by Stephen Fox
I had a very achievable goal today, on the night of June 30th, 2017. A “new” game was released, a remaster of the most wonderful variety; a fresh coat of paint on a classic piece of video game history. After picking it up from my retail store of choice, I put Crash Bandicoot: The N Sane Trilogy (Sony Entertainment, MSRP $39.99) into my Playstation 4 and chuckled at its tongue-in-cheek opening. My fiancé and sat in wide-eyed wonder and marveled at the care and love that went into pulling this well-loved character from his spin-off grave.
It was great fun as we lightly struggled past the opening levels (it even took me a few tries before I remembered how to beat Papu Papu). But then, out of nowhere, the object in motion that was my progress met the unmovable force of “Native Fortress”. As soon as I saw those large gates, I was struck with pangs of anger and defeat, but I couldn’t remember why. “It’s just another Crash level,” I thought to myself. “Obviously they have to crank up the difficulty eventually.”
Now, I don’t consider myself the world’s greatest gamer. I don’t hold any records, I don’t have too many platinum trophies, and it’s entirely rare I ever bump the difficulty up from the Industry Approved Normal™, but I’m no amateur, that’s for damn sure. I’ve been gaming since around ’98, and I’ve seen my fair share of challenging games, even more so considering I’m quite fond of the Soulsborne games that have rocketed to popularity the last few years. So, after the first 5 or so deaths, I wasn’t too worried, given the fact that I had accumulated a good cushion of extra lives. But, I quickly reached 10 deaths. And then 15. And then, Uka-Uka mocked my failure with his laughter at the Game Over screen. I took a deep breath, and selected “Yes” to retry the level. This second go-round, I’d have just 5 lives to make it through the level. Spoiler Alert: I did not succeed. I tried again. And the 5 measly lives were not sufficient yet again.
It’s at this point that I started taking a deeper look at the challenge in front of me, the nature of difficulty in video games as a whole, and how far the medium has come since I first became a supporting member. Crash Bandicoot has no sense of pacing. It pays very little attention to the enjoyment of the person playing the game, and serves only as a test of your ability to remember and interpret. I had thought initially that playing Crash Bandicoot would take me back to simpler times, where gameplay was king and the polygon count had no effect on sales numbers, but I was definitely mistaken.
On my insert-large-number-here attempt of “Native Fortress”, I learned what “Rage Quit” really meant. I threw my controller towards the floor and shut off my console as fast as possible. The QA team in 1996 must have known this level was hard, and the development sure as hell did, but it wasn’t redesigned or tweaked. There were no compromises made to the difficulty of the game, a difficulty generated by pure challenge, without relying on a health bar, tutorial, or experience points of any kind. As my Dualshock 4 bounced back towards me, and then slammed hard into the ground again, I realized something important: Nostalgia clouds an individual’s ability to perceive difficulty. And damn, is “Native Fortress” one hell of a level. I debated giving it one more go, but my fiancé advised me against it, a good decision in the long run. I swore I’d never start the game up again, and seal it way in its recyclable plastic case. But most likely, I’ll boot up Crash 2 tomorrow.