Difficult or A Cheat? Thoughts on Arcade Game Difficulty

arcadehero July 26, 2012 7
Difficult or A Cheat? Thoughts on Arcade Game Difficulty

It’s not some highly guarded secret that arcade games are usually difficult. They are by nature since it’s a pay-per-play structure and the games are made to make money. I have heard that the charge of the games making money is some great sin but let’s be honest – if there was no motive to make money from the machines, they simply wouldn’t exist at all. We all have to make money to survive and one thing I think a lot of players forget about arcade operation is that it’s not exactly easy to profit off a machine. You have the cost of the machine that needs to be paid off but more than that – rent, electricity, wages if you have employees, insurance, taxes, maintenance/up-keep, anything else that pops-up at random and then if you are lucky maybe you can pay yourself a little after that. There is the expression “laughing your way to the bank”, which is certainly not something I have ever caught myself doing, as it’s generally more of a “oh crap I’ve got bills accumulating and I hope I have enough to pay everything off on time” sort of feeling that is the opposite of joy.

This article is really coming along after I was tipped off by AH writer Heavy Electricity to an opinion article found on Computerandvideogames.com. Its title is “Feature: OPINION: Free-to-play cheats as blatantly as arcade games did“. He did his own rebuttal but decided to not publish it to the site here since it’s a bit more confrontational but it’s still good. Read it here.

I am not looking to tackle the whole Freemium thing, just the lousy comparisons that are being used with arcade games. By the title alone I have a problem with that as the breakdown of this claim that arcades blatantly cheat implies that they are a scam. This is ridiculous and let me state my case as to why.

Now if we were talking about gambling machines where skill is pretty much meaningless then I think one can make an argument along those lines. There are redemption games like pushers where skill may not be very helpful but usually redemption in general has to have some skill element to them to avoid problems. But in the world of video arcade games, chance is not something built into a vast majority of games but it has an opposite cousin, an elusive word that from my own observations of watching people play a variety of games on different platforms (arcade/console/PC) seems to be misunderstood in a way that the concept is lost on some. That word is “skill”.

Most arcade games require good skill from the player to be properly enjoyed. What might be required varies a great deal – some games are very simple so anyone can easily enjoy them,(say Fruit Ninja) some are tough out of the gate (Ghost’s N’ Ghouls, most STG games), others find a balance where button mashing works for the layperson but a pro can have a completely different experience(most fighting games). What is typical of most games are patterns – if there are any enemies one has to shoot at, most of the time enemies will be in the same place every time and will attack you at particular times that with enough play you can memorize their positions or methods and anticipate what will happen to react properly. I have a few examples in that regard to offer here.

When I first came across Namco’s Crisis Zone I was not terribly good at it. I died somewhat frequently and had to put in more credits to keep going. But after several plays and watching a few others play I had to continue less and less until I got to the point where I could clear the entire game in about 12 minutes without getting hit (or maybe once or twice). I did the same thing with Star Wars Trilogy Arcade. Once I cleared the Star Wars game on one credit and had people watching me while I played. After I got off another kid jumped on and it didn’t take long for him to get hit. Did the game cheat? No. It was simply difficult for someone who did not know how to play or had not honed their skills for it.

More recently I have seen that exact same thing take place with Dariusburst Another Chronicle. This is not an easy game for someone who doesn’t read the instructions that are plastered all over the cabinet or observe how it works from another player or the attract mode first. I have seen many players come along and they fly directly into the the first enemies (which barely fire at you on the first easy level) and zero out their lives in about 15 seconds, never bothering to even fire at the fodder targets in their path. Is that the fault of the game or the player? Is the game cheating because a player chooses to fly into enemies? That’s an obvious answer, or at least it should be. While this game is difficult, it gets easier once you learn enemy patterns and how the weapons work, particularly the Burst laser. It took me five weeks of practice but I eventually was able to complete an extremely difficult area that requires the player to pass through six levels with three tough bosses and fixed equipment – three lives on one credit. I’m sure there are others out there who could share stories of playing rhythm games or fighting games that they sucked at in the beginning but improved upon through repeated play. These stories come out even more so with fighting games, which can be enjoyed by anyone who button mashes but if you study the game and practice a lot, then you can do much more then have your character flail around. I have seen people clear numerous types of games on one credit, light-guns, racing, shooters, fighters etc. A question to be asked is why would anyone do that? They clearly didn’t get the memo that it’s all just a “waste of money” as I have heard charged on occasion so there must be some sort of motivation as to why people would play these games in the first place. I will get into that more below but it is something to consider as it really answers why any of us play video games at all.

(Two examples of people who has taken the trouble to memorize and master a game. I guarantee that a majority of people watching him would not make it very far if they never had played the game before but they have not put the same amount of effort into the game as this guy has. That is not the “fault” of the game but the player. Also as an example of rhythm games and how these can be challenging but are mastered with skill and practice, some ReRave footage. Pay attention to this one – the players can choose which level of difficulty they wish, the player on the right uses Master, the left a much simpler level.)

