Most Difficult Retro Games

Some supremely difficult retro games have reached infamy for being nearly impossible to beat. Here are some of the most famously hard to master.

Most Difficult Retro Games

Is it just me, or are retro games much, much harder than modern games? Today's improved graphics probably help, as I find it hard to even figure out what's going on in some super-vintage arcade games. Another consideration is the fact that arcades wanted kids to keep pumping quarters into the machines, so quick game-overs were profitable. Regardless of the reasoning, I have definitely noticed that we, as gamers, are drawn to punishing difficulty within games. With that in mind, here are some of the most difficult retro games to ever appear in old arcades, as well as on early home consoles like the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Genesis.


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Contra is both an extremely famous and one of the most extremely difficult retro games ever thanks to its unforgiving fast-paced shoot-em-up gameplay. The player controls a lone soldier with limited armor and a weak weapon with upgrades that never seem to be sufficient. Meanwhile, enemy soldiers, missiles, and bombs fill the screen, making it almost impossible to avoid taking damage. The saving grace of Contra was the famous "Konami Code" cheat, which was, for most, the only way to succeed in the game.

Ninja Gaiden

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This hack-and-slash adventure game was immensely popular and influential upon its original NES release in 1988. The game was well-designed, featuring some of the earliest in-game cutscenes, and helping revolutionize the world of gaming. This high quality production has the potential to be quite enjoyable, but it is also infamous for being one of the most difficult games of all time. In addition to numerous difficult enemies around every corner, this platformer requires perfectly timed jumps and precision moves. This would turn out to be no mistake, as the other entries in the Ninja Gaiden series are just as difficult, including the modern Xbox remakes.

Ghosts 'n Goblins

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Despite its silly title, Ghosts 'n Goblins is actually a highly influential video game following a knight named Arthur who battles all manner of undead creatures and monsters in an effort to save a princess. Cited as an inspiration for one of the most difficult modern games, Dark Souls, this game is notoriously difficult for one reason: its health system. The simple system in place was that if you get hit just twice, it's game over. This was pretty standard for the time, but no other game had the sheer amount of enemies that this game throws at you. In addition to the numerous enemies charging at you on ground level, there are also flying monsters that swoop down after you. On top of it all, there are numerous pitfalls and traps set to trip you up, making this one of the most difficult retro games to actually beat.

The Legend of Zelda

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The Legend of Zelda is one of the most successful video game franchises of all time, and it continues to be an A-lister video game that is still relevant today among adventure games. It should come as no surprise that the first entry in the long-lived series is a far cry from today's games, as it is more than 30 years old. The original 1986 NES game featured an influential bird's-eye view that was well-suited to the exploration and puzzle-based gameplay. The difficulty of this game doesn't come quite as much from the enemies, though some of them can be quite frustrating. The real difficulty comes from the lack of guidance and the amount of exploration you have to undergo. Most of the dungeons in the game are hidden, requiring the player to bomb through walls, find hidden keys, or play a song on a flute.


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Battletoads was created in 1991 to rival the popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series. Though it would never top the turtles, Battletoads did see great success in its day, peaking with the production of a television pilot. The original entry in the series was a break-neck paced, beat-em-up game that required the player to combat ridiculously powerful enemies and execute perfectly-timed jumps and other platforming moves.

Friday the 13th

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Horror games have a unique shared aesthetic, and their own share of difficulties even today. Most horror games center around hiding and running from a monster, doing whatever it takes to avoid a head-on encounter. The original Friday the 13th game on the NES tossed this trope aside by forcing you to directly face the iconic villain of the series, Jason Voorhees. These one-on-one encounters are the hardest aspects of an already difficult game, as the player-controlled camp counselor is—obviously—vastly outmatched and outgunned by Jason.

Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!

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The difficulty curve of Mike Tyson'sPunch-Out!!doesn't appear to be too steep through the beginning of the game. This 1987 NES classic featured simple and fun boxing mechanics as you progressed through increasingly difficult opponents. The game is well-designed and it's actually quite enjoyable working your way up through the various fictional boxers. That all changed once you got to the final level, however. In one of the most infamous boss fights of all time, your final opponent is none other than Mike Tyson himself. Just like the real-life Mike Tyson in his prime, the in-game Mike Tyson was fast and powerful, and it required true patience and skill to overtake this final boss.

Ecco the Dolphin

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A game where you control a cute dolphin swimming around the ocean seems like easy kid-friendly territory; but alas, Ecco the Dolphin is one of the more difficult retro games out there. In the game, the player must navigate the dolphin through numerous obstacles and varying enemies. Unfortunately, like many Sega games at the time, this game wasn't necessarily designed to be insurmountable. Instead, its difficulty was due to a shamefully poor controller design and unintuitive movement controls.


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Defender is one of the most classic retro games, featuring as a mainstay in many 1980s arcades. It was also one of the most difficult games at the time (and remains so today) due to the speed and scope of its gameplay. This game combined the space-based combat of games like Asteroids and Space Invaders with a side-scrolling format, which complicated the gameplay even further. This combination meant that successfully playing Defender required constant awareness and complete mastery of the complex controls.

Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels

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One of the most difficult Super Mario Bros games of all time, The Lost Levels was originally released as Super Mario Bros 2 in Japan. The Super Mario Bros 2 released in North America was actually a different game entirely, as Nintendo believed the true sequel would be too difficult for American consumers. To be fair, they weren't that far off in their estimate. The Japanese version of the game was eventually released in North America as The Lost Levels, and required constant attention and perfectly timed skills, making it one of the most difficult retro games ever.

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Joseph D. N. Kendrick

Writer of words. Haver of cats.

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