Kids these days won't pick up a game unless it came with training wheels. As the majority hankers to be mollycoddled, big video game studios have been coming out with games that tend to be nerfed to the point that they have no redeeming value for old schoolers who crave a challenge. The mainstream may have failed us, but there are plenty of independent video game developers who cater to our kind. The kind of gamers who enjoy seemingly impossible platformers that take several hundred tries and cause much butthurt.
I want to play a game
You could call us masochists or just hardcore. Alternatively you could use the term masocore, which is a portmanteau of the two words. What these games lack in eye candy, they make it up with meticulous level design and a brand of gameplay that's refined through thorough beta testing and careful fine tuning. Although they dish out challenges that seem insurmountable, their gameplay sophistication ensures that your own skill level ramps up accordingly. These games, as I have noted, tend to hone your reflexes to almost superhuman levels. However, in the case of the ones mentioned below, they somehow transform you into a ninja.
Super Meat Boy
On the face of it, Super Meat Boy looks like a game meant for kids. It has a cutesy red protagonist, Mario-esque 8-bit feel, and a four-button control scheme. The truth is that it's just as child-friendly as a V8-engined chainsaw. You see, the cute red protagonist is actually a red hunk of meat, which is subjected to all sorts of meat-torture including and not limited to giant buzzsaws, syringe-primed booby traps, salt pits, homing rockets, and lava. The control scheme may look simple with just four keys, but don't let that fool you. Although the eponymous Meat Boy moves about with lightning speed, his agility is tempered with a clever implementation of physics such as inertia, stiction, momentum and more.
This speed and physics business is crucial to navigate the diabolical traps peppered around its 300-odd levels, each lasting no more than a minute. Any activity lasting for 60 seconds may not sound much, but it does when, say, it involves dipping your hand in boiling oil for a minute. Super Meat Boy, on the other hand, is a lot more excruciating. At any rate, the levels can be completed in less than 60 seconds only if you happen to be a test-tube gamer baby conceived by blending the seed of Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, and Johnathan 'Fatal1ty' Wendel. Lesser mortals will take anywhere between a couple of minutes to a few hours, punctuated by short breaks spent weeping in the corner.
And cry you will, because this game will completely and utterly break you. Like a sword baptised in the forge with hammers and fire, you will emerge victorious with the reflexes of a ninja. Either that, or it will swear you off gaming for good. The learning curve is as steep and agonising as hitting the Taj Mahal at 200 kmph. This dastardly side scroller forces you to inch towards completion with painful trial and error. It's not uncommon to die hundreds of times in each level. Trust me, that sort of thing can drive a person mad with homicidal rage.
At least, that's what I feared when my intrepid colleague Anand picked up the gauntlet and embarked upon a quest beat the mighty Super Meat Boy. The next day he reported to work looking pretty much like a homeless person. It was hard to tell if it was the diabolical game that caused this, because he generally spent the day mumbling to himself and completely oblivious to his surroundings. The next day was even more worrying as he looked perpetually zoned out, and did not utter a single word.
It was on the third day in a Chinese restaurant that he caught a fly with his chopsticks, and declared that he had reached the Hell chapter in Super Meat Boy. Later in the day, I put his claim to the test by throwing a sharpened pencil at him when he wasn't looking. He turned around and caught it — with his teeth. Mind you, this is not a hyperbole. It actually happened. The game really does turn you into a ninja.
This entry is by far the most topical of the lot. Nikujin is a game where you play a ninja, but little do you know that you are indeed being gradually ninja-fied. This is easily the best independent game I have played to date. It ironically also happens to be a freeware title created by a Japanese independent developer Ikiki using freely available game creation tools. Nikujin puts you in the shoes of an unnamed masked ninja, who has to hack and slash his way through a fortress populated by a deadly assortment of ninjas, samurais, and kamikaze warriors. All of them, like the nameless protagonist, happen to stark naked. Don't ask why, but gratuitous nudity is a central theme running in Ikiki's games.
However, the side scroller hasn't earned a cult status just due to its nakedness, but rather because of its soul-crushing difficulty. The game gives you no instructions at all. It doesn't take long to discover that the [Ctrl] and [Shift] keys control slashing and jumping, whereas the arrow keys dictate motion. However, with no clue on what magic a combination of these keys can achieve, you will die many undignified deaths as you stumble through the architectural anarchy.
What you need, however, is pure experimentation and some painful trial and error to unravel the true depth of what the naked ninja can achieve. It is only when you delve deeper into the game, and discover more of its hidden ninjitsu tricks, that you really come to terms with Ikiki's gameplay masterpiece. Spend enough time with the platformer and you start weaving the mad ninja moves in a blood-soaked ballet of naked ninja carnage. It's better witnessed than read about, to be honest.
Nikujin is a resplendent example of the perfect platform puzzler. Its beauty lies in the fact that the levels do not feel like awkwardly tacked in puzzles. The brutal puzzler just puts you bang in the middle of levels that are seemingly impossible to traverse. The game forces you to think and move like a ninja. It is only then that it becomes clear that the impassable chasm that's had you stumped for a long time, is best avoided by walking across the ceiling.
The difficulty curve isn't gradual; it just ramps up exponentially with each passing level. Besting this game doesn't just take pure skill, but a complete distillation of ingenuity and naked ninjitsu. If you think Ninja Gaiden is the toughest ninja game, just wait till you play Nikujin. It is only then will you understand the true meaning of being a ninja. The best part is that Nikujin is free to download and play.
Takeshi's Challenge (Takeshi no Chosenjo)
I'll start off by saying that you don't really need much skill to beat Takeshi's Challenge. What is it doing in this list then, you'd ask? Well, being a ninja isn't just about skill. Along with a strong body, you need a firm constitution and complete mental control. This is less of a video game and more of a means to give you a complete and utter mental breakdown. Should you survive, however, you will emerge a true ninja — one who is truly infallible. I say this because this masocore masterpiece will crush your soul.
Beat Takeshi is exactly what you'd want to do
Released in 1986, the game was meant for Nintendo's Famicom platform in Japan. Made under the close eye of the multi-talented Takeshi Kitano, who is a producer, a director, an actor, a comedian, but above all he is a sadistic genius. For starters, he was the brain behind Takeshi's Castle — a show where contestants are beaten up, molested, and humiliated in a futile quest to overcome impossible tasks. If that wasn't bad enough, he played the role of a sadistic teacher pitting his students in a gladiatorial battle to the death in Battle Royale. It doesn't take a genius to know that Takeshi Kitano is a kind of person who revels in Schadenfreude — taking great pleasure in the suffering of others. If you need any more confirmation, the game itself proudly proclaims that it has been made by a man who hates video games.
The challenges themselves aren't appealing in terms of gameplay, design, or have any redeeming value other than that of pure masochism. Think of it as as a bulldozer driving over your nuts, as they rest on shards of broken glass. The only difference is that Takeshi's Challenge is a lot more painful. For starters, you have to sing for an hour into the controller, which is followed by holding a button down for four hours straight. If you somehow live through that, you get to beat the boss enemy, Takeshi himself, by hitting any button 20,000 times, without relenting even for a moment.
This game, as you can see, is pure torture and suffering neatly packed into an 8-bit cartridge. Beating it is nigh impossible not because it's challenging, but because its mind numbingly boring and excruciatingly painful. It therefore requires a ninja-like control over your mind. Because it is only when you beat your mind that you'll become a ninja.
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