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Cuphead v. the Incapable Gamer: Should All Games Host an "Easy Mode?"


Cuphead! It’s been nearly two weeks since Microsoft’s “little exclusive that could” was released to the world, and if rampant media buzz is any indication of success, then the Xbox One has finally received the hit it’s been sorely needing. Indeed, gamers everywhere are praising Cuphead’s flamboyant, 1930s aesthetics and impeccable run-and-gun gameplay, while those of a more bitter nature (read: non-Xbox One owners) are vocally lamenting the game’s exclusive status. Yet, the most common thread to be yanked from Cuphead’s rowdy first days is its already legendary difficulty. Many are unhappy that a game with such a sweet veneer also sports such a vulgar challenge.


Surprise! Dealing with The Devil is never easy.

No doubt, Cuphead is designed around that old, classic trifecta of patience, pattern recall, and, above all, practice. These were the mainstays of gameplay in the old days, the basic requirements for completing any title. Has the modern gamer thus gone soft? Or, more to the point, could Cuphead’s steep learning curve be deemed exclusionary, even meanspirited, to less able players?

Well, yes and no. Clearly, developer StudioMDHR intended Cuphead to stretch the abilities of its audience, to provide an experience that could not be breezed through in a single sitting. The game is, after all, a fancy boss rush mode—had the challenge been toned down, gamers would surely be complaining instead of the game’s pitiful length and unfulfilling structure.

Cuphead Medusa

Meet Cala Maria. Her reaction here is not unlike those screaming about Cuphead's "unfair" challenge.

Not that MDHR owes anyone an explanation. Does director Ridley Scott need to explain why his Blade Runner films are so grim and ambiguous? Does Nintendo owe us a “mature” Kirby game that isn’t a complete picnic from beginning to end? The answer, of course, is no—no developer should be shamed into compromising its creative vision just to appease some loudmouth dissenters. Labeling an artist “meanspirited” for simply remaining true to a specific design choice is both unfair and a little absurd.

That said, the complainers and naysayers do have a small point—for all its personality and watercolor beauty, Cuphead does not make its wonders easily enjoyed, or even witnessed, by the merely curious also drawn to its pretty visuals. Perhaps, then, a compromise could have been struck. Why not allow the causal players to complete the game on its easiest setting, perhaps sacrificing certain features and the game’s good ending as a trade-off? Or maybe a Mega Man Zero-style difficulty would have been less contentious, allowing players to equip extra buffs and abilities to better weather the game’s hardest moments at the expense of a respectable score.

Mega Man Zero

The Mega Man Zero series utilizes the "Elf" system--equippable powerups that make the going easier...at a price.

Nevertheless, most would agree Cuphead is worth the time it requires to master; the satisfaction it brings to those who surmount its challenges cannot be overstated. Indeed, playing through the game is much like the titular Cuphead’s own bout with The Devil—the struggle might seem impossible, but there’s always a way out for those who persevere.

The question is: which kind of person are you?


If you liked this piece and want to hear more about Cuphead and other topics, please check out this blog's sister podcast here.

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About Pacarioone of us since 9:00 PM on 07.06.2008

Hmm...I really like video games and play them a lot. I also like to write. Mostly about video games. *sigh*