Without meaning to, I've found myself bumping into the question of difficulty in games recently. I can't explain why, but I've been thinking and writing about it a lot lately, and in the process I've become painfully aware of my own hypocrisy on the subject. On one hand, I want my non-gamer friends to play Braid; but they can't, and that troubles me. On the other hand, I would love for my non-gamer friends to play Etrian Odyssey; but they can't (or won't) and I couldn't care less. Etrian Odyssey is a hard game, folks. Deal with it.
At least I'm aware of my hypocrisy. That should count for something, right?
A small part of me quietly thinks Etrian Odyssey is the ultimate (and portable!) lithmus test to determine authentic, old-school, hardcore gamer cred. If you dig this game - I mean derive real satisfaction from playing it - you, my friend, have attained Gamer Enlightenment and reside in the 9th Sphere of dungeon-crawler Heaven.
I came face to face with the essence of this peculiar form of transendence when my copy of Etrian Odyssey II arrived the other day. My wife was intrigued by the game box and asked me what kind of game it was. I explained it was an RPG that hearkens back to the roots of the genre and games like Wizardry. When that didn't register, I added that it was a turn-based exploration game that required the player to draw his own dungeon maps. "You mean the game doesn't show you where you are?" she asked. "Nope. You're totally on your own. It's like back when games required you to draw maps on graph paper, except with this game you can draw them on the bottom screen of the DS." After looking at me blankly for moment, she asked, "Why would you want to do that?"
Hm. Why indeed. It's a good question, isn't it? Why would a modern gamer choose to play a game that resolutely refuses to incorporate nearly every major advancement made in the genre over the last 25 years? And why would a modern developer (Atlas) devote its resources to building an antique, outmoded RPG?
Etrian Odyssey demands much and offers very little in return. It severely punishes your mistakes and requires a lot of apparently unnecessary work. It is a grind in the purest sense; no auto-saves, no mini-maps, increment-only movement, frequent random battles and brutal bosses. It is unforgiving, unyielding, and it refuses to hold your hand or even acknowledge your measly existence. And those are the very reasons I love it so. I love Etrian Odyssey precisely because it is so unfashionably hard.
No doubt, a certain amount of ego comes into play here. Surviving in Etrian Odyssey is verification that I've still got it as a gamer and classic RPG player. I haven't lost my chops. To be sure, in this genre "chops" translates to dogged persistence and indefatigable enthusiasm - not exactly skills, but admirable traits nonetheless. I may not be as fast as I used to be, but it's good to know I haven't lost a step when it comes to bulldog perseverence. :-)
And there's something to be said for occasionally taking the hard road. Etrian Odyssey offers great fun and deep satisfaction, but you must dig and sweat before the game will yield them to you. Some would say this is no fun at all. But I say a map well-drawn and a dungeon well-explored are their own rewards.
If you're a big fan of RPGs, you owe it to yourself to take a look at the genre's origins. There are lots of ways to do that, including playing games like The Bard's Tale and Wizardry yourself. But Atlas has done all of us a great service (yet again) by capturing the souls of these games into a handsome modern package and by bringing the original Japanese versions of Etrian Odyssey I and II to North America, Europe and Australia. I recommend the sequel for its improved navigation and inventory management, both of which make the game...uh, yeah, easier. On second thought, I recommend the original.