The Top 30 Hardest Video Games Ever Made (Ranked)

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Most people like to play games to escape the hardships of reality.

But sometimes, only a high-difficulty task can get your mind off work, your family life, and other everyday issues.

Games used to be hard because they would otherwise be very short.

Now, most games have 40+ hour campaigns, and serious difficulty has become a feature hardcore gamers seek out to prove themselves.

So, what should you be playing if you want a challenge?

Let’s take a look at some of the hardest games in gaming history (that are still actually fun).


30. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES) (1989)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles NES game screenshot

The ‘80s were a great time for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and their fans – and Konami helped close the decade with a bang by releasing the amazing arcade TMNT game.

This is not that game.

Along with the arcade release, Konami brought the action to the living room with a side-scrolling action platformer for the NES.

While not quite as fun and visually striking as the arcade beat-em-up, the game had excellent graphics and solid sound design.

It also had some high difficulty levels.

The fluid gameplay and great controls meant these were fun challenges to overcome rather than a chore.


29. FTL (2012)

FTL 2012 gameplay

Most games in this list challenge your motor skills and reflexes.

But if you’re interested in something that’ll put your brain creases to good use, FTL should be at the top of your list.

You’ll have to manage your crew and lead them in battle against pursuing rebels who’ll lay traps for you at the end of every FTL jump.

These events are randomly generated, so you never know what to expect.


28. Monster Hunter Freedom (2006)

Monster Hunter Freedom video game screen

Monster Hunter Freedom on the PSP is a remastered compilation of the first two games in the series.

And one of the hardest games in the franchise.

The hunts in MHF are brutal.

But there’s a secondary reason for the high difficulty: the controls.

The PSP’s lack of a second thumbstick throws everything you know about MH out the window, and it can be tough to get used to.

The G-Rank missions are also a major challenge, as they pit you against more deadly versions of some of the hardest monsters.


27. F-Zero GX (2003)

F-Zero GX screenshot

When it comes to racing games, you can’t get more ruthless than F-Zero GX on the GameCube.

This high-tech hovercraft racing game feels like doing 60mph in a suburban area and trying to dodge every tree, dog, old lady, and lemonade stand on your way.

It’s engaging and looks beautiful.

But take your eyes off the road for a second, and you’re done for.

The only way to get better at this game is through trial and error, and memorizing the hazards on every map so you can avoid most of them.


26. Spelunky (2008)

Spelunky 2008 gameplay

Don’t be deceived by Spelunky’s funny name and adorable art style.

This game is as ruthless as it is addictive. And it is very addictive.

Each step you take in these underground passages could spell your death if you’re not careful.

There are traps everywhere, enemies are vicious, and sometimes there’s just too much going on at once.

Spelunky was a significant contributor to the popularization of roguelike titles during the 2010s, and it’s one everyone should try at least once. It’s hard, but not impossible.


25. Takeshi’s Challenge (1986) (JP)

Takeshi’s Challenge Japanese gameplay

If you’ve seen the classic game show “Takeshi’s Castle”, you’re familiar with comedian Takeshi Kitano – also known as Beat Takeshi.

This Japanese TV personality has been involved in countless projects throughout the years.

One of them is Takeshi’s Challenge – a side-scrolling game where you play as a disgruntled Japanese salaryman trying to escape his corporate lifestyle by finding a treasure in the South Seas.

Trying to survive attacks from the Yakuza and other unexpected threats will not prove easy. If you think you’ve got what it takes, you won’t regret taking up Takeshi’s Challenge.

Or maybe you will. It’s pretty tough!

Check out this review from Den of Geek for more details about the title.


24. Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! (1987)

Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! video game

Known as “the baddest man on the planet”, heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson was the undisputed world champion for thirteen years straight – and he wasn’t about to star in a game where it was easy to beat him.

Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! puts you in the shoes of Little Mac, a lightweight boxer who’s always punching up.

Due to his size, he’s always at a disadvantage.

But if you look closely and learn your opponent’s tells, you can use your superior speed to avoid damage.

The most brutal fight in the game is, of course, Tyson himself.

He’s nigh-impossible to beat if you’re not an expert at the game.

But if you made it that far, you probably are.


23. Mega Man & Bass (2003)

Mega Man & Bass screenshot

The Mega Man series was never known for being easy.

