I want to point out the difference between “difficult” and “artificially difficult.” A game which is challenging on the setting it was designed for is what I’m talking about here. Playing Civilization 5 on Deity level is pretty hard, but only because you begin the game by banging two rocks together and hoping they make fire, while the other Civs start with laser guided missiles. That’s not exactly fair, which is part of the issue.
“Tough, but fair” is a good measure of a game which is difficult without employing any sort of artificial difficulty filter. Any game can be hard, but that’s not what makes it fun. Seeing AI rubber band to negate your hard-won advantages is heart breaking. Grinding to goose the numbers in order to beat a boss, instead of utilizing thoughtful play, is wasted design potential. Neither of those are fun or interesting; it’s just the game stretching its mileage. Take Contra for example, a game so legendarily hard it required the developers to invent the famous Konami Code so they could beat it.
If I were doing a “Top Five of the Hardest Co-Op Games of All Time!” list, Contra might be close to the top, followed by a bunch of profanity. Contra comes from an era where deaths were paved in quarters. Riding the coattails of games where you dropped an extra 25 cents in the slot whenever you ran out of dudes, Contra throws two tank-topped marines against some pretty gnarly odds. Bullets come from everywhere, bridges explode without warning, and the mode of gameplay perspective changes at a whim. Combine these with the fact that it only takes one enemy hit to take a life, and your initial foray into Contra leads to something between “utter bewilderment” and “homicidal rage.”
Yeah, you can beat Contra with two players, except you aren’t necessarily relying on the other person. It’s more like synchronized swimming, where the two characters are working together to make something kind of beautiful, but the most you can do for the other person is maybe soak a bullet before they eat it. The design choices here aren’t surprising. Contra retailed for anywhere from $40-$50 back in 1986 money, which is a whole lot. The game is only 8 levels, so in order to prevent someone from dropping a huge amount of cash on something that could be beaten in an hour, the game had to be incredibly hard. With modern tools, we don’t need to make games cater to a 4 Mbit size, and can instead address difficulty as a method to make the experience more enjoyable.