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Why Cuphead for Xbox's intense difficulty is a good thing

Cuphead
Cuphead (Image credit: Studio MDHR)

After three years of delays, developer Studio MDHR's highly-anticipated platformer Cuphead launched a little over a month ago to critical acclaim from critics and normal players. However, many people have criticized Cuphead for being too difficult. They feel that making the game highly challenging makes it inaccessible and prevents many players from experiencing all the content the game has to offer.

Cuphead Xbox One review: A work of art — and an acquired taste

Indeed, Cuphead is undoubtedly a challenging game — but that is the point. Just because some people within the gaming community don't possess the skills Cuphead requires doesn't mean that the game itself is to blame. Rather, it simply means that Cuphead appeals to a specific audience, one that relishes in the idea of a challenging experience.

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A diverse market for diverse consumers

Just like film or literature, not every game appeals to every player.

Ever since the video game medium came into existence, the different genres of games have exponentially increased. Games like Overwatch and Team Fortress 2 appeal to those who find working with a coordinated team enjoyable. Games like Assassin's Creed and Dishonored are aimed towards fans of stealth, preferring to strike enemies from the shadows.

This is something that's important to understand when we look at the concept of challenge in our games. As gaming has, over time, become a more common hobby among the general population, the interests and skillsets of those who play games have diversified. Some players enjoy puzzle solving. Some love cinematic storytelling. And some love trying to overcome difficulty.

The idea that we are "entitled" to all that a game has to offer just because we purchased it is wrong. Not every game is for every player, and that's a good thing. A diverse array of titles allows for everyone, no matter their skill levels or interests, to find a game that suits what they want.

This same concept applies to media in general. Philosophy-centered films like "Blade Runner" and "2001: A Space Odyssey" likely won't be popular with people who go to the movies to see popcorn-action films like "Kung Fu Hustle." A person who frequently reads romantic comedy novels would most likely find the ancient, epic poems of Homer to be a drag.

The world of entertainment (and here, specifically, gaming) is full of different preferences and interests. Cuphead simply is a game that appeals to those who thrive off the satisfaction of finally beating that one boss or finally beating that really tough level. This is one of the reasons Cuphead should be praised: it offers a quality experience for those who like its style. The fact that it recently surpassed one million units sold says as much.

A throwback to the classics

Cuphead

Cuphead (Image credit: Microsoft)

Cuphead's gameplay design calls back to the early days of Punch-Out!! and Ninja Gaiden.

The other reason why Cuphead deserves praise is the fact that it is built in the same style as popular games from the '80s. Those games, such as Super Mario Bros. or Sonic the Hedgehog, were simple in concept, but challenging in execution. Like Cuphead, they didn't have many controls to learn, but the enemies and levels themselves were something that you had to ultimately master in order to progress.

Back then, games focused significantly less on having a story to progress through, choosing instead to offer only basic, simple stories to provide context to the events on-screen. Similar to Mario saving the princess, or Little Mac trying to become the best boxer in the world, Cuphead tells an easily-digestible story in which two brothers try and save themselves from the devil.

This is what sets Cuphead apart from most other modern challenge-focused games, such as Dark Souls. Whereas Dark Souls builds a massive universe around its difficult encounters and makes proper gear selection and planning a priority, Cuphead takes the tried-and-true formula of attack pattern memorizing and well-timed button presses straight out of the '80s and plunks it into 2017.

This is the other reason that I think Cuphead should be celebrated: it remembers and returns to the roots of the gaming medium when most others (including challenge-focused games) have moved past them.

Is there a middle ground?

There are ways that Cuphead could be changed in order to make it more accessible to some without sacrificing design philosophy.

Despite all of this, I think people who want to play Cuphead but struggle to keep up with its challenging nature shouldn't be ignored. I can totally understand the desire to enjoy this game.

I think one of the best ways that Studio MDHR could help out players who lack the skills to beat the game normally is with some form of a hint system. For example, let's say that after 10 deaths versus a boss, you are shown a developer-recorded sequence of gameplay in which one of the ways you can effectively dodge or damage the fiend is shown to you before you load in to the next battle.

In this situation, the game gives you a bit of a boost without sacrificing much difficulty. The boss is still hard, and you still have to time your actions correctly; it's just that the game is giving you a hint about how you should do that.

Final thoughts on Cuphead's difficulty

Cuphead is a unique title that calls back fondly to the first gaming experiences ever created, while also strongly appealing to gamers who are looking to challenge themselves. While there is certainly room for Studio MDHR to create some form of middle ground compromise, the game as-is is a wonderful addition to the gaming industry that proves, through successes in sales and high review scores, that just because it's not the most accessible game that it isn't a great one.

