Nintendo Hard: Insane Sidescrollers in the Golden Age

Ah, the good-old platformer.  There are ledges to scale, jumps to be made, and heads to be bounced on. It can be argued the typical platformer started to diverge from its Mario-esque roots in Nintendo’s sophomore outing, the Super Nintendo.  Gone were the copious coins and relentless empty bricks to smash.  Rather than continue in the same mold as their previous gen iterations, some platformers became a little more weird and wacky, a little more dangerous and debonair.  Not only were there jumps to be made, but these jumps were decidedly non-lethal to your enemies; furthermore, jumping into your foe was, more likely than not, fatal to you.

Jumping as an attack was replaced with fists, blades, or other melee weapons.  Power ups were replaced with magic systems.  Gone were the sometimes smooth walls of yesteryear.  In their place: ways to climb, ways to stick, ways to move in more than your standard left or right.  Sonic booms that flew across the screen, magic meters, spells, and more turned the typical platformer into its more evolved format: the sidescroller.

However, despite their prevalence, only a few truly stand out for their level of difficulty.  Gone was a long timed cakewalk with an occasional bounce: now there was only pain.  The following games were dedicated to squashing every last bit of patience from the player.  Cheap deaths, pitfalls from nowhere, and annoying enemies await the player who dares to play these games in the face.

#5: Earthworm Jim

Earthworm Jim

A different kind of space worm…

You have to hand it to Shiny.  It takes a certain level of diabolical genius to craft your mascot character as a nightcrawler in a spacesuit.  On paper, none of Earthworm Jim’s disparate elements should work together: your Earthworm main character is a space traveller, in an intergalactic playground where even hell is just another planet.  He fights enemies with his limited capacity gun, or alternately, whips the enemy with his own body.  The first level has you launch cows from catapults while you dig through a massive junkyard, fighting off crows, rabid dogs, and a pervasive sense of weirdness.  It goes even further than that:  later levels include a recurring space race minigame against your arch enemy, and one level even has Jim descend to hell.  The tortured screams of the damned play alongside orchestral muzak as the boss, Evil the Cat, dances in the background.

The difficulty?  Though Jim has a health meter, it depletes quickly.  Bosses are often obtuse, and though patterned, they do not play nice.  Enemies are best killed as quickly as possible.  The mad dogs in the first level take off a good third of your health per chew alone.

The outcome: Worth a play, if only to say you’ve experienced the depths of madness.

#4: Skyblazer

Skyblaster

*Cue Spider-Pig theme song*

Skyblazer is an underappreciated cult classic.  Though certainly challenging (hidden enemies galore, a first boss that immediately kills you as part of the storyline) it’s also interesting inasmuch as it’s ahead of its time.

Raglan, the introduction screen states, God of Chaos and Destruction, has arisen.  He requests that Ashura the Demon Lord ravage the land.  Sky, the titular character, is a sort of clingy magic ninja—and the son of a great magician, the Skylord.  A powerful magical descendent, Diana, has been kidnapped by Ashura, and Sky’s tasked with getting her back.

Skyblazer feels like a game developed for a different platform, like a gen one Playstation game.  Sky can punch, kick, backflip, and send bolts of energy out at his foes… all in the first level.  When approaching a wall he sticks to it like Spiderman.  Levels are made to take advantage of these skills, and they’re expansive.  The first real playable level has the player jump in and out of trees.  The only trouble is the moving, monstrous, oh-so hungry flowers within.  The ease with which Sky darts through the level hides an equivocal level of danger to the player.  One cannot hope to bounce and fly from tree limb to tree limb.  Enemy placement is determined to make you utilize every ounce of strategy you have at your disposal.

The outcome:  Well worth the play for a game well ahead of its time.

