Hotline Miami – Assault
Hotline Miami’s addictive gameplay, shocking violence, and relentless difficulty quickly earned the game a reputation shortly after its launch. Assault, is one level in particular that really tests both your reflexes and strategy.
Starting out on the first floor, you’ll have to work your way through a police station heaving with heavily armored officers. There are several different tactics that are effective, but if you’re trying to earn an A+ achievement, you’ll need to bait enemies toward you and take them out in successive combos. Things can get very hectic, very quickly, and with so many bodies piling up it’s hard to tell which are dead and which are simply knocked down. If you allow one to get up and retrieve a weapon laying on the ground, you can say good night.
The level is a myriad of small rooms, many of which have windows that enemies can shoot through. If you fail to spot on or miss time your movement by just a fraction, expect to die instantly. Scraping through the level with a low rank is possible with only a few dozen deaths for most people. But if you want an A+ ranking, you can quadruple that number.
Shovel Knight – Flying Machine
Shovel Knight’s stunning pixel art, rocking chiptune score, and cast of whimsical knights make it a perfect tribute to our favorite Nintendo games of yesteryear. Of course, no game from that era would be complete without a suitably punishing difficulty level, and the game doesn’t fail to mimic its lineage in this department either.
There are a few Shovel Knight levels that will have you resisting the urge to throw your controller in the air and attempting to realign your chi, but Flying Machine is definitely the most infuriating. It has players traverse against the push and pull of wind generating machines, which is made deadly by almost ever-present spiked walls and bottomless pits. Just as you think you’ve got to grips with timing your jumps, a new section throws you off balance by changing the wind direction, throwing in pesky flying enemies to deal with, or ramping up the challenge with tough platforming sequences, such as bouncing between cannonballs, and there are certain parts of the level in which you’ll have to deal with all of these elements at the same time.
To make things even worse, when you finally come to the end of Flying Machine and begin to celebrate your achievement, along comes Propeller Knight — one of the hardest boss fights in the entire game.
Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels – World C-3
Between Mario’s always jubilant good mood and the fact that he symbolizes Nintendo’s family-fun mantra, it’s often easy to forget that there have been some immensely difficult Mario levels over the years. Some of those were apparently so brutal that they were locked in a small box and hidden away, but years later somebody found the key, and The Lost Levels introduces us to some of those nightmarishly hard stages.
World C-3 is one such stage that probably should have stayed lost. It’s a quite ridiculous level that has Mario springing between platforms, but each spring launches him so high into the air that he goes off-screen for about ten seconds each time. You’ll have to guess where he is going to come down and tee up the screen so that he not only lands on a platform but avoids enemies, too — one of which constantly chases you throwing red turtles whenever you land. But it gets worse, the wind speed constantly changes, which pushes you along on the ground and changes how far you’ll glide in the air.
Mega Man 9 – Dr. Wily Stage 3
Mega Man 9 is a perfect tribute to the previous entries in the series, a modern retro title indistinguishable from the games made decades earlier. Wiley Stage 3 is its most punishing level, and perhaps the hardest overall stage in the whole series. Thank goodness the re-released Legacy Collections allow for mid-level saving, huh?
Stage 3 has two anti-gravity sections that lift Mega Man upward toward the top of the screen, forcing players to dodge a variety of shooting enemies. Following that, there’s a lengthy traditional platforming sequence of jumping over spikes and ducking into pits to avoid enemies that move in awkward patterns. The second of the gravity rooms is the most challenging, as the walls and ledges are lined with spikes and there are hovering enemies that block your path around them.
Once you’ve negotiated a final platforming sequence of desperately difficult timed jumps, constantly hassled by irritating enemies that randomly shoot or spring to life, it’s on to the boss. Remember Yellow Devil from Mega Man 1? Say hello to Twin Devil — a ridiculously difficult boss fight that requires even better memorization of its movement patterns, especially because there are two separate Devils that shoot at you from different angles. Good luck.
Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! – Tyson Round
Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! Isn’t actually a particularly difficult game. Each of your opponents has a weakness, and in order to overcome them, it’s normally just a case of memorizing their patterns and learning what to exploit. It is, however, the final bout of the game versus Tyson (or Mr. Dream) that has sent this game into the history books as one of the most notoriously difficult NES classics.
It doesn’t matter how many Rock-inspired runs you’ve taken through the city streets, nothing will prepare you for Tyson. Beating him requires muscle memory, and that can only really be achieved by facing and losing to him multiple times. It’s a frustrating exercise, to say the least. What makes Tyson so brutal is that his punches can end the match if even a single one lands, and there’s just a split second after you’ve dodged one of his attacks to hit back. If he does catch you, it’s good night; straight back to the start of the entire game. Yep, no saves here, folks.
