The difficulty level of video games has created a heavily charged debate on the Internet between those that argue that all games should be accessible and those that feel games should be allowed to exclude a potential audience on the basis of difficulty. The origins of this debate can be traced down to the release of Dark Souls, a game so renowned for its difficulty it spawned the “like Dark Souls” comparison for other hard games. In the following years, games like Cuphead and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, neither of which prove forgiving for players wanting an easier experience, only reignited this debate over again. Despite the heated controversies, however, these games have seen wild success with audiences of varying skill levels. Why is that? Imagining playing a game that harshly punishes the player for failure does not sound fun at all, but in reality they can offer some of the most rewarding feelings in the medium. Chasing after this high only works when the game is fair, which Hollow Knight does near flawlessly, specifically in its best boss fight: Nightmare King Grimm.
Released in 2017 and developed by Team Cherry, Hollow Knight follows a lone warrior exploring the depths of a long dead civilization of bugs. Nightmare King Grimm is only one of the game’s forty-seven bosses, and what makes him special is how he thoroughly tests the player on every layer of the combat system. While difficult, Hollow Knight is also a simple game, featuring straightforward mechanics that are easy to grasp but hard to master. The player’s health is represented by masks which act as an updated lives system, as taking a hit means losing one mask, and these can be replenished by standing still to heal after attacking enemies. The player also has a single sword swing to attack with only three special attacks, as well as a quick horizontal dash and a double jump for evasion. Furthermore, any of these attributes can be altered through the game’s charm system, which can boost attack speed, lengthen the dash, or heal quicker. So what makes Nightmare King Grimm a great boss?
Unlike most other bosses in Hollow Knight, Grimm uses an unconventional fighting style involving him teleporting around the arena, forcing players to take advantage of the split seconds he appears to attack. He primarily tests them on their awareness of positioning and punishes play styles that mindlessly wail on an opponent. Grimm also attacks incredibly quickly, leaving players only a second at most to react to his moves, and failure to successfully dodge them results in losing two masks instead of one. Moreover, Grimm offers few, if any, chances to stop and heal because of his speed, meaning that players cannot afford to stumble through the fight without mastering the combat.
At the same time, however, Team Cherry offers the player more than a few olive branches for this fight. First, the player will have the tools necessary to fight Grimm no matter what, with no attack being impossible to dodge because the player missed something while exploring the world. Second, every attack has a very clear and unique windup animation so the player can anticipate any move Grimm makes. Finally, Grimm only has a handful of attacks that behave the same way every single time, such as releasing spikes from under the floor that always come up in the same places, and occur in predictable patterns. That last part is especially important since an unfortunate sequence of events can kill a player unfairly. Developers typically program bosses with a fixed set of moves that are then chosen at random to string a sequence of attacks, meaning that they also have to add constraints to the randomness to make it fair, which Team Cherry succeeds at with most bosses including Grimm as he rarely executes the same attack twice. Furthermore, even if the sequences were unfair, the attacks themselves are never unavoidable due to them having multiple means of evasion and always remaining consistent and readable. So even if Grimm presents one of the hardest challenges the game has to offer, he is still quite simple in design but extraordinarily difficult to master, much like the rest of the game.
When I tried to defeat Nightmare King Grimm myself, it took me two months of trying over and over again, but the sense of accomplishment at finally slaying him has no rival in my experience of playing games. It is incredibly easy to make a brutally difficult boss fight, but making one fair is an accomplishment unto itself, and the fairness amidst the difficulty is what makes games like Hollow Knight so successful, both as a product and as an experience.
Thumbnail: Hollow Knight. https://www.nintendo.it/Giochi/Giochi-scaricabili-per-Nintendo-Switch/Hollow-Knight-1125772.html.
Fig. 1: Nightmare King Grimm. https://hollowknight.fandom.com/wiki/Nightmare_King_Grimm.
Fig. 2: Nightmare King Grimm dive dash. https://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?l=italian&id=1345604152.
Fig. 3: Nightmare King Grimm uppercut. https://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?l=italian&id=1345604152.
Fig. 4: Nightmare King Grimm fire bats. https://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?l=italian&id=1345604152.