The 20 Hardest Games In the World (That Are Actually Fun, Too)
By Matthew Walden on
A master class in platforming game design and systemic emergent interactions, Spelunky rewards every second of player investment with caverns crammed full of hidden delights. Hard as nails, but definitely worth the trip to Hell and back.
2. Contra: Hard Corps
What if we took Contra, gave it a dose of Esteban Maroto blotter acid, and then cranked that up to 11? This seems to be the guiding design philosophy behind the blistering ray gun battles erupting in the litter-strewn streets of 2461. Dear god, what a game.
3. Trials HD
The biggest secret to creating a great game with high difficulty? Make dying hilarious. The ridiculous motorbike pratfalls in Trials are so fun, you almost don’t mind losing.
4. Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels
The game that gave “Nintendo hard” a bad name. With the right mindset though, this forgotten sequel unfolds as an elaborate practical joke. You’ll need tenacity to make it through, but by the end, you’ll laugh along with the devious designers.
5. Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts
Undoubtedly, this game requires the rapid reflexes of a rage-filled rodent and the patience of an ascended saint. Strap yourself in for an occult-laden lance straight to the beating heart of gaming’s greatest graveyard.
6. Super Hexagon
With a simple setup, and the hypnotic voice talents of the incomparable Jenn Frank to urge you on, this game distills the thrill of staying alive in the face of overwhelming odds. The humble blueprint ever expands, becoming vast and infinite.
7. God Hand
Few designers know how to deliver a skill spanking quite like Shinji Mikami. An old school brawler with one of the most deliciously complex combo systems this side of Bayonetta.
8. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
It’s uncommon for a character to star in his best game three decades after his debut, but Donkey Kong pulls off the impossible feat. Tropical Freeze is the hardest challenge he’s ever faced, and also one of the most Zen-like, “in the zone” gaming experiences around today.
9. Dark Souls
Ignore anyone who tells you to “git gud.” Dark Souls is a tough game that only opens up to a player with perseverance (and some helpful tips from a great guide). Hang in there and the game delivers a splendid sense of wonder around every corner.
10. Devil May Cry 3
In a rare turn of events, the initial American release had an even steeper difficulty than its Japanese debut. But every grueling defeat adds to Dante’s growing arsenal of flashy tricks, until you’re surfing and slashing like a true demon-hunting Goth god.
11. Super Meat Boy
In a twist on traditional platforming, SMB turns every death into a “teachable moment.” A trail of bloody flesh follows your fallen hero’s every mistake, allowing you to quickly iterate on your path. A smart game that makes you feel like a genius.
12. Dwarf Fortress
A game so hard that even simple screenshots confound. Hidden beneath the obtuse visual design is a thrillingly intricate tinker toy set with a mind-boggling level of complexity. And as the saying goes, “Losing is fun!”
13. F-Zero GX
The best game in Nintendo’s hardcore racing series unfortunately proved to be the finale of the franchise. With a difficulty unmatched in any other racer, this frantically fast blast of futurism carries an electric charge that singes every slight misstep.
14. Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse
This early Castlevania game marks the perfect marriage between its maddeningly addictive difficulty and its satisfying rhythm of hop, stop and attack. Branching paths and multiple characters add to the atmospheric assault on Dracula’s clock tower.
15. Maximo vs. Army of Zin
If sidescrollers don’t float your boat but you still want to slash up some ghouls, Capcom created two marvelous 3D successors to Ghosts ‘n Goblins. Maximo features all the humor and, thankfully, half the hair pulling of its forefathers.
16. Ninja Gaiden
A monumental game that stands tall in the twitchy tower of 8-bit endocrine endurance tests. If stage 6-2 doesn’t hand you your ass: congratulations. You’re officially a wizard of the ninja arts.
17. Magician Lord
The Neo Geo was the last gasp for gorgeous sprite art, pushing the form to commanding heights before polygons reigned supreme. Magician Lord gives you plenty of pretty scenery to admire while your hero gets pummeled by invincible Death Bringers.
18. Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne
“True Demon Run Matador Battle” might be one of the most horrific phrases in the video game lexicon, but it’s only one of several tough-as-nails instances in this mother-of-all demonic dungeon crawls.
If you loved scratching out maps to Metroid, it’s time once again to bust out the graph paper. La-Mulana may be gaming’s most cryptic love letter to sprawling subterranean secrets. The few who stick with it reap the greatest rewards.
20. FTL: Faster Than Light
Ever since Battlestar, many of us dreamed of becoming star captains facing cruelly insurmountable odds. Now, it’s possible to live the punishingly grim reality of RTS permadeath space battles. Spool up the FTL drives, so say we all!