If you’re a gamer “of a certain age”, you may vaguely remember the moment when games went from a grueling gauntlet requiring all your skill and concentration to tackle to a casual, checkpoint-containing, cruise control-encouraging walk in the park.
Games used to be tough. Like lightning fast reflexes, intimate knowledge of level layouts, ready to anticipate and react at any moment kinda tough.
Then one day, devs decided seemingly all at once to add in autosave, checkpoints, unlimited lives, low stakes conditions to dying, and more to make things more comfortable for the casual players in the crowd.
Don’t get me wrong. By modern standards, throwing down something with no autosave, checkpoints that are few and far between, or other ridiculous parameters for success can make a game feel broken.
Back in the day though, that was the norm. You had to put up or show up. And if you beat the game, it meant you were good. You were now a local legend.
SNES hosted more than a few of these brutal titles that had gamers everywhere gripping their controllers with white knuckles and grinding their teeth into little nubs.
Here’s a rundown of some of the toughest SNES games of all time.
10) Castlevania: Dracula X
Castlevania games are usually associated with challenging levels and gameplay, but Castlevania: Dracula X takes the absurdity to new heights. The devs designed every aspect of this experience to work against you, including your own character.
Literally one Castlevania game prior, you’re playing Simon Belmont and whipping in all directions to take down foes from all angles. Now playing as Richter in Dracula X, you can swing it in two directions. That’s it.
What does that mean? It means you’re going to “dance” a lot until the enemy is literally right within your striking distance. Flying enemies or enemies at different altitudes will try your patience every time. And projectile throwing enemies? Forget it.
What makes the endeavor even worse is that some enemies have a range that puts yours to shame. That means finding your openings is never more important . You’ll need enemy knowledge, patience, and decisiveness at the right times to get through the most basic sections.
If you manage to get to the game’s final boss, Dracula, good effing luck! Not only is he a powerhouse with a beast of a health pool, but there are projectiles everywhere, tiny platforms that you have to jump to and from to stay alive, and did we mention your whip has been nerfed big time since the last game?
If you beat this bad boy back in the day, good for you! It’s an achievement, for sure. If you didn’t, don’t bother. There are better Castlevania games that are more fair and more fun.
9) Prince of Persia
You’ll get no rewind in this version of Prince of Persia, and every second counts because you start with a 2-hour time limit and it’s a legit game over. This alone makes the experience feel harried and frantic, even though the action tends to unfold slowly and deliberately.
Thankfully, Prince of Persia lets you die, and oh yes, you will die, an unlimited number of times, but it never resets that timer. No matter what you’re up to, whether you’re trying to beat a skeleton in a sword fight or make a tricky jump through a series of booby traps, you know you can’t take your sweet time. Yet, rushing through is punished over and over and over again.
At times, Prince of Persia seems like a “no win” situation.
That said, you can make it through, but it definitely will not be on your first go. Prince of Persia takes a few runs before you remember, “Oh yeah, that tile falls out and I need to grab the ledge and tiptoe through the spikes right after.”
Success is one part caution, one part skill, and a whole lot of trial-and-error. It’s a tough one, for sure, but it’s not the most ridiculous of titles that the SNES has to test your mettle.
8) Jurassic Park
The year was 1993 and the cinematic masterpiece Jurassic Park had just roared its way through theaters everywhere. It wasn’t long before Ocean Software developed and published a game by the same title, which let you play as Dr. Grant himself in his quest to leave the island and evade the dangerous dinosaurs lurking around every corner.
For megafans of Jurassic Park like myself, this was a no-brainer to buy. It’s Jurassic Park! It’s dinosaurs! And it’s a video game! It’s all my favorite things rolled into one! I popped in the cartridge and couldn’t wait to jump in.
Unfortunately, the opening of the game is pretty underwhelming. You get plopped right down into the action and a little voice tells you “Welcome to Jurassic Park!” From there, you figure it out. Jurassic Park puts you in the park, and you know you have to escape, but it sure as heck doesn’t tell you how or what to do or where to go or anything.
It’s a slick looking game with a cool soundtrack, but having no idea what to do often leaves you to aimlessly wander and wonder what’s going on. To make it worse, you start with this dinky electrified lightning gun thingamajig which kills the creeps but only tickles bigger baddies like raptors and dilophosauruses.