But his collaboration with Bass on the GBA is especially challenging even for the blue trooper’s standards.

Whereas previous bosses in the series usually follow set patterns you can quickly memorize in a couple of tries, this game requires you to have the reflexes to dodge unexpected moves.

The game was initially released on the Super Famicom as Rockman & Forte, which many people imported back in the day.

By the time the GBA port came out, people already knew it as the hardest game on the franchise.


22. XCOM 2 (2016)

XCOM 2 game screenshot

Firaxis’ original XCOM: Enemy Unknown left some big shoes for its sequel to fill – and the developers didn’t disappoint.

The sequel doubled down on the original’s high expectations of the player. The primary campaign is challenging from beginning to end.

Some missions require you to play perfectly and get extremely lucky, or lose half of your warriors in one fell swoop.

The game’s storyline is arguably better than the first one, at least in tone. Retaking Earth from its alien masters is a cause you’ll feel compelled to see through.


21. I Wanna Be The Boshy (2010)

I Wanna Be The Boshy gameplay

I Wanna Be The Guy was an iconic title back when I was just a kid.

My friends and I would take turns trying to clear it on an old laptop, laughing about the absurd difficulty and insane amount of spikes on floors, walls, little squares in the air, and so on.

I Wanna Be The Boshy is one of the best fan games inspired by the legendary IWBTG, aimed at shutting up those people who boast about finding the latter easy.

The great difficulty has made it a popular game to speedrun, with the record sitting at 30m31s at the time of writing.


20. Bloodborne (2015)

Bloodborne 2015 screenshot

This might be a controversial opinion, but I think Bloodborne is easier than Dark Souls by a long shot.

While Bloodborne’s fights require faster reflexes and reward staying very close to your prey, the player character is also agile and very skilled with weapons.

You can get by with your reflexes without needing to learn such specific tells and patterns until you’re well into the game.

Well, except for Father Gascoigne.

You’re going to die a lot against Father Gascoigne.


19. Ikaruga (2003)

Ikaruga 2003 game screenshot

A spiritual sequel to Treasure’s Radiant Silvergun, Ikaruga is one of those games you can instantly tell was designed to empty your pockets at the local arcade.

It’s one of the most famous old-school shooters around, and its great difficulty is among the main reasons. The sheer amount of enemy projectiles on screen at any given time is telling of the kind of bullet hell this is.

Its fantastic graphics and sound design also contributed a lot to its popularity.

There may be countless bullets on screen, but their patterns are gorgeous. Be careful not to get distracted!


18. Battletoads (1991)

Battletoads 1991 gameplay

You can find references to Battletoads all over the Internet, thanks to creators all around the world who were most likely traumatized by the game’s ruthless difficulty.

The first couple of stages might trick you into believing you’ll be fine.

But this game’s difficulty curve is steep.

Try to keep going at least until you race through the Turbo Tunnel. If you didn’t destroy your controller by then, maybe you’ll clear the game.

Many people complain about being born too late, but I’m comfortable having been born three years after this game came out.

If I had to contend with this level of difficulty as a kid, I might have given up on gaming altogether.


17. Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels (1986)

Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels video game

Only months after Super Mario Bros. was released worldwide for NES, the Japanese already had their hands on the sequel – and it was pretty different from the game we in the West call “Super Mario Bros. 2”.

The original sequel was more like an expansion, playing almost exactly like its predecessor, but featuring much more challenging levels meant to keep SMB veterans busy for a long time.

And Nintendo deemed their Western audiences incapable of enjoying such a hard game at the time.

But we finally got a look at this brutal experience when “The Lost Levels” were included in the 1993 SNES compilation Super Mario All-Stars.

And yes, it’s pretty darn tough.


16. Mushihimesama (2011)

Mushihimesama gameplay

I’m a die-hard fan of Touhou Project bullet hell games, but even I have to admit Mushihimesama is a lot harder thanks to the unpredictable patterns.

Whereas you can memorize the patterns for almost every boss in Touhou, Mushihimesama will force you to think on the fly and put your reflexes to the test.

It’s a very visually appealing game. And while the music isn’t half as good as Touhou’s, this is the game to conquer for street cred if you’re a fan of the bullet hell genre.


15. Demon’s Souls (2009)

Demon’s Souls 2009 screenshot

Demon’s Souls stands just barely below Dark Souls in difficulty because some of the game’s “technical” limitations make it way too easy to “cheese” most bosses.

