A couple of weeks ago I posted about Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw’s latest game, Poacher. After taking a break to revisit The Desolate Room, I went back to Poacher and found the secret ending. As expected, it involved an incredibly difficult multi-stage boss fight, followed by a hilarious special ending. It’s no secret that I have a soft spot for these kinds of challenges. I think the reason is that they reward my inherent stubbornness. Encountering a seemingly impossible hurdle, I keep trying, getting a tiny bit closer each time, until my persistence is vindicated. It’s the same satisfaction of solving a tough problem in real life, but miniaturized and accelerated, something that can be solved in hours or days rather than months or years.
Of course, my love of roguelikes has similar roots, but in that case it often actually is a matter of years before victory is achieved. And the challenge of roguelikes is fully cerebral, a matter of strategies and the weighing of options in harsh situations. The extra-tough platformer is a different kind of challenge, one of pattern recognition, timing, and motor skills. It’s faster and more active, requiring one to learn and adapt quickly, and it provides a different kind of satisfaction.
The problem, of course, is that once such a platformer is mastered, there’s little reason to revisit it. This means I’m always looking for new games that fit the bill. Fortunately, there’s a lot of them out there, and I’ve got quite a few favorites to recommend.
In a similar style to Poacher we have Cave Story, which is something of a legend among the indie crowd. While much of Cave Story is not especially challenging, it has a secret ending like Poacher that ramps the difficulty way up. The original freeware version is still available for PC (although you’ll have to apply a fan translation patch if you don’t read Japanese), but there’s also an updated version for the Nintendo Wii. Then there are fan-made ports to a variety of other platforms as well.
The other massive indie hit that must be mentioned is Super Meat Boy, which really is excellent. This one is simply a set of challenging levels rather than a world to be explored freely, but it’s very well designed and there’s a ton of content — especially when you consider the Super Meat World hub for user-made levels, which can keep you playing almost indefinitely. Fast-paced and a lot of fun.
Terry Cavanagh’s gem VVVVVV was slightly less popular but no less deserving of your time. I’ve written about it before, so I won’t repeat myself here, except to remind you that it’s fantastic and you should definitely play it.
If you’re looking for some free options, I should give a special mention to Matt Thorson. He’s made a bunch of excellent free platformers that provide a stiff challenge, and I’ve enjoyed them all. His games are all collected on one page, so I won’t be linking them individually, but I did want to point a few out. Give Up Robot and Give Up Robot 2 are his most recent platformers, centered around a grappling hook mechanic and conveniently playable through your browser over at Adult Swim. An Untitled Story is Matt’s take on the exploration platformer, marrying it with some very tough single-screen challenges. It’s a very substantial and enjoyable game. Moneyseize puts the player in control of Sir Reginald MoneySeize II, Esq. as he traverses levels collecting coins to fund his giant tower. Each level can be solved in a few different ways, with each route eventually necessary if you want to collect every coin. FLaiL focuses on using gravity-flipping and other unusual mechanics to guide the little character through deadly arrays of spikes. Finally, the truly determined may want to try the Jumper games. The first two are a bit older and aren’t as nice to look at, but they have solid level design and are quite hard. The third is more recent and might be a better starting point for some players.
If you like physics in games, N is the super-tough platformer for you. You control a small ninja as he navigates fiendish single-screen levels full of deadly robots and other traps. With some great modeling of momentum and the ninja’s interaction with angled or curved surfaces, N really lets you feel like you’re soaring gracefully through the levels, not so much jumping off walls as gliding off them, just one step ahead of the army of robot drones, heat-seeking missiles, and railgun turrets bent on your destruction. The original PC version is free, and you can also buy the enhanced N+ for XLBA, PSP or DS (and I believe each platform has its own unique set of levels).
I’ll end with a few smaller games. Fishbane is a great little game based around throwing harpoons to hit switches or use as platforms. Liferaft: Zero mixes standard platforming with a limited grappling hook and a Portal-esque aesthetic. Lastly, Focus (scroll down) is a game with a really cool teleportation/time-slowing mechanic, used to dodge and redirect enemy missiles.
There are of course plenty of games like these that I haven’t played yet. One notable example is I Wanna Be The Guy, famous for its incredibly difficult obstacles and unfair surprise deaths. But the games I listed should keep you going for a while, and you should feel free to leave more suggestions in the comments!