10 of the most brutal game challenges of all time

Hollow Knight art
(Image credit: Team Cherry)

My gaming diet is pretty simple. I'll play through a campaign on the default difficulty setting and futz around with some multiplayer before turning my attention elsewhere. It's rare that I get sucked into a world long enough to dismiss the many other games chittering for attention in my Steam library. There's no chance of me finishing all the side quests in Elden Ring, nor am I going to collect all the doodads in Celeste, and those are both games I love!

That said, I always like it when a developer bakes in a nasty curveball to seduce the most ardent members of their community. Yes, I might not be interested in the discipline and heartbreak of a ludicrous undertaking, but I'm always happy to watch others conquer the beast. It makes me wonder what I could be capable of if I ever matched their obsession; if I, too, attempted to scale some impassable mountains.

Those challenges that make most of us say "hell no" are what we're covering on this list. Below you'll find 10 of the most brutal, mean, or otherwise onerous mechanics ever found in a videogame. These range from depraved hard modes and severe game-over punishments to nefarious minigames and endless, life-consuming item grinds. Together they represent the best and worst of gaming culture; expanding our imagination, while simultaneously making us lose our minds.

Be wary of trying any of these for yourself. They aren't for the faint of heart.

World of Warcraft: Insane in the Membrane

Redditor Hycran's Insane in the Membrane achievement

(Image credit: Redditor Hycran)

Vanilla Warcraft was an ornery, misshapen beast, replete with all sorts of finicky, D&D-esque thematic holdovers. Yes, today the game has been tamed into a svelte, efficient mobile game-like juggernaut, but back in 2005 you could dedicate your life to some truly wasteful Azerothian pursuits. Honestly, a number of early-WoW artifacts could've made this list (the less said about the High Warlord grind the better) but we're focused on The Insane title because, well, it's still achievable today. 

Basically, there are a number of factions in World of Warcraft that serve no real tangible purpose, but you can still grind rep for them if you choose. Those factions include: The Bloodsail Buccaneers, the Darkmoon Faire, Ravenholdt, and four Goblin cities strewn across the map. To reach Exalted status—the highest possible reputation tier—with any of these factions requires the player to repeat a handful of grim, drudgerous turn-in quests over and over again, slowly inching up the progression bar like Frodo on the summit of Mount Doom. In fact, some of these grinds actively made the game more hostile. Becoming friendly with the Bloodsail Buccaneers dubs you a target-on-sight in several major travel hubs, effectively adding the player to a Most Wanted list. Your reward? A title that reads "The Insane," so everyone else on the realm can know where your priorities lie.

EverQuest: the XP death tax

Everquest death tax

(Image credit: Bhagpuss on Blogspot)

Player death has become increasingly less punitive as time goes on. Developers are cognizant of how much stymied progression sucks, and the idea of, say, my Valheim camp getting annihilated every time I succumb to exposure fills me with dread. But modern generosity isn't a thing with old-school EverQuest, which carries a few tendrils from its rowdy, late-'90s framework. When you die in EverQuest (and you will die a lot), expect a fraction of your accumulated experience points to leak back out into the ether. Insult to injury! Not only did that low-res imp kill you, he's actively made your character weaker.

To think us millennials grew up thinking that the corpse runs in Dark Souls were a bit much.

XCOM: Ironman Mode

Xcom 2 Ironman mode

(Image credit: Gosunoob)

XCOM isn't the only game to feature an Ironman mode, but I've always found its particular spin on the format uniquely heinous. No save-scumming, no resets, no mid-campaign difficulty edits; you're forced to stare down every dice roll and live with the consequences. After all, that's what an actual commander must do in the field of battle. Did a corporal miss a high-stakes 90 percent shotgun blast condemning your mission—and resource supply—to a total freefall? Hey man, that's the reality of an intergalactic invasion. 

Europa Universalis 4: The Three Mountains

EU4 Ryukyu achievement

(Image credit: Redditor purawskis)

The Ryukyu Islands are a small chain of land masses located off the southern coast of Japan. At the start of a Europa Universalis 4 campaign, they are subjects of the Ming Dynasty, and have only six troop regiments to call their own. The Three Mountains achievement asks you to take control of the proud Ryukyuan people and conquer the world.

Of course, an invasion of China, Japan, or Korea will lead to certain death, and the remoteness of your starting position does not offer any easy ways to expand your holdings. In fact, anyone who plays EU4 this way is likely to be squashed like a bug within their first few minutes, as rival empires blob out and swallow you whole. But it can be done; let Ryukyu thrive from sea to shining sea. 

