Like, what's the perfect balance in a puzzle game for you? Do you want to be stumped for 30 seconds? Or do you want to go to sleep, still thinking of the answer?
How about an action game? Do you want to die the first time you meet a boss? How many times?
Or do you prefer pastoral cakewalks that don't test your gaming skills?
I think gaming was probably a bit too difficult in the NES era (to give more 'value', probably), but I find a stiff challenge really refreshing these days, due to the changing environment. I guess it makes more sense that developers now allow people to see more than the first couple of levels, but I do feel that most games are somewhat pointless without any sense of challenge (although there are exceptions, like Animal Crossing).
I guess it comes down to the reason you play games. Some people play games to escape to another world for a while. I play them mostly for Carnival-esque thrills, to quicken my pulse in an enjoyable way. And I need some form of challenge. Otherwise, I get little satisfaction from playing the game (Wind Waker). At the same time, I don't like being stuck in the same place for too long. I think puzzle balance is perfect when it takes me 10-20 seconds max to think of a solution (but I still have to think about it). On the other hand, I don't really enjoy puzzles that are just a matter of laboriously executing an obvious solution. For my tastes, Twilight Princess was perfectly balanced in terms of puzzles (but not combat). Professor Layton got a bit too punishing at times - especially the bonus puzzles. I love Picross, but some of the gigantic puzzles are kind of frustrating. (It may just be that I don't know the advanced tricks yet, though.)
I'm playing Shiren and Super Mario RPG (both for the first time) right now, which makes for a stark contrast. I've never really enjoyed traditional RPGs, because they don't seem to require any thought. Just tedious grinding. The strategic options seem pretty much non-existent, when you face the exact same configurations of enemies with the same abilities over and over and over. The Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi series manage to be fun in an arcadey way, which makes them bearable for me, even though they are fairly easy. Ditto for Mega Man Battle Network. And while Super Mario RPG has some of those aspects, they are less polished and impactful, and the battles seem a lot more repetitive (and plentiful). It feels like I'm just repeating the same battle over and over. Because I am. Over and over. It's an okay game (especially for the time), but it kind of feels a bit tedious to me.
Shiren (DS), on the other hand, is ALL strategy. Sure, you may be able to coast through some of the earlier levels, but when you reach the more deadly areas - god damn. Every STEP you take is a strategic decision. You're always on your toes, because if you don't make intelligent use of the specific items you have against the specific monsters you encounter, you WILL die. And that makes the game tense and gripping, even though the mechanics and aesthetics are super-rough and basic. It can seem unfair at times, but most deaths are avoidable. After dying, you generally realize that another strategy would have worked, which is especially good training for hoarders like me that end games with 100 health items and full grenades, when given the chance. Most RPGs get easier and easier as the game goes on, which is kind of a funky, improper difficulty curve (it may be 'empowering', or whatever, but it's not like the genre exercises any other gaming muscles, like a Metroid game, which has a similar inverse curve). Not Shiren, though. That line just keeps on slopin' upward.
I guess Shiren plays more like a (super-hard, random) strategy RPG, a genre that I HAVE always enjoyed for its tactical focus. One interesting wrinkle is that enemies in that game have fairly complex behaviors, and you won't know what they are until you encounter one. Much of the time, you will die and then have to start the game over, a little wiser. You'll get a little farther, and probably have to repeat the cycle again and again. That is sort of unfair, I guess, but I haven't checked any FAQs, or anything, because that aspect of Shiren sort of enthralls me, even though it should frustrate me. Like Mr. Driller. It's ridiculously difficult, but it keeps me coming back for more, instead of repelling me. Shiren really is a fascinating game. The balance and randomization make it nigh-infinitely replayable.
Anyway, how about you guys? Are you masochists or do you enjoy fluffy bunny games?
I'd say the two that stick out in my mind are both F-Zero GX and Ikaruga. GX didn't hold back any punches, even on the easier modes, and when you got to Master level you had to know the tracks extremely well and control your machine like it was an extension of your body. Of course, that's what the practice mode was for, and I smiled and laughed at some of the game reviews that said the game was too hard...poor wittle babies need their waah-waah to keep the big, bad game from spanking them repeatedly. :p
As for Ikaruga...yeah...that game just stomps on you, and it's ironic, but playing on Normal Mode is actually easier than Easy Mode. In fact, playing the game on Easy Mode is actually a huge detriment because you don't learn how to properly manage polarity shifting for when you kill enemies with the same color shots to get more energy for your homing shots, which are used often for chaining.
