Friday, July 31, 2015

Most Difficult Video Game Challenges

There was a time when I considered myself pretty good at video games. There weren't many games that stumped me and I usually enjoyed a pretty quick learning curve. There were other times, however, when I wanted to tear my hair out. Here are some of the most blood-boiling moments in my gaming history!

5. Parasite Eve (PSX) - Final Battle

Playing Parasite Eve for the first time was like a revelation for me. It was Resident Evil meets Action RPG and I adored it. I can remember playing the game for hours perusing its many locations in a fictionalized version of Chicago, blown away by both the gameplay and the graphics, but most importantly the deep story.

I had spent many hours going through the "dungeons" in Parasite Eve and assumed that I had leveled myself to what the kids today would call "OP". Then I finally reached the final boss of the game and was summarily put in my place.

As much as I loved Parasite Eve, I did not finish that game because of my adoration. No. I finished that game out of sheer willpower. I must have faced off against the final boss several dozen times. Some times I'd get pretty far into the action, sometimes I'd die right off the hop. I can't say exactly why, because I'm certain I had leveled Aya very well and had great weaponry, but the many "stages" of the final boss would completely leech me of all my advantages and leave me scrounging for every little bit of Parasite Energy I had left in the end.

Then finally after playing it so many times everything came together; my tenacity met sheer luck, the stars aligned, and I finally managed, by the skin of my teeth, to kill the boss and finish the game.

I still have nothing but respect and love for Parasite Eve, but recently I picked it up as PSOne Classic on the Playstation Network and played through it on my PSP. Everything was going great and then I reached that final boss again. I'm sure I'm going through some sort of video game-PTSD, but I haven't had the willpower to boot that game up since. Someday I'll have to face my fear and take on that boss again...


4. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES) - Hudson River

I was born in the 80s, so it shouldn't surprise anyone that I, like most kids from that era, was obsessed with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So when my parents bought me the Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas in 1990 the first game I ever owned, besides the packed in copies of  Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt, was TMNT.

And I couldn't get past the second freakin' level.

Fun fact: this stage is infamously known as the Dam or Water Dam, but the manual for TMNT actually states that the second level is the Hudson River near the Holland Tunnel. In fact all of the stages, save for The Technodrome, are described as actual locations from New York. You have Fifth Ave./Greenwich Village (Level 1), Wall Street (Level 3), JFK International Airport (Level 4), and the South Bronx (Level 5).

If you aren't familiar with the Water Dam level in TMNT, it starts out as a side-scrolling stage not unlike the first level. You face off against waves of bad guys, while traversing the many platforms and ladders working your way to the top of the dam. Once you reach the top, and dispatch a couple of Foot Clan ninjas, you can see what looks like an opening in the roof's guard rail.

It's time to leap into the river of death!

First of all, swimming stages in the NES-era weren't picnics. The swimming physics were often clunky and difficult, and TMNT is no exception. Secondly, the Shredder appears to have not only planted bombs all over the river, but booby traps, as well. There are electric barriers and spinning blades strewn about the riverbed that will test your swimming abilities. But worst of all is the dreaded electrified seaweed. Combine all that with a strong tidal flow and you have the ultimate death course.

Honestly, it wouldn't be that difficult if it weren't for one small section of the map. If you've played the game then you know the one I'm talking about. It is a tunnel of electrified kelp. When you enter it you have no choice but to press forward, but each second you're in the tunnel you are losing tons of energy.

Of course many years ago I found a way around all this, which was simple. I sacrifice one of my precious Turtle brothers to continue on. You see any bombs that you've dismantled will remain that way even if one of the Turtles dies, so I would switch to Michaelangelo (his nunchuku are useless in the game), swim through the tunnel of seaweed, and with whatever little energy I had left attempt to get the bombs on the other side. Then I'd commit underwater seppuku and get the leftover "easy bombs" with a healthy Turtle.

It's actually only been this year that I've managed to get through the Dam stage with one Turtle. I have been trying TRUEandHONEST's Red Swayze Challenge (they have this weird obsession with Patrick Swayze, which I endorse) now and then, which requires a player to try and beat TMNT for the NES while only using Raphael. I've actually managed it once, but with little-to-no energy in the next stage, which resulted in death.

There's hope for me yet!

3. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64) - Water Temple

The Water Temple in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has become infamous in gaming culture as one of the most difficult stages/levels/dungeons in any video game. The thing about the Water Temple, however, is that it isn't so much difficult as it is confusing and long.

The temple requires you to constantly hit switches that change water levels in the dungeon. It seems simple enough, but there's no real defined way of knowing exactly what areas you've changed by hitting a switch. It takes a lot trial and error just to get an idea of the lay of the land.

Then there's traversing all of that water. In order to walk around in the underwater sections you have to equip Iron Boots. Sounds easy enough, but going into the menu to change the boots isn't just a quick click of a button. You have to enter the start menu, switch the equipment section, go down to boots, and make the switch. Again, not that big of a deal, but you're going to have to do it like a million times as you go through the dungeon. Also, when you're underwater an added challenge is that the only weapon you can use is the Hookshot, which you'll have to use to fight enemies, hit switches, etc. This is also a bit time consuming coupled with the sluggish movement you face when submersed.

Finally, this temple effectively has two boss fights: one against Dark Link and another against the final boss of the dungeon, Morpha.

If you take all of this into account, coupled with the sheer size of the dungeon, and its repetitive nature and you have one doozy of a video game challenge on your hands. I think even if you knew the whole map inside and out and were really fast on the draw with changing your boots and shooting the Hookshot, you'd still need an hour alone to finish the temple. I can recall sitting down to it and playing it for well over two hours of constantly shooting switches, changing boots, and tearing my hair out trying to get to the end of it.

