It began with the rise of extremely difficult 2D platformers a little over six years ago. These tiny, unforgiving games were usually posted online for free, and from that scene came Super Meat Boy. From there the movement grew, and soon exploded. One thing was clear: there was a huge audience of gamers out there who wanted a challenge and wanted to be punished. But why?
The rise in popularity of titles like Super Meat Boy, Spelunky, Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, and the upcoming release of Dark Souls 2 can be linked to one simple fact: there's a segment of the gaming populace who miss titles that offer up a challenge. Over the past eight years, mainstream game releases have become not only more and more formulaic, but have relied far too heavily on hand-holding mechanics and tutorials. This has led to dozens, if not hundreds, of titles that are far too easy for their own good. What good is the experience of having played a game if it offered no challenge whatsoever?
The Souls titles from FromSoftware are maybe the biggest success stories as of late. Demon's Souls achieved cult-hit status a few years back, followed up by Dark Souls, a title that's still getting attention more than two years since its release. Now that Dark Souls 2 is less than two months away, the series seems to have more forward momentum than ever, with its audience growing instead of contracting. If DS2 hits the way some are predicting it will, it's a safe bet that some of the bigger publishers out there may start taking a gamble on titles with more difficult design.
These games offer players a sense of accomplishment. There's something of merit to being able to say you beat Super Meat Boy, or took on Gwyn in Dark Souls. You feel like you actually pulled off the impossible, and little by little you realize that most other games out there aren't as challenging or as difficult as you once thought they were.
Extremely difficult, punishing games aren't for everyone, but for those who can find the strategy and enjoyment in them, they offer a rewarding experience that's hard to find anywhere else in gaming.