Mega Man 11: A Master Class in Granular Difficulty
I've been a fan of the Blue Bomber since at least 2nd grade. I remember buying the novelization of Mega Man 2 so I could read the in-depth secrets of the game which were printed upside down throughout the book. Super helpful things like 'Try different weapons against the robot masters.' Even as a kid I knew that was just filler-fluff ridiculousness. Trying different weapons against the robot masters is the entire point of the game. Beating that first boss is blisteringly difficult. Then, after you get one extra weapon, things get slightly easier. You have more options for the different platforming challenges in each stage. Testing each boss for their weakness is fun. Especially the moment when you get the right one and the boss' health starts melting down. POW! One more weapon in the memory banks. Then things snowball (sometimes literally) from there. It's super satisfying and that's been at the core of the series from the beginning.
Now, some 30 years later, I play Mega Man 11 and not only does it give me the same type of challenge that I'm used to from the 8- and 16-bit days, but there are a slew of bonuses that can be applied or removed at will. These are granular difficulty at its finest. What is granular difficulty? The simplest definition is difficulty that can be adjusted in small ways.
Easy, Medium and Hard are examples general difficulties. Mega Man 11 has Super Hero mode in addition to Normal mode which are its general difficulties. Then there are things like the 'Pierce Protector' which negates spike damage for a few seconds. Or the 'Bolt Catcher' which makes currency drop more frequently. Things like that make difficulty truly granular because they can be shifted on or off independently of one another.
Those are just a few examples, but I wanted to highlight them because not only do they
make the game easier in a small way, I also want to highlight how they're unlocked. For instance, I didn't realize the Pierce Protector was in the game until I read a wiki to fill out the missing piece in my menu. I hadn't fallen on spikes enough times to unlock it and the game makes no mention of it.
I really liked that. I didn't see it because it wasn't relevant to me. I didn't need it and the game knew it. That's the beauty of granular difficulty done well. Some players will never see it, but those that may need it are given the option. The Bolt Catcher is on the opposite end of the spectrum, though. It's not integrated as well in my mind. The only requirement is that it can only be unlocked on Saturdays. It doesn't make sense to me in any story driven way, but it's a minor thing.
A less complex example from another game would be the Golden Tanooki Suit in Super Mario 3D World. If you die 5 times in a row on the same stage, the game takes pity and gives you a '?' box with the suit. You get to be invincible and hover as well as boop enemies with your tail. If you want the help getting through the stage you take it, if not skip it. I used this more than once as Super Mario 3D World has some crazy hard levels towards the end, but I digress.