Now getting to the article in question, they lament that the design of arcade games is solely made for the player to die and that this idea will seep into these new Freemium games.

While that all sounds very pure, the dark side of pay-to-play gaming is this: it inevitably drives design. And like sinister carnival scam-artists, the developers always find a way to nail their coconuts to the peg. In the arcades, developers pulled the strings by ratcheting up the difficulty levels; they’d done the maths and realised that only the games that earned the arcade the most money could survive, and if a player wasn’t dying it meant he wasn’t paying.

Thus the business model influenced design, wrecking inordinate numbers of good games and dragging back game design by 15 years. Punishing difficulty levels were a mainstay of home console games till the late ’90s.

You know, if you like games that hold-your-hand and you just need to press a button to win, where there is no major consequence to dying as you just keep going back to the auto-save point a half-minute before and you have no game over screen to see until you’ve sat through 30 minutes of credits, then fine. Not everyone is going to be a pro gamer, which I get. But do your research before you go on a tirade about how sinister and evil arcade games were (also notice that they are talked about only in the past tense). Most arcade titles, even ones from the 80s and 90s have difficultly levels that can be set by the game operator or there are times where the player can select it themselves. That’s been the case since Atari introduced concepts like Skill Step back with Tempest in 1981. Dariusburst as mentioned, is very clear in telling you how difficult a level is before you select it. Now while some games can be tough even when you select easy but why is that a problem that some games present a challenge?  Does every game concept have to be easy now because that’s what we call modern game design? I find very little entertainment from a game that is too easy or so thematic in how it is trying to be more like a movie than a game because if I want movie-style entertainment, I will watch a movie which can present it better. I also am trying to figure out why 1997 (15 years ago) is some key year in game design as no examples are provided(a guess is Final Fantasy VII since that’s the easy fallback game to use). The Dreamcast came out the following year, where it should be remembered that it featured an awful lot of arcade ports to it. By Jim I’ve got it! That’s why it failed, is because it was setting design back an arbitrary 15 years or something!

Let’s imagine for a second that Donkey Kong was extremely dumbed down and easy, so much so that everyone could get to the kill screen blindfolded. Would anyone care about the game? Would there be high score competitions or these high profile challenges between players? Of course not. No one would care because there would be no spectacle at watching a player who has disciplined themselves to conquer a game. It can be fun to watch someone who is good at a “sinister” arcade game, if you don’t believe me then it’s high time to attend a big tournament.

One last bit of lunacy from the article:

If freemium is to thrive, that’s the benchmark all developers should aspire to. And to do that and avoid setting our hobby back another 15 years, they have to learn to do something that their ’80s forbears never mastered. They’re going to have to learn to play fair.

So the understanding is that the writer wasn’t good at any game, giving up on it after the first death. Well of course you’re not going to get anywhere the moment one cries that the game is being mean to you. Here we also get the 1997 thing again. Really, if the idea of any old concept returning into video games frightens you then maybe you should take up something like rock polishing instead, it’s probably less stressful.

I can only roll my eyes when someone claims that a game is not being “fair”. How hollow this word has become as it has been grossly misused, as this example above illustrates. Nothing could be more fair than an arcade game that is going to equally deal out the same obstacles to each player that approaches it. Because you suck at it for whatever reason (not paying attention, not honing your reaction skills, not reading the instructions beforehand, not willing to practice, etc) and the next guy that approaches it does well, does not make it unfair. True fairness means you are treated the same, given the same chance with the same tools. And even if it was somewhat unfair, are you going to just whine about it or up-your game and improve? For a non-video game reference in this regard, there is a reality TV show out there at the moment called Master Chef and one of the people there is a blind woman. Apparently she is in the top 6 cooks so far. It’s not “fair” that she can’t see but manages to excel nevertheless. Or what about blind gamer Brice Mellen? Perhaps using blind players is extreme but you get the point – if you are no good at arcade style games then just saying so and accepting that as the absolute truth is a lousy excuse.

