This installment’s question comes from A.V. Club contributor Zack Handlen:
What’s the level you hate in a game you love?
In preparation for Uncharted 4, I set out to replay the rest of the series and more or less enjoyed it. The first Uncharted is the roughest of the bunch, but the heart of what makes these games fun is already there: good banter, likable characters, and pacing that keeps the story moving forward at a steady, engaging clip. So I was shocked to find one of the worst vehicle segments I’ve ever played stuck right in the middle of the game’s usual cover-based shooting and jumping puzzles. During the chapter called Heading Upriver, Nathan Drake steals a jet ski and hits the water. What was a fast-moving adventure turns into an exercise in frustration, with sluggish controls and brutal difficulty spikes amplifying the segment’s bad design choices. A raging current and narrow passageways hamper progress down this river, and enemies appear every few minutes just in case you felt like you were getting somewhere. The developers would get a better grip on this sort of thing in future installments (and the game’s other driving segments aren’t bad at all), but that doesn’t excuse multiple levels of rage-inducing bullshit.
I will go to my grave insisting that Final Fantasy IX is the best entry in Square Enix’s long-running series. It’s as close to a perfect game as the company has ever produced. It takes 60 hours to complete and 59 of them are entirely pleasurable. That outlying 60th hour is spent in The Desert Palace, where a plot contrivance has separated your magic users from your warriors, forcing you to navigate this dungeon with nothing but your most fragile party members. The level itself is a gauntlet of puzzles that are just difficult enough to be annoying without being frustrating enough to sear their solutions into your memory, which makes it exactly as confounding on repeat play-throughs as it was on the first attempt. If all that wasn’t enough, it’s bookended by a timed game of red light/green light at the start and an anticlimactic squib of a boss fight at the end. It doesn’t even get its own background music, instead playing a loop of the main villain’s increasingly grating leitmotif. The Desert Palace isn’t just the nadir of Final Fantasy IX, it’s the only part of that game that’s truly bad, striking the fatal balance of being equally boring and frustrating.
Dark Souls is full of areas that are irritating by design. The swinging blades of Sen’s Fortress, the omnipresent darkness of The Tomb Of The Giants, the poison-filled chaos of Blighttown: These are the locations where cries of “Holy shit, I can’t believe they got me”—or the rarer, “Holy shit, I can’t believe I got through that”—are born. More importantly, they’re expertly crafted irritations, especially the upper reaches of Blighttown, which instill a reckless paranoia in me like few gaming locales ever have. That’s not the case with The Crystal Cave, my least favorite area in the entire trilogy. Short and visually appealing, the Cave has a gimmick that I think fundamentally fails as a Dark Souls trick: invisible pathways. Giving only the barest hint of which spots are safe to walk on and which will send players plummeting instantly to their doom, the pathways are merciless in a way that Souls games usually aren’t. Normally, a mistake in Dark Souls can be recovered from, but one false step in the Cave is an instant, irritating death. These days, I can run through it in about 60 seconds—it really is super short, once you know the path—but that doesn’t stop me from viewing it with a bitterness that man-eating treasure chests or toxic swamps couldn’t provoke.
Flower from thatgamecompany is one of those games that plays more in the heart than it does on the screen. It starts out slow and open, allowing players to explore and experiment, to participate in the simple pleasures of a life lived freely. It steadily introduces us to the breakneck speeds of wind tunnels and the restorative majesty of shapes, colors, and lights. Everything is gentle and at ease. And then the fifth area comes along. Colorful fields are replaced with a dingy, gray valley that’s littered with collapsed electrical towers. The flowers you need to collect lie dangerously close to live wires and exposed nodes buzzing with aimless power. Getting close to any of them violently rips at the DualShock controller’s vibrating motors, a constant reminder that this stage, unlike those that came before, can and will hurt you. And after all the flowers are collected, the level actively attacks. Scaffolding crashes down to crush you. Wrought iron lashes out from the ground to stab at you. Thunder shakes the screen, the controller won’t stop vibrating, and all you can do is keep running until the screen fades to black. We need this harsh slap of reality to appreciate the uplifting renaissance of the game’s concluding chapter, but even with that knowledge, there is nothing fun about Flower’s fifth stage.
Mirror’s Edge is a game I can’t help but love. It just ticks all of my boxes: It’s fast, unforgiving, dexterously demanding, and full of dramatic escapes. But it also has a tendency to trip on its own feet and disregard the momentum that makes it great. This happens in short bursts throughout the game, but there’s one level in particular that is practically nothing but these roadblock moments from beginning to end. I’m talking about The Boat, a late-game chapter that has Faith sneaking aboard a freighter. If, like me, you refuse to use guns in Mirror’s Edge, navigating the ship’s heavily guarded bowels can be a nightmare, and your reward for painstakingly trial-and-erroring your way through them is being challenged to climb two of the game’s most confusing, boring rooms. Things don’t get any better when you make it to the ship’s deck, either. First you’re dodging fire from an omnipotent sniper, and then you’re in not one but two clunky, overlong fistfights with a ninja assassin. From front to back, it’s antithetical to what makes Mirror’s Edge great. I don’t want to fight. I was born to run.
Round 20 in Bubble Bobble holds a tantalizing secret: As long as you haven’t lost any lives getting there, it will lead you to a diamond-filled room and potentially net you more points than all previous levels combined. It’s hard but doable, as long as you forego notions of playful spontaneity and spend the time to develop the perfect, immutable run. Such a shame then, that the preceding level is a sadistic, eight-pronged death trap. The psychological pressure of being so close to the mother lode alone would’ve made Round 19 a nightmare, but the level’s pitchfork-shaped central section makes things worse, turning every misstep into a suicide dive between the tines. In the arcade version of the game, these pits are deep and narrow, which makes it hard to escape by bouncing on your own bubbles since they tend to shatter on the surrounding walls. It’s possible, but chances are the frenzied ghosts will get you first. The dread of navigating those treacherous scaffolds fully aware of the treasures waiting beyond often means that losing a life early on, quashing hopes of ever reaching that massive prize, is as much a momentary failure as it is a long-term stress relief.
I recently played Onimusha: Warlords, Capcom’s 2001 samurai grind-house delight and chastised myself the whole time. How in the holy hell had I managed to go 15 years without ever playing one of these? It has everything: an inane plot, unlikely use of potted plants for mending life-ending wounds, and the maddening but effective fixed-camera angles that give classic Resident Evil its caustic ambiance. All of that’s mixed with a dollop of Lady Snowblood style. I loved every second of Samanosuke’s tour through a haunted Tokugawa-era castle—until the goddamned water-trap puzzle. About a third of the way into the game, you’re forced through a series of rooms where you bounce between controlling Samanosuke and his ninja pal Kaede. In the final room, Samanosuke is trapped in a cage that’s filling with water and Kaede has to solve a sliding puzzle before he drowns. No aspect of this challenge isn’t awful. Even just finding the puzzle in the environment is tricky. When you do spot it, it’s not clear what buttons to press to move the blocks, and by the time you figure out how to start solving the thing, Samanosuke is neck deep in moat water. If you fail, you’ll have to do every room all over again just for another shot. Nothing else in the game is as oblique, distant from a save-point, and just plain irritating.