Gaming was still a relatively young form of entertainment during the 1990s, though it was beginning to branch out and grow more mainstream. With this came experiences that were getting simpler and more user-friendly. This proved a departure from the often complex, cryptic, or downright gruelingly intense games of the 80s which populated the Atari and NES.
Still, the 90s had more than its share of maddeningly difficult games sure to invoke many thrown controllers and white knuckles. The 90s was something of a transition decade from more primitive software to more cinematic, 3D gaming. Yet, this era still largely embraced the gritty and grueling intensity that exemplified many 8 bit titles.
Consoles like the SNES, Genesis, PlayStation, and N64 were chock full of complex and rapid-fire experiences that often forced the player to grind, battle, and fight for every inch of digital turf. In many ways, these games were a digital representation of the zany, wild character of 90s culture as a whole.
With that said, let's journey back to a time where sprites and blocky polygons reigned supreme, and look at some of the toughest, most grueling games we still have trouble beating.
20 Battle Toads
While Rare's Battletoads was released in 1991, it certainly still carries that 80s vibe of grueling old school beat 'em ups that pummel you with a barrage of foes.
The game contains super satisfying close-range combat to be sure. Though the fun tends to grind to a halt after getting knocked around by axe-wielding mutant pigs or beefing it on your surfboard for the 20th time. And believe me, you'll perish abruptly, and often.
Part of Battletoad's appeal is the simultaneous co-op play, though this tends to hinder more than help. This is because you can (and often do in the confined spaces) smack into and damage each other.
19 Contra III: The Alien Wars
Although the actual campaign of Contra III: The Alien Wars is quite brief, you'll likely spend ages trying to grind and gun your way through. I can't even tell you how many times I got mowed down in this 3rd and arguably most maddening iteration of Contra.
The game requires you to be on red alert at just about all times. You'll be spraying gunfire in all directions as you desperately try to ward off baddies while evading obstacles and projectiles flying at you from all angles.
18 Super Castlevania IV
As is often the case when tougher game franchises get translated over to the SNES, Super Castlevania IV's difficulty is dialed back a bit from its more intense NES counterpart. Regardless, even a tamer version of Castlevania still makes for one of the trickier games of the 16-bit era.
Some crazier, more dynamic stages, intense boss fights, and those always annoying floating Medusa heads, help set the stage for a pretty rough action platformer. And of course, the frustrating mechanic of falling backward (often into pits) is still present.
17 Mega Man 7
There are few gaming franchises that have been consistently difficult as the action shooter classic Mega Man series. Though many fans are in agreement that the 7th mainline iteration for the SNES is at - or at least near - the top tier. Its slew of robot masters proved particularly annoying and tough to beat, and its boss fights were maddeningly tough. That Wily Capsule showdown still gives me nightmares.
16 Donkey Kong 64
Our favorite ape protagonist's first 3D platformer might not have the fast-twitch or pummeling gameplay that characterizes many of the 8 and 16-bit nailbiters. No, this game's difficulty comes in just how massive it is, and - in typical Rareware fashion - how many hidden treasures there are to collect.
The game is one massive scavenger hunt, which, thanks to some very well hidden and tough to reach collectibles, will drive completionists bananas. Those Nintendo and Rare coins alone will likely make for plenty of grinding and controller slamming.
15 Final Fantasy VII
Similar to Donkey Kong 64, this RPG classic isn't difficult in the manner of traditional arcade-style games of the 80s and early 90s. Rather, the depth and toughness stem from its grandiosity. As it's an old school JRPG, you can somewhat muscle your way to victory by countless hours of grinding.
Yet, you'll still need to be resourceful and smart with your use of materia, particularly in the latter half of the game. And that final boss battle will certainly put your skills to the test, regardless of how beefed up you've made Cloud and friends.
14 Grand Theft Auto
Before the open-world sandbox phenomenon that the Grand Theft Auto series became, its original iteration took the form of the more humble top-down action-adventure. Though that doesn't mean it was easier than its full 3D counterparts. In fact, it was quite a bit tougher.
The game contains some rather stiff controls that come with a learning curve. This is compounded with a lack of impactful weapons, limited lives, and saves, as well as your tiny, vulnerable avatar, which dies quickly and easily.
13 Comix Zone
Few titles encapsulate the Genesis character of gritty, in-your-face style of action games like Comix Zone does. While the colorful comic book style is certainly cool, the frustrating gameplay will likely dissolve this neat novelty away pretty quickly.
Controls can feel imprecise and janky, which don't do you many favors when squaring off against the barrage of mutant foes and hazards in your way. Because of this, Sketch's health just always seems to be inevitably eaten away no matter what you do, or don't do.
12 Earthworm Jim 2
I thought the first iteration of this wacky platformer was harsh, until I played its even more insane sequel a couple of years later.
The game runs with the off-the-wall action and dials everything up another notch, to the point where the novel concepts start to feel overwhelming and gimmicky. The game still requires you to run and gun with Jim quite a bit. Though, now you'll often be forced to maniacally juggle multiple actions at once, like swinging and leaping around while warding off foes.