Now it is true that there are games which do take cheap shots at the player but to paint all arcades games as doing so and using this to raise the alarm about Freemium stuff is ludicrous. I have played plenty of non-arcade console games where the developer simply made a design decision to have the game take an easy swipe at you. 2D platformer games that featured the extra long jump where it was practically up to luck whether you made it or not; or I  have a forgotten game called Freefall 3050 AD which is tough as nails and very unique that has a cheap element to it where the enemies have a brief invincibility shield that they get every time after you hit them, making them extremely difficult to kill. They are only on screen for a limited time but this buffer makes them much harder to kill than typical fodder, where it gets to the point of cheapness. Cheapness aside however, there are games out there which are not going to be easy. If they have depth to them it is something that can be conquered with practice. If not and they just throw nothing but cheap shots at you, then don’t play it. But cheap shots are not an exclusive feature of arcade games, it can affect any type of game. Also before declaring that a game is out to kill you, perhaps it should be studied to know that even if difficult, perhaps the difficulties can be overcome with practice(I use this example of Pitfall II, which I recently picked up for my arcade. I am no where near this guy’s playing ability yet as shown below but I know I could be if I play more often). If they cannot then sure, it may be considered cheap. Otherwise, it is simply a challenge for one to conquer, not cheating you out of your money. A developer has to go out of their way to make a game actually cheat and there is a real problem with that model – a game that will purposely do that will turn players off so they will no longer play. That is something that can happen with arcades and consoles, free-to-play or not.

(Example of a game that looks easy when you watch someone who has obviously played it a lot but overall is a challenge. Challenge does not equal “cheat”)

Overall, these are video games we’re talking about and no one is putting a gun to your head to play whether it is arcade games, freemium games or standard games. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to pay for it and when it comes to products, money speaks louder than words so developers will notice. If a game actually cheats, that’s less of a reason to play it. I would personally much rather see a wider number of players take on the challenge of these games without rapidly giving up on them, which is also something that can be noticed in the tastes of gamers made for consumers in different regions.  So to those that say that arcade games are scamming cheats, I would suggest going outside, find an arcade with some dedicated players in it and let them offer up some schooling on what games themselves can be about.



  1. Phil "iTossWomenSalads" Arrington July 26, 2012 at 5:56 pm - Reply

    The thing is….I actually understand this guy….sadly. Arcade games….depending on which on and what the operator set it on….do cheat. NFL Blitz is a damn good example of this (come on….the random Blitz play where they just run over the entire team and sack the QB? the 3 fumbles, 2 interceptions and the shittest team in the game just pulled an 0-21 on you in just the 3rd quarter alone? Yea….this causes quit rage)

    However, the majority of people got so comfortable with console games that they feel they can play and adapt to any game they play (console or arcade) and be a pro at it after a few tries.

    Causal players are so use to playing at home that they don’t know what to expect when they are playing in an arcade anymore. And the closet FPS game in the arcade came out 13 years ago and should be ported now (the GRiD) and even if players saw that, they still wouldn’t play it.

    I don’t blame them for their out of touch thinking.

    • arcadehero July 26, 2012 at 6:00 pm - Reply

      I do as they are blanket-casting all arcade games. As I mentioned, there are some which may be cheap but any that get to the cheating point like Blitz are the exception, not necessarily the rule. Not when many games out there can be completed in a 1cc run. That said I can say calling out developers to not create games that are so cheap that they cross the line and cheat, that is fine. I really just take issue with this writing that says that arcades are nothing more than a scam, which shows that they do not understand the arcade

  2. Rayderp July 27, 2012 at 1:48 pm - Reply

    Honestly, I’m starting to think arcade games are some of the most “hardcore” games out there. Most gamers will just plow through $15 of credits and call the game “beaten”–it takes a special mindset to understand the beauty of a single-credit clear, let alone a high scoring run.

  3. 60Hz July 27, 2012 at 6:33 pm - Reply

    Great article, what i think is happening is a lot of the journalist have no real sense of history of gaming. They probably never really played Arcade games, or they didn’t realize that most are designed to be mastered. I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t even know what the term 1cc means…

    I don’t pay freemium games at all, but to equate arcade games with some type of archaic design paradigm because of difficulty displays the writers ignorance of game design. Difficulty is a tuning factor, yes it’s part of game design, but difficulty in itself is not something we can say is “innovative” – it is a question of balance. Sure there are new mechanics that auto-balance and the like, but even that is tuned to a certain difficulty.

    Anyway back to reading your article. Good stuff!

    • arcadehero July 27, 2012 at 7:17 pm - Reply

      Thanks 60Hz, I appreciate that. I actually just went and spruced the article up a little and added video of GHOST Squad Guy and some solid ReRave play, which I should have done in the first place.

  4. Ex_Mosquioto July 29, 2012 at 12:58 am - Reply

    Nice article man. I couldn’t agree more with you more. It drives me nuts when people say that arcade games can’t be completed without a pocket full of money and that they’re designed to take all your money. The joy of arcade gaming to me is to overcome the challenge over time and work around the difficulties with creative ideas and execution. I see no value in credit feeding or having a game that’s too easy. I see arcade games as a puzzle that can be solved, you just need practice to solve it.

    As you can tell. I’m a huge of the arcade 😉


  5. Bryan July 30, 2012 at 4:35 pm - Reply

    Good article, Adam. I hear ya man.
    Those poor Silverhawks, they usually just end up as fish food. 🙁

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