You deserve a PhD if you've solved all of these legendary levels without any help.
This month, Professor Layton will be putting on his top hat for a final puzzle-solving outing in Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy on Nintendo 3DS. It’s a significant swan song: the prof’s adventures have made for some of the most compelling games of the last handheld generation, putting to bed the idea that puzzles aren’t just for casual gamers with a few minutes to spare on the bus.
On the contrary: puzzles have always been right at the heart of gaming. Many of the classic titles gamers cherish are crammed with the kind of fiendish problems that make brain surgery seem like a game of Operation. In celebration of them, we've rounded up our favorite puzzles from gaming history: the hard to beat levels, the cunning contraptions and devilish conundrums that made gamers walk the fine line between rage quitting and the delicious moment where everything clicks into place.
(Start video at 05:37) Before the first Half-Life game, discovering that a red door would open when you found a red key card was about the height of puzzling sophistication in first-person shooters. Half-Life 2 took the first game's clever, logical level design and environmental puzzles and added a groundbreaking physics engine that made the world feel real.
The See Saw puzzle occurs a little way into Route Kanal, a desperate race through storm drains and sewage systems to reach fellow members of the resistance. Taking cover inside an underground chamber you must find a way on to a ledge that is just too high to jump up to. Looking around the room you spy a large wooden board over a concrete pipe that looks like a see saw...
It's a simple puzzle once you realise that it works pretty much as you would expect in the real world and you can weigh one end down with the breeze blocks that are scattered about the room. Simple, yes, but it lays the groundwork for all the other physics-based puzzles throughout the rest of the game, including an ingenious mirror-image of the see saw in the next level, Water Hazard, where you must make use of floating barrels to push a board upwards. This is the point where you realise that the world will respond to your manipulations in a logical, realistic way and that you can take advantage of that.
Valve's level designers had a tough job on their hands - to make you think with portals. Through 17 levels of hard to reach areas and lethal turrets they painstakingly showed the player how the Portal Gun worked and how to use it to achieve the seemingly impossible by creating dimensional holes that you - or other objects - can pass through. The fact that anyone was ever able to beat Test Chamber 18 shows just how successful they were.
Chamber 18 puts all of your hard-won Portal skills to the test. To get to the exit you need a cube to hold down a button. To get that cube requires pin-point accuracy, lateral thinking and forward planning. Once you have the button safely held down you must rapidly ascend multiple platforms, shooting new portals in mid flight before making a huge leap of faith to reach the goal. The congratulations from the insane computer GLaDOS are as flatly delivered as ever, but this time you feel like you really deserve them.
The Water Temple is an entire level one of the most beloved of all the Zelda games. As well as individual puzzles and enemies - not to mention difficult terrain and perilous platforms - the entire Temple is a puzzle. To navigate you must learn to magically raise and lower the water level in the Temple at key points to reach different areas. When underwater you need to negotiate invisible currents and wear the Iron Boots to avoid floating to the surface.
Water Temple is the longest dungeon in any of the Zelda games. In fact, it’s so difficult and confusing that director and designer Eiji Aonuma actually made a public apology for it in 2009. The 3DS version of the game featured a revised Water Temple with clearer markings and an extra cut scene to make the location of a particular key more obvious.
When sci-fi author Douglas Adams worked with text adventure geniuses Infocom on the game of his book/play Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, he didn't mess around. HHGTTG is packed with devious, frustrating puzzles of which the Babel Fish is perhaps the most notorious.
You’re trapped on an alien spacecraft and need to translate a message being broadcast over the intercom. If you place a Babel Fish in one ear, that creature's strange nervous system will translate it for you, but first you have to catch the fish as it’s ejected at high speed from the vending machine in front of you. What makes this puzzle so memorably evil is the way it makes you think you have cracked it, only to reveal another problem that you need to solve. Again and again and again...
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"You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike."
The layout of the Bedquilt Maze section of Colossal Cave is said to so closely match that of the real-life Mammoth Caves in Kentucky that a caver friend of coder Will Crowther was able to navigate it on her first attempt. They same is not true of the Pirate's Maze, which drove gamers of the 1970s insane with its identical room descriptions and tricky exits that don't lead back the same way when you change direction.
The only way out of the maze is to map it by dropping items in each room. Optionally, you can let out a scream of frustration every now and then. It won't help though.
QWOP is not merely a game that features a difficult puzzle. QWOP is a difficult puzzle. The puzzle is the game and vice-versa.
You play an athlete called QWOP who must complete a 100-metre sprint. You control QWOP using the Q,W,O and (yes) P keys on your keyboard. Q and W control your thighs and O and P control your calves. Exactly how they control your limbs is unclear and it is up to you to find out through trial and error. QWOP is really not very good at running at all. Falling on his face, yes. He could win Olympic gold at falling on his face. Not so much with the running.
A strategy does exist however, and once you crack it the race can be run and won. Finding that strategy will take a combination of perseverance and dexterity and lots and lots of practice.