Cuphead: The Difficulty with Difficulty

Cuphead, the ’30s animation-inspired run-and-gun platformer, is a very good game. The countless 10/10 ratings tell you that. As you are also no doubt aware, Cuphead is bloody difficult, to put it bluntly. Coming into this, I will admit that I am very late to the game, with it having released in September 2017, but an important dialogue has started revolving around the issues of difficulty and “ableism”, and I feel the need to weigh-in.


Cuphead for me plays very much like a pretty Mega Man game, with the key distinction that the bosses and run-and-gun areas are presented as separate entities. Some may question why I’m likening Cuphead to Mega Man as opposed to Dark Souls, and that’s simply because Cuphead is unequivocally a descendant of the likes of Contra (a.k.a. Gryzor), Mega Man, and Ghosts ‘n Goblins. These games are hard, with Ghosts ‘n Goblins without a doubt being one of the most brutal games I have ever played, but they were designed this way for a reason. Due to hardware limitations at the time, these games were extremely short. To ensure that players didn’t feel ripped off, they created an artificial extension of gameplay by making these games hard. Back then, you wouldn’t finish a game, you would beat a game.

As the industry subsequently evolved, games were now able to tell amazing stories through the leaps in graphics. No longer was the consumer looking forward to being greeted at the end of a game with a badly translated message of “Congraturation”, but instead an interwoven narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. This is where the idea of game difficulty most prominently reared its head. No longer was the player expected to rise to the challenge of the game, but rather the game would lower itself as to allow the player the ability to see all the gorgeous cut-scenes and environments that the developers worked so hard on. Games would try to circumvent this with brutal difficulty modes which could give players a genuine challenge, but the option was there for a player of lesser gaming prowess to experience the game.

Video games are the only medium in existence whereby the amount of content you can access is directly limited by your skill level. It would be outrageous if halfway through a film, it stopped to quiz you or ask you to perform some kind of task where failure meant you were unable to see the rest of it, and this is what some believe is the issue with video games. So where does Cuphead fit into all of this? The early areas of Cuphead feature two difficulty modes: Simple and Regular. When playing on Simple, enemy attacks are a lot slower and more telegraphed, allowing for players not familiar with this more retro style of platformer to get a grip on the controls. Complaints come from the fact that you simply cannot complete the game in Simple mode. The game cuts off progression and forces you to replay it in Regular more often (or so I’m told). The Simple mode is a training tool designed to give people the abilities required to play and beat the game.

So is it inherently wrong that some players will never see the end of Cuphead because the game is too hard for them? I personally feel the answer is no. Video games as a medium are, at their core, interactive experiences, and have a duty to convey certain feelings and emotions to the player. Losing a comrade permanently in X-COM or Fire Emblem will hit me much harder than a cut-scene with nameless Soldier Number Four getting killed any day of the week, because in a game where I am in command, I feel the weight of every move and decision. I come to care about my squad and genuinely want them to succeed. Dark Souls and Cuphead are just employing a different style of storytelling. You can’t experience the feeling of overcoming insurmountable odds if the game doesn’t punish and kill you over, and over, and over again, because in a game where you’ve made a deal with the devil, it’s rather fitting that collecting contracts will give you hell.

After that awful pun, I should just quickly say that Cuphead is a lovingly crafted game made by people so dedicated to their art that they mortgaged their houses just to have a higher budget to work with. It’s stunning to look at, the music is astounding (especially King Dice’s theme), and it’s a refreshingly challenging gaming experience which doesn’t share the Dark Souls titles’ oppressive atmosphere. I urge everyone to at the very least find a friend who owns the game and give it a go. You won’t regret it.