The 10 Most Irritatingly Impossible Old-School Video Games


In the old days, you didn't come back to a game again and again for anything as fancy as online multiplayer or user-created content. No, you came back because the games were freaking impossible. That was the only way game designers of the Nintendo Entertainment System and SNES days could extend the play time: through mindless, frustrating repetition.

These are the 10 games so infuriating, their very mention makes the hairs stand up on the back of our necks.

Mike Tyson's Punch-Out

The premise:
A ludicrously undersized boxer makes his way through a swarm of opponents who use the unwise strategy of fighting with a distinctly repeating pattern. All of this is done for the chance to lose horribly to Mike Tyson.

Why it was worth playing:
The first-person boxing was unique in 1987 (actually, how often have you seen it since?), unless you count the arcade version of the same game. It was genuinely fun trying to crack the various exotic underlings that stood between you and the champ. And, after a tough day, there was something deeply satisfying about mercilessly pounding upon hapless Glass Joe, who always seemed to be in the ring against his will.

Look at him, it's like he thinks there's a guy out in the audience with a rifle on him.

Also, in an era when other sports games were occupied by generic placeholders (not even team logos were represented), Tyson's celebrity endorsement was pretty cool. Seeing that crazy bastard step into the ring as the final boss really meant something.

Why it was infuriating:
While the early opponents were sometimes challenging, you could still find their weakness (hmmm ... that inconspicuous 'X' on his stomach, perhaps), and after that it was just a matter of timing your punches.

But, when you finally made it to Tyson (or "Mr. Dream" if you bought the game after Tyson's title defeat to Buster Douglas), no amount of Rocky-inspired runs through the city were going to save you. Mac's punches have about as much effect on the champ as a stiff breeze, which doesn't stack up well against his ability to send your teeth flying with little more than a mean thought.

Basically you had to withstand a series of withering blows from Tyson, dodging each with perfect precision (if any of his punches landed, you were done) while waiting for a window of opportunity about a quarter-second long to strike back.

Saddest moment:
Watching Mac crash to the mat following a thunderous right hook by Tyson and knowing that it was time for him to "fuck you 'til you love it." Then, realizing that to get back there you have to box every fucking one of those guys again. No saves in this game, boys and girls.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

The premise:
That wacky Shredder is out to ruin everybody's day and cause some good ol' fashioned chaos again, and only a group of hideous, sewer-dwelling monstrosities are there to stop him.

Why it was worth playing:
In 1989, every young boy in America was legally obligated to spend at least two hours a day pretending to be one of the Turtles, and another two arguing with friends over which one was superior (Leonardo, in case you're wondering). It was the first chance to play as the gang in a video game and, at that age, it seemed pretty awesome. Also, the enemies appeared randomly each time, so no level played the same way twice (why doesn't every game do that?).

Why it was infuriating:
The game had some general weaknesses. The fun beat-'em-up platform was interrupted by annoying surface levels, and the ridiculously unequal weapon strengths made playing as anyone other than "I can kill from across the room" Donatello seem like a waste of time. You didn't get to choose, though, you just rotated through the Turtles as they died. All of this might have been overcome by the sheer Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle-ness of it all, if not for one stage: The Dam.

The Dam level required you to try to beat the clock through a sprawling maze in order to defuse the bombs, which were prepared to unleash the fury of the Hudson River. See that pink seaweed shit? The stuff with an opening barely big enough for a mutated turtle to pass through? It killed you. It was ... electrified somehow. The science in the game wasn't all that accurate.

Setting aside the terrible example this set forth of telling kids the Hudson was safe to look at, let alone swim in, the failure to defuse the bombs resulted in an immediate game over, no matter how many Turtles were still alive. The margin for error was about one pixel wide and half a second long.

Saddest moment:
While it would be easy to pick on The Dam some more, we're going to have to go with the first time you make the mistake of running into one of the foot soldiers' rides while walking on the top level. You learn it doesn't just hurt you, it fucking flattens you.

Next Turtle, please.

Mega Man

The premise:
Mega Man is a world-saving robot bent on destroying evildoers. Also, he consumes their souls so he can absorb their powers.