#3 Blackthorne

Blackthorne screenshot

Stealth Shooters meet World of Warcraft

Kyle Blackthorne, alien prince, has been living on earth for twenty long years after an invasion of Orcs kills his father and enslaves his tribe.  Delving into Earth’s military forces in the twenty year gap, he adopts a kickass machine gun and a Rambo cut.  One night, after breaking out of prison, right before hijacking a car in the middle of the desert, he’s teleported back to his homeworld for the vengeance he’s long sought.

Blackthorne is very much a sidescroller: Kyle jumps, hides in the shadows, picks up powerups, and uses his unlimited machinegun to pick off Orcs one by one.  At least Interplay chose to include a tutorial: despite its thoroughness (and a nebulous message towards the end that asks you to ‘experiment with the controller to see what else you can do’) the controls are still mind-numbingly precise in origins.  To get an idea of the exacting nature of the controls, consider: You can crouch, roll, jump up on ledges, and jump-run… talk to allies, hide in the corner, duck, and there’s even an option to fire behind you.  But there’s no move cancel, or frame animation cancel.  Each time you make a motion Kyle will complete the motion in its entirety.

The controls are just not fluid.  The mechanics work, of course, but someone looking for the relative quickness of a sidescroller like Skyblazer may want to skip it.

The outcome:  If you’re looking for a well-oiled, miss-a-single-button and you die sort of game, Blackthorne’s gritty, Conan-meets-Phantasy Star-meets-Rambo dungeon delver will be sure to please.

#2:  Battletoads in Battlemaniacs

Battletoads screenshot

Makin’ Bacon

So I know what you’re thinking.  Technically, isn’t Battletoads a beat ‘em up?  Well, yes.  But there’s also enough other things tossed into the mix this incarnation that it’s impossible to classify it as anything other than a sidescroller.  The ‘Toads use their polymorphic kung-fu to literally BOOT enemies off the screen, ramhorn them into the abyss, or drop anvils on their head as finishing blows.

Battletoads screenshot

An awful lot of animal cruelty…

After the deceptively standard first level, Battletoads literally flips the script.  Level 2 is a hoverdisc ride vertically down through a tree trunk filled with angry robotic hornets and flying rats with pointy hats.  Level 3 is another of the Battletoads classics: the hoverbike race.  Any brave soul who faces it and lives to play another day is met with an insane platforming level composed of holding onto giant snakes that function as platforms and avoiding spikes.  Another level involves yet another insane race, this time running from a rat wielding a chainsaw with an arguably better motorcycle engine than your own.

The outcome:  Any attempts to beat this game will involve many hours of hair pulling, controller throwing, and possible crying.  At least the music is good!

#1:  Super Ghouls and Ghosts

Super Ghouls and Ghosts screenshot

A collision course with inevitability.A different kind of space worm…

This is the only game in the world to give you a double jump and then punish you heavily for even daring to use it.  Super Ghouls and Ghosts is the sequel to the NES platformer Ghosts ‘n Goblins.  You play as Arthur, whose wife was kidnapped by the ultimate evil, Sardius.  Embarking with an unlimited amount of throwing lances and some very flimsy chainmail, Arthur must face a horde of ravenous undead and monsters thirsty for his very blood.

Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is hard.  That’s an understatement.  Most levels have the player up against tricky jumps, insane amounts of enemies, and a completely random powerup system that has a chance to kill you.  One touch from a caustic ghoul causes Arthur’s armor to simply explode off of him, after which he runs around in his skivvies.  There are ways to get another set, and even an upgrade, but doing so is different for each level… and each armor drop point also has the nifty little ability to possibly kill you, depending on timing.

To cap it all:  Even when you think you’ve beat it, Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts tricks you again, making you start again from scratch in order to face the final boss.

The outcome:  Just save yourself the trouble on level one and double jump into that first zombie’s open, waiting arms.  Walk with me through this piece of fanfiction fridge horror: The corpses that continuously churn from the ground all look the same because they are all previous players who have died and died again.  Arthur is Sisyphus, pushing that eternal boulder in his own personal hell.

Are any of these games in your collection? Any games you think should be added to the list? Leave a comment below.

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