Hollow Knight: Pantheon of Hallownest

Hollow Knight is already a difficult game, so when the developers added a 40-minute boss rush mode, culminating in a souped-up remix of the secret final boss—who is already one of the hardest encounters in the history of PC gaming—I knew I was going to… watch a bunch other people try to beat it live on Twitch. Yes, the Pantheon of Hallownest was explicitly added to satiate the biggest Hollow Knight sickos in the universe, because those are the only people willing to make repeated white-knuckle attempts to topple the challenge when, say, one stupid death on Troupe Master Grimm sends you back to square one.

The ending you get isn't even that interesting! I shudder to think what treachery Team Cherry is cooking up for Silksong.  

Max Payne 3: New York Minute

Max Payne 3 arcade

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

God bless Rockstar Games. Who else would be willing to turn a chilled noir epic like Max Payne 3 into a cheeky arcade shooter as soon as the credits rolled? The "New York Minute" mode is unlocked after completing the campaign, and it puts Payne up against the most dastardly villain he's ever faced; a rapidly depleting timer. Your goal is to make it through every level while constantly adding precious seconds to the clock. (Headshots add six seconds, melee kills add 10, and so on.) It's one of the maddening achievement hunts you'll ever endure, but at least it adds some extra functionality to Max Payne's trademark bullet time. The minutes morph into hours, so long as you're in the midst of a swan dive. 

Overwatch: The Floor Is Lava

Lucio in Overwatch

(Image credit: Blizzard)

Lúcio, it should be said, is a support character. He can boost the party's speed or restore health, depending on what polarity his magic boombox is set at. He's also able to run on walls, mostly to distract the players from the stark reality that they could be playing a much more exciting hero. But Blizzard did include one devilish Lúcio-specific challenge to keep us up at night: To obtain an achievement called "The Floor is Lava," a player must score three kills in a single life, all while wall-riding. Getting just one kill, on the ground, is a rarity as Lúcio, so a triple requires some genuine savant-level play.

Your best bet? Camp out at the enemy's team spawn and hope to bump a party off the edge with Lúcio's Soundwave blast. That tends to work about once every two billion matches, so you better get started.

Nethack: old-school permadeath

NetHack tombstone

(Image credit: tk-337 on Reddit)

The definition of permadeath has become confused. Yes, in Hades you are sent back down the River Styx every time you deplete your health bar, but then you stand in front of the mirror and juice your attack power and flirt with Meg at the bar. The same cozy mindset applies to every other millennial roguelike; Enter The Gungeon, Dead Cells, Rogue Legacy, all of those games pale in comparison to the funeral stench of the floppy-disk bound first generation of roguelikes. Nethack, (or Cataclysm, or, hell, Rogue itself) never blessed the player with any facile meta-progression. No, death just bounced you back to the title screen; nothing more, nothing less. You knew the deal when you signed up.

This is why the grognards turn their nose up at us interlopers. They come from a generation where a gnarly gank didn't lead to a few points in movement speed back at home base.

Final Fantasy 10: Dodging lightning

There is no advanced metagame to Final Fantasy 10's lightning dodging; no clever cheese to unlock the hidden nuances beneath the surface. Instead, you are simply asked to wander out into the Thunder Plains and press the "A" button whenever the screen flashes white. Do that 200 times in a row—in a row!—and you'll be rewarded with an achievement and a crucial celestial weapon piece. It's an awful, twitchy flash game sticking out like a sore thumb in the middle of one of the most beloved RPGs of all time. I have a lot of fond memories about lightning dodging, but I was also 10 years old with a lot more time on my hands. 

Spelunky: Eggplant Run

Derek Yu brought back the eggplant run in 2020's underrated Spelunky 2, but we're going to focus on the original's indomitable trial. I'm guessing roughly 98 percent of people who've ever descended into Spelunky never made it past the second biome, but for an elite group of diehards, the treachery of King Yama barely scratches the surface. To truly flex Spelunky superiority, you must first acquire a delicate Eggplant item, and bring it along with you through every single one of the game's many boobie-trapped corridors. Once you enter the final chamber, toss the eggplant at Yama's face. He'll morph into a peaceful purple being, and your name will live in Spelunky lore forever. 

I cannot understate how challenging this is. There are moments in a solo eggplant run where you'll need to trust an AI character with the fragile, luscious eggplant. If they end up in the spikes? Game over. Honestly, I think every developer should include a few abstruse trials designed to rankle their most dedicated players. Can you imagine what the eggplant-run equivalent in Elden Ring would entail?  

Luke Winkie
Contributing Writer

Luke Winkie is a freelance journalist and contributor to many publications, including PC Gamer, The New York Times, Gawker, Slate, and Mel Magazine. In between bouts of writing about Hearthstone, World of Warcraft and Twitch culture here on PC Gamer, Luke also publishes the newsletter On Posting. As a self-described "chronic poster," Luke has "spent hours deep-scrolling through surreptitious Likes tabs to uncover the root of intra-publication beef and broken down quote-tweet animosity like it’s Super Bowl tape." When he graduated from journalism school, he had no idea how bad it was going to get.