In almost every measure — graphics, gameplay, narrative complexity — video games have become remarkably more sophisticated since the bloopy-bleepy days of Pong and Asteroids.
Except, perhaps, in the measure of difficulty. For sheer rage-inducing frustration value, many titles from the 8-bit era and earlier hold up remarkably well. Plenty of latter-day titles can also make one’s blood boil, of course, but as you’ll see from this list, some classic games of yesteryear have yet to be dethroned as the most infuriating of all time
Difficulty Factor: Deadly
How it Infuriates: It kills, actually. This primitive 1980 arcade blastfest earned the dubious distinction of being the first-ever game to be blamed for the death of a player. In January 1981, 19-year-old Jeff Dailey dropped dead of a heart attack after getting a high score on Berzerk. Less than two years later, 18-year-old Peter Burkowski suffered exactly the same fate. Incidentally, Berzerk was one of the first games every to feature speech, such as the the villain’s catchphrase “the humanoid must not escape.” Apparently, he meant it.
9. Shinobi (PS2)
Difficulty Factor: You’re better off fighting a real ninja. Using only your pinky toe.
How it Infuriates: Every bit as beastly as its 8-bit predecessors, this upgrade features a ninja whose health is dependent on how much of his enemies’ blood is dripping from his sword. If your timing isn’t absolutely perfect, you’re kaput. The lack of checkpoints means you’re zapped back to the beginning of a level every time you die, which is pretty much constantly.
8. Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels (SNES)
Difficulty Factor: Poisoned ‘shrooms?! Evil!
How it Infuriates: One of the most beloved game franchises of all time took a sinister turn with this controller-smasher. It was so beastly that Nintendo prevented its release in North America, such that only Japanese sadists got first crack at it. Some of the Japanese releases of the game came with the subtitle “For Super Players,” which was an understatement. Aside from random, killer gusts of wind, the game included mushrooms that looked identical to the trusty power-ups from the original game, but that actually depleted your health. Save the princess? Screw that — save yourself!
7. Mega Man (NES)
Difficulty Factor: Mega, man. Mega.
How it Infuriates: This one required feats of memorization that would put the best Vegas blackjack card counters to shame. Only once you had committed to memory, from trial and painful error, the locations of all upcoming enemies might you stand a chance against the many diabolical obstacles. Checkpoints for convenient saving? Those are for pansies.
6. Contra (NES)
Difficulty Factor: Impossible. Or dead-simple. Depends on your willingness to use the code.
How it Infuriates: In standard mode, this game is damn-near impossible. Bullets are flying everywhere, aliens are pissed and a single nudge from an enemy puts an end to one of your three lives. But if you enter the now-infamous Konami Code (let’s say it together: up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-B-A-start), you’re magically blessed with 30 lives, which should be more than enough to liberate a South American island from the tyranny of the Red Falcon aliens.
5. Castlevania (NES)
Difficulty Factor: Haunting
How it Infuriates: You have to destroy an onslaught of Medusa heads with a barely functional bullwhip and the jumping abilities of a peg-legged pirate, and the only way to restore your health is to eat rotisserie chickens hidden behind random brick walls. Yep, just like real life.
4. Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls, Depending on Who You Ask (PS3)
Difficulty Factor: Soul crushing
How it Infuriates: Debate rages among hardcore gamers of which is tougher — Demon’s Souls or its successor, Dark Souls. Truth is, for the average player, both games are damn-near impossible. That’s part of the reason the die-hards love the series: it separates the men from the boys (or, more accurately, the pasty loners from the functional adults). When Dark Souls director Hidetaka Miyazaki said he was considering adding an “easy” mode, outraged fans cried blasphemy. Some like it rough.
3. Battletoads (NES)
Difficulty Factor: Ribbit-ulous
How it Infuriates: Even with two players working cooperatively, and even using the Game Genie cheat contraption, this one is preposterously tough. Most players would have just as much success closing their eyes and mashing the controller with their toes. If you make it past level four, you’re probably some kind of weird genius savant. Try memorizing the phone book.
2. I Wanna Be the Guy: The Movie: The Game (Flash)
Difficulty Factor: I Don’t Wanna Be the Guy Anymore
How it Infuriates: Every pixel of this game is designed to kill the player. Fun! The designers set out to create a diabolically difficult platformer, and they succeeded on every front. Is it fun? If getting squished by spikes and exploding into a bloody plume of offal every few seconds is your idea of fun, then yes, it’s the funnest game ever.
1. Ghosts ‘n Goblins (NES)
Difficulty Factor: Harder to win than a staring contest with a taxidermied owl
How it Infuriates: Not only is our hero, Arthur, hopelessly clad in the world’s flimsiest suit of armor (it falls off after the first hit), he is also racing against the clock, as if his pacemaker is set to stop his heart after three minutes. Without his armor, Arthur dashes around in his heart-patterned boxer shorts, drastically outmatched by a relentless undead onslaught. Playing this game is an exercise in tragic, Sisyphean futility.