Inspired in part by the PS4 Atari Classics collections I saw in Gamestop again recently. Arcade games with definite endpoints, as opposed to repeating the most difficult level(s) indefinitely, have been around for a long time, of course. But in the early days, it could be really, really difficult. So difficult that most of us probably never even saw the ending, much less reached it ourselves. What are your memories of the following? (I’m going to note various features that made things especially tough.)
Crystal Castles (1983 - no continue): A game which required amazing speed and precision with a trackball, with persistent enemies that killed on contact and got faster and faster as the game progressed. Oh yeah, three lives and one extra life every 70,000 points. And no continue. There were 37 levels in all, and I think I saw someone get about halfway through with the help of the warp. My personal best was about 6.
Marble Madness (1984 - no continue): “How many marbles do you get?” Was the ubiquitous question. After endless hours of maddening gameplay, we got the answer…too many. The margin of error was absolutely nonexistent, and a not-insignificant number of runs ended on Beginner course. I think maybe 2% made it as far as the Silly race, and that may be generous. I personally witnessed ONE incredible player get to the end…with 0 seconds remaining. Lose your marbles, indeed.
Paperboy (1984 - no continue): Hey, did you know that you could lose if you ran out of customers? Too bad that poor kid got battered to a pulp so quickly it never came to that. One clear witnessed; most players got as far as Wednesday before deciding on a new career/game.
720 Degrees (1986 - limited continues): Skate and die anyway. Absolutely merciless in its performance requirements. You had to continually show your stuff in the main city, and you had to come up big in the parks for both points and money for equipment you had to have, otherwise you were flat-out doomed.
Road Blasters (1987 - checkpoints, no continue on final level): As with Marble Madness, you could not mess up at all. I can’t imagine what the pressure of taking on that no-second-chance last rally must have been like. The heck with a t-shirt, anyone who bested that deserved company stock!
Klax (1989 - checkpoints): It is the nineties, and it is time to move past 100-level puzzle games with utterly impossible requirements!
Hyper Sports (1984 - no continue): Their first Olympiad-themed game, Track & Field, was pretty reasonable; I remember quite a few players making it to the final event (don’t remember how many passed it). This, however, was gut-wrenching, both for Archery with its absolutely insane score requirement and the utterly impenetrable torture that was Pole Vault. Did I mention that it was amazingly tiring to play this for any amount of time?
Rush 'n Attack (1985 - checkpoints, no continue): A game that required the reaction times of a ninja, the hand-eye coordination of a pool champion, and the icy nerves of a first responder. I think I almost made to the end of the second level a couple times. Best I saw anyone ever do was about midway through the last level, and once or twice at most.
Jackal/Top Gunner (1986 - no continue): Three lives, with maybe a bonus or two along the way, to get through a very long battlefield against increasingly heavy enemy fire, in a clumsy vehicle that can take a single hit and can only fire its main weapon straight ahead. A “pocketful of miracles”? Several warehouses of miracles would be more like it.
Salamander/Lifeforce (1986 - no continue): A companion game to Gradius, and fittingly, one where most players saw “Game Over” very, very quickly. Something like halfway through the first level was typical (myself included).
Jail Break (1986 - no continue): And you thought Lance and Bill had it rough. Another one of those Konami games where it is incredibly super-duper hard not to get killed. The firepower in the later levels was off the charts.
Combat School/Boot Camp (1988 - no continue): It started out fairly managable. And then threw, in order, a firing range task that require insane reaction times and precision, a one-on-one fight that required inhuman reaction times and precision, and a final mission that required save states. Maybe going home to his mother was the smart move.
Hang-On (1985 - no continue): Your objective, ride your motorcycle from the start of the course to the end. Avoid objects by the side of the road, or you’ll crash and lose a lot of time. Avoid the many, many other motorcycles, or they’ll send you flying off to the side. And be sure to memorize every corner lest you take one too hard and skid off the road. Sounds doable? Didn’t think so.
Pitfall 2 (1985): Theoretically you could brute-force your way to victory on this one, just like theoretically you could go from New York to Los Angeles completely on foot. But if you didn’t know exactly where to go and exactly when to jump, you’d just squander lots and lots of tokens going nowhere. Don’t even get me started on that final climb.
Sega Ninja (1985 - checkpoints): Proceed. Die some. Proceed more. Die a lot. Proceed even more. Die tons. Proceed a little further. Die megatons. Be unable to proceed any further.
Enduro Racer (1986 - no continue): Hang-On on steroids. As if push bikers and explosive obstacles weren’t enough, now you have to avoid rocks in the middle of the road and jumps that often sent you into oblivion. If this really were a metaphor for my life’s journey, I’d be dead by now.
Wonder Boy (1986 - checkpoints): 1. Take Ghosts 'n Goblins 2. Multiply it by a factor of about ten. 3. No, really, that’s how bad it was.
