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The Easy Button

What's the point of dumbing down gaming?

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I think it hit me somewhere around the fiery end of the second chapter of Ninja Gaiden II, when I was busily twirling my lunar staff like a maniac and trying to knock Genshin on his smug, Spider-clan ass.

Hey, I haven't died yet.

Not even once.

Whoa.

Now if this were the original Ninja Gaiden, the ball-breakingly difficult Xbox classic that gamers still discuss in hushed tones, as if it might rise up, break out of its DVD case, and smite their sorry butts once more, this would certainly not have been the case. Quite the contrary — the "restart/continue" button would have been pushed at least as often as the "off" button when Denise Richards' ill-fated reality show pops up on the TV screen.

But it's not. It's the sequel, which features an acolyte mode — now there's a nice, non-insulting way to say "amateur," wouldn't you agree? — that, unlike the first game, doesn't even make you feel emasculated for selecting it.

Ryu Hayabusa's not the only one dialing down the difficulty a notch or two these days, embracing the zen of a somewhat easier path. Hell, some games even give you the option of switching to the kiddie table in the middle of dinner. Get your flame-tattooed head handed to you enough times in the normal or hard mode of God of War: Chains of Olympus, and the game will embarrassingly stop to ask you if you'd prefer to flip to easy mode.

Even a game like Hot Shots Golf: Open Tee 2, one of my current favorite diversions on the PSP, has instituted an "easy shot" function — and this is a game with a built-in casual fan base, a game whose central mechanic requires nothing more than clicking a button three times on a shot meter. Seriously, how easy has easy become? Punch the "X" button, receive a hole in one?

It's not quite that bad, but it feels like it's edging ever closer.

Just about everyone recognizes that the concept of the hardcore gamer is evolving — some would even say evaporating into the mist — as the industry edges ever closer to mainstream with every copy of Wii Fit that flies off the shelves. And you can argue that including easy in the mode menu simply gives gamers another option, just broadening the appeal of a game — after all, if you're reasonably new to gaming, do you really want to drop $60 on Ninja Gaiden 2, only to become permanently stuck on a boss battle because you can't figure out how to deploy anything more than your katana into empty air?

Well, not so fast there, Easy E.

If it's there, the temptation to use the easy setting becomes like sipping from the dark side of The Force, especially when everyone else you know is on level seven while you're toiling to solve level three. It's not just about earning the respect of fragmazter664 and the rest of the chest-thumpers who can beat Gears of War on the impossible setting. Doesn't the accomplishment of beating a game on its easiest setting diminish the accomplishment? Olympic athletes don't win medals for taking the 100 meter dash at a brisk stroll — at least not yet.

If it sounds like I've become one of those curmudgeons who carps about everyone in the fifth-grade soccer league getting a participation medal, well, I guess I do. Of course, I'm also one of the many clumsy-thumbed gamers who complained about how impossible it was to blast through Capcom's Devil May Cry 3, so maybe this cavalcade of easy is payback. Karma is a bitch, baby. Especially when it shows up with well-coiffed hair and a big gun.

Once upon a time, the concept of easy hardly entered the video game picture. There was no easy mode that allowed you to dial down the complicated control scheme on a coin-op classic like Defender. You just blew through your quarter stacks until you figured out how to collect the matchstick humans in midair while dodging the mutants and space mines at the same time.

You went into a killer game like Robotron 2084 knowing you'd be lucky to survive to the fourth wave, and if you had to have an easier touch, you could take the walk of shame up to the front of the arcade and play a cinch-fest like Sea Wolf. And yes, to put the finishing touches on the grumpy-old-man vibe I'm busting, I liked it that way.

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