I love hard games. I’ll eat Dark Souls for breakfast and have a side of Sekiro for dinner. Strategy games? Pump up the difficulty to max. Rogue-likes can’t withstand my feverish pro-gamer repetition skills. But, there are some games even I can’t handle — and they’re always the ones we least expect. As a producer of video game flavored content, I play hundreds of new (and old) games every year. Usually games are the perfect level of challenge. Just enough to be fun. Cuphead? That’s a healthy and fair challenge.
But these games aren’t healthy challenges. These games are brutal death marches that will crush your spirit into submission. And they’re all made specifically for children. Whether its due to improper programming, bad difficulty scaling, devious leaps in logic, wrong translation, or just by tricking you into complacency, these kid games took us by surprise by taking absolutely no prisoners. We’re talking about the cruelest games aimed at kids, and they’re still being made today.
Before getting started, let’s take a moment to acknowledge that the games listed below aren’t strictly the hardest ever. There are much worse, must less beatable games on the NES and SNES — but these are the games I’ve actually played. Contra, Ninja Gaiden and Castlevania are tough games, but a sufficiently encouraged kid can win with enough tries. And I don’t consider those games strictly kid’s games. We’re limiting our list to games clearly marketed towards kids. So strap yourself in, and be prepared for the nightmare scenario. These are the games that ruined our weekends.
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#10. Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled
Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled is an ego-deflating experience. Many players, like me, happily jumped straight into the remake of Crash Team Racing, expecting to master the controls and easily outwit the AI opponents in the story mode — how much harder could this game be than Mario Kart 8? What fools we were. Memories of the original game won’t help either — CTR on PS1 wasn’t a particularly difficult game. It felt light, fun, and just challenging enough to give our kid reflexes a work out. And then we, as adults, were humbled in CTR: NF.
Why is the remake so much harder? Because “Easy” is actually the Default Difficulty in the PS1 version of the game. Normal Difficulty only unlocks after beating the game once — meaning, in the original game, you would naturally build up your skill and prepare yourself for a much steeper challenge when you moved up to Normal (which I remind you, isn’t normal at all. It’s an unlockable difficulty!). In the remake on PS4 and Xbox One, most players will naturally assume Normal is the default difficulty, because you can choose your difficulty without having to unlock it first. Attempting the game on Normal as a newbie feels like driving off a steep cliff. Enemy racers will outpace you within two or three races, perfectly power sliding around corners and spiking any chance at victory. Your first place dreams are crushed into dust shockingly early. By the second set of stages, we had to admit defeat and just lower the difficulty.
Defeated by a children’s game thanks to irregular difficulty titles. Activision, why do you have to do this to me.
#9. Sonic The Hedgehog 
It took a lot of debate to put Sonic ’06 on this list. The Sonic games are undoubtedly all-ages platformers perfect for young kids, with colorful mascots and plenty of merch for showing off on the playground. With a big-budget kid’s movie released, Sonic is back in the general public’s eye. He’s one of the few video game characters to reach true mass media appeal… and some of his games are just unreasonably difficult.
Sonic The Hedgehog isn’t hard because its actually challenging. This game is straight-up busted, with some of the worst handling on the Xbox 360 / PS3. Most of us would’ve jumped straight into Sonic’s campaign, where you’re rapidly forced into a Mach Speed Zone — a level where Sonic runs forward unstoppably at unreasonable speeds. Only through brutal forced repetition can any kid beat these sections, thanks to a combination of loose controls, reflex precision, and total glitch breakdowns. Anything can happen in a Sonic ’06 stage. You can fall through a floor for no reason. Maybe your homing attack will simply pass through an enemy, dropping you into a death pit. Sometimes you just won’t stick onto the grind rails, falling into the abyss.
And like all of us, we just assumed there would be autosaves… y’know, like basically every game in the last 12 years. No, if you don’t manually save before the first level, you’ll have to restart the entire game over from the beginning after losing your paltry lives. Games like Sonic ’06 make you question whether companies like Sega just want to teach children a lesson in crushing disappointment.
#8: Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam
The Mario & Luigi adventure RPGs on Nintendo’s handheld systems are infinite charm engines. These are some of the silliest and weirdest Mario games, throwing the brothers into wildly creative scenarios we wouldn’t see anywhere else. They’re packed with awesomely cute animations, and feature some of the most refreshingly fun RPG gameplay on the Gameboy Advance, DS, and 3DS. In these games, you take an active role in battle — when enemies attack, you press [A] or [B] to jump or hammer away obstacles. Eventually, managing both brothers as the attacks get increasingly more complex becomes a tough-to-manage headtrip, requiring precise timing and split-second decision-making. Thankfully, in the Mario & Luigi games, you’ve only got to deal with the two brothers. Two buttons? We can deal with that.