11 Shadow Of The Beast 3
Yes, believe it or not, we have an Amiga sighting - which was a personal computer, for the younger folk that might not know. While this machine didn't stake much of a claim for itself, particularly in the Americas, it can boast having one of the toughest games of the 90s.
This third entry of Shadow of the Beast ironed out many of the kinks of the first two, as well as revved up the already insane difficulty. Yet, it was still a grind to get through this one, thanks to some cryptic, tricky puzzles, long load times, and the lack of save features.
10 Conker's Bad Fur Day
This zany Rare platformer, Conker's Bad Fur Day, will put your 3D platforming skills to the test - as well as your patience. As it turns out, this off-color experience isn't just geared towards older gamers via its mature themes, but with its deceptively tough gameplay too.
Most point to that insane World War II-themed chapter as rough in particular, but much of the experience is a grind. It doesn't help that the game is riddled with some questionable camera controls and aiming.
9 Super Mario Bros. 3
Perhaps it's because of its colorful, kid-friendly nature, or the fact that Mario games have gotten easier lately - but people often seem to forget this classic platformer can actually be brutal.
Things start relatively easy-going during the game's first couple worlds. Yet, once you delve into the elaborate Pipe Land, and especially the ominous Dark Land, the steepness in difficulty propels to a height only matched by The Lost Levels. Super Mario World, this is not. No, there's no Yoshi to bail you out here.
Like many puzzle titles, Myst requires a sense of wit and logic over fast reaction times or grinding to beef up in strength. But this game, in particular, is typically known in gaming circles as the coup de gras when it comes to elaborate puzzle experiences. It left quite the impression for this reason.
As is often the case with the more gritty, early 90s style of gaming, Myst rarely holds your hand. It drops you into some intimidatingly large and complex areas and forces you to work it out in desolate solitude.
7 Jet Force Gemini
Yes, believe it or not, Rare; the Nintendo-like developer that's known for colorful, kid-friendly titles, claims yet another spot on our list of tricky 90s games. Though this majestic third-person shooter, in particular, requires speed and precision as you battle your way across colorful landscapes and fight off bands of drones.
Completionists will have their work cut out for them when trying for expert medals, especially with those intense arcade-style Floyd missions.
6 Streets Of Rage 3
You may want to get a friend to fight alongside you for this one.
Sega's flagship beat 'em-up of the 90s, Streets of Rage, has never been known to be too tough - at least until this 3rd entry. This time, we're thrown into lengthier stages with even more intense and faster-paced gameplay. Weapons are also more vulnerable, breaking down after only a few uses.
As an interesting side note - the English version of Streets of Rage 3 is even more rough, as its normal setting is significantly harder than the hard setting of the Japanese version. The more you know!
5 Metal Gear Solid
Metal Gear Solid's campaign will supposedly run you roughly a dozen hours. Though this is under the assumption that Snake will be able to run, gun, and sneak his way to completion of his mission without much of a hitch.
More likely, you'll often be stopped dead in your tracks and hearing your name screamed at that dreaded game over screen; given the abundance of henchmen, traps, security cameras, and tricky bosses all over the place.
4 Super R-Type
I got this game as a gift decades ago, and I don't recall ever reaching the finish.
While the Shoot 'Em Up as a whole has been known to invoke plenty of cursing at TV sets and broken controllers, Super R-Type on the SNES is up there in difficulty even by the genre's brutal standards. One hit is all it takes for your spacecraft to explode into dust. This occurs not just by failing to evade the endless barrage of projectiles flung at you from everywhere, but even from grazing a wall. It doesn't help that the levels are robust and lack checkpoints.
3 Virtual Bart
For whatever reason, Virtual Bart is one of those games I keep returning to for more abuse, despite the quality being... questionable, and getting shellacked on most of the game's random 6 stages.
All 6 scenarios are vastly different from eachother, drawing on various Simpsons episodes. Yet they're all pretty much equally frustrating and tricky. Whether you're trying to maneuver down a packed water slide, or scurry across ancient lands as a dinosaur, you'll be perishing often. This is thanks to some dicey controls and tons of relentless baddies.
2 Bubble Bobble Part 2
Suddenly, the first iteration of Bubble Bobble on NES doesn't look so tricky after grinding through its 1993 sequel.
Though this follow-up actually contains fewer stages than the first game, it sure doesn't feel like it. Many of the stages are more elaborate and are riddled with more traps and tougher enemies - foes that fly right at you, toss deadly top hats in the air, and spew deadly flames. And unlike Bubble Bobble 1, there are no passwords or co-op play to bail you out.
1 Super Ghouls 'N Ghosts
This Capcom-developed action platformer is often referred to as one of the most difficult games on the SNES, hands-down. Younger gamers soon discovered this the hard way after being drawn to the cool horror themes and booting it up on their new SNES Classic.
Your bulky suit of armor will do little to protect you from the assault of projectiles and ravenous zombies, magicians, and other beasts you'll constantly be contending with. The abundance of gaping pitfalls don't help matters much either. This game can truly be a nightmare to complete.