The weapon assortment is pretty cool and will help you dispatch of your more dangerous foes, but the ammo is scarce. Add in the fact that the enemies literally jump out of the trees at any moment with no warning, and it’s not uncommon that you wander just a bit too far and find yourself raptor fodder
Overall, it was an ambitious game with a decent playing experience once you accept that it’s not going to provide you any explicit clues on what to do, but the enemies are significantly stronger and faster than you so there’s never a moment you feel like you’re running things. Combine it with the fact that you’ll never know what you’re doing or where to go next, and Jurassic Park remains a tough gaming experience to date.
You’re better off loading up that Sega Genesis version instead and wrecking fools as a raptor. It’s way easier and way more satisfying.
7) Super R-Type
It takes a special breed of gamer to enjoy these types of side-scrolling shooter games with power-ups aplenty and elements of bullet hell titles woven into the gameplay. I could probably write this exact same list, exact same title, but only include games in this genre. They’re all tough, require pure precision, concentration, and, in some cases, pure luck.
Super R-Type gets my award for the most grueling, frustrating entry in the series, and the genre on SNES for that matter too. On the surface, it looks super crisp and the level of badassery present is there. You’ll want to love this game. And if you take the time to really decode what it’s asking you to do, you might enjoy what it offers.
I mean, it’s not really a bad game, per se. It’s just tough as nails.
For starters, there are no checkpoints in this title. Other R-Type entries usually throw at least one in the middle of the level to break things up and give you a little relief, but not Super R-Type. Any mistake that costs you a life and you’re right back at square one of the exceedingly long levels.
If that’s not bad enough, the game also strips you of your power-ups. Losing your pod attachment and improved firepower makes the game exponentially more difficult, and so every mistake and retry might as well be a hit of the ol’ hard reset instead.
So Super R-Type will have you dying over and over again learning the ropes and presumably persevering eventually, but you’ll need a lot of trial-and-error and some pretty slick skills to get ‘er done. It’s a sweet game and satisfying win if you do succeed, but you’re better off playing any of the other R-Type entries that are a little more forgiving.
6) The Lion King
Everyone went wild when Disney’s The Lion King came out in 1994. Not too long after, Westwood Studios and Virgin Interactive Entertainment dropped a colorful game by the same name to offer gamers their chance to play as Simba.
This game is literally designed to fool you. You start out as little cub Simba on a pretty straightforward level. The enemies are just little bugs that you can pounce on or deliver a tiny little roar to overturn and immobilize. After a literal cakewalk, you arrive at the boss– one hyena which you only have to jump on once. Literally once.
No problem. You got this. Or do you?
Level 2 is what everyone from that time remembers. “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.” Oh, you awful, stupid, smiling animal featuring, hippo tail-wagging, nonsense, garbage design level.
From here on out it’s an absolute slog. You’ve got a bunch of monkeys that you need to roar to flip so they throw you in the right direction. You might be here for twenty or thirty minutes fumbling with the platforming and borderline clunky controls.
Touch the water? Dead. Done.
Trying to grab those hippo tails to swing over water? Missed it by a pixel? Dead. Done.
Level 2 is so frustrating that as a child I totally bailed on this one and never looked back. I eventually returned and made a day of it using an emulator and save state, and I need way, way, way more lives to deal with the onslaught that stupid game throws at you after the notorious second level.
You have falling rocks, hazards, platforming nightmares, hyenas, leopards, literal mazes that throw endless assortments of baddies at you until you navigate it successfully, and all of it leads up to a final confrontation with good ol’ Uncle Scar.
Scar is not too bad to battle, but I’m going to be honest. I fought him. I fought him some more. I fought him some more and some more after that, until I said that there’s just no way his health pool is this large.
I Googled it, and trusty Google told me you need to get him close to the edge and then hit the buttons to throw him off. I literally never used this technique anytime in the other levels against anyone else. I don’t know if most gamers knew about this, but could you imagine clawing and scratching your way through that whole thing only to lose against Scar because you didn’t know you could throw?
Awful. Simply awful.
5) Contra III: The Alien Wars
The Contra series is synonymous with difficulty, and Contra III: The Alien Wars might be one of the hardest ones. Luckily, the game is a quick one, so you won’t have to hold the line for quite as long as some of our other entries.
During that time though, it’s grueling. There’s enemies and projectiles everywhere, and most levels will throw in a mini-boss and then another…and then another? And then a main boss?