Why it was worth playing:
Mega Man is also one of the most popular video game characters ever created. It was one of the first games to include the method of "winning" new weapons and abilities as the game progressed. Nearly all of the game-play mechanics that would define the series were found here, in the original game.

Why it was infuriating:
We said "nearly" all of the game play was there. A whole lot of the features you saw in the sequels were put there to make the game easier, because the first one was nothing short of sadistic. Many of the cool upgrades were often borderline useless outside of one specific boss they were designed to be used against. Also, some of the jumping puzzles were downright evil.

And, as is unthinkable now but was common then, you couldn't save. Every time you turned on the machine, you were greeted with the same fucking levels, which made failure a hundred times more infuriating. Every misstep meant you were about to lose a couple more hours out of your life.

Saddest moment:
As aggravating as the game could be to play, there is no more embarrassing moment in a gamer's life than the time he has to put cold hard cash on the desk, point to this game box ...

... and say, "I want that. That is right up my alley."

Solomon's Key

The premise:
Demons have been accidentally let loose, and it's up to Dana to delve through a series of puzzle rooms to retrieve Solomon's Key in order to banish the demons back from whence they came, allowing the locals to return to their happy lives of magically floating blocks and goofy clothes.

Why it was worth playing:
At its heart, this is basically a puzzle game, where a lot of the challenge was in moving and creating colored blocks. That sounds boring as hell, but there was a real sense of reward for solving the puzzles. This made us feel smart and dulled the sense of inadequacy we felt on a day-to-day basis. There were also lots of secrets to uncover, including multiple endings. It was advanced stuff, for the time.

Why it was infuriating:
The makers of Solomon's Key were clearly Satanists. They seemed determined to make sure the key would remain safely away from Dana's clutches, and to ensure the demons would be left free to pillage and rain destruction upon the quivering, pixilated masses. Dana is far from the world's toughest gaming hero and always seemed moments away from death. Meanwhile, his opponents often enjoyed the luxury of unlimited re-spawning.

The levels (and there were more than 60 of the bastards) were often designed so that it was entirely possible to, through bad luck, get trapped in the level with no ability to progress. You were left to commit Hara-Kiri or wait for the final cruelty to take over when Dana's timer ran out. Just like the real world, kids!

Saddest moment:
Retrieving the key, only to be told you had failed to open up all 15 hidden levels, and as such, hadn't truly defeated the game. We're not sure how many million copies of the game were sold, but we're guessing about five people in the history of the world have seen the "real" ending.

(Super) Empire Strikes Back

The premise:
There were some sci-fi films made in the '70s and '80s called the Star Wars trilogy (Google it; they had the actor from Firewall in them). This game was based on the second, and best, of those films.

Why it was worth playing:
This came out on two systems at the same time in 1993, the NES and the Super NES. Both had multiple game-play styles and included settings from the films.

The SNES version (right) looked less like shit.

But, both versions were as hard as brass balls.

Why it was infuriating:
When sitting in the theaters for Empire, we can only assume the designers were intently ogling their tub of popcorn and not the screen, as they left the theaters with the impression that Luke Skywalker was incapable of functioning as a member of society, let alone as a universe-saving demi-God. The game presents you with awkward controls and requires you to find force powers. All this means it takes a massive effort just to get Luke to kill that stupid probe droid.

By 1993, gaming had advanced to the point where long-ass levels were the norm, but the whole concept of a "checkpoint" had eluded this game's creators. If you died--even at the boss--you had to drag your sorry ass all the way through entire level again.

In the end, though, the sheer impossibility of the game's design may have prevented substantial property damage by Star Wars fans. If they'd progressed, they'd have reached the part where (in the NES version) Luke rescues Han, kills Boba Fett, and, in an act of Star Wars blasphemy, defeats Darth Vader in a light saber duel. We aren't making that up.

They never brought out a Return of the Jedi game for the NES. Well, we're thinking that's why. The Empire game fucked up the storyline to the point that there was nothing for a Jedi to return from.

