10 of the most brutal gaming challenges of all time

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My gambling regimen is quite simple. I’ll play a campaign on the default difficulty setting and play with multiplayer before turning my attention elsewhere. Rarely do I get sucked into a world long enough to dismiss the many other attention-grabbing games in my Steam library. There’s no way I’ll complete all of the Elden Ring side quests, nor will I collect all of Celeste’s Gizmos, and those are the two games I love!

That said, I always love it when a developer throws in a nasty curve ball to woo the most ardent members of their community. Yes, I I may not be interested in the discipline and heartache of a ridiculous company, but I’m always happy to see others conquer the beast. It makes me wonder what I might be capable of if I ever matched their obsession; if I too tried to climb impassable mountains.

Those challenges that make most of us say “hell no” are what we cover on this list. Below are 10 of the most brutal, nasty, or otherwise onerous mechanics ever found in a video game. These range from depraved hard modes and harsh gameplay punishments to infamous mini-games and endless, life-devouring item grinds. Together, they represent the best and worst of gaming culture; expanding our imagination, while making us lose our minds.

Beware of trying any of them for yourself. They are not for the faint of heart.

World of Warcraft: Mad in the Membrane

Redditor Hycran's Insane in the Membrane achievement

(Image credit: Redditor Hycran)

Vanilla Warcraft was an unpleasant, misshapen beast, filled with all sorts of whimsical and D&D themed remnants. Yes, today the game has been tamed into a svelte and efficient mobile game-like juggernaut, but in 2005 you could devote your life to truly pointless Azerothian pursuits. Honestly, a number of early WoW artifacts could have made it on this list (the less said about the High Warlord the better), but we’re focusing on The Insane title because, well, it’s is still feasible today.

Basically, there are a number of factions in World of Warcraft that serve no real purpose, but you can still represent them if you want. These factions include: Bloodsail Buccaneers, Darkmoon Faire, Ravenholdt, and four goblin towns scattered across the map. To achieve Exalted status – the highest level of reputation possible – with one of these factions, the player must repeat a handful of grim and laborious quests over and over again, slowly working their way up the progress bar like Frodo at the top of Mt. Doom. . In fact, some of these builds actively made the game more hostile. Becoming friends with the Bloodsail Buccaneers qualifies you as a target in sight at several major travel hubs, adding the player to a most wanted list. Your reward? A title that reads “The Insane”, so everyone on the realm can know where your priorities lie.

EverQuest: XP Death Tax

Everquest death tax

(Image credit: Bhagpuss on Blogspot)

Player death has become less and less punitive over time. The developers are aware of the difficulty of progression, and the thought of, say, my Valheim camp being wiped out every time I succumb to exposure fills me with dread. But modern bounty isn’t a thing with old-school EverQuest, which bears a few tendrils of its rowdy late-’90s setting. When you die in EverQuest (and you die a lot), expect that a fraction of your accumulated experience points flow back into the ether. The insult to the insult! Not only did this low-res imp kill you, it actively created your character weaker.

To think that we millennials grew up thinking corpse runs in Dark Souls were a bit too much.

Xcom 2 Ironman mode

(Image credit: Gosunoob)

XCOM isn’t the only game to feature an Ironman mode, but I’ve always found its particular twist on the format particularly obnoxious. No saves, no resets, no mid-campaign difficulty changes; you’re forced to watch every dice roll and live with the consequences. After all, that’s what a real commander must do on the battlefield. Did a corporal miss a 90% shotgun blast, dooming your mission – and your resource supply – to a total free fall? Hey man, this is the reality of an intergalactic invasion.

Europa Universalis 4: The Three Mountains

Achievement EU4 Ryukyu

(Image credit: Redditor purawskis)

The Ryukyu Islands are a small chain of landmasses located off the southern coast of Japan. At the start of a Europa Universalis 4 campaign, they are subjects of the Ming Dynasty and have only six troop regiments to themselves. The achievement of Three Mountains requires you to take control of the proud Ryukyuan people and take over the world.

Of course, an invasion from China, Japan, or Korea will mean certain death, and moving away from your starting position offers no easy way to expand your holdings. In fact, anyone playing EU4 this way is likely to be crushed like a bug in the first few minutes as rival empires crumble and engulf you. But he can be finished; let Ryukyu thrive from sea to sea.

