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For many, the core reason to play video games is challenge. Some play to relax, others to socialise, and still others simply to kill time, but for a lot of gamers, challenge is the crux of what makes a game satisfying to play. There are many developers who recognise this, deliberately creating incredibly challenging games to keep players on their toes.
Before we start, a few caveats. We won’t be including joke games like I Wanna Be The Guy or World’s Hardest Game on this list, and we won’t be looking at multiplayer experiences, either. Without further ado, then, let’s take a look at the 25 hardest video games of all time (in no particular order).
1. The Soulsborne series
There’s really no way to acknowledge the difficulty of the Soulsborne series without including all of the games under this umbrella. We’re talking about everything from 2009’s underrated Demon’s Souls through to 2022’s open-world masterpiece Elden Ring. If you’re looking for a challenge, these brutal action RPGs will put you through the wringer time and time again with their creative boss and level designs.
2. Ninja Gaiden
Again, you can pretty much pick any game from the Ninja Gaiden series here (with the exception of Ninja Gaiden 3, of course). The early NES-era games are definitely the most hardcore and challenging experiences in the franchise, but later 3D titles like the Xbox’s eponymous Ninja Gaiden will also give even the most seasoned gamer pause for thought.
3. Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse
Without using emulator-style save states, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse is a monstrous undertaking. Its levels are challenging enough, although the difficulty curve is well-crafted, but the final gauntlet is almost impossibly demanding. The punishment for failing to beat Dracula, himself an incredibly hard boss to take down, almost makes you want to stop playing the game entirely.
4. Ghosts ‘n Goblins
Any variation on this classic Capcom platformer will give you nightmares, but the original NES and SNES versions of the game are easily some of the hardest titles you’ll ever experience. Every single hazard, enemy, and level design element in these games is designed to wrongfoot you, leading you into a false sense of security before yanking the rug out from under you.
Cuphead may be a simple boss rush game on the outside, but it’s fiendishly difficult. Don’t let the easygoing 1920s Disney-style animation fool you; this game is only for the truly hardcore. Each boss has an avalanche of bullet hell-style attacks to dodge, and you’ll need to weave in your own offensive too. Encounters are delicate dances, forcing you to think carefully about your approach.
6. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
We know we listed the entire Soulsborne series above, but we’re listing Sekiro separately for two reasons: first, it’s technically not part of that series, and second, it’s so brutal that it deserves its own entry. Sekiro forces you to parry entire flurries of violent, rapid attacks from your enemies, pulling cruel tricks with each of its cleverly-designed bosses. Even basic enemies can absolutely ruin you in Sekiro.
7. Super Meat Boy
Games like Super Meat Boy and Celeste defined a genre that came to be known as “masocore”. The name describes platformers that are so ludicrously difficult that only masochistic players would approach them. Each level in Super Meat Boy is strewn throughout with traps, enemies, and sadistic pseudo-puzzles, and yet it still manages to feel completely fair.
8. The Legend of Zelda
Mechanically speaking, The Legend of Zelda isn’t a particularly tricky game. Its difficulty lies in the oblique design of its world; you almost certainly won’t be able to discover its many secrets by yourself. This was likely, at least in part, by design; after all, Nintendo wanted to sell more copies of its Nintendo Power magazine, which often included puzzle solutions for popular games like Zelda.
9. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
If you’ve got fond memories of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game, this 1989 NES classic will quickly divest you of those memories. Each level seems machine-tooled to be as frustratingly difficult as possible, from the infamous swimming level right through to the underground sewer jumps. Annoyingly, the game is also excellent, so it can’t be dismissed out of hand.
10. Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels (Super Mario Bros 2)
In Japan, this platformer followup was released as Super Mario Bros 2, but we got a different version of that game based on an entirely separate NES platformer. This long-lost sequel was included in the Super Mario All-Stars collection, and playing it swiftly revealed why it wasn’t released in the West. Contrary to Nintendo’s usual design philosophy, it’s almost sadistically difficult.
11. The Witness
There’s absolutely no chance you’ll discover the solutions to most of The Witness’s puzzles by yourself. This is a wilfully oblique and obscure game world; while each puzzle superficially looks like a simple line-drawing solution will work, the rules quickly become incredibly complex, with the game necessitating thorough exploration of your environment to discover solutions (and even then, some of them are head-scratchers).
12. XCOM: UFO Defense (UFO: Enemy Unknown)
The recent Firaxis XCOM titles are relatively forgiving compared to Julian Gollop’s 1994 strategy classic. Gollop’s game is merciless, almost to a fault; your soldiers will miss constantly in strategic engagements with enemy aliens, who have unerring accuracy. Throw in some needlessly fussy inventory micromanagement and you’ve got one of the hardest PC games ever made.
