Sony’s PlayStation launched in 1995, and when it did so, it brought out a whole host of new games, with some of them proving to be ridiculously difficult.
While limitations in technology is a point to consider when accessing the difficulty of some of these games – such as a lack of saves points, bad graphics or clunky controls – some of them were incredible games, which just happened to be extremely difficult.
In this list, we are going to look at some of the most difficult games of the PlayStation 1 era that were either difficult by design, or unconsciously unfair. The ps1 developed some of the best and most memorable games of all time, but some of them were not without their eye-bulging, vein-popping and hair-pulling difficulty.
Indeed, some of these games proved to be harsh, unforgiving mistresses, but that didn’t stop us from trying to best them all the same. So, without any further ado, let’s have a look at the 10 hardest PlayStation 1 games of all time.
And remember, every gamer has different strengths and weaknesses, so what one gamer might find easy another might find nightmarish, so it’s all subjective fun!
10. Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee (1997)
This game, released in 1997 for the PlayStation, DOS and Microsoft Windows, centred on the titular character, Abe – a Mudoken slave at the RaptureFarms meat processing factory, as he discovers that he and his fellow Mudoken’s are to be slaughtered. When he realises this, he decides to escape and try to liberate as many Mudoken’s as he can along the way.
While Abe’s Oddysee was critically acclaimed for its innovative gameplay, stylish graphics, good art direction and engaging cut-scenes, the game was nonetheless criticised for its difficulty.
The game had a steep, almost vertical learning curve, and having a system in which saving was only possible at designated checkpoints made the game extremely difficult. Couple that with a one-hit-kill design, a designated number of freed Mudoken’s needed for a good ending, and its puzzle and strategy elements, and you have a game that is not for the weak at heart, or thumbs.
9. Grand Theft Auto (1998)
Back to where it all started. Grand Theft Auto may be the 5th most lucrative game series of all time, and arguably the most consistently critically acclaimed and one of the most revolutionary, but every dynasty, no matter how large, has humble beginnings. And for GTA, these humble beginnings are light years away from what the series evolved into.
It’s also arguably one of the hardest games in the canon.
Originally titled Race’n’Chase, the game was released in 1997 and ported to the PlayStation in 1998, the story follows a group of criminals, operating in three fictionalised cities, as they perform bank robberies, assassinations, and other crimes for their respective syndicates.
While being the game that kicked off the world’s fascination with open-world gameplay, the first GTA puts the player in a top-down setting, and the point of the activities is to obtain points. The top-down setting proved to be difficult for the player from the word go, but combine that with one-hit kills, limited and hard to find weapons, a lack of mid-level saving and a limit on lives, this game kick-started the cultural phenomenon that is GTA in a toe-curlingly difficult way.
8. Darius Gaiden (1994)
Ported from the arcades to the PlayStation in 1996, Darius Gaiden was the third instalment of the Darius series and was originally developed and released by the Japanese video game developers Taito Corporation in 1994. The game is a two-dimensional shoot-‘em-up in which the player controls a space ship named Silver Hawk and must guide it through scrolling stages, destroying enemies and avoiding obstacles along the way.
The ship is armed with forward-firing missiles, aerial bombs and a protective force-field, all of which can be upgraded by various power-ups that are dropped by specially-coloured enemies when they are destroyed by the player.
What makes this game so difficult is the sheer amount of enemies that flood the screen at all times, in multiple groups, and all at once. The constant movement of Silver Hawk, coupled with the endless barrage of projectiles that the space ship is met by, makes this game one of the most intense and difficult shoot-em-ups of the PlayStation era. While the game received generally positive reviews, the most criticism of the game came from Electronic Gaming Monthly, who praised its music, graphics and gameplay, but also said that it was indeed too hard.
7. Fear Effect (2000)
Fear Effect is an action and adventure game released at the turn of the millennium by Kronos Digital Entertainment, and it featured gameplay with unshaded character textured to resemble cel-shading, notably being one of the very first games to utilise the technique. It gave the game a pseudo-animation feel to it, which set it apart from the other games of the time. Rather than using pre-rendered 2D backgrounds, the environments are composed of streaming or looping full-motion video. However, the consequence of this was that the game was so large, detailed and intricate, that it had to be stored on four disks.
The player controls one of three mercenaries (either Hana, Deke, or Glas) through areas filled with human and non-human enemies. The game controls are similar to traditional survival horror tank controls (a design which is makes the character intentionally difficult to control, which is intended to illicit a stronger feeling of panic and tension), with an exception being that the characters can run and shoot simultaneously.
