Is there anything as frustrating as the game you were forced to abandon because it had a level or boss you couldn't beat? Oh sure, there are those impossibly hard games, like Ghosts n Goblins which relentlessly bombard you with enemies until all your lives are depleted. But with those games there is a gradual learning curb that allows you to eventually just barely complete each level. The games I am talking about are the ones where you hit an unpassable area. A boss battle where, no matter what strategy you try or how many attempts we're made, you just barely cause him any damage while he is easily able to defeat you with seconds. Or some sort of pitfall that needs such extreme timing and reflex to successfully pass that you never have. Or that level where you can wander around all you want, you just can't find the exit. Or whenever something needs to be done in order to proceed and you have already tried everything but still can't figure it out.
Today when that happens you have YouTube where some smug gammer shows you how easy it was for him to complete the level. Before that you either paid ten bucks or more for a strategy guides, looked it up in Nintendo Power, or got yourself a Game Genie and cheated your way to the next level. But more often than not, you got fed up and went on to the next game. Perhaps you thought you would come back at some other time. Only you never did. The game sits on your shelf to this day, mocking you as one of the ones that defeated you.
I have a few of those. The Earthworm Jim for the N64 has a final boss battle I gave up on after two weeks of non stop defeats. Basically you have to drive around an arena and collect all 100 marbles while the boss does the same thing. If you blast her with a weapon she drops ten of the marbles she collected, and the same if she blasts you. The biggest problem is that you are riding on top of an upside-down pig with the worst turning ability ever, which means a lot of the time you go right past the ammunition and floating marbles without picking them up, and are unable to turn around for a second attempt. I once got within three marbles of collecting 100%, but just couldn't steer into the final three before the boss blasted me and caused me to loose ten marbles. Never got that close to 100% again.
At least with Earthworm Jim 3D the only thing I was missing was the ending cut screen. With the Gameboy Battletoads I was missing half the game. In an early level you have to fly through gaps in spiked walls that fly towards you. Even memorizing the pattern, I found it impossible to do. A gap appears at the bottom of the screen, and the next gap is at the top. After flying through the bottom gap there wasn't enough time to reach the top gap. Finally, after trying what had to be thousands of times, I made it through the top gap, only for the next gap to be at the bottom again. I was never able to clear that level, which meant all the levels that followed were unreachable. Levels that programs spent months designing and programming, only for no one to be able to play those levels.
There have been some games that had notorious unpassable levels. The second Castlevania game requires you have a relic found earlier in the game , then once reaching a dead end with a small ledge, to jump on the ledge and then kneel for about 30 seconds, after which a vortex opens and transports you to the next level. Nowhere in the game does it mention you are supposed to do this. Millions of gamers gave up because it appeared to be a dead end.
Another notorious game was Final Fantasy Adventure. Midway through the game you reach a town, but cannot figure out how to to proceed. One of the townspeople gives you the cryptic message "Palm trees and 8", but it seems to mean nothing. Actually, what it means is to leave town, find an area with two palm trees instead of one, and then walk around them in a figure 8. Once you have done that, a cave magically appears. Both Castlevania and Final Fantasy games suffered from poor translation of the text from the original Japanese characters to English. The clues were more clear in Japan. But on the English ports, clues were either too cryptic, or were missing altogether. It wasn't until Nintendo Power published the solutions to both that gamers were able to move on to the next level. ( Amazingly, the updated port of Final Fantasy Adventure, called Adventures of Mana, goes with the same cryptic clue )
On very rare occasions the impassable level is due to a glitch, making a game unplayable to everyone. The most notorious of these were the kill screens in early arcade games.
Console games went through beta testing to root out any bugs. But in the early days of Nintendo when video games went from single screens, to more elaborate scrolling platformers, game ending glitches were common. Games like Ghostbusters became impossible to win, not because it was hard, but because the faulty design of a staircase to the final boss battle. Instead of sprinting upstairs, the Ghostbusters walk up the steps very slowly, giving the ghosts trailing them enough time to catch up and cause lots of damage, ending the game well before the Busters make it even a third of the way to the roof. Fortunately another glitch on the same staircase gives the player infinite lives if he opens the right sequence of doors.
