Difficult games are on a rise thanks to, in no small part, the popularity of FromSoftware’s modern game output. The Soulsborne games awakened the love for brutal challenge in gaming community. Many games followed suit, eager to draw in the subset of gamers who hold challenge above any other features.
To be on this list, your game is not just supposed to be difficult. To have a spot here, the game has to seem downright unfair. Not in the sense of being broken, it has to deliberately go out of its way to cause you pain. We will not be including any competitive games, because any game can be difficult when a living person is trying to ruin your day.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at…
|Elden Ring||2022-02-25||-||Read more|
|Dark Souls: Remastered||2018-05-24||-16%||Read more|
|Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin||2015-04-01||-61%||Read more|
|Dark Souls III||2016-04-11||-33%||Read more|
|Nioh: Complete Edition||2017-11-07||-76%||Read more|
|Nioh 2 – The Complete Edition||2021-02-05||-56%||Read more|
|Spelunky 2||2020-09-29||-38%||Read more|
|Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy||2017-12-06||-||Read more|
|Crusader Kings II Imperial Collection||2012-02-14||-6%||Read more|
|Crusader Kings III||2020-09-01||-66%||Read more|
|Devil May Cry HD Collection||2018-03-13||-79%||Read more|
|Devil May Cry 4 Special Edition||2015-06-23||-69%||Read more|
|Devil May Cry 5 Deluxe Edition||2019-03-08||-74%||Read more|
|NINJA GAIDEN: Master Collection||2021-06-10||-36%||Read more|
|XCOM 2||2016-02-04||-95%||Read more|
|XCOM 2 Collection Steam||2016-02-04||-82%||Read more|
|Dead Cells||2017-05-10||-60%||Read more|
|Don't Starve Together||2016-04-21||-60%||Read more|
|Hollow Knight||2017-02-24||-39%||Read more|
|Super Meat Boy||2010-11-30||-85%||Read more|
|Trials Rising||2019-02-26||-77%||Read more|
|Darkest Dungeon||2016-01-19||-83%||Read more|
|Genre:||side-scroller (mobile game)|
Flappy Bird wasn’t just hard. It was so hard, that it was ultimately removed from app stores, that’s how angry with it people were. It’s quite amazing, because the game was extremely simple in concept. There was a bird, an infinite number of obstacles, and a narrow passage between them. Tap a bird, it flies up a bit before descending. That’s it. One input, one moving element, infinite rage.
It was all in the timing, see. Tap a bird at a wrong time and the avian idiot will slam beak-first into the obstacle and your run is finished, try again. Theoretically there is nobody to blame except your timing, but it certainly doesn’t feel this way. The game lives on online, able to anger more people, and it spawned imitators, including a very silly version of in Warframe, using its aerial armor/character.
For how cute Spelunky (and Spelunky 2) looks, you’d be excused to thinking it’s not hard at all. However, the truth is much harsher, has a shotgun, and doesn’t appreciate you taking stuff for granted. The same statement can be applied to the shopkeepers, who really don’t like thieves here. The procedural caves you delve into are filled with danger, both from traps and creatures within.
Everything is procedurally generated, so you can’t rely of level mastery, only on your skills, which adds an extra layer of complexity. The sequel additionally spiced things up by adding liquid physics, which means now you also have to worry about lava flowing out to flash-fry your heels. Whether you pick the first (remade) Spelunky or its sequel, you’re in for a challenging delves.
|Release:||2006-08-06 / New Steam Version: TBA)|
|Genre:||construction and management simulation, roguelike|
|Developer:||Bay 12 Games|
Depending on your system, Dwarf Fortress (whose full title is too long) might be hard before you even started playing. If you choose to generate the largest world with the longest history your PC will require some time to think it through and reconsider its life choices. And after it’s done, you’re thrust into a deeply simulated ASCII world with the game’s motto in your mind: Losing Is Fun.