Everytime you think you’re in a rhythm, the game’s throwing you for another loop. You’re halfway through Stage 1 and now the floor is fire. You finish the spinning, floating mini-boss guy in Stage 3 and, wait, it’s a wallcrawler guy now? Then he turns into a different thing? Now there’s two Terminator-looking guys? Now a big one busts through the wall!?
Don’t even get me started about the speeder bike level. Right out of the gate there are enemies flying everywhere, bullets all over the screen, and you’ll be jumping, dipping, ducking, and diving to evade the hailstorm of enemy firepower.
The mini-bosses on this stage aren’t quite as ridiculous, but the area boss that has you leaping from missile to missile evading his firepower and trying to land your shots simultaneously is pure nightmare fuel.
Let’s not forget the Contra rule that every death strips you of your precious weapons. You’ll make quick work of the baddies with lasers, flamethrowers, and other heavy hitters, but your basic machine gun usually means certain doom for your run.
The good news is that, if you can manage to overcome all the hardcore challenge of this title, it’s one of the best on the console. Even today, Contra III: The Alien Wars is totally worth a try.
4) Battletoads in Battlemaniacs
Battletoads games were always known for being ruthlessly unforgiving. Battletoads in Battlemaniacs is no exception to this. First of all, dealing with the hordes will be made much easier if you have someone playing P2 as good ol’ Rash, but otherwise you’re gonna have to whiteknuckle it alone as the burly Pimple.
Battletoads uses the classic SNES trick of seeming straightforward from the jump. Level 1 is pretty easy. You have to fight a few bigs and give them the big boot off the level or those crazy ram horns Pimple pops out when he runs at an enemy. There will occasionally be some falling sections of ground or raining fire. The level concludes with a big rock pig who doesn’t hit too hard, move too fast, or do anything too unusual. Easy peasy.
Again, Level 2 says, “Good job on the warmup! Let’s see what you got!”
Now you’re on a floating platform descending the trunk of a big tree, or something? It’s not too taxing to take care of the buzzing bees they throw at you or evade some of the hazards in your path. So far, so good…
Then they throw in tunnels of pointy trees that you need to expertly steer through unscathed. It requires a delicate touch and loads of finesse to get through, but it’s doable.
“Still too easy?” Battletoads says. “Alright. You asked for it!”
And with no warning the speed jumps big time. Now you have to show some serious gamer skills to get through. The margin of error is very, very slight. But it’s still doable!
You get a bonus stage to (hopefully) gather a few extra lives to get through the next challenge. Level 3? The Turbo Tunnel. Just forget it.
I personally felt a little ripped off by this point. Sure, the Turbo Tunnel is cool, but it’s relentless, it’s fast, it’s unforgiving– you need to basically memorize the order of all these barriers and things that will kill you instantly if you want to get through.
I was hoping for more of the beat ‘em up stuff and beautiful art from Level 1. It does come after this, but then you have to climb a bunch of snakes and pull off some ridiculous platforming stuff to even get your shot at continuing on.
Overall, it’s a really slick looking game, but it is extremely hard and most gamers will never see the ending without a great emulator. Some of them won’t get through it even with save states and stuff.
It’s a tough one. No doubt.
3) Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
As a Star Wars fan, I was super pumped to get my hands on these bad boys.
Let’s be clear though– all of them are grueling endeavors that don’t let up for a second. No matter which title you’re playing, what level you’re on, it doesn’t matter. There will be enemies and projectiles all over the screen all the time and you’re never going to have a second to catch your breath.
Of the three, The Empire Strikes Back might be the worst offender. Sure, you can play on easy and use passwords to jump ahead and dispense with the need to get it done in one sitting, but it all seems not to matter much.
The levels are long and enemies seemingly never-ending. In some sections, they actually are never-ending and they’ll spawn until you get yourself out of there. But how can you get out when you have to stop and fight every four seconds!? Catch 22.
Let’s not forget that there are more than 20 levels of this nightmare. And if you were one of those super dedicated people with nerves of steel that actually made it to the epic Cloud City encounter against Vader, he’s no pushover. With saber skills for days and an endless barrage of debris flying all over the place, it’s hard to come out ahead and overcome one of the SNES’ toughest titles ever.
