The ideal difficulty curve is different for everybody. Some prefer that a video game eases them into the experience, others will grow bored if they aren’t feeling challenged in the first hour of playing. Some love the thrill of unforgiving games like Dark Souls, others give up after repeatedly dying to the skeletons in the graveyard. Finding out what works for any given game is a challenge for the developers, but over the years we have seen many instances where an early peak in the difficulty curve pushes players to the limit. For some, that was the point where the game got good, others may have given up and never returned.
This list chronicles five noteworthy moments where I experienced a peak like this; a roadblock early on in the game that made me question if I really wanted to carry on with playing it. If you remember times when this happened to you, then please do share your stories in the comments.
#5 Ban’ethil Barrow Den – World of Warcraft
When I first got into World of Warcraft, I was determined to be on the Alliance side because that’s what all my friends were playing. However, I didn’t feel like going with any of the standard fantasy races, leading to my first character becoming a night elf warrior.
All was well for a while, until my quests led me to the Ban’ethil Barrow Den situated in the night elf starting zone Teldrassil. Originally a place where druids would go to hibernate, this particular den has been taken over by corrupted furbolgs, a common enemy type in Night Elf zones. The quests that send you there task you with murdering a bunch of them, but also to recover 4 items from the den itself.
Classic World of Warcraft was always a challenge when it came to caves. They were dark, filled with unavoidable monsters, often had elite foes patrolling, and could even be maze-like. Ban’ethil had all of it combined. Players had to navigate the twisting network of hallways, narrow passages, and platforms, back in a day when caves like this didn’t come with a map of their own and didn’t have quest markers. Even with mods that could provide alternatives, the overlapping plateaus and bridges make navigation confusing and the relics are tucked away in the most obscure corners.
Not helping matters at all are the dozens of furbolgs that wander around in the den, many of which have special skills and other tricks to make them more challenging than other foes encountered in the game thus far. Especially the squishier classes will struggle with inching their way through this grueling gauntlet of enemies. Those who die are in for a rough trip back, as by the time they traced down their corpse, the furbolgs will have undoubtedly respawned and will kill them again the moment they return to life.
While caves were prominent questing zones in World of Warcraft, Ban’Ethil Barrow Den was an anomaly in that the quest relating to it almost guaranteed you’d have to see all of it. Most similar quests for other races would simply ask the player to explore a part of it, kill a specific monster, or would just use a simpler design. Suffice it to say, my first successful World of Warcraft character ended up being a Human Mage.
#4 Brock – Pokémon Yellow
I am not sure how everybody else experienced this, but I personally wanted to get Pokémon because I was addicted to the anime as a kid, as opposed to watching the anime because of the games. It’s Pokémon that drove me to beg my parents for a gameboy. Unfortunate, because I never actually got far in it.
As a fan of the anime, it was Pokémon Yellow that drew my attention because it’s the only gen 1 game where a Pokémon followed you around; not to mention that Pokémon being THE Pikachu. It was a fantastic selling point! Except, it also presented a balancing problem for the game’s first gym. Brock is a stone-type trainer with a Geodude and a beefy Onix. With some training, a Squirtle or Bulbasaur can make quick work of both, but in Yellow your starter is always Pikachu, who is ineffective against rock.
And since there are no watermills to train in or sprinkler systems to trigger, Pikachu is absolutely useless. Players had to make use of other Mons available in the region, limiting them to a paltry selection of bugs, birds, normal types, and a Mankey. It’s not impossible to form a winning strategy with this line-up, but especially for a younger player it’s not easy either.
Little me would spend hours grinding the weak monsters, but never could get to a point where my Nidoran, Pidgey, and Pikachu could get anywhere near defeating Brock. Subsequently, I would stop watching the anime after season 1 and wouldn’t play another Pokémon game until X and Y came out.