Saddest moment:
Discovering that crouching allows Luke to put a little extra into his jumps, and realizing that the once-menacing star pilot has been reduced to nothing better than a platform-hopping, overweight plumber.

Ninja Gaiden

The Premise:
The entire Ninja Gaiden series is based around the general principle that ninjas are really, really cool, and that games made about ninjas could be counted on to be likewise. As some semblance of a storyline is required, we learn that Ryu has been sent on a quest by his father, who is killed in one of the NES' best introductions.

Why it was worth playing:
You aren't going to find a lot of people arguing that Ninja Gaiden is anything shy of awesome. The game's titles translates to "Ninja Story" and makes good on its primary promise, by giving the main character a mask and sword and physical abilities beyond those of a non-ninja human being. Also, you have to appreciate that at least some semblance of thought was put into plot, which cannot be said of all ninja-related games.

Why it was infuriating:
You also aren't going to find a lot of people who can lay claim to having beaten Ninja Gaiden, either. The enemies encountered are bad enough, but the game featured some of the most ludicrously difficult jumping challenges found in 2-D platforming, thanks to the required use of Ryu's wall climbing ability.

There is no letting up from the bosses once you reach them. Despite this, the greatest frustration encountered will come at the hands of birds. We aren't entirely sure where Tecmo went to read up on ninjas, but wherever it was, they came away with the impression that it's physically impossible for a bird to cross a ninja's path without angrily knocking him down a chasm mid-jump.

Saddest moment:
Triumphantly making it to the game's final stage, defeating two bosses and watching your just-revived father get shot to death, only to die yourself at the hands of the final boss. Then you're propelled back to do it all again, trapping Ryu in an unending emotional roller coaster that would surely have driven him quite mad.

Ghosts and Goblins

The premise:
The brave knight Arthur must make his way through the titular ghosts and goblins in order to rescue--you guessed it--a princess in distress.

Why it was worth playing:
It's pretty apparent that a platformer about rescuing a princess can be successful, as there was another franchise about two brothers which operated with a deal of popularity on the very same premise. Add in the horror angle and you had a pretty cool, more grown-up Super Mario Bros.

Why it was infuriating:
Ghosts and Goblins is essentially a lifetime achievement recipient, as the forbearer to a series of equally impossible games. Many of the upgrades available for Arthur weren't really upgrades at all, offering an increase of damage at the expense of the actual ability to hit an enemy with it. This was hardly helped by the ADD-inspired movement patterns of the enemies in the game, which took only one attack to reduce Arthur from an armored knight ...

... to a cowering oaf in a pair of white men's briefs.

A second hit would send him to the grave and the player to the start of the level.

All of this pales in comparison to the primary motive behind shattered controllers: Ghosts and Goblins creators had the audacity to use realistic physics. In video games up to that point, when you jumped you could change direction in midair. Not here. If you left your feet, you were going where you were going, so you better fucking deal with it.


Saddest moment:
Any time spent between the first moment an enemy hit you on a stage and the time you died. As demoralizing as it is to sit down to play a game knowing full well that you aren't going to beat it, simultaneously spending half that time in your underwear is downright humiliating.

Friday the 13th

The premise:
Video games based on popular movies would probably be pretty popular themselves.

Why it was worth playing:
In an '80s gaming world dominated by bouncing cartoon heroes and corny villains, here was a chance to play the gory blood fest your parents wouldn't let you watch. Every gamer imagined himself as Jason, just running wild and slaughtering the shit out of a bunch of terrified campers.

OK, the game didn't let you do that. Instead, you played as a camp counselor, clad in short-shorts that are uncomfortable even in 8-bit form.

Why it was infuriating:
The game play consists primarily of walking in a giant loop and throwing rocks at zombies. Yes, zombies. Why Jason would still even be considered a problem when there are hordes of the undead swarming the camp isn't made clear.

Eventually Jason decides to attack your fellow counselors or the campers you are sworn to protect. Should you overcome your basic instinct to let him have them, you can confront Jason in a cabin, where he will attack with weapons substantially stronger than anything you have at your disposal.