Your task is to govern a colony of dwarf as they settle into a mountain which they’ll eventually turn in a new version of Moria…with probably the same fate. The game is open-ended, so the challenge isn’t winning, the challenge is lasting a long time before the simulation kills you with something you didn’t even know could happen. It’s incredibly complex and satisfying, but hard to get the hang of.
Dwarf Fortress is free to play game
1001 Spikes doesn’t care if you live or die. Indeed, it’s so confident you’ll die that it gives you 1001 lives to clear over a hundred of its levels. If it sounds like a lot, well, you haven’t played the game yet. Not unlike Spelunky, Spikes is a platform game with levels riddles with enemies and traps. Unlike Spelunky, this one has no moral issue with using some underhanded tricks to test you. Rude.
Thankfully, a neat, 8-bit aesthetic lessens the blow of being skewered on floor spikes again and again. The game as a whole looks and sounds pleasantly old-school. It even has a 4-player local co-op. There are also plenty of unlockable characters, with their unique ways of dealing with the challenges and dangers ahead. There’s even a story involving a family legacy.
FTL: Faster Than Light
FTL sends you on an important mission halfway across the galaxy. You’re delivering crucial data to the Galactic Federation before the violent Rebellion catches up. The thing is, the space journey is full of enemies, dangerous asteroids, and the branching path is procedurally generated. As a result, you never know what to expect, and the challenges ahead can easily leave you dead in the merciless void.
FTL is roguelite unlike any other. Instead of being a lone hero platforming their way through procedural levels, you’re a captain of a spaceship. You assign crew to various roles, give combat orders, and pick the trajectory of your desperate courier run. You’ll also make many weighty decisions in more narrative vignettes. Thankfully you might unlock some things between runs.
Before the world appreciated the difficulty of Dark Souls, it ground its teeth on the Ninja Gaiden games. Following a prodigy ninja Ryu Hayabusa the series has been trying to kill us from the shadows since 1988, and to this day it remains an admirably challenging opponent. The lessons learned by Team Ninja later found their expression in the Nioh series, and were applied against rampaging yōkai.
The Ninja Gaiden combat system makes Ryu something of a glass cannon. He’s able to dish out a lot of punishment with melee weapons, but also starts eating dirt fast if you mistime a dodge or misjudge an opening. You can check the series out easily, thanks to the NG master Collection released in October 2021, bundling up Ninja Gaiden Sigma 1-3, originally launched between 2007 and 2012.
|Genre:||Strategy & Defense|
|Developer:||Dark Realm Studios|
Pandemic 2, a classic Flash game, and its spiritual successor Plague Inc. are something special in terms of difficulty. The games are about…being a deadly disease and the goal is to infect the entire world. The problem is that there are several regions/countries, such as Greenland and Madagascar, which are very resistant to your efforts, immediately close their borders, or simply decide never to give up.
The games themselves are very interesting. They let you pick the source of the disease (like bacteria or a parasite), and then develop it as you earn mutation points. You can define the way the pathogens transmit, what symptoms they cause, or how resistant they are to various environmental factors. It’s quite in-depth, and especially Plague Inc. is a diverse experience with many different options.
Super Mario Bros The Lost Levels
|Genre:||Platform video game|
There was a time when the words “Nintendo Hard” were a living nightmare and a true challenge for many a growing gamer. The Lost Levels ramped up the difficulty to a level nobody expected from a colorful and friendly game about a rotund plumber jumping on mushrooms. It even made Mario and Luigi slightly different, giving Green Mario better jumps at the cost of worse shoe soles.
This game can also be attributed with creating a large demand for excruciatingly difficult Mario hacks, many of which were seemingly designed out of pure spite, actively preventing intuitive trajectories and behaviors. Even without such tricks and treacheries, The Lost Levels was a challenge then, and years later could still make some people grind their teeth into fine dust.
Crusader Kings II
|Developer:||Paradox Development Studio|
Paradox games in general are rather uncommunicative and obscure. Learning them can take months and when you finally “get it”, it’s like riding a bicycle, it works on a level of pure intuition. Crusader Kings is not even really about strategy. See, in this game, you’ll be leading a bloodline of rulers through the ages as you marry into other lineages and strive to achieve status through family ties.