The last game that really humbled me was Super Swing Golf on Wii. That wasn't because I didn't know where to go (it was story mode, so I only had one choice) or because I wasn't good enough to win (because I did eventually finish the game), but the AI was absolutely infuriating. The computer would make ridiculous chip-shots consistently on every hole to beat me in a draw match. It was absurd and dang near made me quit. I didn't just so that I could say that I beat it.
I don't mind a challenge that makes me think or challenges my reflexes. I just don't like it when the game is cheap just to be cheap. A well-made platformer is great, like New Super Mario Bros. Wii. A platformer with bad controls isn't, if that makes sense. If poor design makes the game challenging, I don't like it.
Super Swing Golf was ridiculous. Man, it would have taken forever and a half to unlock everything.
Cheapness is definitely a bad way to add challenge. Like the higher difficulties of Mario Kart Double Dash and Mario Kart Wii. Super Mario Kart was kind of cheap, because the AI had infinite (though specialized) weapons, but it still felt fair and skill-based. Earned. In Double Dash and MKWii, you can just be nailed five times before the end of the race and go from 1st to 10th. Bleah.
Mario Kart 64 was the worst of all. The rubber-band AI was truly hideous. No matter how well you raced, the AI was always right behind you, but if they got ahead, they would magically warp half a lap away. Bleah again. The GP Mode in that game really sucked. So many bad design decisions. But Battle Mode alone was worth the price of admission, so whatever.
Nintendo racers usually also ensure that the same AI players score highly throughout a cup, but I actually enjoy the challenge that provides. It made F-Zero X really difficult, whereas in F-Zero GX, I often could have finished in 30th place in the last race in a cup and still taken the gold.
Man, unlocking the X-Cup was hard. So cool, though. I wish Nintendo played around more with random levels and level creators.
You know, I never noticed the bad AI in Mario Kart 64. I DID notice that Luigi always finished 7th or 8th, so I took it upon myself to help him onto the podium. It was like a secondary mission within the Grand Prix. I would try my best to finish first while helping Luigi move up.
I like a game that is diffiult, but rewarding, where practice makes a difference. Currently I'm playing Zelda II for the first time and getting my ass kicked fairly early on, but I can make it a bit further every time while learning the enemies' patterns so I'm really enjoying it.
The first one that comes to mind is WipEout HD which of course reminded me of F-Zero GX which wasn't quite as hard. It was rewarding to play and it really felt like you'd end up rising above the competition, like if the game and its controls just clicked. Everything suddenly seemed easier to do, 1st places were a lot more common and the game just felt right. Of course I did nothing but play it on Elite difficulty which was later on patched to include easier difficulties due to many people not being able to progress through the game due to its brutal challenge. I eventually just got used to it and actually managed to complete all challenges and get myself a platinum trophy.
Difficulty that does end up frustrating me is for games like Hotel Dusk or other point and click games. Sometimes the story will come to a complete halt, requiring the player to do the most random task in order to trigger the next event. You're given absolutely no clue as to what you should do next so you have to re-explore every single area, click on everything and just hope that something happens. It just feels like poor design and cheap design to me. There's just absolutely no satisfaction of actually solving something in this case.
Let's see. Completely humbled? The last I can remember was probably Brawl's Boss Battle mini-game. I spent so much time on that, and even when I was able to get to Tabuu without much damage, his stupid three rings of death would end up getting me. I don't think I ever ended up beating it.
As for one game in general, it's F-Zero GX. The best part of that game is that, while it gets extremely difficult, it's nonetheless completely fair. If you win a race, you absolutely earned it. And if you lost, it's because you screwed up, plain and simple. I unlocked a lot in that game, doing a lot better than I ever thought I would. At some point, my GCN memory card data for it got deleted, and it was so demoralizing I could never bring myself to doing it over again. In Mario Kart, the difficulty is usually "cheap" and is more frustrating as a result. F-Zero is a perfect example of how to make a challenging racer.
Finally, if we're talking about Boss Battles, the Metroid Prime series has tormented me like no other. The first game ended with the Tri-fecta of Omega Pirate, Meta-Ridley and Metroid Prime (on a related note, not many games end on a string like that). In Prime 2, it was Chykka that tormented me the most. Helios in Corruption. And those are just the ones that stand out as being frighteningly tough, all of the other ones were no walk in the park. Boss-for-boss, these three games did it about as well as it can be done.
I don't know if Lost Levels is cheap, but I don't know if it's fun, either. That game really shows the dark side of Nintendo. It shows that someone deep within their Kyoto headquarters despises gamers with every fiber of their being.
I got every single star coin in NSMBW without any help, and it was a bitch.
I got stuck several times in Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks recently, and was very humbled.