If you do manage to defeat Jason in this mono-e-mono battle (and the movies should give you a fair estimate of how likely that outcome is) he will flee, leaving you to wander around aimlessly until he starts killing another counselor. Generally, this continues until Jason has inevitably killed all six of your counselors. On the bright side, none of them were particularly likable in the first place.

Saddest moment:
The first time one of your camp counselor friends die because you failed to properly calibrate your compass to retarded Friday the 13th logic. The game uses a top-down view for its map, but gives you absolutely no indication of which direction your character is facing.

So, basically you just have to pick a direction and walk, then keep checking the map to see which way your dot is moving. Meanwhile, Jason has presumably picked up your friend in a sleeping bag and crushed him against a tree trunk.


The premise:
The futuristic world faces the kind of threat that can only come from aliens and terrorists working together. A mission this vital can only be handled in one way--send in two guys with the weakest guns you can find and count on them to find something better on the ground.

Why it was worth playing:
Contra perhaps best exemplifies the beauty of the Nintendo Entertainment System, in that it is a game which manages to be simultaneously put-your-foot-through-the-TV impossible, but still fondly remembered as one of the greatest of its time. You could play simultaneously with a friend and you could get weapon upgrades that would fill the screen with bullets. The game play was entertaining and the levels were well-designed. Also, some of the enemies look like spitting vaginas.

Why it was infuriating:
A whole lot of readers are saying, "What? Contra? That was a breeze!" And, it was. If you used the Konami Code, the simple cheat code you could punch in with your controller that bumped up your lives from three to 30. If you tried to make it with the original three lives, you were in for a challenge that bordered on ridiculous since a single hit, anywhere on your body, killed you dead.

The Konami Code was already famous by the time Contra came out (it was used in the game Gradius two years earlier) and it almost seems like the developers intentionally set the difficulty so that you'd need 30 lives to make it. For the poor bastards who had never heard of it, it wasn't if the game was going to get angrily punted across the room, but when.

Contra also forced you to share your pool of spare lives with the other player, so you were forced to pay for his retarded mistakes (something we're sure ruined many childhood friendships).

Saddest Moment:
Running through your evil foes, resolute in your 30-lives-induced superiority, and watching the extraterrestrials' island explode ... only to slowly realize that you couldn't even win a video game without cheating.


The premise:
Two anthropomorphic toads, who are in no way in violation of copyrights which may or may not be had on other anthropomorphic baddy-fighting creatures, attempt to rescue their friends from the evil Dark Queen.

Why it was worth playing:
You have to give the designers responsible for Battletoads credit; they put forth an ambitious effort. The game offered an array of diverse game play. The levels in the game included straightforward Double Dragon-style brawlers, descents through caverns, jumping puzzles and even some high-speed hover biking, all while simultaneously being badass affronts against God's creations.

Why it was infuriating:
The potentially awesome hover biking is made somewhat less so when you realize few players were able to last more than six seconds before smashing into a wall or plummeting to their death. With each checkpoint bar the player reached, a small ball of hope grew inside of them--only to be smashed on the ensuing wall seconds later.

What sets this level above all other nigh-impossible gaming creations is the truly sadistic way in which the stage is designed. Any gamer that has progressed to the long-jump portion of the biking competition has known the most empty of all moments--watching their super-mutant frog flying proudly through the air, straight for the next floating bastion of safety, only to find they are too low on the screen, smashing into a painful death.

Somebody has captured this ordeal on video. They do it successfully, but look at the millisecond of warning you get toward the end of the level when the barriers are coming. That was the hell of the thing: Every time you had to start over you knew the part that was going to fuck you up was still ahead.

That's 108 fucking obstacles to dodge in about two minutes (oh, we counted). Fuck up the split-second timing on one of them, and you're splattered on the road. This game was an asshole.

Saddest moment:
The first time, upon finally topping the bikes, you progress to the surfing level and realize that, essentially, you have to do it all again. Oh, and this time the dangers are mobile.

If you like this article, check out Bobby Ingram's rundown of the 8 Manliest Musicals.

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Spread some holiday cheer with this e-card from and IFC's Whitest Kids You Know.

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