The earliest games are treasured in many of our hearts for being what we grew up with. A lot of us grew up with the NES and SNES. Many of us will also remember that a lot of these titles could be either brutally tough or mildly challenging to beat. There’s a term that floats around called “Nintendo Hard”, referring to how games back in those days could be the toughest games to beat out there. Games like Ninja Gaiden, Battletoads, the Mega Man series, Bionic Commando and the real Super Mario Bros. 2 (Known in the west as The Lost Levels) were beatable, but not without some serious effort involved. These games gave you a real sense of accomplishment when you beat them.
As time has moved on, video games have become much more marketable, much more mainstream. For the “Casual Gamer” market, video games are seen as a form of relaxation. For many people, mostly in this group, being frustrated can turn people off of a game. This is one of the reasons why I feel that lately, games have become much easier.
This isn’t to say all games are easy though. There are games like Ninja Gaiden II, Devil May Cry 4, Lost Planet: Extreme Condition, and MEGA MAN 10 which are all examples of games I feel to have a good mix of easy, challenging, and flat out balls to the walls difficulty. Assassin's Creed II was a much better game than it’s predecessor, possibly the best game of 2009, but I for one felt it was a lot easier than the first game. Part of me felt that I couldn’t enjoy it more because it never really challenged me.
One thing that’s bothered me about FPS games in recent years is the removal of health systems, instead replaced with auto health regeneration whilst in cover. It’s removed any sense of not being invincible in any game with the attitude that “Oh damn, I got shot, better run away so I’ll be 100% fine in a couple seconds!” I’m not saying all games that used health kits and the like had perfect systems, but with auto health regen, one never needs to worry about health when going into a new skirmish. It ends up reducing what little strategy FPS games tend to have. Games like Call of Duty, Gears of War , and Rainbow Six Vegas are all examples of games that use this system, and that's just 3 quick examples.
A challenge to me is fun. If I can’t do something, but I know that I should be able to or can do it, then the challenge has been set for me to beat it. It sets a sort of goal you could say, that I wish to try and beat whatever lay in my path. Even if I can’t do something, I will keep trying. It might not always be fun per se, but the overall experience is one of having to stay on my toes, or constantly rack your brain for answers. Something that pushes you to your limits in ability and thought brings out the most in the experience I feel.
I do submit that difficulty is subjective, to not think so is ridiculous. But I know I’m not the only one that thinks games have gotten way easier over time. I’m not saying a game like Viva Pinata has to be so challenging that it takes you a month to beat it, but I feel the norm shouldn’t be dictated for the casual market, because it does end up alienating those people who have been gamers for years. SEGA has proven this quite well really, by exposing Sonic in more titles for a wider audience (And having most of these games be not very good or laden with bugs and glitches), they’ve pretty much said “Screw you” to the people who were the original fans. Business models be damned, where did my difficult games go?!