The early days of video games centered around arcade cabinets that were designed to require a continuous stream of quarters to keep progressing or to play another round. Video games were also notoriously difficult during this era, which in turn led to you spending more of your hard-earned money. When the first home consoles came about, video games were still relatively difficult—which on the one hand could be attributed to technical limitations, while on the other the devious minds of their creators.
As video games have progressed into the modern era, they’ve become much more accessible, in small part due to more comprehensive in-game tutorials and various difficulty options. They’ve also become far more cinematic, with more of an emphasis on narrative as opposed to focusing solely on the gameplay. But, there are still plenty of modern games that challenge your abilities, with many requiring extreme precision, puzzle solving, dexterity or even just an unwavering will to succeed. Here are 15 extremely difficult modern video games that will test your might.
15. The Witness
The Witness is one of the most clever and unique puzzle games of recent years. As you explore a seemingly deserted island, you’ll come across a variety of different logic-based puzzles that require you to effectively move from Point A to Point B using a single line. What makes The Witness difficult is the sheer number of puzzles, as well as the requirements for completing each one. There are “rules” that must be learned and applied to subsequent puzzles to progress through the game and help uncover the secret of its world. Different puzzles around the island layer on elements from previous puzzles you’ve completed. There are some that require a keen eye, and some that require you to think entirely laterally. Every puzzle you encounter feels like learning a completely new language.
14. Monster Hunter: World
Monster Hunter: World lit up the sales charts early last year, quickly becoming Capcom’s best-selling game of all-time. This was largely due to the fact it was more accessible for newer players than its notoriously obtuse predecessors. But, what many newcomers also found out relatively early on is how difficult Monster Hunter games could be. Combat requires a deep understanding of the many monsters you’ll encounter: each monster has unique attack patterns that must be learned while waiting for the perfect opening to land your strike. Understanding the nuances between the 14 different weapons available to you can also pose quite a challenge, as each one has a distinct playstyle that changes how you approach each fight. Monster Hunter: World contains a whopping 48 individual monsters that you must fight and defeat—something that will take dozens of hours of practice and preparation if you are to be successful.
13. XCOM 2
In XCOM 2 (and in its predecessor XCOM: Enemy Unknown), you take command of a team of military soldiers trying to eradicate a dangerous alien race. What makes both extremely difficult is the enemy AI, which is surprisingly intelligent (as aliens should be), so mistakes must be kept to an absolute minimum. Oh, and when one of your soldiers falls in battle—that’s it. They are gone for good, no respawning after the mission. If you are a perfectionist, you’ll find XCOM 2 a bittersweet journey. The grand battles are full of futuristic technology, weaponry, and abilities, but losing a teammate can be devastating, prompting many to restart each battle to ensure everyone makes it out alive. While there is nothing wrong with playing this way, it artificially increases the difficulty as you effectively have you play through each battle perfectly, with no mistakes and RNG in your favor. XCOM’s game designer, Jake Solomon, mentioned that during their playtesting many found the initial campaign fairly easy. So, to compensate, they ratcheted up the difficulty and moved the “default” game mode down to the easiest option: Rookie. So, if you’re jumping in for the first time on the game’s default Veteran mode, then you’ve got your work cut out for you, commander.
In VVVVVV you’ll be navigating Captain Viridian through a number of different levels lined with spikes and other dangerous obstacles as you try to recover his missing crew members. The unique mechanic in this platformer is that you don’t jump in the traditional sense, but instead flip the gravity to move between the floor and ceiling as you navigate each level. This can create some mind-bending scenarios where quick reflexes are required in order to be successful. Besides rescuing your lost crewmates, there are also optional trinkets that can be collected that pose their own challenge to retrieve. One of the most notorious is in an area called “Doing Things The Hard Way” that will require you to reverse gravity and fall up a long shaft lined with spikes…dying hundreds of times during this single puzzle is not uncommon.
11. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
In Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, it seems the enemies constantly have you in their sights, no matter where you are. To make matters more hectic, there is little indication of which direction you are being shot from. New Colossus’ harder difficulties make it exponentially more demanding, as your overall health and damage are reduced, and even the lowest difficulties pose a significant challenge. Good luck getting through the game on the ‘Mein leben’ difficulty—a mode which gives you a single life to get through the entire campaign, a feat that has been achieved by roughly 0.1% of players.
As we’ve mentioned before, Spelunky is an incredibly difficult exploration-based platformer. You’ll be journeying through procedurally-generated caverns in search of precious loot all while avoiding countless enemies, traps, and obstacles. What makes Spelunky so difficult is that it preys on your greed. While the end of a level may be in sight, so too is a treasure chest that’s just out of reach. But, if you die, you lose everything and have to start your run over. The constant timer on each level is sure to get your nerves racing and ensures that you have to keep moving. If the timer runs out, a ghost spawns that begins chasing you out of the area, and if touched will end your run instantly. Enemies and environments are extremely unforgiving, but each run will teach you a little bit more to (hopefully) help you on future runs. You’ll need all the practice you can get before Spelunky 2 launches later this year.
Celeste is a hardcore platforming game that features a young girl named Madeline ascending a mountain while dealing with her own mental health along the way. Its core gameplay revolves around single-screen puzzles that you must platform your way through. What makes Celeste difficult is the precision required to get through each puzzle, especially as you get to the latter parts of the game. Your skill level is constantly challenged, but you’ll also improve with each passing puzzle. Its difficulty feels like a steady incline throughout the entire game, pushing you just enough outside your comfort zone to progress. There are optional strawberries scattered throughout the levels that often require more outside-the-box thinking to obtain. Once you complete the main story you’ll unlock B-Sides, remixed levels that are significantly more challenging than anything in the main story. If you’re patient enough to get through every B-Side in the game as well, you’ll unlock the C-Sides, which are damn-near impossible. Are you up for the challenge?
8. Dead Cells
Dead Cells may seem like yet another procedurally-generated roguelike game, but after spending some time with it, you’ll see that it sets itself apart in a number of different ways. The moment-to-moment gameplay includes exploring a series of interconnected corridors and collecting items and defeating enemies that stand in your way. This is very reminiscent of Metroidvania-style games, as there are a number of secrets to find and plenty of powerups that can be obtained. As you progress through each run you’ll pick up scrolls that allow you to upgrade your Brutality, Tactics, and Survival—which modify your health and damage output with specific weapons acquired. Enemies are very unforgiving, and many of them shoot projectiles or attack in groups. Health is also an extremely limited resource that becomes more available as you play more, but early on, the protagonist is very fragile. The various boss fights in the game are very demanding, and depending on your character’s build will require an enormous amount of skill to overcome.
7. Darkest Dungeon
Darkest Dungeon is a grim side-scrolling dungeon crawler that puts you in charge of a pre-assembled team of adventurers trying to rid the estate you’ve inherited of its deadly inhabitants. Each of the dungeons you enter are procedurally-generated and filled with a number of traps and unique items to discover, as well as being rife with enemies. As you progress through the dungeons, you’re equipped with a torch that is slowly burning out. As the torchlight grows dimmer, your team becomes weaker. There is a risk-reward mechanic at play here that much of the game revolves around. Will you journey deeper into the dungeon with the hopes of coming across valuable treasure, or will you perish at the hands of the many enemies?
6. The Binding of Isaac
Created and developed by Edmund McMillen (who also co-created Super Meat Boy), The Binding of Isaac is a top-down roguelike dungeon crawler that shows no mercy. You control Isaac, a young boy who is stripped of all his belongings by his mother in order to protect him from the outside world. Each run begins in the basement as you explore a procedurally-generated set of rooms that take inspiration from The Legend of Zelda’s dungeon designs and are full of different enemies, loot, and secrets. There are almost 200 unique types of enemies, and each one has a unique attack pattern that must quickly be identified when you enter a room, as there are also many traps and other projectiles that you’ll be busy dodging, too. There are also almost 550 unique items that can be found and collected that change Isaac’s appearance, giving him new abilities. Most abilities are beneficial, but there are a number of items that will actually make your run more difficult.
