Whenever I talk about my somewhat apocryphal love for Zelda II the same comments come up again and again: "it was hard as balls," "just brutally difficult," "you never know what the hell you're supposed to do." The thing is: Games were supposed to be hard - your job was to figure them out.
Take the image up top for example. That's from my well-loved 1987 copy of The Official Nintendo Player's Guide, an indispensable tome of wisdom from before the days of the internet, or even Nintendo Power. Seven-year-old me marked it up the wazzu, keeping track of where items and secrets were, taking notes on how to defeat enemies or traverse particularly difficult areas. Here are my notes on Zelda II's Death Mountain:
We had to do this for all sorts of games. Sometimes it meant knowing where to go on a game with no save function, and for others it meant knowing how to save. Zelda had a battery-powered save feature, but most games, if they had a save at all, had some convoluted password system. Mega Man's seemed insane to pre-teen me. I had page after page of badly-drawn Connect Four attempts all over my room. On the plus side, passwords led to cool possibilities like Justin Bailey.
Often it didn't matter if a particular game was never beaten - it was still a fun game.
So, when I hear about an "insanely hard" game, my mind usually breaks it down into different kinds of impossible. Several games fit into more than one category, and this is by no means a definitive list, it's just how I defined difficulty.
Games With No Obvious Direction
Due to the limitations of early games, even those with RPG elements like the Legend of Zelda were very light on text. As a result, exploration was needed find all the nooks and crannies - often making the games more fulfilling in the long run (your results may vary).
I would fit Zelda, Metroid, Kid Icarus, Spy Hunter and some of the Castlevania games into this category. These games required player-made maps.
Yes, I liked the much-loathed Castlevania II. No, it wasn't a better game than its predecessor, but I appreciated their attempts at creating atmosphere using day-and-night cycles and cryptic dialogue (often a bit too cryptic).
Some games simply required finding and memories the pattern, or variations of the pattern. These games came down to speed and timing.
I'd fit a lot of the Mario and Donkey Kong games into this category. A lot of younger gamers have told me Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. (no love for Donkey Kong 3? Poor Stanley....) were too hard, but watching them play, I noticed it often came down to leaping before they looked. Plan out or moves, young gamer.
Patterns or no, I have yet to beat Mike Tyson on the classic Punch Out! game.
Games That Required Luck and Skill
Now we're getting to the real nitty gritty. These were games where the title "insanely difficult" might apply.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the first NES game, gets a bad rap, in my opinion. Yes, that dam level (pun intended) is a pain in the shell, and it took me a long shell time to beat it - but beat it I did.
Then I died two levels later.
Then there's Battletoads - potentially the best beat-em-up game ever made, ruined by an insanely difficult obstacle course in the Turbo Tunnel. I have never met anyone who could honestly tell me they beat that level.
Stupidly Designed Games
Keep in mind that for all the complaints about games being too hard - like Ninja Turtles or Battletoads or Simon's Quest or Top Gun or the first Mega Man - most of these games were still well-made games. The difficulty curve just needed some adjustment.
There were other games, however, that were just stupid. This included games like Jekyll and Hyde, or sadly Uncanny X-Men (although I really loved the NES Wolverine game). Then there were all those games that eschewed the Official Nintendo Seal of Quality (for whatever it was worth) in favor of nonsensical shovelware like Bible Adventures and the Cheatahmen.
These games deserve no recognition.
These games are stupid.