Difficulty Curves and Mega Man

Those of you who have been following me on Facebook or Twitter might know that I've been making my way through the Mega Man Legacy Collections.


These games are not easy, and it's made me think about game difficulty curves and why I like Mega Man so much, despite the fact that Mega Man's difficulty curve is super weird.

Before this is going to make any sense, we need to talk about what a difficulty curve is. The standard curve looks like this:


Here's how it works. A game starts out super easy, allowing the player to learn the controls and rules. It gradually gets harder until the first checkpoint, like a boss or increasingly strong monsters before a new experience level. When the player has overcome this obstacle, the game is a little easier for a time while the player learns the rules of the next level or their new abilities. This rise-and-fall continues, growing gradually more difficult overall, until the player reaches the final, most difficult boss/puzzle/whatever and wins the game.

This curve provides a balance between too easy and too hard, giving the player a healthy mix of facing difficult challenges and feeling super awesome about themselves. As such, this difficulty curve is used in most modern games.

Mega Man's weird, though.


Every Mega Man game follows the same basic formula. The player is initially faced with a set of bosses that can be defeated in any order. Upon defeating each boss, the player gains a new weapon, and over time they discover that each boss is weak to a specific weapon of another boss.

After the initial set of bosses, the player must make their way through Dr. Wily's (or sometimes a different Dr.'s) castle. The castle levels are designed knowing that the player has access to every special weapon, meaning the player will be called upon to use most weapons at some point. At the end, the player faces the initial bosses again, all at once, before facing a final boss (spoiler: it's always Dr. Wily).

This means every Mega Man game is difficult from the start, when the player has no special weapons, and gets gradually easier as they defeat each boss. The easiest time in the game is the final boss before the castle, when the player has nearly all the special weapons and can deduce which will defeat the boss. Then the castle levels get increasingly difficult again, leading up to Dr. Wily.

Mega Man is one of the most popular game franchises in history, spawning over 50 games and selling over thirty million copies worldwide. But the originals were freaking hard! My son sat down to play Mega Man 1 for the first time and got his butt kicked. He has yet to beat a single boss.

Why the heck does this work? Because Mega Man knew exactly where it fit in the gaming world. Not only was the original released in a time when difficult video games were the norm, but look at Mega Man's difficulty curve when we put it up against the normal one:


Mega Man's difficulty curve does not exist in isolation. For people new to the run-and-gun genre, Mega Man was rough, but for people who had played games like Contra, Rush'n Attack, Castlevania, and Metroid, Mega Man was just a different point in a curve they were already familiar with.

I suspect this is why ridiculously difficult games like Dark Souls and Cuphead are as popular as they are, too. They aren't targeting the casual gamer; they're targeting people who have traversed the curve so many times that they don't mind jumping ahead to the hard bit (plus bragging rights are pretty cool, too).

Thoughts on this? Reminiscences about how awesome Mega Man was? What other games have weird difficulty curves? To the comments!




2 comments:

Steve MC said...

I like how you put those graphs together. It's like you found a dinosaur skull no one could make sense of ("Large head! No body!"), and matched it up with the rest of T Rex in the other room.

LP BUSTER said...

Siempre me pareció muy difícil y el primero sobre todo XD, el uso de tanques de energía existentes en casi todos sus juegos lo hace más fácil, me pregunto como irá en las siguientes entregas.

Un gusto leer tu blog,
Saludos :D