Game-related ramblings.

Celebrating Super-Hard Platformers

A couple of weeks ago I posted about Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw’s latest game, Poacher. After taking a break to revisit The Desolate Room, I went back to Poacher and found the secret ending. As expected, it involved an incredibly difficult multi-stage boss fight, followed by a hilarious special ending. It’s no secret that I have a soft spot for these kinds of challenges. I think the reason is that they reward my inherent stubbornness. Encountering a seemingly impossible hurdle, I keep trying, getting a tiny bit closer each time, until my persistence is vindicated. It’s the same satisfaction of solving a tough problem in real life, but miniaturized and accelerated, something that can be solved in hours or days rather than months or years.

Of course, my love of roguelikes has similar roots, but in that case it often actually is a matter of years before victory is achieved. And the challenge of roguelikes is fully cerebral, a matter of strategies and the weighing of options in harsh situations. The extra-tough platformer is a different kind of challenge, one of pattern recognition, timing, and motor skills. It’s faster and more active, requiring one to learn and adapt quickly, and it provides a different kind of satisfaction.

The problem, of course, is that once such a platformer is mastered, there’s little reason to revisit it. This means I’m always looking for new games that fit the bill. Fortunately, there’s a lot of them out there, and I’ve got quite a few favorites to recommend.

In a similar style to Poacher we have Cave Story, which is something of a legend among the indie crowd. While much of Cave Story is not especially challenging, it has a secret ending like Poacher that ramps the difficulty way up. The original freeware version is still available for PC (although you’ll have to apply a fan translation patch if you don’t read Japanese), but there’s also an updated version for the Nintendo Wii. Then there are fan-made ports to a variety of other platforms as well.

The other massive indie hit that must be mentioned is Super Meat Boy, which really is excellent. This one is simply a set of challenging levels rather than a world to be explored freely, but it’s very well designed and there’s a ton of content — especially when you consider the Super Meat World hub for user-made levels, which can keep you playing almost indefinitely. Fast-paced and a lot of fun.

Terry Cavanagh’s gem VVVVVV was slightly less popular but no less deserving of your time. I’ve written about it before, so I won’t repeat myself here, except to remind you that it’s fantastic and you should definitely play it.

If you’re looking for some free options, I should give a special mention to Matt Thorson. He’s made a bunch of excellent free platformers that provide a stiff challenge, and I’ve enjoyed them all. His games are all collected on one page, so I won’t be linking them individually, but I did want to point a few out. Give Up Robot and Give Up Robot 2 are his most recent platformers, centered around a grappling hook mechanic and conveniently playable through your browser over at Adult Swim. An Untitled Story is Matt’s take on the exploration platformer, marrying it with some very tough single-screen challenges. It’s a very substantial and enjoyable game. Moneyseize puts the player in control of Sir Reginald MoneySeize II, Esq. as he traverses levels collecting coins to fund his giant tower. Each level can be solved in a few different ways, with each route eventually necessary if you want to collect every coin. FLaiL focuses on using gravity-flipping and other unusual mechanics to guide the little character through deadly arrays of spikes. Finally, the truly determined may want to try the Jumper games. The first two are a bit older and aren’t as nice to look at, but they have solid level design and are quite hard. The third is more recent and might be a better starting point for some players.

If you like physics in games, N is the super-tough platformer for you. You control a small ninja as he navigates fiendish single-screen levels full of deadly robots and other traps. With some great modeling of momentum and the ninja’s interaction with angled or curved surfaces, N really lets you feel like you’re soaring gracefully through the levels, not so much jumping off walls as gliding off them, just one step ahead of the army of robot drones, heat-seeking missiles, and railgun turrets bent on your destruction. The original PC version is free, and you can also buy the enhanced N+ for XLBA, PSP or DS (and I believe each platform has its own unique set of levels).

