05/12/2013 10:12 GMT | Updated 04/02/2014 05:59 GMT

Mountains Out of Molehills: Finding the Challenge in Modern Games

The other night I spent two hours trying to defeat Seth on Street Fighter IV. Two hours. For the uninitiated, Seth is Street Fighter IV's final boss, a Doctor Manhattan-looking lout who apparently controls time and space through a rotating ball in his tummy. Standard stuff.

He's pretty easy to beat in the first round, but in the second round he transforms into a lightning-quick pillock of the highest order: get too close and he spinning-piledrivers you into the deck; get too far and he throws Sonic Booms at you (yes, he steals other fighters' moves too, the cad); get just in the middle and he teleports around, laughing.

You can forget about your jump kicks, your hadoukens and your super combos that have worked on every other opponent: he's just too fast. The way to defeat Seth, as I discovered over two tooth-grinding hours, is to crouch down in exactly the right position and sweep kick him over and over unto oblivion. Even then, you need a bit of luck. I don't know how many Kens died to find that out, God rest their souls.

Was I glad when it was over? Sure. Was it fun? Was it worth it? I don't know. If not, why did I do it? Seth is what I think of in gaming terms as a mountain: a seemingly-impossible challenge that tests your frustration threshold to the limit. But you keep trying - because it must be possible. They couldn't release the game if it wasn't. Could they?

Most gamers have encountered them. It might be an overpowered boss, a cruelly difficult jump or an unbelievably tight lap time. You fail. Do it again. You try something different. You fail. Do it again. You hurl the controller across the room. You fail. Do it again. I don't know of any other medium of entertainment that makes you work for your fun like this.

There's a tendency for wizened, callous-thumbed veterans like me to berate modern games for being easy. (When I was your age, we had to rocket jump to school. Uphill! Both ways! In boiling lava!) And generally, they're right: to anyone who misspent their childhood scaling mountains like Ghosts 'n' Goblins, Battletoads, Manic Miner and Castlevania, modern games are easy. I'm talking about a time when you had "lives" (and "continues" if you're lucky), when a difficulty setting was a far-out gimmick, and a mid-level checkpoint was the stuff of a madman's dream.

Coupled with a broadly more forgiving approach to game design, these features do make modern games easier to complete. Developers now focus-test their creations, and will often tone down the difficulty of this section or that if too many of the group have trouble finishing it, given a reasonable number of tries. They still want to provide a challenge, but if that challenge is getting in the way of the fun, they'll step in like an indulgent parent and remove the obstacle.

You can see this as dumbed-down hand-holding, or you can see it as a shift in dynamics. Games were once fairly short, and developers actively worked against players to stop them completing it too quickly and feeling short-changed. Now, there's more of a tendency to work with players: to provide experiences, rather than set tasks. Modern games are more story-driven than they've ever been, and often hitting an arbitrary brick wall feels like the equivalent of a stuttering DVD.

That's not to say that the new generation of gamers who'll cut their teeth on the PS4 and Xbox One won't have mountains of their own to climb - as Street Fighter IV so brutally reminded me. But now they tend to be included as a concession to those who enjoy them, and they don't usually stop you from finishing the game. Recently, I played through Ebuyer's Odyssey - a run-and-jump browser game that pays loving homage to the seven generations of console gaming - and that has sections that exemplify just how maddening games used to be. (I'm looking at you, Level 4...)

And lately - perhaps in a bid to recapture some of the masochistic joy of our youth - people who grew up with games are deliberately building mountains again. The consummate example is I Wanna Be The Guy, a back-to-basics indie platformer so absurdly unfair it'd make a ZX Spectrum blush. Higher production values but a similar calibre of sadistic glee can be found in Dark Souls, a stunning action-adventure perhaps best described as a die-em-up.

Some gamers will never enjoy them, and that's fine. For those of us who do, they're still with us, ready to be scaled again and again, as many times as it takes. As mountaineers say: because they're there.