But Lucia, in Wii Sports Resort, takes the cake. She actually makes me feel like an inadequate gamer in the sport of table tennis. No game has ever made me feel that way before. I've beaten her once (by luck), but I just CAN'T beat her, no matter how hard I try.
I'm stuck on the Never Ending Quest as well, since I've never played too much of the game in the second question.
As for game difficulty, I think it depends. Stuff like Metal Gear Solid I prefer on easier difficulties because I'm really playing more for the story than the gameplay. Even playing MGS4 on Normal made me frustrated at times; mainly during boss battles, since all of them after the first one gave me a lot of trouble. On the other hand, I can play most any Contra game and get through while only dying a few times. I've managed to beat both NES Contra games without dying once before, and it's a pretty good feeling. Sometimes I welcome the challenge, while other times I don't want to deal with it. What especially frustrates me is when I want to just finally get past a part that's bothering me, but one tiny slip-up makes me have to start the whole thing over again. Resident Evil 5 is a huge offender in this category when playing on Veteran, or Professional in particular. I was stuck on the boss of Chapter 3-3 in Professional for so long, I eventually decided to just cheat and use some infinite-ammo weapons because I was sick of dealing with that stupid horrible game. ugh
As for puzzles, sometimes I like to try and figure it all out on my own, like with Braid, but other times if I'm stuck for way too long, like in Resident Evil 3's insane water treatment puzzle, I'll go online and find the answer on GameFAQs, since in instances like that the puzzle is just keeping me from being able to enjoy the rest of the game.
I don't mind a good hard challenge as long as it isn't a challenge because of poor controls or other stupid issues.
Another thing I can't get into nowadays is games with very long, difficult stretches and no save points. I just don't have the patience for that anymore.
But if I can save right before a boss and he isn't cheap, sure... have him beat the hell out of me over and over.
Puzzles? As long as I'm sort of pointed in the right direction, I'm ok. I'd rather be super stumped and have to Gamefaqs some puzzles than to have a bunch of obvious ones. Professor Layton is set up pretty well in that it has the hint system AND most puzzles are optional, so it can (and does) contain some super tough ones without obstructing your ability to progress.
Wii Sports Resort actually the best cross between sports and videogames. I crave to play it and be better at it like a sport and it motivates you to become faster and stronger. A great challenge. It feels like a training course for the new Zelda Wii.
Another three games that really humbled me were MYST, Riven, and MYST III. Yeah, these are most certainly puzzle games, and while the first one might not be as hard as the other two, it still drove me crazy. But, it's not like the puzzles were obscure or unnecessarily hard...in fact, most of them were very straightforward. However, that didn't mean they weren't easy to execute and same did require some out of the box thinking. Riven and MYST III really upped the difficulty and some of the puzzles really, really made you think and rub some neurons together...most people would be totally stumped, especially in the Ednana age where the puzzles are very organic and not mechanical/numbers based.
I don't know what game last got my goat. I know that I DON'T like being stuck for too long. I feel like an idiot then, and that my brain is being laughed at by a machine.
I do have a story though..true, of course: I was playing PuzzleQuest Challenge of the Warlords (awesome game, by the way), and theres a sort of side thing in the game separate from the main fighting. If you don't know, its an RPG, but battle is done on a gem-board (similar to Bejeweled, I'm told..). The more stuff you put together (colored spheres; line 3 or more up and they disappear while you reap the rewards) you earn mana, or incur damage, etc. You want to make your opponent reach zero before you do. In that afformentioned other side of the game, you have the ability to capture those same enemies. But in doing so, you have to clear the board without missing, making chain after chain of gems. I was trying to capture a Harpy (maybe an Imp), I believe, and I had been playing it for HOURS (think several hundred attempts. Everytime you mess up the board resets, and it takes you like a minute to fail). I think I tried a few different days, too. It was really getting to me because with all of the other ones, I had it figured out with just a few attempts, and cleared for certain in less than 10 minutes. One day I was determined to finally crush that Harpy thing, and I sat there for my longest period yet. Frustrated/angry, I went to bed.
The next morning, as if God himself dumped a bucket of water on my face, I woke up wide-eyed and refreshed out of nowhere, with a heaven-sent solution in my brain! Would you believe that within a minute, I was downstairs with the Wii on, and I solved the puzzle on ONE attempt?
I'm so not kidding about this, or stretching the truth in any way; and its just unbelievable to me (to anyone!) what the human mind will do on its own. I'm so confident in my "sleep-brain," that I often take complicated matters to bed with me..
..But sometimes I have terrible nightmares. Like..really scary and weird, haha.
Once in a blue moon I wake up happy though.. -- Its a grab bag, really!!