When Dark Souls was released in 2011, the denizens of the internet flocked to 4chan’s video game board for discussion, help and general complaining. The previous title, 2009’s Demon’s Souls, already had a loyal following on the board despite its far smaller global reach. There was a deep love for these action RPGS precisely because they bucked the trend of being accessible and easy. Not everyone felt this way at first though.
The most notable spike in difficulty in Dark Souls comes in the Ornstein and Smough boss fight, where you have to take on 2 fast and strong enemies at once. You learn quickly as you play through the game that you only want to take on one enemy at a time - slowly and patiently making your way through the level with you shield held high. So when people got to this bossfight, they felt completely unprepared.
Newcomers wanted to know the ‘trick’ to the bossfight. They’d ask questions about whether they should enchant their weapons and what armour they should use. What item did they need to find to make the boss fight doable? What weird strategy did they need to employ to overcome this challenge? And the reply was simple - Use the pillars, disable lock on, and be patient - wait for openings to sneak some attacks through.
The problem was, this was hard. If you’d been using lock on the entire time, having to control the camera manually and direct your strikes was difficult. There would be long windows of time when Ornstein and Smough would continually cover each other with a succession of attacks, which made finding the window to counter-attack difficult. Unfortunately, there was also some typical Dark Souls bullshit going on with Ornstein launching spear attacks directly through Smough.
So those who still couldn’t do the fight after three attempts with the advice given started to complain. They said it was unfair and stupid. They continued to ask for more advice, gave screencaps of their stats and whinged that there was no way for them to beat the fight with the way their character was set up. And the givers of advice, those who had put in the hard yards and conquered Dark Souls, threw their hands up in frustration.
They started to tell people to Git Gud.
It's a misunderstood phrase. The point of ‘Git Gud’ is not to be dismissive and mean spirited. It's simply shorthand for ‘There is no trick - you need to get better at the games fundamental mechanics through practice and precision’. Why this was so controversial is difficult to understand today, when there is a far more broad palette of games available, but back in 2011 this was a difficult pill to swallow. Games were designed to be completed - not to be overcome.
I was one of those newcomers. I was terrible at Dark Souls. I couldn’t beat Ornstein and Smough. I literally ran out of humanity trying to summon Solaire to help me, and even with his help I could not beat them. I got angry and depressed by turns at this stupid boss fight that seemed impossible.
And then, slowly, I got better. I was still running around with my shield up, still taking damage - but I learned how to get to safety and heal. I got better at separating Ornstein from Smough so I could land a hit or two. My spacing got better and my directional strikes became more accurate. I learned their attacks and got better at dodging. Soon, I was able to reach super Smough and could effectively dodge his slow moving but incredibly lethal moveset. And when I finally beat them it felt incredible - because I had earned my victory. I had finally gotten gud.
The reason that all this is on my mind today is that I’ve been playing through F Zero GX for the upcoming episode of my podcast. And boy, let me tell you - F Zero GX is a game that demands you Git Gud in a way I haven’t felt since 2011.
Part of this is that racing games are alien to me. The last racing game I played was Need For Speed Underground 2, which while very popular is hardly considered the height of difficulty. So trying to play and finish the Grand Prixs of F Zero GX (and don’t get me started on the story mode) was a bit of a shock to me.
The first thing to understand about F Zero GX is that you go fast. Very fast. Sonic is jealous of quite how fast you’re going. It's not quite as speedy as the 1000 km/h baseline speed of the racers would suggest - the tracks are quite wide and long - but you’re still zipping along at an insane pace. Add to that the numerous boost pads all over the place, and your constantly refilling personal booster and your theoretical top speeds hit the 2000’s.
It's not just that you drive quickly though - it's that the game wants you to push yourself to the absolute limit. You could slow down as you approach a hairpin turn...but wouldn’t it be better to use your boosters to maintain your speed and swing around it? When you get the S part of the track, you’d think you’d need to slow down to properly navigate it...but here are two booster pads immediately before it. And here! A part of the track where it's incredibly easy to fall off and be retired from the race...Let’s put a booster refill track immediately before it!
Those lethal falls are what continued to do me in as I tried time and time again to finish these Grand Prixs. It was partially my fault - I wasn’t satisfied with strategically finishing in 4th place, I wanted to win each individual track. My problems really started to ramp up on the track called Half Pipe. Normally, racing games are kind enough to put up barriers on either side of the track, so going slightly off course leads to a bump and some time lost. And most of the earlier tracks I’d played on were exactly like this, with one or two dangerous sections along the way. Half Pipe does it in reverse - there is one safe section, and the rest is open on either side.
What this means is that you need to be extremely careful at all times. When the sides of the track are ramps it means that every poorly timed turn can send you flying upwards and to your death. It does allow for some incredibly cool shortcuts for people who are actually good at the game, but for me it was an intense struggle to stay on course. I had multiple Grand Prixs ended here, losing all my lives and having to replay it from the very beginning.
So how did I conquer this track? I got gud. I learned the lines I needed to take; I learned the track by heart so I knew when the S bend was coming. Much as it pained me, I stopped using the most dangerous booster, where the walls drops right down in a dangerous S bend and got better at making up that lost time later. I memorised all the boost locations and learned the best timings to activate my personal booster on the long stretches. I learned to not die.
Yet when I finally beat Half Pipe, I didn’t get the feeling of euphoria that I normally get when I overcome a difficult boss in Dark Souls. Instead, I felt relief. While both games demand that you get better, they do so in different ways.
Dark Souls is about pattern recognition. There’s no time limit (most of the time) and no raw memorisation - you don’t have a plan to beat a boss from start to finish. You learn general openings after attacks and the timings of their swings to dodge correctly, but it's more dynamic and varied. There’s still memorisation involved, but it's more awkwardly cobbled together. A Dark Souls speedrun on the other hand - that's where it becomes exactly the same.
When you’re on a clock, you can almost always go faster. And F Zero GX gives you all the tools to go as fast as you’d want to go, far beyond what most people can actually handle. It gives you all the rope you’d ever need to hang yourself. Playing the game is about constantly refining your approach to an absolute mirror sheen - as are all speedruns. The idea of coming back and playing this game for fun after finishing our podcast episode makes my heart ache in pain, because it's just you having to force yourself to get better on the anvil of progress. You, the track and the clock - get better and die trying.
So ultimately, I don’t think these games are for me. I admire the design of F Zero GX. I feel that it took courage to make a game about going fast when it punishes you so heavily for doing so if you don’t take the corners exactly right. And I respect those who have put in the time to master its tracks and do ludicrous things with shortcuts. But if I’m going to play a game that forces mastery, I’d rather turn to the multiplayer sphere of Dota 2 or Counter-Strike, where I get to judge myself against others...instead of being trapped in a room with just the clock for company.