Unlockable difficulty levels

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Hard mode is unlocked in Super Mario Bros.

Unlockable difficulty levels, also referred to as hard mode, is a video game term for when a game has alternate difficulty levels that are not available by default and must be unlocked through specific game play, usually by beating the game at its normal difficulty. Games with this feature almost always unlock a harder difficulty to give superior players more of a challenge, but occasionally a game will feature an easier difficulty to allow players to better appreciate the ambiance of the game world.

I think unlockable difficulties can be a good thing as unlocking aspects of a game make the player feel like they've accomplished something, and you don't want players getting frustrated in super hard modes until they've become comfortable with the game. However, the unlocked difficulty must be different enough from the original play-through to justify, not only making the player replay the entire game, but doing so at a more frustrating difficulty. A lot of games fail to justify their hard modes because they merely add more enemies or have them deal more damage to the player, which isn't very satisfying and lazy on behalf of the developers. Some games mix their hard mode with unlockable content which makes them far more interesting.

The first time I ever saw an unlockable difficulty level was after beating Super Mario Bros. in the late 1980s. I thought it was pretty clever to see the the in-game objects altered slightly to make the game more complex, and also realized that the 100-lives trick would be possible all over the game now that the goombas were replaced by buzzy beetles.


Unlockable difficulties should not be confused with games that have built-in difficulty settings, with games that repeat levels but have ever-increasing difficulties, or with features like new game plus or unlockable content. The usage of the term can be subjective in some games, and it isn't always easy to know which game should be considered having unlockable difficulty levels. For example, in the game Vanguard you progress through several levels in multiple worlds before the game repeats at a more difficult level than the first play-through, and the exact same can be said for Super Mario Bros.. So, why should we identify Super Mario Bros. as having an unlockable hard mode but not Vanguard? In this case, it helps to look at the game designer's intent with the story and game mechanics. In Super Mario Bros., the story is officially over when the real King Koopa is defeated in stage 8 and the princess is rescued; the hard mode was merely an afterthought to add replay value to the game. In Vanguard, however, the game was designed to gradually become more difficult until the player ultimately runs out of lives, the boss stage is meant to be played many times, and it is the story which was tacked on as an afterthought.


This is a list of games that are important to me which have an unlockable difficulties, for the full list, see the category.

Title Released Notes
Borderlands 2009-10-20 The second play through starts all enemies at level 30, but you get to keep your stats and equipment.
Borderlands 2 2012-09-18 After beating the game, you can start a new game in "True Vault Hunter Mode" where enemies all start at level 50, but you get to keep your stats and equipment.
Castlevania 1986-09-26 After you defeat Dracula you can restart the game and there will more enemies and some will move faster.
Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse 1989-12-22 Defeating Dracula lets you restart in hard mode where there are more enemies, some weak enemies are replaced with stronger enemies, and all enemies deal more damage.
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow 2003-05-06 After beating the game, you unlock "hard mode" where you deal less damage to enemies.
Kirby's Dream Land 1992-04-27 After beating the game you get a code for "extra mode" where there are more enemies, they move around more, and bosses have more health and use more complex attack patterns.
Metroid: Zero Mission 2004-02-09 After beating the game, you unlock hard mode where enemies deal twice as much damage, there are more and harder enemies, fewer save points, and energy, missile, and bomb pickups give less.
Portal 2007-10-10 Beating the game unlocks more difficult versions of previous testing rooms.
Super Mario Bros. 1985-09-13 Replaying the game after beating it lets you play in hard mode where goombas become buzzy beetles, most platforms are narrower, there are random bullet bills in the tree levels, and there is more fire in the castle levels.
Super Mario Land 1989-04-21 Restarting the game after beating it lets you play in hard mode which adds more enemies.
Trojan 1986-04-?? Once you beat the game, you unlock hard mode with more enemies and harder bosses.