Paper Jam throws a cruel wrench in the mix. In Paper Jam, Paper Mario becomes a third playable character, with his own totally unique and different interactions. He can jump in different ways, giving you a third element in your juggling act. If that wasn’t bad enough, the game quickly ramps up the difficulty with bosses that can absolutely crush your party in a few attacks if you don’t have absolute precision. And if a brother gets knocked out? The remaining heroes are slowed down, making dodging attacks EVEN HARDER. Some bosses can take upwards of an hour or more to beat on normal mode, all while you’re sweating bullets, desperately trying to survive just long enough while fumbling with the buttons, hoping and praying for a counterattack between your dwindling healing items.
This game is so absurdly hard, it has to provide players with an Easy Mode. This is basically Nintendo admitting defeat. The game is too hard, we can’t change it now, so if you’re stuck just swap to Easy Mode. Even adult players are going to need to switch that on for certain boss fights.
#7. Magical Tetris Challenge
What could be more friendly than Disney and Tetris combined? Beloved Disney characters like Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and more appear in the different Tetris variants in this Nintendo 64 game. Its a cute game, with some very well done sprite work and music — this really is a step up over your normal licensed drek, especially surprising because re-releases of Tetris can be synonymous with shovelware. But this one really holds up as a quality product that wants to crush you ruthlessly under a deluge of Tetris pieces.
The cruelty begins when you play the Story Mode. In the Story, you play Battle Tetris with the AI — depending on how many lines you fill in, you send cruel misshapen Tetris blocks to your enemy. Instead of the traditional shapes, you’ll get weird monstrosities like double-wide Us, extra long Ts, and random squiggles with empty spaces in the center. These oddly shaped blocks will instantly throw the Tetris faithful off their game, making perfect stacking literally impossible. Combine these weird shapes with enemy AI that borders on perfect, and you’re in for a very bad time. On hard difficulty, Minnie Mouse can drop giant Tetris squares that take up 35% of the entire screen — and she’ll drop five in a row.
For such a sweet little game, these new Tetris blocks feel like abominations in the eyes of Video Game God. Nobody should have to deal with these shapes. When the AI is lobbing twisted Tetris shapes into your perfect puzzle piece ecosystem, there’s nothing we can do but lower the difficulty.
#6. The Lion King
Yes, this is yet another Disney game. Despite their warm-and-friendly reputation, Disney was one of the cruelest purveyors of video games in the 90s, releasing a slew of licensed titles on the SNES console that crushed our meager child spirits. Aladdin was tough, but nothing could beat the insanity-inducing effects of the Lion King. Imagine you’re a kid playing Lion King. The first level is a breeze. No problems. You’re playing as kid Simba, happily making your way without a care in the world. Everything is as it should be.
You beat a few levels Everything is different now. The difficulty ramps up substantially. Each level can takes hours of replays and memorization. You’re making incremental progress, but you’re also dying a whole lot. The game has suddenly become a painful slog. You’ll notice Simba falling through ledges if you don’t land just right. Enemies are waiting away at what little health you have. This is a gentle game made specifically young audiences. What is going on!
Disney is what is going on. Fearing that kids would rent and complete The Lion King too quickly, the suits at Disney demanded that Level 2 be made significantly harder. The Elephant Graveyard is the worst, and even the developers formerly with Westwood Studios (creators of the Command & Conquer series!) admitted they overcompensated after Disney’s request and apologized. Nobody was happy except for a few fussy bean counters.
#5. Winnie The Pooh Home Run Derby
We’ve talked about this one before. There is something elemental about Winnie The Pooh Home Run Derby — something cursed about a game that looks so friendly while taking zero prisoners. This simple flash game is just one of the dozen basic games made for children to play in internet browsers. These games were designed to be disposable diversions that a very young child could quickly pick up, play for a few minutes, then discard and try something new. These aren’t games made for staying power, and they’re totally free. The game is still playable via the Internet Archive here, so you can experience the pain for yourself.
Seriously, try it for yourself. This is a game made for very young kids that feels more like one of those pain-inducing video game experiences — QWOP or Getting Over It. Even beating the first stage is a challenge, thanks to the sluggish mouse controls and the lack of any feedback when you miss a swing. Later levels require absolute precision, with Winnie’s pal Christopher Robin becoming a legendary final boss, standing side-by-side with greats like Sword Saint Ishin. Looking into the eyes of Christopher Robin is like looking into the endless void. Vast, dark, and terrifying.