#3 Forsaken Fortress – Wind Waker
Modern, 3D Zelda games are often criticized for having slow starts that get bogged down in tutorials, world-building, and herding goats, but Wind Waker is often exempt from such complaints. The opening segment on Outset Island is brief and quick to get you equipped with a sword, plus it tugs at the heartstrings as Link must soon depart from the island to rescue his sister.
Outset Island leads straight into the Forsaken Fortress, however, where much of the goodwill towards the game is quickly shattered. Link is separated from his sword and must explore this monster-infested fort through stealth. Yeah…
Forsaken Fortress is a maddening section to play through. It’s really nothing more than a circle with a few towers, but getting to the right parts of it is more difficult than you’d expect. I somehow always find myself on the wrong side of walls, unable to get to certain ladders or reach new places. Meanwhile, you have to cope with the patrolling Moblins that you are not allowed to fight in any way. Instead, players hide in barrels and move whenever the pig-like guards aren’t looking at them. It’s slow, tedious, and anytime you mess up, you’ll be booted back to the prison.
In some ways, the Forsaken Fortress harkens back to the Gerudo Fortress from Ocarina of Time. While the stealth mechanics are more refined than they were in the Nintendo 64 classic, Gerudo Fortress came all the way at the end of the game, at a point where players have a massive arsenal of tools to make it easier. On the day I got Wind Waker, I played it for only 2 hours, then didn’t return for a week until I had mustered up the patience to finally figure out the Forsaken Fortress.
#2 Lu Bu – Dynasty Warriors
We did a whole article on this before, but when I was going through all the mainline Dynasty Warriors games, having to deal with Lu Bu every time became quite the annoyance. Dynasty Warriors games are fun because you get to cut your way through thousands of ineffective enemies, letting you really feel like a warrior legend among armies of plebs. Lu Bu exists to taunt players who are enjoying this style of play and is persisted because of memes. “Don’t pursue Lu Bu” is a semi-popular phrase now, but it’s a tradition that I would personally like to see extinguished.
Lu Bu has gone through many transformations across the various games. Sometimes he’s a push-over or easily cheesed, in other games he is literally a cheating bastard that can hit you with attacks initiated from beyond the game’s rendering distance. In Dynasty Warriors 4 players are forced into a duel with him, which can instantly end the mission if lost or shatter the morale of their armies if it is refused or fought to a tie. In most games, Lu Bu is presented as a superpowered warrior capable of tanking lots of damage and killing players in a few hits. It’s the laziest kind of difficulty and, since the real-world Lu Bu dies early in the timeline the games adapt, he is always an early-game foe that players have to overcome.
Interested in reading more? Check out this piece we wrote on Lu Bu, his history, and why his implementation is questionable: Legacy of Lu Bu
#1 Taurus Demon – Dark Souls
Dark Souls is a cruel game, one that has driven many players to try it who quickly ceased their attempts. Some don’t even make it past the Asylum Demon, the game’s first boss. However, those who do make it out of the tutorial have many early bosses to tumble over. For me, the Taurus Demon was the first and most difficult hurdle to overcome before I could start enjoying the game.
Like the Asylum Demon, the Taurus Demon is little more than a big, angry thing with a large club, yet it’s the location that makes Mr. Taurus such a bastard to deal with. Rather than the relatively open space of the tutorial boss, the Taurus Demon assaults players on the narrow walls of the Undead Burg. There is little room to roll away from attacks or circle around the boss, whose long reach and high damage can quickly kill players if they don’t fall off the wall first.
The prime strategy is to run to the far ends of the wall, dodge an attack, and then scale the tower to lure the Demon into a plunging attack. This strategy would eventually help me overcome the boss, but not without many attempts where I would be smashed off the ladder or slide off the boss at an awkward angle where it could pummel me further.
The Taurus Demon made me quit the game two times hours after starting it, before my third attempt (and character) eventually slaughtered him. Nowadays I can get through the fight without any hassle, but twice it kept me from pushing forward into a game that would become one of my all-time favorites. All because the wall is too darn small.