With more and more money spent on game development, glitches became rare. But not so in home brewed games, which were full of game ending glitches. The difference being that the glitches in the NES resulted in levels impossible to beat, while the glitches in home brews are more like the kill screens of the early arcade games. Either way, spending hours on a game only for it to freeze or become impossibly hard is not fun.
However, most impossible levels are not due to glitches, but are deliberate. Programmers shudder at the thought that their game could be completed in an hour or two, then forgotten. They want gamers to take days to complete their game. And sometimes that is accomplished by a nearly impassable obstacle. This was typical of early Gameboy titles that had shorter levels than an NES game. They had pitfalls that took several hundred attempts before the gamer perfected the timing. Other times the pitfalls were truly impassable, but for one out of a dozen times when the pitfall was possible to cross. The problem was you were so razzled by the previous eleven attempts that you probably missed the 12th as well.
And then there were those games that were long to begin with, so unreasonably hard obstacles seemed a bit unfair. Conker's Bad Fur Day is full of hard tasks that will have you on the edge of rage quitting. But then comes the Blades of Death. Swimming through an underwater sewage pipe, Conker must swim through, not one, but two giant spinning propellers. Touch any one of the propeller blades and Conker is instantly cut in half. The difficulty here is incredible. If you somehow are able to swim through the first propeller you are out of sync with the second propeller. Even if you gingerly swim through, the odds of success are very slim. Most gamers found this obstacle impossible and gave up without ever seeing the rest of the game.
Early video games had the single screen. The goal was to earn the most points, or at the least beat your own highest score. Exch time a level was cleared the game got a little harder with the enemy moving faster. It was also endurance. How long could you keep playing before you began screwing up. Some got so good that their could continue playing the same game indefinitely. Which is why there was a parallel crash in arcades the same time as the crash that decimated the home console market. Gamers learned how to master arcade games, which meant they could play all day on the same quarter, and demand a refund when the store had to close for the night.
What revived arcades was games like Double Dragon, which had a definite ending. Once the final boss was defeated an the girl saved, there was no incentive to continue playing, freeing the game for others to waste their quarters on.
But what was good for the arcades was not so good for the NES. Now that video games had an ending, programmers realized console games would be judged on how long it took to defeat them. If someone could beat Super Mario Brothers in a single afternoon, then it wouldn't be worth buying. Tough pitfalls and tougher bosses made games hard enough that it sometimes took weeks to learn how to beat it. In many cases programmers went a bit too far with levels that were crazy hard. Americans who had never seen such impossibly hard video games called it "Nintendo Hard", little realizing that Nintendo of America had the American versions of games toned down to be easier.
Nintendo Hard was enough for many console owners to give up on games. Nintendo Hard didn't mean unbeatable. With enough patience even Ghosts n Goblins could be beaten. It was just the avid gammer who knew when the game he was playing had a level that was unbeatable. Even with their advanced video game skills from years of playing Nintendo Hard, they found something even they couldn't beat.
No official Nintendo game is unbeatable. For every game that gamers agree is impossible, there is always someone who stuck with it until they either built the skills and reflexes needed to beat the level, or just got lucky. But there is a difference between Nintendo Hard and Nintendo Impossible. Silver Surfer is on the extreme level of Nintendo Hard. But if you learn the levels and master the rapid fire technique, then it is beatable. Not so with Willow, the RPG based on the movie of the same name. Almost near the end of the game you are captured and thrown into a dungeon cell. After trying every item in your menu and desperately banging on every wall, you begin to realize you probably neglected to find an item that would have allowed you to progress. So you start the whole damn game over again from the beginning, making sure you explore every nook and cranny and still end up in the cell. Little did you know that you had to stand still in the lower corner of the cell and wait a few seconds which triggers a cut scene where some friends break you out. Which is so random that the solution is usually achieved by accident. Sometimes immediately. But for others who never stand still in the right spot, this is another game that can't be beaten no matter what your skill level is.