I mean, you can exploit monsters in Dark Souls – but in Demon’s Souls, sometimes it feels like the only option.

These bosses are hard if you’re not an expert Souls player.

Exploring the fallen kingdom of Boletaria and discovering the secrets of the Nexus is a timeless experience that already has everything that made Dark Souls so popular.

It’s challenging, you have a massive degree of control over your build, and the characters are incredibly memorable.

Make sure to check out the remake on the PS5 if you can.


14. Dark Souls (2011)

Dark Souls 1 gameplay

Dark Souls is what most modern human beings will think of when someone mentions “hard video games”.

As fans of FromSoftware’s Souls franchise love to say – this action RPG is hard but fair, which is part of what sets this game apart from many older titles.

You’ll have to learn the mechanics, understand your invincibility frames while rolling, and probably look up some info on builds – but if you put in the hours, you’ll clear this game and feel immensely rewarded. You might even become a Souls fan.

And the 2018 remastered version is definitely worth a look.


13. Ninja Gaiden II (2008)

Ninja Gaiden II video game

All games in the Ninja Gaiden franchise are pretty grueling.

But some are more difficult than others.

Ninja Gaiden II is the sequel to the remake released in 2004. What’s unusual about this revived series is that it’s harder than the original NES game rather than easier like most remakes tend to be.

You’re going to be repeating every level a fair amount of times until you manage to clear the game.

Luckily it’s a gorgeous-looking title, and the fast-paced combat is very absorbing.


12. Nioh (2017)

Nioh game screenshot

The people behind Ninja Gaiden also bring us Nioh – a Dark Souls-inspired action RPG set in a dark fantasy version of Japan’s Warring States period.

In other words, it’s Sekiro before Sekiro was a thing.

Team Ninja put their expertise making punishing action games to good use, crafting hard-as-nails boss fights and a treacherous world to explore.

You’ll see this Irish samurai die a lot at the hands of soldiers and yokai.

Its sequel, also on the PS4, is another challenging game you should check out if you liked this one.


11. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (2019)

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice gameplay

I expected Sekiro to be much closer to a regular single-player adventure than the Souls series.

And therefore, I expected it to be easier.

I was wrong.

FromSoftware took inspiration from Tenchu and the Ninja Gaiden series. Both star shinobi like Sekiro, and both are remarkably hard.

Whereas Souls games (Bloodborne included) generally take you by surprise with weird enemy placement and setting up traps, Sekiro’s foes are just brutal.

You’ll have to become a parry master early on in the game if you have any chance of progressing.


10. The Witness (2016)

The Witness screenshot

Most games on this list are challenging because staying alive in their digital worlds is a 24/7 fight for survival.

On the other hand, The Witness doesn’t even have a game over screen.

This fantastic puzzler has you making your way around a beautiful and mysterious island full of puzzles you can tackle in any order you want.

The thing is, some of these puzzles are designed in a way that almost guarantees getting stumped and having to look up a solution online.

Clearing this game without help from the Internet is a big-brain endeavor.

I’d say the best way to enjoy it is with a friend or SO who’ll think, laugh, and cry with you throughout the experience.


9. Celeste (2018)

Celeste screenshot of gameplay

Celeste’s main campaign is challenging, but manageable for anyone who’s even a bit experienced with platformers.

Then there’s the optional content.

On the one hand, you have the B-Sides – harder versions of each level unlocked by finding a cassette while playing through the normal map.

If you manage to clear every one of those (easier said than done), the C-Sides will become available.

At least Lena Raine’s music is just as good in any of these levels, so you can jam to some MIDI-inspired beats while you lose all confidence in your gaming skills.


8. X-COM: UFO Defense (1994)

X-COM: UFO Defense screenshot

Most people know X-COM from the 2012 reboot of the series.

But the original – released in PAL regions as UFO: Enemy Unknown – was already a fantastic and challenging game.

The X-COM series is known for its unforgiving AI, and this game was no exception.

These aliens are tough and surprisingly good at creeping up on you.

Managing, building, and expanding X-COM is also a challenging but rewarding aspect of gameplay.


7. Cuphead (2017)

Cuphead boss battle screenshot

One of the best games in recent memory to be deemed “as hard as Dark Souls” by the internet at large is Cuphead, an unforgiving run-and-gun featuring some seriously challenging bosses.