13. Dwarf Fortress
You aren’t going to find any user-friendly hand-holding here. Dwarf Fortress is a management roguelike in which you must build a functioning fortress for your dwarves, keeping them safe from enemies, economic ruin, and their own internal torment. Make no mistake: you cannot win at Dwarf Fortress. You can only prolong the inevitable moment at which you lose.
14. Curse of Enchantia
Many have pointed to LucasArts point-and-click adventure games’ obscure moon logic-style puzzles as some of the toughest in the genre, but those people have never played Curse of Enchantia. This relatively obscure title has puzzles that are so completely bizarre that we still haven’t figured out exactly what we were supposed to do in order to solve them.
Like Ninja Gaiden and Ghosts ‘n Goblins, you can take this listing as a recommendation to play the entire Trials series if you want an exercise in controller-destroying annoyance. Trials is a physics-based motorbike game in which you must simply reach the goal at the end of each course. The difficulty ramps up (pun intended) quickly, and you’ll soon be pulling off insane gravity-defying stunts just to get to the next checkpoint.
16. Pretty much any arcade game
Arcade games are known for their unfair difficulty. This is largely because they’re designed to squeeze as much cash out of their players as possible. Games like The Simpsons, Robotron: 2084, and Donkey Kong were created in order to throw up an effectively insurmountable challenge, causing you to want to spend yet more money to prove you could beat them.
17. Mega Man 9
The Mega Man series is often cited when talking about difficult games, and it seems like Capcom took that to heart for the 2008 NES-style reboot. Mega Man 9 could well be the hardest entry in its franchise, and that’s no mean feat for a series that also contains Mega Man 3 and the original game. It’s clear Capcom wanted to emulate everything about this venerated platforming franchise for the ninth instalment.
Emulating non-linear platformers of a bygone era – specifically those that appeared on the MSX console – La-Mulana claims to feature “punishing difficulty” on its Steam page, and it’s certainly not wrong. Both exploration and combat will test your skills to their absolute limits in this side-scrolling adventure, so if you’re not a patient gamer, we’d recommend steering clear.
19. Silver Surfer
SIlver Surfer is perhaps the game that strays the closest to the “joke game” classification on this list. It’s not intended as a deliberately masochistic experience, but the difficulty is so high that you’d be forgiven for thinking it was. Both the top-down and side-scrolling sections of this game offer some of the toughest and most unfair gameplay you’re likely to find.
20. Flappy Bird
Flappy Bird developer Dong Nguyen removed the game from mobile app stores owing to what he thought of as its overly addictive nature. It might be true that Flappy Bird is addictive, but it’s also stupidly difficult owing to its imprecise controls and the incredibly short margin for error it offers. The gameplay is simplicity itself; tap the screen to fly. If you can’t see how that would be hard, try and track down a copy of the game (or watch someone play it on YouTube) and see for yourself.
Developer Bennett Foddy is known for creating games with deliberately frustrating controls, and QWOP is certainly no exception to that rule. Using the Q, W, O, and P keys, you must help an athlete attempt to complete a 100-metre run. The controls are punishing in the extreme, with each key controlling a different part of the athlete’s legs. QWOP is as hard as it is hilarious.
22. The Ultimate Challenge from Beat Takeshi (Takeshi’s Challenge)
Japanese entertainer and trickster Takeshi Kitano, otherwise known as Beat Takeshi, is renowned for the games he designs. They’re unbelievably frustrating and challenging experiences, and Takeshi’s Challenge is no exception. It’s almost impossible to figure out what you’re supposed to do in each successive challenge, so if you are going to play this one, keep a guide handy.
23. Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!
The original NES version of Punch-Out!! is one of the hardest games of its era, largely thanks to later bosses’ swift attacks and difficult tells. At its core, Punch-Out!! is a game of observation; you must watch for when each opponent in this boxing sim is vulnerable and punish their mistakes. However, in this original version, the final boss, be it Tyson or later replacement Mr. Dream, hardly has any tells and can deal huge damage easily.
24. Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening
When we say Devil May Cry 3 is hard, we’re mainly talking about the original game, which took you right back to the beginning of a stage if you died and had no Yellow Orbs to revive yourself. The combat and level design here are extremely challenging, making the extra punishment for failure feel that much more unfair. If you’re going to play this, be sure to pick up the Special Edition, which adds the more forgiving Gold Mode.
Most of the games on this list are twitch-based reflex games, or at least games that demand some kind of skill, but Myst is a different beast. While it relies heavily on observation and logic puzzles, many of its challenges feel obscure in the extreme, causing you to get stuck for hours on end as you ponder exactly what the designers could have wanted you to do.