Alien Syndrome (1987 - no continue): As shooters go, it wasn’t especially difficult, but seven levels on three lives? I saw one player get tantalizingly close, getting all the way to the final boss before those damn whirlwinds took out his final life. (BTW, this is the one I actually expect positive responses on.)
Turbo Out Run (1989 - checkpoints): The original Out Run was merciless but could be had with course memorization and sharp reflexes. Now add an even harsher speed requirement with the turbo and no choice of paths. And be prepared to spend a lot of time with the rubber side anywhere but down.
Gun.Smoke (1985 - checkpoints): This was one of those games where you really felt the disadvantage of being one man against an army. For most players, getting to the third level was a monumental achievement. I saw a grand total of one player get as far as the absolutely murderous 6th level. He got about a third of the way through it.
Legendary Wings (1986 - restart the level from the damn beginning if you continue): Sheesh, normal checkpoints were bad enough. With so many ways to die here, it’s a wonder anyone got past the first level. Never saw anyone hack the second.
The Speed Rumbler (1986 - checkpoints): How crazy was it? I have no memories of anyone at all getting past THE FIRST LEVEL. Which is actually not a surprise, as you’re in a clumsy, underarmed car that takes damage like tissue paper, and once it catches fire, you have two options: Stay in and get killed, or bail out and get killed. I got blood pressure spikes from this game. I wish that was an exaggeration.
Avengers (1987 - checkpoints, restart the level from the damn beginning if you run out of time): In addition to, y’know, dying all the lot and all over the place, the bosses get more cowardly as you progress, to the point where it’s almost impossible to harm #5 at all. And I’m not kidding about that time requirement. I vaguely recall someone besting the final boss, but that might’ve been an illusion.
F-1 Dream (1988 - blech): This wasn’t a game. This was an experiment in how many calamities a videogamer could get hit with before suffering a stroke. Answer…quite a bit, actually.
Ghouls 'n Ghosts (1989 - checkpoints): Good news - this one’s easier than Ghosts 'n Goblins. Bad news - you can’t reach the final boss without finding an extremely rare and ridiculously short-ranged weapon. More bad news - that being marginally easier than freaking Ghosts 'n Goblins qualifies as good news.
Strider (1989 - checkpoints): There are just too many ways to die. Until you reach the final level. Whereupon you run into a galactic freakton of ways to die.
Buggy Challenge (1984 - no continue): “Keep the star centered! Avoid obstacles! Pass through the gates!” Make up your mind, dammit!
Great Swordsman (1984 - no continue): 3 opponents where 5 hits ends the match? Doable. 5 opponents were 2 hits ends the match? Big, big uphill climb. 7 opponents where 1 hit ends the match??? Is it too late to take up judo?
Samurai Nihon-Ichi (1985 - no continue): 1st level - routine swordsmen. 2nd level - quick tigers. 3rd level - the most traumatizing ninja assault outside of a Mortal Kombat game.
Bubble Bobble (1986 - no continue): As if 100 levels of misery wasn’t painful enough, you need to have both players in at the end in order to…get the real game with another 100 levels with harder enemies. There are marathons, and there are ultramarathons. Through lava.
Arkanoid (1986): Like Breakout, except with impossible levels!
Operation Wolf (1987 - checkpoints): Y’know, there’s not much sense in putting in 6 levels if 99.99% of players are only going to ever see the first two. I saw one amazing player make it as far as the final level, where he continued something like 20 times and died about a third of the way through each time.
Rastan (1987 - checkpoints): The special weapons made progressing a breeze. Too bad they only lasted about ten seconds, whereupon you’d have to go back to your useless dinky little sword. Don’t even get me started on the hazards.
Final Blow (1988): Beat just 4 opponents and title is yours! In order, they’re: The fairly easy one, the really hard one, the insane murderously impossible one, and the insane murderously impossible one to the 12th power!
Kuri Kinton (1988 - checkpoints): Never has “You are already dead” been more appropriate…
Solomon’s Key (Tecmo, 1986): There’s a place for incredibly demanding puzzle games. I don’t know where, but the arcade was not it, believe you me.
Super Dodge Ball (Technos, 1987): Your opponents get stronger men and more men the further you go. Meanwhile, you’re stuck with the same fairly strong captain and three fragile-as-glass scrubs the whole way. Dammit, that is so TYPICAL!
Ninja Gaiden (Tecmo, 1988 - really get thrown for a loop when you continue) Oh, sure everyone remembers that continues screen. What you don’t remember was every enemy having longer range, one little hit meaning you lost one third of your life, swarms of enemies in two locations, the final bosses being able to kill you outright in one hit, and losing about a quarter level’s progress if you continued. Which you should have, because, yeesh. I saw one person make it to the final boss. Got one knockdown, messed up a bit, got burned, game over.
You got any others, feel free to add them. Remember, there has to be a definite ending (but “looping” games are fine).