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5 times games used difficulty spikes to tear us a new one

Updated: Feb 27, 2022

Difficulty spikes. These two words will have likely sent a bunch of you into cold sweats as you suffer your own Vietnam flashback to that one game that haunts you to this very day.

For those of you fortunate enough to have avoided this wonderful phenomenon or just have no clue what I’m talking about, a difficulty spike is when video game developers decide they want to test the player’s skills in a completely new way. Most of the time this new challenge seems so insurmountable that some players never recover.

As a player that’s had their fair share of red-hot difficulty spikes rammed into various extremities throughout my gaming career, I’d thought I’d sit everyone down in a circle and chat about some of the worst difficulty spikes that have left me crying quietly on the floor.

5. The Garage Tutorial Level – Driver (1991)

This first entry for the blog could be considered a little bit of a cheat as the developers hit you with this as soon as you boot up your PS1 and hit the start button. Instead of the developers taking you to town with a difficulty spike, it’s more like they invited you to a nice fun party and smack you around the head as you step through the threshold.

(c) Ubisoft/GT Interactive Software

So, this tutorial sets the scene – you’re a new driver applying for a bank heist. The thing is, you’re trying to join an established crew and they don’t take to newcomers so easily. To test you, they take you down to a parking garage and give you a frankly ludicrous list of tasks to complete… and one minute to complete it in.

Slalom, 360 spin, 180 flat turn, brake test, speed (not the drug) and more are what awaits you just in order to play the game. That’s like having to write a thesis paper discussing the importance of names in society before you can pencil in your name for your film studies exam.

Just imagine if this was your first time learning to drive. Luckily, you don’t have to because PlayStation Access has got us covered with the following video clip.

Yeah, I have no shame in saying I’ve never completed this tutorial, I had to get my younger brother to do it for me, which is something he’ll never let me live down, I’m sure. The best part? 2012’s Driver San Francisco included an updated version of this challenge in a “fun” extra easter egg celebrating the original game’s legacy… yeah, fun.

4. The Ship Graveyard – Uncharted 3 (2011)

Jumping ship to a game that takes a little more time to rear its ugly head and show its true colours we’ve got the level with the most ominous name in the Uncharted series – The Ship Graveyard. Nathan Drake finds himself captured by pirates and manages to escape his captors only to stumble into this infernal hellhole of a level. (c) Naughty Dog

The level’s a collection of rusted out shipwrecks far from their former glory and crawling with every type of enemy imaginable. Enemies with shotguns? Check. Enemies with sniper rifles? Check. Enemies with rocket launchers, on turrets and wielding shields, yep, they’ve got them.

Now, this section took my well tested and honed gameplay strategy of camping behind cover and chipping away at enemies and threw it right in the trash. If you try and camp you get flushed out the shotgun enemies into the kill nest that is snipers and RPG’s.

After about five attempts I decided to switch up my strategy swim around and take potshots before ducking back into the water. Much like my previous strategy, it would have worked if not for the enemies as I kept taking too much damage and then dying from falling too far to my watery grave below.

After that, I decided to just sprint around madly and try and luck my way out of it. The enemies on the turrets dissuaded me of that notion damn quick. That’s the thing with this level, you have to constantly be on the move, you have to take any opportunity the game feels gracious enough to hand you. If you hesitate for even a second your corpse will be rag dolling into an endless spiral of restarts.

You can persevere with this level, bashing your head against its concrete wall before finally breaking through or… no that’s it really.

3. Road To Nowhere – Crash Bandicoot (1996 & 2017)

A lot of you Crash Bandicoot fanatics and veterans of the original Naughty Dog trilogy might be screaming at the screen right now that I’ve shafted the difficulty spike that is The High Road, a level I to have lost so many lives on you could call me The Herd.

(c) Naughty Dog/Activision

I’m not going to argue with you that The High Road isn’t a rusted railroad spike up the urethra. It definitely is and normally if it was any other game it would certainly have made this list. It would have been if it wasn’t for this little level that we slogged through 9 levels prior.

Yeah, it’s time to crank up the Talking Heads because we’re talking about Road To Nowhere with all the parts you ‘loved’ from that rage-inducing level just earlier on in the game for an extra surprise when that first spike is nailed in.

Now, Crash Bandicoot is one of the early 3D platformers and for that reason, the platforming is the core mechanic, much like the third-person cover shooting was to 2007’s Gear of War, to focus this new mechanic to players. Because it was a new-ish mechanic to video games the platforming before the level had been relatively easy.

Road To Nowhere hits you straight up with precision platforming. Pixel perfect jumps, falling platforms, slippery jumps and hey, why not throw some insta-kill enemies rushing the player for extra challenge because it’s just too much of a cakewalk.

I’d upload some gameplay of me here but I can’t go through that again, I’m not strong enough… that and I’d have to censor so many words it’d pretty much be better to have it muted.

2. Polaris Core – Control (2019)

Now we’ve had difficulty spikes at the start, in the middle and now with our penultimate entry one right at the end of the game. Remedy’s 2019 third-person shooter psychological mind fuck of a game Control has one of my favourite WTF moments in gaming.

(c) 505 Games

The amazing Ashtray Maze sequence is the highlight of the game for me, however, that great scene concealed the game sharpening multiple difficulty spikes. The section directly after the Ashtray Maze is the Polaris Core and here the game unleashes a rain of difficulty spikes that blot out the sun.

You enter a room to see multiple mobs of enemies spawn in attacking the Polaris core which you have to deal with while also cleansing three raised siphon points. Now if you go charging in headlong like I did the first time, you’ll get overwhelmed and murdered.

The trouble is, that’s what most of the game’s combat up to this has been as there’d been ample space to move and evade enemies. Here you’ve got three platforms each the same height and if you try and float over while there are enemies around well then, you’re in for a world of hurt.

The most frustrating part? The enemies aren’t even that hard to fight, it’s the pure number of enemies that does it, the lazy game developer’s way of ramping up the difficulty as well as increasing enemy health or dropping player damage.

Maybe not the sharpest difficulty spike on this list but by far the one that left the sourest taste in my mouth.

1. Turbo Tunnel – Battletoads (1991)

Yeah, fuck this level. As the video below shows, it can be beaten but that takes a level of dedication I can’t be bothered with. You win, Battletoads but I’ll have the last laugh when you’re languishing in my game collection gathering dust.

(c) RARE Interactive

Are there any difficulty spikes you’ve experienced that I missed out on? Let me know in the comments below.


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