While this game was generally praised upon release, many critics also cited its difficulty as a negative point. The game punishes you for anything less than absolute perfection, when it comes to reflexes and problem solving puzzles. In particular, Edge magazine praised the game’s tight script and distinctive graphics, but criticized its unbalanced gameplay and clumsy control system, stating that they “make the boss encounters absurdly difficult.”
6. Metal Gear Solid (on difficult setting) (1998)
If you’re a gamer, then it goes with saying that Metal Gear Solid is one of the best games not only of the PlayStation 1 era, but of all time. So ahead of its time was Metal Gear Solid that it still holds up today as a masterpiece of gaming which makes the case that a video game can indeed be a work of art.
Metal Gear Solid follows Solid Snake, a soldier who infiltrates a nuclear weapons facility to neutralise the terrorist threat from FOXHOUND, a renegade special-forces unit. Snake must liberate two hostages, the head of DARPA and the president of a major arms manufacturer, confront the terrorists, and stop them from launching a nuclear strike.
With superior graphics for the time, cinematic cut scenes, a Hollywood-like story and exceptional voice-over work, Metal Gear Solid remains as the gold standard for video games. However, despite being such a great game, it was still unfathomably difficult. The complex into which Solid Snake is dropped is riddled with security cameras and highly perceptive guards that will detect any and all ill-timed movements. The inherent difficulty to this game comes with the territory of the stealth genre, but it still makes the list nonetheless.
5. Heart of Darkness (1998)
Instead of being a video game adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness (which, now that I think about it, would be pretty cool) this game looks, on the surface, to be a fairly child-like and straightforward affair. However, this is anything but. Developed by Amazing Studios and released by Ocean Software in Europe, Heart of Darkness places the player in control of a child named Andy as he attempts to rescue his dog who has been kidnapped by shadow-like spectres.
The game tested the limits of the 2D scroller with its cinematic storytelling sequences and pre-rendered backgrounds, and while the game was given positive reviews at the time of its release, the gameplay elements are still as challenging now as they were back in the dizzay.
This game is the textbook example of trial and error. Never mind the fact that any hit ends in instant death, sequences in which Andy has to battle through hordes of enemies and navigate precarious terrain are designed to be completed in a very specific manner, with any deviation from which resulting in being eaten. Therefore, this game tested the nerves of even the most patient gamers, as the player had to try again, and again, and again, and again to battle through the various levels in order to find the correct way to beat the enemies and progress through the game.
As difficult as this game was however, the developers were generous enough to give you unlimited lives, so it is possible to learn the patterns and techniques to push through to the end, so hang in there.
4. Tomb Raider III (1998)
Like GTA, Tomb Raider has become a phenomenon in popular culture, even managing a couple of motion pictures, which is more than GTA has done (make it happen, Hollywood). Lara Croft was one of the key cornerstone characters on which the PlayStation brand was build, and the success of the franchise kept on rolling with Tomb Raider III, a game some consider to be the best in the game’s canon.
The key difference in the development of Tomb Raider III is a reason behind its difficulty. Instead of building on the more action and shoot-‘em-up style of Tomb Raider II, the developers decided to take advantage of the blossoming technology available for games by upgrading the engine used in its predecessors. The engine offers better speed efficiency and new graphical features such as coloured lighting and triangular polygons, allowing developers to achieve greater detail and more complex geometry.
As a result, the game walks confidently into a brave new world of difficulty. Combining complex puzzles, hidden items and combative humans and animals, Tomb Raider III really separates the men from the boys. Moreover, the limited save structure (a key difference between Tomb Raider II and III) means that the exploration of the levels, which are littered with booby traps, poses a much greater intensity of complexity than ever before. In past releases, it was a case of trial and error, but now, it’s a different beast entirely.
3. Tenchu: Stealth Assassins (1998)
Is it me, or was 1998 an absolute b*tch when it came to hard games? Good lord. Anyway, Tenchu: Stealth Assassins was released in 1998 and was developed by Acquire and published by Sony Music Entertainment Japan in Japan and by Activision worldwide on the PlayStation. The game is known for its eerie settings of feudal Japan and stealth gameplay. And being from the stealth genre, you know that it’s going to be difficult.