Dark Souls – Blighttown
Dark Souls and difficulty are synonymous, and the challenge of its grueling gameplay is a large part of its appeal to a hardcore following of passionate gamers. Blighttown has become notorious as one of the hardest and most dreaded sections from the first game.
Aside from its technical issues, this extremely long section is dotted with dozens of tough-as-nails enemies and infuriating poison dart-shooting snipers. Blighttown makes punishing use of verticality, first making players ascend up toward the bell tower, one grueling step after another, and then down into the harrowing depths of its valley.
Blighttown feels like an area long forgotten, with rickety old planks all that stands between you and deadly drops on either side. When you finally get to the bottom, there’s no reward for making it through unscathed. Instead, you’ll have to negotiate a giant expanse of toxic sludge, all the while fending off flying creatures that attack from all angles. Only at the very end of this enormous section of the game is there a bonfire to rest at. Using this actually negates your ability to homeward bone, so if you want to return, you’ll have to grind all the way back from whence you came.
Super Meat Boy – The Kid’s Level
Super Meat Boy is packed full of riveting platforming action, known for its difficulty being tough and demanding but cheap. While that is certainly true, the fact that there is nothing to blame but your poor skills doesn’t make it any less infuriating to master. It might be simple to control, but boy does it require immense concentration and reflexes to beat.
There are dozens of seriously challenging levels, but The Kid’s Level sticks out as being the most objectively difficult. Although you do get unlimited lives and each stage is relatively short, there is absolutely no margin for error with virtually every jump. The first stage tests your ability to wall jump effectively, negotiating small gaps in between spiked walls; the second, your timing as you tap forward and backward to avoid spikes aboard a moving platform; the last, a mind-bogglingly tough jumping section that requires pinpoint precision.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – Water Dam
Underwater levels are always a pain, but The Water Dam in the NES version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles probably takes the cake as the hardest of all time. It tasks you with having to disarm a series of bombs, which are hidden behind two infuriating types of obstacles. Firstly, there are tedious force fields that you’ll need to quickly swim through — no big deal at first, but they become increasingly harder. The real killer is the electrified kelp that lines the walls of certain sections of the level. Your avatar will sink naturally, so it’s a case of deftly swimming through a maze of the stuff without touching the sides. It’s nearly impossible and you can only survive a few hits before it’s game over.
Oh, we forgot to mention that there is a two-minute time limit, so don’t go thinking you can dawdle through this level at your own pace. Having to race through transforms this from being tough to a completely absurd level of difficulty.
Ninja Gaiden – 6-2
Don’t let anybody try and tell you the difficulty of 3D Ninja Gaiden games are on par with the series 8 and 16-bit lineage. Admittedly, there are some tough sections in Ninja Gaiden Black and Sigma, but nothing compares to the original trilogy. In particular, level 6-2 in the original game is an absolute nightmare.
Ninja Gaiden is a challenging but very entertaining game until level 6-2 comes around. The game’s difficulty suddenly spikes, upping the ante way beyond anything you’ve encountered in the game before. The flying ninja enemies attack in unpredictable patterns and rain throwing stars down on you as you try and platform across some extremely difficult jumps in the early part of the level. There are also sporadically placed smaller enemies that pop out at the most inconvenient moments. Things get even more ridiculous at the level’s end when the screen is awash with all different types of enemies, most of them timing their attacks just as your jumping between platforms.
Oh, and even if you make it almost all of the way through 6-2, if you die you’re going straight back to the start of 6-1… that’s right, the start of the previous level.
Battletoads – The Revolution
Battletoads is notorious for its difficulty, mostly attributed to a certain level called Turbo Tunnels. But Turbo Tunnels isn’t actually the hardest level in the game. Perhaps the reason it’s often cited as so is that most players gave up long before they get anywhere near reaching it?
Battletoads really ramps up after Turbo Tunnels. The game’s final level, The Revolution is probably the most testing in the game. It has players ascend up a revolving tower that moves every time you jump between platforms. Some of these platforms will disappear after you’ve landed, so everything has to be timed perfectly. The enemies themselves can stun you if you don’t get your headbutts landed accurately, which takes immense concentration over such a long stage. The last stretch has you battle an unkillable enemy that blows wind at you, making the tricky last platforming sequences excruciatingly difficult.
The only thing harder than The Revolution is resisting the urge to throw your copy of Battletoads out the window.