Hardcore difficulty isn’t a just a setting anymore. It has become its own genre, with games like Bloodborne, Cuphead, and Celeste testing the limits of how hard you can make a game before the exasperation starts setting in.
However, there’s one function that keeps many from completely tearing their hair out and makes trying these games less riskier: the save. Doesn’t matter how many times the Orphan of Kos wipes the floor with you, you can still reload to a point before the fight, and ride the rodeo again.
But back in the age of arcade gaming, there was no save safety net. Nearly every run was a No Death run. You can’t stem the onslaught by sliding down to Easy or Normal. If you wanted to know how a game with a story ended, you had to work for it, or wait for a friend to finish.
Emulators make even the most relentlessly difficult arcade games finishable by introducing a save function. Here are some games you can now enjoy at your leisure without spending the whole day pounding at the controls.
If you’ve ever played R-Type, then you’re probably no stranger to pain. One of the quintessential “difficult” games, the side-scrolling shooter may not be categorised as a bullet hell game, but it was its own class of misery.
The screen that haunts R-Type pilots in their sleep
The game isn’t particularly long. There are only seven levels to get through. Yet the reason the game could use a save is because you only get four lives to go through all the hellish alien landscapes. No restarts, no checkpoints.
Sure, there’s the rare power-up that adds lives, should you be able to stop yourself from eating bullets while trying to grab it. While completing R-Type in one go is an impressive feat, sometimes it sucks to sacrifice a good run to fatigued reflexes.
Galaga, a sequel to 1979’s Galaxian, featured the same colourful graphics that set its predecessor apart from games like Space Wars and Space Invaders. Enemies in the game also use the dynamic flight patterns that scored the original praise from critics.
Where Galaga takes things up a notch is in the chaos it creates. Because of hardware limitations, the ship in Galaxian could only fire one bullet at a time. Players had to wait for bullets to hit an opponent or the top of the screen to fire off another one. There are no such restrictions in Galaga. Players can even double the mayhem by turning into a “dual fighter” that can shoot two streams at a time.
Galaga: Making endless play cool decades before hyper casuals became a thing
All these new mechanics made for frantic, addictive play that sunk its mandibles deep into players. But even with all the new firepower, few gamers can brag about finishing Galaga. With more than 200 levels, each one more vicious than the other, it’s hard to save the galaxy when you have a line of kids behind you waiting for their turn. A save file will let you test whether you really have the skills to beat Galaga at its hardest.
Although not as popular as the pizza-loving, humanoid reptiles they were inspired by, Battletoads didn’t need the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ clout to make their own mark in arcades. Like most titles on this list, Battletoads earned its renown through its punishing difficulty.
Boss Karnath happily getting ready to send Rash back to square one
Levels are long, there are no checkpoints, and players are given limited lives. Critics describe gameplay as something that would take several playthroughs to master, similar to rougelites like Hades and Dead Cells. Yet unlike these two, crashing and burning in Battletoads meant you had to start from the beginning with none of the new perks or powers persisting after your character dies.
While many people were drawn to the difficulty, the lack of a save feature drew some flak for the game. Unlike other beat ‘em up games that used uniform mechanics throughout the game, each level in Battletoads threw new challenges and enemies at players, making it impossible to telegraph attacks. Without a save, mastering how to defeat just one boss could mean having to claw your way to the top again just to learn how to land a kick.
Released in 1984, Lode Runner climbed its way to the top of the charts with its unpredictable enemy AI. Opponents chased after your character. But unlike the ghosts in Pacman, they didn’t take the most obvious or shortest path to you.
See you after another hundred tries!
Successfully dodging the guards required honing your intuition and familiarising yourself with their movements and the layout of each level, of which there are 150. Given the seemingly erratic way they moved, that would require you to sink hours–and plenty of coin–into the game. That, or a save function that can help you cut your teeth on every new level without risk.
Another reason a save would’ve been perfect for Lode Runner is its level editor. The NES version of the puzzle-platformer is the first video game that allowed players to tinker with levels. Sadly, there was no way to save these changes.
Solomon’s Key is a 1986 puzzle platformer from Tecmo. In it you play the sorcerer Dana, who’s traversing the depths of the hell with nothing but grit, a pointy hat, and his power to make and break blocks.
Who needs fancy magic fireballs when you’ve got the power of manual labor at your fingertips??
Half puzzler and half level editor, Solomon’s Key is excellent because it allows virtually an unlimited number of ways to play the levels. Want to corral enemies into a trap so you can explore and collect power ups at your leisure? Have at it–just be careful not to accidentally box yourself in with one of the portals that spawn enemies endlessly. Or rundown the time you’re given at the beginning of every challenge.
The sky’s the limit when it comes to strategising in Solomon’s Key, which makes it a standout next to typically puzzle games that have linear solutions. There are 50 levels to build and break through, and 15 secret rooms you’ll have to collect items to unlock. The ending of the game changes depending on which secret rooms you find, making a save feature handy for completionists, or for players who want to test out all the ways to wreak havoc in a level.
Save functions are a central component of any modern game. Yet gamers didn’t always have it as good as it is today, even with insanely difficult evolving as its own genre. Back in the age of arcade gaming, gamers had to bring insane levels of determination into play if they ever wanted to see the end credits.
Luckily, many emulators have now given retro gamers a way to forge ahead that isn’t spending all your money. With the save function now enabled for arcade games, classics are as easy as ever to get into and master.