoteric in it’s solutions; a discussion already mentioned when we discussed Grim Fandango. It takes the challenge away by offering a challenge that didn't exist, a solution to a problem that wasn't there. Exit, being a stylish mix of puzzle-platforming, strikes a fine balance between challenge and fun. Many puzzle games do this well, Professor Layton perhaps being the most famous example, of course. Exit is simply another solid experience that fits this description.
In a way I guess this is just championing a lesser known game, that for all intents and purposes can be considered inferior to some titles, but that is the point of this entire series. Exit is certainly one to look out for; a game with a lot of charm and challenge to be had. So if you ever have the chance, and you love puzzle games, make sure to try it out sometime. I doubt you will be disappointed.
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