Cuphead lures you into a sense of security with the first couple of bosses.

Sure, you died 15 times each. But you finally beat them in the end. How much harder could the rest be?

As it turns out, the answer is “a lot harder”.

Still, as long as you’re willing to put in the time to memorize your foes’ patterns and learn some breathing exercises to stay calm, Cuphead is a tamable beast.


6. Contra (1987)

Contra '87 game screenshot

If there has ever been a time where we needed the Konami code, it was at the beginning of Contra.

Even with the 30 extra lives, clearing Contra is a work of patience and honest effort.

Running and shooting are easy enough. But keeping track of every single enemy and projectile flying your way is exhausting.

If you had someone to play this with, that generally meant forming a deep soldier’s bond that would last for life.


5. Ghosts’ n Goblins (1985)

Ghosts’ n Goblins gameplay

Ghosts’ n Goblins is the game everyone likes to bring up when remembering how hard games used to be, compared to today’s less nerve-wracking adventures.

This addictive platformer/run-and-gun requires precision and lots of trial and error to clear.

One of the biggest challenges is that you’ll be sent back to the beginning of the level after being hit only twice.

And these levels aren’t precisely short.

If you’re a skilled gamer, you might get to the final boss (Astaroth) and defeat him – but it was all an illusion (devised by Satan).

If you want to rescue the Princess and bring peace to the realm, you’ll have to go through the entire game again – but harder.


4. Super Meat Boy (2010)

Super Meat Boy  video game

Super Meat Boy is the kind of game that’ll make you physically distressed from its difficulty.

The frustration will seep into your bones as you cry out in anguish, and you may be tempted to hurl your controller at the nearest wall.

This fantastic platformer brings the insane difficulty of I Wanna Be The Guy-like games, and a much bigger budget with a real development team.

You’ll need extreme precision – and patience – if you want to rescue your girlfriend from Dr. Fetus.

On the flip side, there’s nothing quite as rewarding as finally clearing a level and watching the replay of every previous attempt at the same time, savoring the moment when that last little Meat Boy steps ahead of the pack and makes it to the finish line.

It’s just sublime.


3. Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero? (2009)

Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero? screenshot

Prinny and Prinny 2 on the PSP are easily the most frustrating, deceptively hard games I’ve ever played.

In the world of Disgaea, the souls of criminals are reborn into penguin-like bodies to serve as slaves in the Netherworld as they pay for their sins.

They’re called Prinnies, and their lives are pretty hard – as shown by these two gems on Sony’s fantastic portable console.

While the levels themselves are manageable, boss fights in Prinny are just plain unfair – especially in the sequel, which is why you get a whopping 1000 lives at the beginning of the game.

Believe me when I tell you, 1000 lives might not be enough.


2. Dwarf Fortress (2006)

Dwarf Fortress gameplay

With the ridiculous official name of Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter II: Dwarf Fortress, this dungeon-building simulator is easily the most challenging construction game in existence.

You’ll have to create a wealthy and – most importantly – defensible fortress for your dwarven folk.

The remarkably basic visual cues and interface can be a bit frustrating and make the learning process slower, but that’s part of the appeal.

It’s the kind of game for people who’ve become addicted to stress in their daily lives, and need their gaming to really challenge them, lest they slip back into their workaholic tendencies.


1. Super Mario Maker 2 (2019)

Super Mario Maker 2 level screenshot

Super Mario games have always been pretty challenging – especially “The Lost Levels” mentioned earlier.

With that said, SMM2 takes it to the next level thanks to its active userbase.

It’s basically a bunch of players that use the game’s powerful level-building tools to create the most grueling and absurd Mario levels ever conceived.

Nintendo was pretty smart about it too.

They saw the incredible support of fan-made games, and especially all the super-hard “kaizo” hacks we were getting.

So they jumped right into the action with their own title.

The best part about SMM2 is that people are still making new levels. And they probably will be until the next Super Mario Maker comes out.

It’s gotta be the most bang for your buck, for sure.

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Nelson Chitty

Nelson Chitty is a Venezuelan expat living in Argentina. He’s a writer and translator passionate about history and foreign cultures. His ideal weekend is spent between leisurely playing games of Civilization VI and looking for the next seinen anime to marathon.