If I were to mention the term Hardcore Game, what games would most likely pop up on your list? Call of Duty? Halo? Assassin's Creed? Grand Theft Auto? Pretty much any game with an M rating on the ESRB, right, save a few exceptions with a T rating. But where does that leave the definition of a Hardcore game in most people's eyes? Any game with gratuitous violence and other adult themes with photo-realistic graphics. So why do I cringe at that definition? Because it's an extremely narrow and actually deceptive list of what I believe constitutes games in that category. If a Hardcore game is one that not just anyone would pick up, involving a more dedicated base of those who play games regularly, then why do most of the masses I've observed who play Call of Duty or Halo stick with that one genre? And I must admit, though I'm not that avid of an FPS guy, I've noticed a major "dumbing down" of that genre where tutorials pop up every two seconds and your hand is held through most of the experience while you're wowed by explosive cinematic cutscenes.
A couple of years ago, I caught a video on Youtube of a player who had picked up Black Ops on PC and proved he could get through an entire mission in the single player campaign without ever firing a shot and sticking behind cover. I don't consider a game like that to be Hardcore when anyone could duck behind cars and other objects and progress through a game. On the opposite side, there are plenty of games that are ignored by this "Hardcore" crowd simply because of its art style or lack of "adult" themes when their innovation, difficulty level, and gameplay design far exceed the stamped out franchises most associate with what is Hardcore. An example I easily think of is Ico, an action-adventure game that was released in 2001 and 2002 in various regions. This game, though seemingly childish in its art style and theme, hurls you into a world where you're given no direction, no tutorials, just a stick and a castle to explore, where the whole story unfolds as you progress. There's little to no dialogue, and a neat game mechanic where you are forced to guide a young princess along with you and keep her close at all times at the risk of her being captured by monsters and you being turned to stone. The game might be "for all audiences," but the unique mixture of platforming, puzzle solving, and cooperation between you and the NPC character create an experience that's definitely not for the "casual" gamer. The save points are scattered so sparsely that if you come across one, you'd better use it. The game itself, for its time, and even still when re-released in enhance HD for Playstation 3 is gorgeous.
On top of that, you need only look to Steam, PSN, and Xbox Live to find other more indie titles that offer the same creative departure from what has become in my opinion a casual genre of "the same ol' same ol'" of FPS, hack-and-slash, MMO variety that offers little unique or new features and a difficulty level that weeds out the casual gamer and presents a challenge to the real Hardcore crowd who play games for their challenge, uniqeness, and aesthetic appeal regardless of art style or the ESRB rating placed on the box.