Soul of the Lost, Withdrawn from Its Vessel...
"Hardcore" is another one of those terms thrown around a lot in relation to gaming, even though the definition is pretty fuzzy. Ditto "casual" on the other end of that supposed spectrum.
I don't own an XBox 360, rarely play FPS games, and don't usually enjoy competitive multiplayer. That rules me out of most of the stereotypes that pop into my head when someone uses the phrase "hardcore gamer". Also, although I find games fun and interesting I've never considered myself particularly skilled at them (though I have improved a lot in recent years).
I don't think that makes me a casual gamer, either (although the fun I've been having recently with Endless Ocean 2 may beg to differ). I'm pretty happy with my average-skilled, variable-genre approach to gaming.
Interestingly, some of the games I love do often get labelled as hardcore. Give me a standard FPS, or a God of War, and I'll worry about whether I can get through on normal difficulty. But give me a "hardcore" game that many people are not brave enough to touch, and I may actually be closer to my comfort zone.
A relatively recent example of a "game-I-like-that-may-be-considered-hardcore" is Demon's Souls (PS3). I still have a long way to go in this game, but to be honest I'm not finding it as challenging as many people have suggested. It does require a couple of important things. One is a willingness to go through a learning process. Another is to accept that you are probably going to die quite a bit in the pursuit of the knowledge and experience you require. Given that, the ability to study the deaths of other players by touching their bloodstains can sometimes come in very handy. Messages left on the ground by other players are also usually helpful rather than misleading.
While there are some reflex requirements, a large part of actually progressing in Demon's Souls comes from learning the level layouts (such as where to expect ambushes), and the best strategies for various enemies.
I suppose the "hardcore" label here comes from the fact that dying is quite easy to do. But the consequences for death are not as extreme as they could be. The level and all its enemies do reset after every death, forcing you to start over. But your character level and equipment continue to get stronger. Combine increasing character strength, with the knowledge you are gathering about the levels each time, and things really do get progressively easier.
After your first death, you continue to play in "soul form", which limits you to half-health (there is a ring in the first level to make that 70% instead of 50%). You will also do slightly more damage in soul form, so it isn't all bad. Getting your body back requires you to use a semi-rare item or defeat a boss. Alternately, you can invade another player's world as a Black Phantom and try to kill them, or as a Blue Phantom and co-operate to help them defeat a boss.
All this "soul form" thing really means is that you get used to being dead most of the time. Rather than feeling nerfed, you start to feel enhanced at the times when you do possess a proper physical body.
Besides, if I settle for soul form no one is going to invade my world to try and attack me :) That scared the crap out of me the first time it happened. I was a new player tentatively exploring an area that was slightly high-level for me. I hadn't considered the possibility of being ganked by a Black Phantom of much higher level. I felt a bit like a mouse being hunted by a bird of prey, but there were no good hiding-places to run to. The Black Phantom had much more to gain out of that situation than I had to lose, though, so in the end I didn't really mind. Later invasions by Black Phantoms were thankfully more evenly matched.
I've only played through enough Demon's Souls to defeat about six bosses so far. But, based partly on observations of my partner playing through to the end, there doesn't seem to be much of a difficulty curve. The game sets a relatively punishing difficulty from the start, and then stays that way.
I think overall these game design decisions lead to the perception the game is difficult and everything is against you. But the reality isn't quite as harsh as it may appear. When it's perfectly feasible to overcome something that initially appeared cruelly difficult, that's quite a powerful, confidence-boosting hook for gamers. Provided they can get over that first hurdle.
I'm not saying Demon's Souls is an easy game, by any stretch. I do find it really encouraging that there is still a market for challenging games. I think of this as a "love it or hate it" kind of experience, so I was really surprised to see an 89 on Metacritic. I really should get back to finishing it on of these days...