Hollow Knight: Hallownest Pantheon

Hollow Knight is already a tough game, so when the developers added a 40-minute boss rush mode, resulting in a bloated remix of the secret final boss – which is already one of the toughest encounters in gaming history on PC – I knew I was going to…watch a bunch of other people trying to beat him live on Twitch. Yes, Hallownest’s Hall of Fame was explicitly added to satiate the universe’s biggest Hollow Knight sufferers, as they’re the only people willing to make repeated white-knuckle attempts to topple the challenge when, say, a stupid death on Troupe Master Grimm sends you back to square one.

The ending you get isn’t even that interesting! I shudder to think of the betrayal Team Cherry is planning for Silksong.

Max Payne 3: The New York Minute

Arcade Max Payne 3

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

God bless Rockstar Games. Who else would be willing to turn an icy noir epic like Max Payne 3 into a cheeky arcade shooter right from the end credits? The “New York Minute” mode is unlocked after completing the campaign, and it pits Payne against the most dastardly villain he’s ever faced; a timer that runs out quickly. Your goal is to clear all the levels while constantly adding precious seconds to the timer. (Headshots add six seconds, melee kills add 10, etc.) This is one of the maddening hit hunts you’ll never endure, but at least it adds functionality added to Max Payne’s bullet time. Minutes turn into hours, as long as you’re in the middle of a dive.

Overwatch: the floor is lava

Lucio in Overwatch

(Image credit: Blizzard)

Lúcio, it must be said, is a supporting character. He can increase party speed or restore health, depending on the polarity of his magic boombox. He’s also able to run on walls, mostly to distract players from the harsh reality that they could be playing a much more exciting hero. But Blizzard included a Lúcio-specific diabolical challenge to keep us up at night: to get an achievement called “The Floor Is Lava,” a player must score three kills in a single life, while riding a wall. Just get a kill, on the floor, is a rarity as Lúcio, so a triple requires true scholar-level play.

Your best bet? Camp at the enemy team’s spawn point and hope to knock down a group with Lúcio’s Soundwave Blast. This tends to work about once every two billion matches, so you better get started.

Nethack: old fashioned permadeath

NetHack Tombstone

(Image credit: tk-337 on Reddit)

The definition of permanent death has become confused. Yes, in Hades you get sent back down the River Styx every time you deplete your health bar, but then you stand in front of the mirror and increase your attack power and flirt with Meg at the bar. The same cozy mindset applies to all other millennial roguelikes; Enter The Gungeon, Dead Cells, Rogue Legacy, all of these games pale in comparison to the funereal stench of first generation floppy disk-bound roguelikes. Nethack, (or Cataclysm, or, hell, Rogue itself) has never blessed the player with ease meta-progression. No, death just sent you back to the title screen; no more no less. You knew the deal when you signed up.

That’s why the grunts laugh at us intruders. They come from a generation where a gnarly gank didn’t lead to a few base movement speed points.

Final Fantasy 10: Dodge the Lightning

There is no advanced metagame for Final Fantasy 10’s flash dodge; no clever cheese to reveal nuances hidden beneath the surface. Instead, you’re simply told to walk around the Thunder Plains and press the “A” button whenever the screen flashes white. Do this 200 times in a row—in a row!— and you’ll be rewarded with an achievement and a crucial Celestial Weapon Piece. It’s a gruesome, jittery flash game that sticks out like a sore thumb in the middle of one of the most beloved RPGs of all time. I have lots of fond memories of dodging lightning, but I was also 10 with a lot more free time.

Spelunky: eggplant race

Derek Yu brought the eggplant race back in 2020’s underrated Spelunky 2, but we’ll focus on the original’s indomitable trial. I guess around 98% of people who have ever descended into Spelunky have never made it past the second biome, but for an elite group of diehards, King Yama’s betrayal barely scratches the surface. To really flex Spelunky’s superiority, you must first acquire an eggplant tricky item and take it with you to each of the game’s many tricky corridors. Once you enter the final chamber, throw the eggplant at the Yama’s face. He will transform into a peaceful purple being and your name will live forever in Spelunky lore.

I can’t underestimate how difficult it is. There are times in a single-player eggplant run where you’ll have to trust an AI character with the fragile, succulent eggplant. If they end up in the spikes? Game over. Honestly, I think every developer should include some abstruse essays designed to confuse their most dedicated players. Can you imagine what would the equivalent of eggplants in Elden Ring entail?

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