Gamers love a challenge, but when a challenge is described as “punishing”, that seems to be a roundabout way of saying “not fun.” The implication is that the challenge is so difficult that trying to overcome it can be considered a form of punishment, but what it’s actually describing is a challenge that requires a great deal of precision (and maybe some random luck) and that the slightest mistake can ruin your entire attempt. The sense of “punishment” stems from the game’s seemingly extreme consequences for failure. But it’s a very fickle word; our perception of any given challenge is affected by the rest of the game around it. A game that starts off easy and then gets very difficult won’t be considered punishing no matter how hard the later challenges may actually be. Case in point: Peggle.
Peggle is a conceptually simple game: There’s a vertical board filled with floating pegs of multiple colors. You shoot a ball from the top of the screen, and try to hit all the orange pegs, at which point you’ve beaten the level. Aside from the main Adventure mode, there’s a Challenge mode. In the hardest Challenges, you’re tasked with clearing an entire board starting with just one ball. These Challenges are the very definition of punishing: With one ball you cannot make any mistakes, every shot must result in another free ball or you start over. But these are not generally considered punishing, no part of Peggle is, because the rest of the game works to ease the player into that higher difficulty.
Peggle starts off slow. The rules aren’t complicated to begin with, but it still takes multiple levels before the player is introduced to the four kinds of pegs and what they do. The game is broken up into sets of five levels, and the first set is very straightforward: The layout of the pegs is simple, and there are no moving pieces. The second set adds some large curves, the third set adds some moving pieces, and the board slowly becomes more complicated until the player feels comfortable facing the punishing Challenges.
Trash Panic, on PSN, is very much the opposite. It’s instantly reminiscent of Tetris, but nowhere near as simple. Pieces of trash fall in from the top into a trash can, the user must throw them down, either on top of another piece of trash or at a particular angle, so that they break. If left unbroken, the trash quickly piles up and if three pieces fall out it’s game over. The basic mechanics seem no more complicated than Peggle, but when the use of fire, explosives, and decomposable trash, the odd scoring system that rates you on “Eco” versus “Ego,” the lack of a proper save system, and the lack of a tutorial are taken into account, then just learning the rules of the game becomes an unnecessary challenge.
From a technical definition, the final Challenges in Peggle are more punishing because there’s no way to recover from a mistake: One bad shot means the game is over. In Trash Panic if a piece of trash doesn’t break when we intend it to, there’s a small window of opportunity to fix this mistake if we doesn’t panic. So in this regard Trash Panic is more forgiving, but it’s not the actual difficulty of the individual levels that makes a game like Trash Panic feel punishing, it’s everything else around those levels, it’s that fact that the game does everything it can to prevent the player from progressing. Without a competent save system or tutorial, it feels like the developers never wanted players to reach the fifth and final level. Where Peggle eases the player into its harder difficulties, Trash Panic throws us in headfirst.
On the Japanese PSN, there’s an “Arcade Edition” of Trash Panic that lets you play three “lives” for 100 yen (about $1) When those are gone you have to pay again to keep playing. It’s a fitting structure for the game, since Trash Panic feels like it was designed to eat quarters.
Peggle is a textbook case of a game that’s well paced. With each level lasting only five to ten minutes, we’re constantly faced with new challenges, but the actual difficulty of those challenges increases at a slow and steady pace. Gamers love a challenge, but only when it’s an expected challenge. Trash Panic’s embrace of that instantly-punishing arcade style shows how much games have evolved since the days of the arcade. If a game doesn’t ease its player into the harder difficulties it risks losing them, and there’s no longer someone else standing behind them ready to plunk down a quarter for their turn. Today’s games must pander to the player. That’s not to say they must be easy, or even that they can’t be punishing, but they must let the player know what they’re getting into. Some challenges should be for volunteers only.