What are games without a challenge? Many games out today are known for putting the very concept of “challenging” at the forefront. Dark Souls comes to mind- this writer barely got past the tutorial stages without a seething, frothing-at-the-mouth episode or two. But games in the hey-day are one a different league altogether. They’re…special. Some might say they’re the most challenging games of all time, even.

And so we’ve compiled a list of retro games that were insanely hard for your perusal and reminiscing purposes, for when you think today’s games are too soft around the edges. This list of difficult retro games will probably resonate with the NES/SNES crowd the most. They just don’t make them the same anymore!

  1. Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out


Sure it was iconic, and sure it’s not every day you get a chance to fight against (a pixelized version of) Mike Tyson, but this game was infamous for being horrendously difficult. Or rather, Tyson himself was. Most of the opponents in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out had their weak spots, and all you really had to do was find them and time your punches accordingly, but when you got to Mike Tyson, well…you might start to wish you’d gone toe to toe with him in the flesh instead.

Tyson was overly difficult. He packed insanely damaging punches, all of which you had to dodge with flaw-free accuracy. And the fact that there was no save feature meant that if Tyson knocked you back on your butt, you had to go through all the other opponents again. Yikes! Well, at least Little Mac’s dedication paid off because he landed a spot in a certain Nintendo brawl game pretty recently.

  1. The Karate Kid


In an era where The Karate Kid was beloved by many kids, it was completely understandable that they’d flock to get the video game version when it was released in the late 80’s. The Karate Kid game followed the story of the movie, and players take the role of hero Daniel so of course kids would gobble it up.

Except nobody expected that a game based on a light-hearted kids’ movie would be so vein-poppingly, dream-destroyingly hard. This retro game of The Karate Kid had clunky controls and impossibly hard level design. It’s easy to say many had given up on trying to go through the game to watch the movie version instead, and for good reason.

  1. Ninja Gaiden


You’d think using a ninja would make things easy, with all the skills and weaponry at your disposal. This game begs otherwise. Many a controller have been sacrificed and hurled, blessed with the sweet kiss of death, because of this game. The enemies in Ninja Gaiden were good at what they were made to do, and that is killing you. They had the best-timed attacks, sending the protagonist/ninja extraordinaire Ryu into pits and to his death. And there were a LOT of pits.

Ninja Gaiden is a game that did not lack in environmental hazards, and they often required expert-level precision to get through. And that ending wasn’t exactly the best pay-off for all the pit-crossing, enemy-dodging, bird-crashing trouble you went through.

  1. Contra


No, you have no say in Contra’s difficulty if you used the Konami code to get through the game- because with three lives instead of thirty, you are not going to have a good time. Small mistakes that could be brushed off if you played with the Konami cheat code activated meant certain failure with the bare-bones version of a playthrough. It was hell.

One hit was all it took to claim a life, and when you’re running on three with mostly a pretty sad gun to defend yourself with, it got frustrating fast. And co-op mode seemed like it would be fun at first, sure, but it meant having to share your life pool with the other player. R.I.P. to the many friendships mercilessly destroyed by Contra.

  1. Ghosts ‘n Goblins


Our next retro game Ghosts ‘n Goblins is known for many things- a couple is its knight protagonist Arthur, who was reduced to a cowering man in his boxers after a couple of hits, and its insane difficulty. With enemies moving at an oddly erratic pace, limiting movement mid-air, and a rather sad limited lives system, this game was the root cause of many anger management sessions and years-long unresolved issues.

Players were used to having, at least, three lives to work with, but the creators decided that that just wasn’t cutting it, so they gave you two. Two. Who hurt these people? On top of that, enemies only had to hit poor knight Arthur a couple of times to send him packing back to the beginning of the level. And that final level. Nobody talks about the final level.

  1. Battletoads


Battletoads is still the root cause of many gamers’ ire up to this day, and you’d be hard-pressed not to find an attempt or two, or dozens, to beat the biking level on YouTube today. It seemed promising, with varying gameplay styles and a pretty cool concept (Battle! Toads!) But holy crap was it hard. The aforementioned biking challenge on the Wind Tunnel level was infamous for being near impossible to beat. This level is essentially the ancestor of The Impossible Game.

One wrong move, one finger twitch out of line meant running your hoverbike headfirst into a wall. You had to start all over again.  This level, and the surfing one after it with moving objectives, was just plain mean, and whoever designed it was mean. And Battletoads concludes this list retro games that were insanely hard.  Any more to add?  Comment below and let us know!