I’ll end with a few smaller games. Fishbane is a great little game based around throwing harpoons to hit switches or use as platforms. Liferaft: Zero mixes standard platforming with a limited grappling hook and a Portal-esque aesthetic. Lastly, Focus (scroll down) is a game with a really cool teleportation/time-slowing mechanic, used to dodge and redirect enemy missiles.

There are of course plenty of games like these that I haven’t played yet. One notable example is I Wanna Be The Guy, famous for its incredibly difficult obstacles and unfair surprise deaths. But the games I listed should keep you going for a while, and you should feel free to leave more suggestions in the comments!


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  1. Great selection Walter and points for mentioning Liferaft: Zero, I thought that was a little gem. I was never much of a fan of N and I think I’ll feel the same about Super Meat Boy from what I’ve played of it — hopefully not though. V is one of my all time faves and Cave Story is just a remarkable achievement, especially given that it was created by one guy and for free too.

    Two games which you ought to check out if you’ve time is Queens and Eversion. The former is free and can be completed in a few minutes if you’re up to the task, the latter is a cheap game on Steam and will likely take you a couple of hours to fully explore (there are a few endings if I remember). Eversion’s a strange little thing indeed but well worth the money.

    • I’ve heard of Queens but never got around to trying it; I’ll take a look. I have played Eversion though, back when it was freeware. It was originally made for a competition hosted by TIGSource with a Lovecraft theme. Apparently Lovecraft kept a book in which he jotted down ideas that never turned into full stories, and the theme of the competition was to take one of these snippets and turn it into a game. Eversion was inspired by a vague snippet about shifting phases of reality. Much later I heard it ended up on Steam — I should probably go check it out again as it’s quite possible it’s been improved over the competition version.

      I should mention that Super Meat Boy isn’t all that similar to N in terms of feel. Honestly, Super Meat Boy reminded me most of Matt Thorson’s games, so if you give some of those a try and enjoy them, you should also take a gander at Super Meat Boy. Ogmo, the protagonist of Thorson’s Jumper games, even shows up as one of the unlockable characters in Super Meat Boy.

      • Ahh, I’ve played MoneySeize and RunMan before. Don’t remember much about MoneySeize to be honest but RunMan is hard to forget! RunMan was good for a while but it started getting a bit muscle-memory intensive for me, like the only way to finish a level properly was to do it enough times until you got it perfectly. I know that’s kind of how a lot of platformers work (hello V!) but I think the difference is with something like V retrying often doesn’t involve you having to repeat things you’ve already done once, whereas with RunMan, and I suspect Super Meat Boy, if you fail near the end of a level or a series of arduous jumps you have to do the whole lot again. That sort of thing does grind me down after a while. Anyway, I ought to shut up about SMB and play it properly.

        One game I forgot to mention was Rayman: Origins. Me and my girlfriend are playing it at the moment and while it’s fairly straight forward for the most part, if you pursue the optional levels and goals things get considerably more difficult but (so far) never unfairly so. The platforming’s very tight and exceptionally fluid and there’s a surprising amount of variety on offer to keep things interesting. It’s easily one of my favourite platformers now.

        • Yeah Rayman Origins is on my list to play, and I’ve already bought it. Need to get through a few other games first, though. I’m also considering being really crazy and trying to play through the first Rayman before starting Rayman Origins. Haven’t decided if I will actually do that though. The original Rayman is a game I’ve tried before long ago so I’d like to return to it, but I hear it’s almost impossibly difficult to finish.

          The thing with Super Meat Boy (and most of Matt Thorson’s games, actually, with the exception of Runman) is that the levels are really short. So while you might die at the end, there’s usually not much to repeat, and restarts are really fast. It’s a similar feeling to restarting at a checkpoint in VVVVVV. For me this removed most of the frustration, but this will of course depend on each player. Another nice feature is that many levels are optional, so particularly aggravating challenges can simply be skipped. Worth a look, I’d say… there’s also an earlier flash version of Super Meat Boy that you can try as a demo of sorts. But Super Meat Boy is much more polished than that.

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