Oh, and did we mention that you have to pilot multiple vehicles in various stages? It’s a cool feature to break up the side-scrolling monotony, but it’s not so nice when learning the controls and mechanics in these unique sections will chew up your extra lives reserve, which was scarce to begin with.
You’ll need to use the actual Force to beat this one. Seriously.
2) Zombies Ate My Neighbors
Alright, kids. Let’s talk about an underrated gem that gave a whole generation of old-school gamers a run (and gun) for their money. I’m talking about the 1993 cult classic Zombies Ate My Neighbors developed by LucasArts and published by Konami.
What a game. It was colorful and stylish, had an incredible arsenal of weapons from your standard water gun to exploding soda can grenades to a legit bazooka, and loads of different enemies that made the game equally intriguing and terrifying all at once.
So what made it so difficult?
For one, the enemies were a lot faster than just your run-of-the-mill shuffling walker type zombies. Think less Night of the Living Dead and more 28 Days Later zombies. You could almost see the Nikes on these bad boys as they bum rush you into oblivion over and over again on each level.
But they were just your standard fare in ZAMN. Beyond the early levels, you’ll face gigantic babies, chainsaw wielders, martians with a UFO overhead blasting you with lightning, football players, subterranean worms that just don’t die no matter what you fricking do to them.
You’ll run the gamut of monsters in ZAMN, and all of them can and will kill you if you aren’t fast with the jukes and decisive with your tactics. This alone makes it a challenge, but it’s also an endurance gauntlet.
Zombies Ate My Neighbors boasts almost 50 unique levels which increase exponentially in difficulty as you go. It helps mitigate the difficulty by allowing you to skip levels with new passwords every 4 stages or so, but you’ll forfeit your entire inventory if you wind up failing and starting fresh.
It almost defeats the purpose because you’ll wind up in, say, level 45 with just the clothes on your back and a water gun tasked with making a run through some of the toughest conditions imaginable, that it’s almost worth it to start 5 to 10 levels back and try to rebuild your inventory just to be better prepared.
Overall, it’s a tall order getting through every level, and most players simply won’t get it done. Even today though, it’s worth a shot!
(See anything on this list you need for your collection? We built a customized eBay search with all these games. Check it out! Any purchases you make help this site. Thanks!)
— The Editor
1) Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts
Normies maybe never heard of this title, but the hardcore of the hardcore are well-acquainted and I’m sure a lot of you saw this coming. Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts. What can we say to describe the maddening difficulty of Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts?
You play Arthur, a painfully slow knight often found adventuring in his underwear only one mere hit from death. One wrong move and he instantly decays into a miserable pile of bones and, with that severe speed disadvantage, this is going to happen very, very frequently.
Every insignificant grunt outpaces Arthur, and they show up in hordes. The first level alone is enough to discourage any casual-type player from bothering, whereas future levels will task you with painstakingly precise platforming, level gimmicks like waves swelling, and an endless supply of enemies to send you to your grave.
The ghost ship is particularly brutal. I mean, come on. I know it’s called Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts but there are so many ghosts swarming poor Arthur in this level, it’s not even fair.
Meanwhile, there’s a timer on the whole sordid affair, and you might wind up waiting too long for your openings only to time out before the area boss. Nothing is more demotivating than taking your time to overcome as crazy a challenge as Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts only to run out of time and take it from the top.
It’s just soul crushing.
Now let’s be optimistic and say you actually get all the way through. You make it to the final boss. You beat the final boss. The final boss! Now the princess pops up with some cockamamie exposition and literally sends your ass back to the start to do it all over again, except this time you need to use the Goddess’ Bracelet.
What is the Goddess’ Bracelet, you ask? A super weapon that gives you the satisfaction of stomping all the bad guys that gave you such a hard time during your first run through?
No. Not at all.
To be fair, the bracelet isn’t a total loser, but it pales compared to the humble dagger or elite tier bow and arrow.
So basically you slog your way through a horrifically difficult gaming experience, find out you have to do it again, and now they make you use a weapon that’s worse than what you probably were using the first time around.
All these factors combined, and that’s what makes Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts so excruciating. On the upside, learning how to manage each scenario and solve it like a puzzle is immensely satisfying. You’ll have to do this through trial-and-error, trying, dying, and retrying ad nauseum, but completing that second go around with the bracelet and taking down the true final boss is one of the greatest SNES achievements out there.
Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts is an excellent game at its core, but it is easily the toughest SNES game ever made.