#4. Super Empire Strikes Back
The NES / Genesis / SNES generation was the Golden Age for licensed video games. Every major motion picture and property got a video game, and it usually stunk. There were a glut of these cheaply produced, crummy games that were all universally too difficult. Games like Terminator 2 or Back To The Future 3 weren’t made to be played. They were suffered. But we kids tried them out anyway. A diamond in the rough of these crummy games was Super Star Wars — published by beloved video game icon LucasArts, Super Star Wars still feels like a labor of love. It wasn’t a tie-in for a recent movie. It existed because kids loved Star Wars.
That’s what made the brutal difficulty so heartbreaking. This was a licensed game that looked great and played great. Waving your lightsaber around, cutting through enemies effortlessly — it felt fun! Your health bar was going down, but you were having a great time. Then the levels just kept going, and the boss fights, and the weird level layouts, and the endless enemies. Super Empire Strikes Back chewed us up and spit us out like an angry Wookie… even more than the rest of the games in the series.
Super Empire Strikes Back kicks your butt in all the classic old-school platformers ways — enemies that are way too hard to kill, blind leaps of faith, falling trick platforms that drop you into death pits, spikes everywhere, and bosses with long health bars. Once you reach Cloud City, Super Empire drops all pretense and just becomes a hellish death march, with infinitely spawning enemies, weird level layouts, bottomless pits, and useless power-ups you’ll only get when they’re not useful in the slightest. The final boss fight again Darth Vader is infamous. We all just wanted to a fun Star Wars game to play. It didn’t have to be this way!
#3. Professor Layton and the Curious Village
Professor Layton is a puzzle game all about brain-twisters — these games are packed with riddles and brain teasers. Most of the puzzles allow you to draw directly on the Nintendo DS touchpad (or Nintendo Switch) with a stylus to make notes, which is required for some of the trickier puzzles. Mostly, the Layton games slowly ramp up the difficulty, but the Curious Village slams you over the heard with a tricky puzzle right at the start. And this is the very first game in the series!
And some of it is due to poor translation. Symbols that aren’t commonly known in the US / Europe were still used in some puzzles, and others are totally open to interpretation, but the game only has a single answer in mind. Puzzles like The Camera and the Case drive players up the wall, and even the very early puzzles can stump grown adults. These games are clearly designed for kids, but the very first game in the series was so infamously difficult, an easier re-release was issued in Japan. If only we got that here.
#2. Yooka-Laylee & The Impossible Lair
Here’s a game that’s easy to play but hard to beat. Yooka-Laylee is an indie series of adventure platformers that started out as a reimaging of collect-a-thons like Banjo-Kazooie, before morphing into something closer to Donkey Kong Country in The Impossible Lair. Most of the game is breezy, light, and just difficult enough to give kids a fun challenge. Nothing out of the ordinary here — kids are pretty good at banging their head against a steep wall of difficulty and finally overcoming it. I think its because we had nothing better to do.
But the Impossible Lair really lives up to its name. The rest of the game is airy fun — the final level is an uphill battle. By completing levels, you’ll earn more extra lives to use in the final stage. If you lose all your lives, you’ll have to restart from the very beginning. Each run can take 20+ minutes, and the challenges doesn’t end when you beat the stage. No, you’ve got to get through multiple rounds of a difficult boss fight on top of all that. The levels are packed with deadly traps that require perfect platforming or just straight-up memorization, making it almost impossible to complete without dying many, many times. Celeste and Super Meat Boy, with their checkpoints and infinite continues, are a breeze compared to The Impossible Lair.
#1. Mickey’s Wild Adventure
The PS1 was revolutionary at the time, bringing full 3D video game graphics to the masses. But, it was also the 90’s, so licensed games were still being churned out to be as hair-pullingly hard as humanly possible. Mickey Mouse might exist in the realm where only really little kids have any interest in the character — and yet, his video games bully you like the big kid on the playground. They absolutely will steal your lunch money and they’ll get away with it.
Mickey’s Wild Adventure on the PS1 isn’t a cash grab, which made all us kids want to play it in the first place. This was a real game with heart put into the development. The first level drops you into Mickey’s Steamboat Willie past, with all the black-and-white 1920s animation to really make you feel like you’re part of the world. But, these games follow in a long grand tradition where literally everything in the game world exists to kill you. By the second level, Mickey has to juggle dodging bats, spinning sawblades, tumbling boxes, and avoid crumbling floors with no safe space to rest in sight. Even with four hits for each life, this game is devastatingly hard. When you reach the skeletons that explode into bones that bounce around unpredictably while also damaging you, you’ll realize that this game was not made for children. Only gamers made of iron may pass.
There are way too many games from the past that fit the bill. These are the games that chewed us up and spit us out. Why were games aimed at children so dang difficult? And people are still doing it! I’m glad developers are still torturing kids gleefully, dangling the slimmest chance at victory right out of reach. If I had to suffer, shouldn’t everyone else have to suffer too?!