5. Enter The Gungeon
The first game from studio Dodge Roll Games is aptly-named as one of the main mechanics you’ll need to master early on is, well…the dodge roll. In Enter The Gungeon, your goal is to progress through a series of procedurally-generated floors, clearing out waves of enemies and trying to remain alive. As you descend deeper into the dungeon, the enemies become more difficult and resources are limited, requiring sheer will and skill to proceed. Each enemy has a unique bullet pattern, with bosses becoming full bullet hell nightmares. Movement is essential, as well as learning how to use cover to your advantage. There are over 200 guns that you’ll find throughout the Gungeon, and each has its own unique ability that you must learn quickly and use to your advantage. With limited health and difficult enemies, you’ll need to master your arsenal quickly if you are to find success.
4. Super Meat Boy
Super Meat Boy is the successor to the 2008 flash game, Meat Boy, that stars a piece of meat on a mission to save his girlfriend. When Super Meat Boy hit the scene in 2010, people quickly took notice of its brutal difficulty. It opens as a simple platformer, introducing new elements and mechanics as you progress through each level, but after you get acquainted with its controls, you’re introduced to spikes, buzzsaws, and other hazards. Super Meat Boy requires patience and extreme precision to navigate its later levels. Thankfully, when you die, Meat Boy instantly respawns which allows you to jump back into the fray with minimal delay. For those looking for an even more difficult challenge, it features a “Dark World” that becomes available after completing a given area. These remixed levels will truly test your sanity.
On the surface, Cuphead looks like it should be easy. The 1930’s-era visual inspiration reminds many of us of the early days of cartoons, which has a familiar and comforting feeling associated with it. What you don’t realize, however, until you pick the game up is just how far from comforting this game really is. Cuphead mixes run-and-gun elements with excruciatingly-difficult boss encounters, which range from bullet hell shmups to quick platforming sequences.
The penultimate game on our list draws a lot of comparison to the “Soulsborne” series of games because of its grueling combat and difficult boss encounters, but Nioh differentiates itself with a more offensive style of combat. You are able to seamlessly transition between different stances in battle that affect your damage output. Your High Stance offers more damage, while sacrificing speed. Your Mid Stance offers a more balanced approach during combat, and your Low Stance favors speed over damage. Reading your enemy and finding the correct time to transition between stances can make or break any encounter. Nioh’s boss encounters are where the game really shines, and can prove to be extremely difficult for even experienced players as enemies offer an extremely limited window of opportunity to strike. Understanding the different combat abilities, as well as the nuances between all the different types of gear require extensive knowledge of the different stat systems at play.
1. Dark Souls/Bloodborne/Sekiro: Shadow’s Die Twice
It’s no surprise that FromSoftware’s notoriously difficult series of games tops our list. Over the past decade, it’s hard to imagine a series that poses a more consistent difficulty from beginning to end. From Demon’s Souls to the Dark Souls series to Bloodborne and most-recently, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, these games have famously taught players to “git gud” by learning from their deaths. Each time you die in one of the Soulsborne (Soulsbornekiro?) games you often have to retrace your steps—which can be a journey in itself—and fight your way back to the enemy that took you down, only to try it once again. Combat is the bread and butter of these games, and is difficult to master. Most inexperienced players might approach an enemy hacking and slashing, only to get punished time after time until they learn enemy attack patterns. Each encounter is like a puzzle to figure out as you wait for the moment to strike. Each time you die you’re that much smarter, and after hundreds of inevitable deaths, you might actually stand a fighting chance.
Which are your favorite difficult games? Let us know in the comments!
Matthew Adler is a freelance video game journalist and Host of In Your Element—A Gaming Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @matthewadler.