The game features 10 levels which are introduced in increasing difficulty: Punish the Evil Merchant, Deliver the Secret Message, Rescue the Captive Ninja, Cross the Checkpoint, Execute the Corrupt Minister, Infiltrate the Manji Cult, Destroy the Foreign Pirate, Cure the Princess, Reclaim the Castle and Free the Princess.
All of the levels take place at night to compensate for the technical limitations of the PlayStation; the game’s high rate of redraw is reduced by setting events at night and reducing the distance the player can see. However, like Silent Hill, the limitations of technology turned out to be anything but a hindrance, as setting everything at night only helps the eerie feel of the game.
With unlimited lives, this is another game in which trial and error is your only way to get through the game. However, the extreme difficulty of the game, coupled with being dropped into missions with very little context, only served to frustrate 90s gamers to no end.
2. Rayman (1995)
If you want a full dissection of why Rayman was both the dream and the nightmare of my younger days, then I suggest you go take a brief look at my list of the 10 most difficult ps1 levels of all time, in which Rayman also just missed out on the top spot.
But for now, let me just say that this isn’t just one of the most difficult games on the original PlayStation, it is easily one of the most difficult games of all time. Rayman was one of the first games to be released when the PlayStation was brought out by Sony back in 1995, and throughout the course of the ps1’s run, it became one of its best-selling games in the UK with 4 million units shipped.
At first glance, it may look like a game for children. With its colourful, whimsical worlds, the wide-eyed cuteness of its characters and the gorgeous soundtrack, this game may not look like much, but then Bruce Lee was only 5’7”.
Rayman is a game long on levels and short on checkpoints and the margin for error is razor thin, especially given that the player only starts off with five lives and five continues, which can all quite easily be used up by the second world. The amount of lives Rayman can find is drastically decreased after the first few levels, and by the latter stages, lives are placed in such precarious and dangerous places, it’s not even worth trying to get to them.
Almost everything on the screen at any one time can kill you, from lightning-bolt shooting eyes to tiny insects, to musical notes to huge insects and rock monsters, this is a game that wants you to fail, and fail hard.
And we haven’t even got to the small matter of the electoon cages yet. The electoon cages are scattered across the levels, and if they’re not hidden in absurdly hard to get to corners of the level, then they only appear when Rayman hits completely random and often practically undetectable trigger points.
And if you don’t find them all – 102 to be exact – then you can’t even get to the final boss. This is a game that everyone played and no one completed. Moreover, many of us didn’t even get past the second world – a part of the game that is easy compared to the latter stages. And by the time you get to the final two worlds, the game is as difficult as it possibly can be before it becomes actually impossible.
Before we unveil number one, let’s have a look at some honourable mentions that didn’t quite make the cut:
Vagrant Story (2000)
Syphon Filter (1999)
Crash Bandicoot (1996)
Resident Evil (1996)
1. Alundra (1997)
This is the only game released on the original PlayStation that is harder than Rayman. And in saying that, it’s akin to saying that Evander Holyfield was the only person in the world who wasn’t afraid of Mike Tyson. It’s when bad meets badder. And Alundra is as mean as they come.
Alunda is an action adventure role-playing game that was released in 1997 and its protagonist is a young man named Alundra, who learns that he has the power to enter people’s dreams. He is shipwrecked on an island near the village of Inoa where locals have been suffering from recurring nightmares that sometimes cause death. Dark.
With his dream walking ability, Alundra proceeds to try to help the locals. So he’s basically what would happen if Freddie Kruger was hugged a bit more as a kid. The narrative becomes gradually darker and more twisted as the game progresses, dealing with mature themes such as death, clinical depression, fate, religion, and the essence of human existence. So yeah, it isn’t exactly an afternoon of breezy, one-eye-on-Facebook gaming.
The game is very exploration heavy, and with a combination of real-time action combat, extremely challenging puzzle solving that is so subtle and so complex that you basically need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure them out, and insanely precise platforming, the final result is a game unlike any other. The platforming is isometric, and therefore straight from the outset, you are thrown into the deep end, from which you are never afforded the opportunity to escape.
Upon release, the game was universally acclaimed and was fairly successful commercially. It was praised for its well-written story and characterisation, smooth game mechanics and platforming, challenging gameplay and puzzles, and expansive overworld exploration. But despite all this, it has become infamous in the gaming community as not just the undisputed king of difficult ps1 games, but arguably the hardest game of all time.
Did we miss any out? Do you agree or disagree with the order? Let us know in the comment section below!