Methods of Madness: The Difference Between Challenging and Cheap

April 4, 2013

The term “cheap” is thrown around quite a lot in video games – perhaps even a bit too much. Cheap has become a buzzword of sorts and it is often used to attack the integrity of a game or its developers. Some players are simply very impatient or aren’t willing to invest the necessary time in some games to become truly good at them and hence, the first time they encounter something that their tried or tired tactics aren’t effective against, they throw out the big C. However, we must observe that cheap isn’t a figment of anyone’s imagination.

Although it is subjective and its meaning is likely to be different for each gamer, cheap is a very real thing and it is quite different from “ challenge”. Before we go any further, please understand that we are focusing on “cheap” as it is used in single player games, and not the “cheap” that is thrown out as an insult to other players in multi-player games.

Allow me to humbly and briefly explain – in my opinion, of course – the difference between cheap and challenge  To me – and to many gamers I spoke to in preparation for this piece – cheap is the measure of any distinct advantage the AI has over the player. Cheap can be used to describe any instance in which the odds are stacked in the AI’s favor to the point of unfairness. This is rather difficult to explain, so I’ll list some examples below.

On the other hand, challenge is the measure of organic difficulty a single player experience presents. It is a difficulty that taxes the player’s reflexes, critical thinking, patience or whatever other quality, in a way that could be considered fair and balanced. Things that are properly challenging aren’t usually cheap, and things that are cheap are somewhat different from challenging – they’re unfair. Furthermore, there is something of an in-between here as well, or a grey area, if you will. There are situations where there is some unfairness or cheapness, but not so much so that the entire experience deserves to be labeled cheap.

Hopefully the examples below can better demonstrate these ideas.

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Example of Cheap: Persona 4: Arena’s Score Attack Mode

The score attack mode in the wonderful anime fighter Persona 4: Arena is an excellent example of cheap. The AI in this mode is brutally hard – it is a notch more difficult than the game’s “Hell” difficulty setting. The characters chain together unbelievable combos and have excellent defense and reactions. On their own, these incredibly smart and effective AI characters could only be called challenging. However, the enormous bonuses and advantages each of these characters has sends the mode squarely into cheap territory.

Every normal attack from Mitsuru freezes you. Every fire attack from Yukiko becomes unblockable and she has infinite fire boost. Yosuke has access to infinite sukukaja and every normal attack from Akihiko inflicts the shock ailment. To top all of this off, each characters recovers meter at an impossibly high rate AND everyone receives huge damage boosts. If that wasn’t enough, the characters also have more stamina than usual. Kanji can outright kill any character after landing just two command grabs. One of the biggest drawbacks of my favorite character Aigis is the fact that she must manage the use of her bullets and her orgia mode, and she has low stamina compared to many characters. Score attack AI Aigis has infinite bullets and orgia mode, on top of rapid meter recovery, increased health, increased damage output iced with absurdly clever AI.

In a side by side comparison, it’s clear that score attack Aigis is by all means better than player Aigis. The score attack characters have distinct, overwhelming and unfair advantages compared to the player. The difficulty of the AI alone would have made the score attack mode challenging but the grossly overpowered characters make the mode nothing short of cheap.

Example of Borderline Cheap: Fire Emblem: Awakening’s Lunatic Mode

I would describe a game that is almost cheap as one that provides the AI some advantage over the player and is extremely challenging but still doable. That is also how I would describe the lunatic difficulty setting in Fire Emblem: Awakening. The enemies are equipped with powerful weapons for their levels and have abnormally high stats. Many of them are also given skills that they probably shouldn’t have access to so early in the game. However, if you have enough patience, the mode is still doable.

The first five chapters are pure torture, but with extremely careful play, experimentation and an absolutely saintly level of patience (I had to reset the game dozens of times in chapter 2 alone), you can still make your way through this mode. The bolstered stats, skills and equipment of the enemy units compared to the player’s units are somewhat unfair but not so much so that the mode as a whole should be regarded as cheap. This is the grey area I was talking about earlier. Many players I talk to say that lunatic mode+ (or lunatic mode 2, as some players call it) is absolutely cheap, with absurdly overpowered and geared enemies.

Example of Challenging: Dark Souls

To me, a game is fairly difficult if it challenges a player’s critical thinking, executional skill (“that move is so hard to pull off!”), reflexes, patience or any combination of those, and promotes methodical, careful play without putting the player at any distinct, uneven disadvantage. Many players would describe Namco Bandai’s Dark Souls exactly that way. While the enemies are challenging and completing several areas or feats require patience and calculation, the game is perfectly doable.

Many attacks deal huge amounts of damage to your character, but there is a way to escape or guard each of them. Several enemies can gang up on and overpower your character, but it is the player’s responsibility to avoid such disadvantageous situations. No matter how powerful the player becomes (I used the soul glitch on an unpatched version of the game just for fun – I will play my games exactly the way I want to, thank you very much) each enemy is still a threat and being jumped and cornered is still a huge problem.

In fact, sheer stats and number crunching are so unimportant in Dark Souls that highly skilled players can complete the game with amazingly under-leveled characters. It’s all about parrying, evading, choosing your fights carefully, proceeding with caution and, in general, playing smartly. It’s challenging, in the most organic sense.

Hopefully the examples above have helped to explain the difference between challenging and cheap. As a general guideline, the word “cheap” should be interchangeable with the word “unfair”. Cheap could be further described as broken or unbalanced – though this would be more in regards to faulty technical aspects of a game. An example of this would be a combo not going through in Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 Plus because of the game’s severe slowdowns and input lag and not because the player failed to execute it.

Keep in mind that what is and isn’t cheap may be different for each player and this editorial really doesn’t cover the broad spectrum of the different uses of the term “cheap”. However, it’s worth understanding why it isn’t really accurate to describe a game like Dark Souls as cheap.

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Kenneth Richardson

Kenneth is a Graphics and Game Design student who's worked as an author for since June of 2010. His favorite gaming genres are Fighting, Role Playing and Sadistic Action games like Ninja Gaiden and Bayonetta. In addition to gaming, he is also strongly interested in music, fashion, art, culture, literature, education, religion, cuisine, photography, architecture, philosophy, film, dance, and most forms of creative expression.

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