The 15 Hardest Video Games of All Time

As much as video games can move and inspire, they are just as capable of causing the deepest, darkest frustration. Unlike any other art form, video games feature an axis of difficulty that can, at either end, keep players from fully enjoying a game.

Here's to the games on the furthest extreme of difficulty, the games that have left piles of broken controllers and pulled-out hair in their wake. In no particular order, these are the 15 hardest video games of all time.

15. X-COM: UFO Defense

X-COM: UFO Defense, known outside North America as UFO: Enemy Unknown, was a sincerely innovative title released in March 1994. Its approach to tactics forms the backbone of the XCOM series as it stands today, and as difficult as its successors are, UFO Defense is a whole different nightmare. Obscure controls combined with punishing fog of war surprise attacks combine to make this game both a strategy gem and a frustrating struggle.

14. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the Nintendo Entertainment System is one of the original frustration criers. Like many of its contemporaries, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles weds messy visuals, clunky controls and razor thin margins of error with truly brutal results.

13. osu!

osu! is a modest rhythm game, asking players simply to hit the right keys at the right time, with their mouse in the right position. That modesty belies a deep brutality. The precision and speed required to complete the songs fans make for the open source rhythm game is mind-boggling, and easily beyond the capabilities of most of us humans. Osu! mastery is an incredible sight to see simply because the game itself is so difficult.

12. Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels

When Nintendo unleashed Super Mario Bros. 2 on Japan, they knew the game's difficulty would likely break its consumers in the west. Instead of torpedoing the series for which they'd just achieved international recognition, Nintendo chose to bury the game and release an entirely different one in the U.S. The original Super Mario Bros. 2 became known as Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels, and has gained popularity among speedrunners for its high-precision maneuvers.

11. Super Meat Boy

Super Meat Boy wears its inspirations on its sleeve. The reference to Super Mario Bros. is obvious, and it's likely that if any game in that series inspired Meat Boy creator Edmund McMillen, it was the Lost Levels. Their precision-based difficulty comes back an order of magnitude more potent in Super Meat Boy.

10. The Legend of Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link

Nintendo's followup to the first Legend of Zelda took the series to 2D side-scrolling for the first time, with mixed results. Despite wielding significant influence over the genre, the game also suffered from difficulty both mechanical and conceptual. Confusing design often makes this game as frustrating as the more technically demanding entries on this list.

9. Mega Man 9

Mega Man 9 brought the series back to its NES roots, featuring 8-bit graphics and sound design deliberately hearkening to the classic Mega Man 2. That also meant a return to NES era difficulty. Players were forced to forge their own path through the game's tricky bosses.

8. F-Zero GX

F-Zero GX continued its series' high difficulty approach, sending players along race tracks that required quick turns and exact reflexes. Memorization is the safest path to success, and it took players failure after failure to reach that level of familiarity.

7. Contra

Contra is most famous for its now-iconic cheat code, but people often forget just why Konami included the code in the first place. The game's enemies constantly filled the screen with bullets it would take a master martial artist to dodge, and any one of them meant death.

6. Ikaruga

Ikaruga's difficulty is some of the most elegant in gaming. A bullet hell on its own tier, Ikaruga's central gimmick is that bullets only deal damage to the player if their colors aren't the same. Players can change colors back and forth, having to dodge and swap colors to avoid being hit in a game that just about fills the world with death-dealing bullets. It's ingenious, and it's very, very frustrating.

5. Battletoads

Battletoads is one of the most infamously difficult games in history, and with good reason. Before the title started frustrated GameStop employees the world over, it broke the spirits of many a kid who tried to complete it around its first release. Its second level, the Turbo Tunnel, will haunt the dreams of players until the end of time.

4. Ninja Gaiden

NInja Gaiden first made waves in 2004 for its intense violence. When it finally released that year, the difficulty soon took over the conversation. The game's brutal violence became a complement to its unforgiving nature, punctuating each attempt with an end gruesome enough to warrant the struggle that came before.

3. Dark Souls

Dark Souls shook up the video game world with its open approach to level design and its fearsome difficulty. Enemies were just as deadly as the player, and without careful preparation and measured offense, most could steamroll a would-be conqueror without a second thought. The game's famous "YOU DIED" has taken on a life of its own, largely because it appeared so often to players trying to complete the game.

2. I Wanna Be the Guy

In many ways, I Wanna Be the Guy is the most humble game on this list. Created as a freeware homage to the classic platformers of the NES era — some of which appear on this list — the game is a messy pastiche filled with difficult jumps disguising downright mean tricks on the player. It's a test of perseverance as much one of platforming skill.

1. Ghosts 'n Goblins

Ghosts 'n Goblins has no excuse. No matter what a player does in this game, they will never be more than two hits from death. To any enemy in the game. "Unforgiving" takes on new meaning in Ghosts 'n Goblins, where those enemies come up from underground without warning, or fly across the screen, or simply walk in the old fashioned way. A moment's inattention can mean death in this game.