It’s very Game of Thrones-y. And much like in Game of Thrones, a lot can happen in the background. Assassinations, sudden sicknesses, unsavory religious conversions, mutilation and yes, incest, all of it is here. Your son may start worshipping Satan, your brother will betray you, you yourself can develop a nasty infection and probably die. All almost completely randomly and with little warning.
|Developer:||Feral Interactive (Linux)|
XCOM 2 is an heir to a legacy dating back to Julian Gollop’s UFO: Enemy Unknown strategy. And although Firaxis’ version has much fewer fiddly bits like inventory management, they retain one thing: RNG just hates you. See, X-COM games are turn-based and are happy to tell you the percent chance of scoring a hit. The problem is: it doesn’t matter squat, because humans can’t understand chances.
In new XCOMs the results are generated from a seed, which means that save scumming doesn’t help you, unless you somehow change the situation. It still leads to point blank shots with only 74% of success, and consistently missing 95% shots. That’s XCOM, baby. And this is before we apply the difficulties of the strategic layer and the race against aliens’ own doomsday projects.
Devil May Cry 3
|Genre:||Action & Shooter|
|Developer:||CAPCOM CO., LTD.|
Fast, demanding, and irreverent DMC3 remains one of the best in the genre. From the very first cutscene Dante’s Awakening is a lighting fast slasher, measuring not just your damage, but more importantly: the style. Sword-slash an enemy into the air, juggle them with your pistols, slap them with ice nunchucks mid-air, and then slam into the ground with another slash. That’s beginner’s stuff.
It’s also really easy to die, because the demons can make short work of your health bar if you let them. The buggers are quite fast, too, so you have to stay on your toes. And then there are bosses who are even harsher. There are also Dante Must Die mode where demons get an absurd boost in power (and you don’t) and Heaven or Hell, where everything, including you, dies in one hit.
Dark Souls II Scholar of the First Sin
Created with limited oversight from Hidetaka Miyazaki, Dark Souls II makes very questionable choices in the most basic of mechanics (like movement) just to make the game more difficult and, sure it succeeds! Beating Scholar of the First Sin is not beating your own limitations, like it would be with, say, Dark Souls 3, it’s about beating a game which was designed to be unbeatable.
If there’s one thing I can give you as an advice if you’re still determined, it’s this: Adaptability is a trap. Put no points in it, pump everything into Strength. Trust me, the internet will tell you otherwise, but they’re liars, it’s an old in-joke in the community to try and trick new players.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
FromSoftware’s 2019 release turned out to be difficult even to Dark Souls and Bloodborne veterans. Part of it comes from the fact that it forced them to abandon the instincts and reflexes bashed into them by Soulsbornes. Oh, and of course the game defeated many a non-Souls player, because it is quite demanding, and in a way that’s not going to resonate with many people.
See, Sekiro’s combat system is based on a meter called Posture, filled when you attack your enemy and when you their own attacks. When it’s full, it means you’ve forced an opening on your foe and can perform a deathblow. While not really demanding frame-perfect precision that fighting games do, it’s still very easy to miss a parry or misjudge a dodge. And the enemies don’t play around.
|Genre:||Action & Shooter|
For all its sense of humor and lighthearted presentation, Dead Cells is a brutal and unforgiving game, but much like the Dark Souls series, it’s absolutely something you can master. There are different playstyles, with varying degree of difficulty to them, so you can try to breeze through the game. It will never be a cakewalk, but feel free to prove that to yourself.
Due to the procedural generation of the world, the game can throw some curve-balls at you that will seem absolutely unfair. But because certain locations are predetermined (like bosses), you’ll never get lucky enough to get an easy run. Frustrating? Yes. Unfair? Absolutely. Intensely rewarding? You bet. But your reward is a cool-looking platform-roguelike with cool endings to unlock.
