In the early days of Video Games, people couldn’t really “finish” games, at least not in the way we can today.
This was because most of the early games didn’t have much of a narrative; points and high scores were what pulled the punters into the arcades. Why end a game when they can keep paying for it? Getting your 3 initials somewhere, anywhere on scoreboard was all that mattered. (It was amazing the amount of people who had the initials P.O.O. and A.S.S. in my neighbourhood.) But if you were number 1 on the board, that was just as good as finishing any game; you were King! (Until the kids figured out that by turning the arcade off and on, you erased the high scores.)
There was an interesting exception to this, however. Whilst not actually completing the game per se, you could end it with something called a “Kill Screen”. This happens when the player reaches a certain point in the game where the software will crash, freeze, or start glitching so erratically it becomes impossible to play on.
The most famous arcade examples of this are Pac-Man (reaching the 25th level where coding for the fruit hits it limit and a sort of split screen appears, half normal level, half seemingly random numbers) and Donkey Kong (reaching the 22nd level were Jumpman, a.k.a. Mario, is killed off after a few seconds due to a programming error). It was thought at the time that people would stop playing long before either of these scenarios was reached. The first arcade that could be properly completed was a 1983 game called Crystal Castle, and action/maze game starting Bentley Bear.
Although there were Atari 2600 games that did have endings (for example Raiders of the Lost Ark) for the most part people didn’t start playing to finish until the 8-bit era. Early 8 bit games were often notoriously difficult – back in the 80’s and early 90’s I guess it added a sense of value to your purchase. At first, the only way to resume your progress was to insert a password (or a cheat!) on the title screen. Unfortunately, most of the passwords were very long, difficult to input and only flashed up on the screen for a few seconds. In my primary school, such passwords were a hot commodity, sometimes costing upward up 50c.
This began to change with the advent of battery backup. The very first console game to have a battery backup save feature was The Legend of Zelda for NES, so special was this, it came in a shiny gold cartridge. This was born out of necessity as Zelda is a very long game and whilst not impossible to finish in one sitting, it simply would not have been allowed by the video game fearing parents of 1980s.
Over the years passwords, save states and battery backup have not only helped people finish games, but advanced the games industry itself by letting developers tell longer and more complex stories. Gamers can not only finish a game, but they can progress at their own speed and even have the option of multiple endings. But for me there was nothing more satisfying than rescuing the princess for the first time after hours of frustrating game play.
The most difficult game I’ve ever completed was Super Mario Bros: Lost Levels on the SNES Mario All Stars cart. This game is long and gruelling, even with the ability to save on every level. Originally released for the Famicom disc system in Japan as Super Mario Brothers 2, it was developed in response to Japanese gamers having mastered the original Super Mario Brothers. They asked for something more challenging, and I doubt they were disappointed. It was deemed too difficult for the Western market, so another Famicom game Doki Doki Panic was released as Mario Brothers 2.
Lost Levels took me a few weeks, playing every night after work, inching my way forward through the levels, but I finally did it. I finished one of the most difficult Mario games ever made. I was so proud of my accomplishment, until I was told I was “cheating” because I was saving on every level. I’d like to say “Kids can be so cruel!” but this was when I was an adult, so really I should just say, “My friends are jerks!”
It did get me thinking though. What’s the most difficult or challenging game you’ve ever completed?
- Andrew “ProdTally” Yoshimura