The biggest kick to the sack - if you will - is that you go through all of this expecting some great reward at the end, but instead all you get for your trouble is the Longshot: an extended Hookshot. It helps you get into at least one area that I can think of, but it doesn't make you feel any better about it when you finally put the Water Temple to rest.

These days if you wanted to play Ocarina of Time, your best bet might be to get the 3DS version of the game. They've added some improvements to the UI design so you can quickly change in and out of the boots and also have colour-coded some of the areas in the Water Temple to take out some of the challenge!

2. Goldeneye 007 (N64) - Invincibility

I don't use strategy guides for video games. I never have and I never will. I have looked at and read a few, either after the fact or for a game I had never played before. I used to receive them from Nintendo Power when I held a subscription back around the mid-90s. I got one for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and one for Goldeneye 007.

Now, one thing I did check out in the Goldeneye guide was a list of cheat codes. These weren't codes you punched into your controller, though. These cheat "codes" actually required the player to perform different challanges in the game. Then they would appear in a list on the menu screen and you could apply them to your game, whether it be single- or multi-player. I guess they were more like "unlockables".

One of these unlockables was for Invincibility, and I will never forget it.

I had achieved all of the other codes on the list, doing a variety of challenges. Some were simple, some were somewhat difficult, but none came anywhere near Invicibility.

To get the Invincibility cheat you had to complete the Facility stage on 00 Agent (the highest difficulty) in two minutes and five seconds. There were other cheats on the list that required a similar feat, like Invisibility, which required you to finished the Archives stage on 00 Agent in a minute and twenty seconds. That sounds like it would be more difficult, but once you figured out what to do and where to go, you could complete the Archives pretty easily.

The problem with beating the Facility in such a short time span was that in this stage you had to interact with an NPC in order to complete the level. It wouldn't be that big of a deal, except this particular NPC (Dr. Doak, who I affectionately called "Dr. Dick") was a random spawn and could be found in several different locations in the stage.

That with the fact that the stage itself is pretty long and requires multiple objectives on 00 Agent and you have a recipe for disaster. Even after you find ways to shave off time, like performing mission tasks without waiting for NPC interactions, and barrelling through rooms without fighting any enemies (which results in having an army of baddies chasing you through the level) the stars all still have to align and the good Dr. Doak has to appear in just the right spot at just the right time to pull it all off.

I must have run this stage over 100 times, easily. I can remember my fury growing with each run through, but my completionist nature and love for a challenge fueled me to continue. I can also recall when I finally managed to pull it off; when all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place and I managed to unlock Invincibility. After having to play the stage over and over again so many times there was some relief, but I can remember the win being bittersweet, because I was so sick of Goldeneye that I didn't even care that I'd managed to unlock it!

That feeling passed, however, as I ultimately played more Goldeneye 007 for the Nintendo 64 than probably any other game in my personal gaming history, but that cheat code was a nightmare to unlock!

1. Final Fantasy Tactics (PSX) - Wiegraf/Velius Battle

Final Fantasy Tactics is a game that often requires two things: patience and a lot of critical thinking. You have to plan your battle several steps ahead to ensure you come out on top and even then sometimes a third factor - luck - is a requirement for success, as well.

For the most part you get into a rhythm, however. You can keep your team well-balanced and leveled, purchase good equipment, and make sure everyone knows lots of abilities for their specific job. Follow those rules as you play the game and you'll find most of it moves pretty well.

There is, however, one moment in the game that you cannot prepare for. You will have no idea it's coming, in fact. Then it just lands on your lap and you have to find a way to survive. That battle is the Wiegraf/Velius battle in Chapter 3.

What makes this one so heinous? It's a two-part battle which begins with a one-on-one fight between the game's main protagonist, Ramza, and Wiegraf, a Holy Knight. He comes equipped with abilities that Ramza can't even learn and that can easily wipe you out in a matter of a few turns.

So now you're up against a much more powerful enemy with one lonely character and you have to find a way to survive. This part alone took me many different tries and tactics before I could master it, and even then I barely made it out of the fight.

I should note that there was another factor that made this particular fight that much more difficult for me. If you have been playing RPGs since the late-80s/90s you know the golden rule about save files: always have at least two. You will undoubtedly come across a moment in which you wish you could've gone back to a recent point, or you've gotten stuck in a situation that you weren't prepared for and need to revert to an older save. I - for whatever reason - did not have multiple save files prepared when I first encountered this battle and, as a result, had to find a way to proceed or lose my entire game. It was legitimately "do or die".

All these years later, with the help of the Internet and watching several Twitch players that rock a lot of Final Fantasy Tactics, I know of several tactics that can help you through this fight pretty easily, but at the time I had none of that. I just had trial and error. After what felt like hundreds of attempts I eventually came up on a tactic to get me through the Wiegraf portion of the fight, which is the real hump.

I saw that I had accumulated enough JP in the Chemist job class that Ramza could learn Auto-Potion, a buff that will cause the character to use a potion each time they are hit. I had a lot of Potions and Hi-Potions in my stock, but those weren't doing it for me. I needed X-Potions. What I had to do was throw away all of my Potions and Hi-Potions so that Ramza would automatically use X-Potions on each hit. I only had a few, so it still took several attempts, but I eventually managed to survive the Wiegraf portion of the fight.

After that I can't really remember specifics. The fight against Velius is definitely tough, but with my full team at my side, I think it only took me a few tries to take him out. It was all that dirty, no good, one-on-one battle that made this fight my most difficult video game challenge to this day.