Don't Starve Together
Don’t Starve is both charming in how honest and straight forward about how much it hates you it is, and very morbid, due to the fact that… it absolutely hates you. Don’t Starve certainly doesn’t pull any punches and much like Crusader Kings, it’s more about figuring out the rules than anything else.
Due to the randomness inherent in generating a new world, the game can be absolutely and completely unfair without giving you any chance of victory. Essentially, it’s a game for virtual masochists. A semi-sequel was released, Don’t Starve Together, which lets you play in coop. Which makes it a lot nicer and potentially much funnier. Read more about differences between Don’t Starve vs Don’t Starve Together
|Genre:||Action & Shooter|
Hollow Knight is fairly similar to Dead Cells, with the only mechanical difference being that Hollow Knight is not procedurally generated, all of the game’s world was designed from start to finish, and drawn quite beautifully. And that arguably provides a much more “structured” experience, so to speak. Much like in Dark Souls the environment is a puzzle in and of itself.
There’s a moment, very early on in the game, where you get dropped down from a very high ledge and have to find a way back, learning various mechanics in the process. Hollow Knight will repeatedly test your resolve (by being unfair) and your skill (with wonky controls, grab a controller by the way) all the while drip-feeding you bits of lore and story.
|Developer:||StudioMDHR Entertainment Inc.|
This game is roughly divided into two sections, run-and-gun platforming segments in the overworld and boss-fights. While the run-and-gun segments are much easier than the now-famous Cuphead boss-fights, there’s a way to make them even more painful for yourself, which is striving for the Pacifist mark, awarded if you complete the stage without scoring a single hit on an enemy.
And the boss-fights themselves as an absolute treat. Varied, complex and complicated, few of them are forgettable and the game does this wonderful thing where it will show you exactly how close you were to victory after each attempt. And as the goal gets closer and closer, the rage raises and rises and rises…
Super Meat Boy
Super Meat Boy came out of the blue in 2010 and quickly became a hit, because of finding a perfect balance between being absurdly difficult, weirdly cute (in the Adult Swim/Weebl/Happy Tree Friends kind of way), and not really giving a single eff about you dying dozens of times. You’ll succeed one day, that’s all that matters.
SMB even gave us a useful, if gruesome (gruesful?), learning tool in the form of blood splatters everywhere the protagonist met his brutal end. Now you KNOW where not to jump, and what to watch out for. Although from the character’s point of view he must feel as if he’s in an unending loop of pain, you’ll enjoy every minute of Super Meat Boy even if you’ll eventually paint the rooms red.
Trials / Trials Rising
|Release:||2000 / 2019-02-26|
Riding a bike is easy, people say with some merit. Once you figure out how to keep your balance everything clicks into place soon after that. The Trials franchise doesn’t care. Trials is an exercise in a physics-based torment posing as an obstacle course, and the torturer is a bike rider (without license, I’m sure) who needs to get from point A to point B without falling flat on his face and in good time.
Even when you get used to the controls, your so-far perfect run may be finished because you messed a single jump and the physics simulation never allowed you to recover, throwing you into a downward spiral towards failure and restarting the track. Or maybe not. But Trials is the kind of game where the more frustrated you get, the harder it is to move on.
Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy
Getting Over It with Bennet Foddy was created by the man who came up with QWOP, GIRP, and CLOP and that probably tells you to expect the worlds hardest game. Getting Over It doesn’t just give you weird control scheme and a task with breaks the laws of physics and minds of man. No. It also provide a serene commentary, citing Lincoln and Lewis and we can only hope they are real quotes.
GOI turns frustrating the player into an art form, because you ALWAYS know you were JUST there, just a millimetre to the left and…godsdamnit, back to square one. And then you try again. And again. And again. And again, cursing the calm voice of a man speaking to you. Your character can’t die but you slowly die inside. But you get over it. Even if you don’t get over that one damned tree…
The suffering is over
Thus concludes our look at some of the hardest video games ever made. If challenge is what you crave, this list should provide enough of it to start you on your path to git gud or tide you over until the next challenging game if you’ve already gitten gud.