Why Are SNES Games So Hard To Beat?

The term “Nintendo Hard” is often used to describe video games with extremely steep difficulty curves or a general lack of QoL features such as quicksaves and difficulty settings. However, this stopped being a thing long ago- during the 1990s to be precise. Ever since SNES, we’ve been getting games that spend time acclimatizing the player to basic mechanics before exposing them to the full gameplay slice.

Why are SNES games so hard to beat? While not all SNES games are hard, some titles such as the original Zelda, Mario Bros., and Donkey Kong can be quite frustrating. This is because a lot of developers back then were trying to emulate the arcade experience that incentivized gamers to spend more time.

On a classic arcade machine, high scores were used to measure player progress and you had no save system. If you wanted to continue after dying, you’d have to insert another coin. And a lot of these arcade games were quite hard, which meant that players had to spend several hours to get good.

Why Are SNES Games So Hard To Beat?

When you boot up the original Mario Bros., you’ll notice that it differs significantly from any modern game. There is no 2-hour-long tutorial section at the start, nor do you get any cinematics explaining how all the mechanics work. Instead, you have to figure stuff out for yourself.

Level design is used to inform the player that they should move from left to right. With left representing the start line and right bringing you closer to the end of each level. And because most games back then didn’t have complex movements or interactions, you could get an idea of the various mechanics by playing around for a couple of hours.

The whole “Nintendo Hard” label is representative of how game design and player expectations have evolved over the past decades. Back then, nobody would bat an eye if a game had no tutorial section or explanatory dialogue. These days, a big-budget AAA title with no handholding is practically unheard of.

SNES games like Mario, Zelda, and Mega Man trusted their players to be intelligent enough and “figure out” stuff for themselves. Games back then didn’t focus on story or cinematics because they simply couldn’t. Technology wasn’t advanced enough, memory limitations meant that saves were to be used liberally (if the game had a save system at all).

Plus, technological limitations meant that developers had to work with the amount of space they had on each SNES cartridge. When your top-of-the-line cartridge maxes out at 6MB, you need to maximize the amount of time players spend on each level. By making difficult boss fights or levels, game developers increased play time without adding any new content.

Arcades were also quite popular back then, and gamers were accustomed to a higher level of difficulty. As consoles of the 8 and 16-bit era were trying to emulate an arcade experience at home, they followed similar game design philosophies. Even though you didn’t have to insert a coin into your home console each time you got a game over screen.

What Is The Hardest Nintendo Game?

Even within the “Nintendo Hard” generation of video games, you had ones that were significantly harder than the others. If you think Dark Souls is tough, you should give Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a try. Overall, most Nintendo gamers agree that games such as Punch-Out!! and The Immortal are worthy of being on the list of the hardest Nintendo games.

However, there is one that stands above all when it comes to making gamers throw away their controller in frustration. And that game is Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts. The successor to Ghosts ‘n Goblins on NES, this game is an absolute nightmare and might be the single most anger-inducing piece of code printed to a game cartridge.

Not only is your character surprisingly weak, but he also has to contend with wave after wave of seemingly invincible enemies. And while you’re fighting the bad guys, you also have to avoid the deadly array of traps that are strewn across each level. Once you beat the game, you are sent right back to the start and have to play through at an even higher difficulty setting.

Why Are Old Games So Unforgiving?

Part of it is due to differing design philosophies compared to the modern era, and the other part is simply technological limitations. Back in the SNES days, RAM size was measured in kilobytes. For reference, SNES featured 128KB of general-purpose memory with 64KB of VRAM.

And we didn’t have hard drives or memory cards back then. Data was saved directly to SRAM chips in the cartridge. ROM was expensive, and flash memory wasn’t advanced enough to replace SRAM.

Long story short, developers didn’t have the space for unlimited save slots and tutorial levels. They needed to maximize what they had, so tuning up the difficulty curve is a nice way to boost playtime without creating new content. A lot of these old-school developers were hardcore gamers themselves and spent all night playing the games they created.

In the process, they became quite good at their games and set the baseline difficulty accordingly. Even the most complex games from that era didn’t have a QA/ testing team the size of what modern AAA developers can afford. You had a couple of guys playing the alpha version in a dimly lit room, and they were responsible for balancing.

These days, games have hundreds of playtesters spread across multiple nations communicating with dedicated teams that are responsible for player accessibility. Testers with varying levels of competence are chosen to make sure that the game appeals to a wide range of people. But in the 1980s and 1990s, gaming was a more niche activity.

It attracted a small group of dedicated players who were willing to spend several hours to get a higher score. Saves were practically non-existent, and you weren’t playing games for stories. Arcade gamers were looking for a similar challenge at home, and console gamers wanted something they could brag about to their friends.

Why Does Nintendo Make It So Hard To Play Old Games?

While old Nintendo games are quite hard, the company also makes it very hard for you to acquire and play these games. Unless you owned a Nintendo console growing up, the used market is your best bet to grab some of these old games. And while emulation is a thing, Nintendo tries its absolute best to discourage people from taking that route.

Backward compatibility isn’t a feature on Switch, and Nintendo shows no signs of offering something similar to the Wii Virtual Console anytime soon. Because of how the company manages its brand, remakes and digital re-releases of retro games are very rare. This drives up prices for original copies of games on the used market.

What Was The Longest SNES Game?

Game difficulty can be judged through various metrics. Like the complexity of its mechanics, enemy balancing, controls, etc. But some are just so long that finishing the game requires a significant commitment of your time.

Usually, it’s the JRPGs on SNES that take longer than the rest to finish. Completion times can vary based on player skill and prior experience with the game, but Final Fantasy VI is generally considered the longest SNES game. It lasts anywhere from 40 to 60 hours, which is quite impressive for a game that’s smaller than most JEPG images (just 2.14MB in size).

Are Old Games Harder Than New Games?

This is an idea that’s quite popular among fans of old-school games and retro gamers. They claim that games today have been designed to accommodate anyone and everyone, at the expense of driving away more seasoned veterans who want a challenge. And that’s certainly true to some extent, considering how many games these days are released with a “story mode” that all but transforms the enemies into passive bystanders.

AAA games these days have massive budgets, getting into the range of $100 million or more. To make that back, studios and publishers must appeal to a broader audience. This means scaling back the difficulty and making a game more approachable to everyone, a strategy that’s also used by casual mobile games.

In the process, balancing and design decisions are made that might feel unnecessary to old-school gamers. Things like radars, HUDs, regenerating health, waypoints, and big objective markers that flash on your screen- these weren’t present in old games. Yet, modern games need a lot of this stuff to accompany the world and the various challenges they have created.

It’s not the mechanics themselves that are problematic, it’s how each developer implements them. If you look, you’ll find plenty of modern games that don’t hold your hand and expect you to find out stuff by yourself.

We still have plenty of indie games that don’t fall prey to AAA game design tropes. These games provide a healthy challenge to keep the player interested, while also being fun and engaging at the same time.


I hope this article helps you understand why some SNES games are so hard. Game design is always reflective of its era, and back then gamers were a lot more accepting of tough games. Technological limitations prevented them from having the same quality of life features that we take for granted these days.

And gaming console manufacturers were trying to recreate the arcade experience at home. Plus, higher difficulty is a cheap method to artificially increase game length without adding new content.


As long as I can remember myself I always enjoyed video games. I had amazing moments playing them and that's why I became a game developer, to create amazing experiences for the players. Read More About Me

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