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Research: Old video games were really hard

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Think the original Super Mario Bros. was hard? You're right!

Gamers, by nature, are a nostalgic bunch. We tend to fawn over the games that got us into this hobby, often forgetting the agony and frustration suffered at the hands of those very same classics.

Now, though, there's scientific proof that some of the best-known games in the industry were actually really, really difficult.

A trio of researchers at the Free University of Brussels focused on Mario, Donkey Kong, Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Pokemon, concluding in a 20-page paper that the games were 'NP' hard, a rating that essentially says they were as difficult as any problem could be.

Is it all a joke? Well, not entirely. You can sense researchers were a bit tongue in cheek as they reported their findings, but they certainly back up their case pretty well. The language is so scientifically dense, in fact, that it can be a bit challenging to read.

For example:
For these games, we consider the decision problem of reachability: given a stage or dungeon, is it possible to reach the goal point t from the start point s? If it is hard to decide even this question, then it is certainly hard to find an optimal path. Our results apply to generalizations of the games where we only generalize the map size and leave all other mechanics of the games as they are in their original settings. All of our NP-hardness proofs are by reduction from 3-SAT, and the proofs for Mario, Donkey Kong, Legend of Zelda, and Metroid rely on a common construction, while the proof for Pokemon is based on a reduction to Push-1.

See what we mean? Science!

But while the math is confounding, even the development community admits older games were often made to be challenging. Before the rise of the home console industry, in fact, arcade games were specifically designed to become so difficult after 90-120 seconds that players would lose and insert another quarter.

As for those older console games, it's in the nature of gamers to forget the frustrations and problems as time goes by, and focus instead only on the good bits, which tends to distort their memories.

"One thing about video games is your memory tends to remove the horrendous," says Dan Houser, co-founder and vice president of creative at Rockstar Games. "Even though you enjoyed it at the time, your memory tends to fill all the blanks and [older titles] become these great, perfect experiences."

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