The idea that there is an ebb and flow to the collective appreciation of certain ideas in a given medium is one that has gained enough legitimate ground over the course of the years to be a clear given at this point. Yet somehow, we still find ourselves surprised when the styles and ideas of yesteryear come creeping back into the limelight for one last hurrah.
Fashion is the most obvious example of this trend, an industry where last weeks faux pas becomes next weeks je ne sais quois. However this occurs all over the map; take the current resurgence in noir, black and white, and arthouse films of late, and further still, the subject of this particular article: the return of hardcore gaming.
While it’s impossible to say exactly where it began, the earliest and most obvious example of this trend during the barely buried previous generation was a little game called Demon’s Souls. Now, I know what you’re thinking: no one on Sound on Sight ever talks about the Souls series, and certainly not the person currently penning this very editorial–well let me put your anxieties to rest, for now is the time to finally examine a game from this series.
From Software’s Demon’s Souls, a title originally released in 2009, set a new precedent for brutal difficulty. It was crushing, it was disheartening, and it was punishing; but most of all, it was fair. If you took the time to learn its various idiosyncrasies, it would stop treating you like a child, and start treating you like an equal. It was an unimaginably humbling experience, but one we all could use from time to time.
The only high profile games that had even come close to this absurd level of challenge in the entire decade prior would likely be Devil May Cry 3 and Ninja Gaiden. However, both were ten hour action games, and neither rivaled the magnitude of masochism required to push through Demon’s Souls myriad of enemy posses, poisonous lakes, delirious deathtraps, and the kind of nightmare bosses that could wipe you out in a few seconds flat.
Rather then balk at such horrifying circumstances, or lament the loss of their pause buttons, though, players actually embraced the title en masse. It seemed that their were more than a few gamers who were tired of being spoon-fed by hours of tutorials or told exactly how to play a game by its veritable legion of supporting characters and NPCs. Demon’s Souls would clear 500,000 units within the year, earning it Sony’s Greatest Hits moniker, and a dedicated cult following that only grew with its vastly superior sequel. But surprisingly, it was ultimately that which Demon’s Souls left behind that became its greatest contribution to the medium.
The love for hardcore gaming, a feeling instilled in all of those who grew up in the early days of our shared hobby, had been revived by Demon’s Souls, and it wasn’t long before other games were released that capitalized on this emerging zeitgeist. It was scarcely a year after that shifting of the tides that a little game called Super Meat Boy arrived on the scene.
Surely a child of the times, it was certainly appropriate that the title featured the name “boy”. Most of us were children when we were first challenged, not just by gaming but in general: by our parents, by our peers, and by a world we didn’t understand. That world had always understood us though, and had existed long before we entered it. Super Meat Boy was no different, it was a game that only took a few short levels to lull you in before crushing you like the pile of processed pulp that you were.
Cruel in the extreme, and sadistic to the point of madness, Super Meat Boy came upon the scene as the sort of dire contradiction that only the damned protagonists of the aforementioned noir films could understand; it was a game as tempting and irresistible as it was nightmarish and dangerous. To go too far down it’s rabbit hole was to risk losing sanity altogether…but then, who could resist the urge to try and conquer its insurmountable Everest of immortal challenges and unreachable achievements.
Very few indeed, evidently. Super Meat Boy thrives in infamy to this day, a full four years after its initial release, as one of the best selling indie games of all time. Today, SMB has cemented itself a legacy comparable to the name “Bloody Mary” or “Candy Man” for any child of the 90’s: it’s a name as well known as it is rightfully feared, even by those who have yet to dare fate by inviting it into their (currently) pleasant lives.
VVVVVV, a hardcore gravity simulator, would continue this trend the following year, and since then, the concept of games that must be mastered in order to be overcome has grown only more ubiquitous. Demented spawn such as Hotline Miami, Don’t Starve, and the Lovecraftian horror known as Cat Mario, a viral sensation that actually thrives on deliberately thwarting players’ natural tendencies, have only further cemented the “new hardcore” as a subgenre that is not going anywhere any time soon.
Much like dietary fads, governmentally enforced substance laws, and signs that discourage tourists from indulging the animals, it seems that the majority of the industry’s ignorance or perhaps “ignore-ance” of this cult following will likely serve to only strengthen it further. For as with most starved creatures, a glutton for punishment will only eat more, and eat better, as their buffets decrease with scarcity and improve with quality.