What are your thoughts on Cuphead and the debate surrounding challenge in games? Do you feel that every game should be accessible to everyone, or do you feel that games should be made with a target audience in mind? Let us know in the comments

Cuphead is available now for the Xbox One and PC for $19.99.

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Brendan Lowry is a Windows Central writer and Oakland University graduate with a burning passion for video games, of which he's been an avid fan since childhood. You'll find him doing reviews, editorials, and general coverage on everything Xbox and PC. Follow him on Twitter.

48 Comments
  • Games have become far too easy these days, I miss the days of streets of rage, wonder boy in monster land, final fight etc where dying or losing all your lives made you start all the way from the beginning. Or from a save point / check points that are faaaar away. Hopefully more games include intensive difficulties or survival modes.
  • Agreed. Or go even older with games like TMNT or battletoads on the NES. I'd be the 1st to admit that Cuphead is insanely hard. I will also admit that it's the 1st game in a LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONG time that had me jumping up and down in joy when I defeated the 1st boss... and the 2nd.... and the 3rd, etc, etc. If it were easier, I probably would have blown through it already, but with each defeat, I notice more of the artistic work that went into it. Which is a beautiful thing. Plus, any easier and people would be complaining that it's too short of a game.
  • @ashram, yeah the older games were so much more fun. Me and my cousins end up playing no mercy on the n64 or unarmed tag on golden eye lol. after a tournament on street fighter 5, as it get's pretty boring after awhile since no one really wants to go all out and combo. It's all tactical which is what happens when one pro gets a win over another lol.
  • I used to think the same thing.  Now, with work, kids, etc. I feel that many games are just too difficult, haha.  Maybe not too difficult as much as time-consuming.  So, I appreciate that games like this fill a certainly much needed void in gaming libraries.  On one hand, it seems okay for short gaming sessions, on the other it definitely seems to challenge the user.  I've even stepped away from games like Destiny 2 in favor of games such as Rocket League.  I prefer a quick gaming session over the endless supply of grindy content that's released where literally no end is in sight. You are right, though.  Gratification in gaming was generally experienced by overcoming obstacles.  It appears that gaming is now about content consumption which is kind of saddening.
  • I could still feel like over coming obsticles in this game with a mode that is easier. Options are good
  • There is an easy mode.
  • @Tjalsma. Lol I know what you mean, I used to get my nephews and nieces to play monopoly, Ludo or snakes and ladders when I used to babysit them and use that opportunity to teach them mathematics, analytical skills and foresight. But they've been over indulged with iPad and smartphones so they've become rather unsociable. But yeah, gaming is all about content consumption these days not gameplay... hence all the loot boxes and micro transactions.
  • It would be super easy to just make various difficulty levels. Silly to say it's a good thing that's its difficult when some would be players are left out, like me. I would buy it if I thought it were a bit easier; provided by an option to make it so. It can be both. If someone wants a challenge, choose a higher difficulty and even make it the default if people are worried about that. I don't get an entire article made to excuse the fact that some players who would love the game otherwise are out of luck.
  • Agreed, they can make variable difficulty, to be more inclusive.  Some people are just starting out (think kids), and if it's too difficult, or there's no room for a learning curve, they're gonna get turned off of it.  But of course, part of me wants to just say, "Suck it up Buttercup!" lol.  But games like the Arkham series offer difficulty settings, along with replayability.  I went through Asylum on "Normal" then went back and beat it on hard.  Same with the other games in the series.  I got to see all that it had to offer, but then wanted to prove myself, and beat it again.  And it was enjoyable both times.  I haven't tried Cuphead, because my budget is currently limited to games I can play with my 5 yr old (unless I reallllly want a game).  I plan on picking up Sonic Forces and/or Super Lucky's Tale, because they are something either of us could play.  Or that I can guide him through.
  • I was looking forward to it and pre-ordered and then was frustrated by the difficulty.
    I played for several days trying to beat it but gave up and not played it in weeks because 
    1 - I am now older and not as good as I was in my teenage years
    2 - I have a 3 month older daughter and don't have time to get good enough to beat this game as it is so I am better off sticking to Skyrim / Mass Effect / Fallout and other games that have a lot to do and I can carry on whenever I want or back to SonicMania!!
  • I was considering Sonic Mania, but they pixellated it.  I was okay with it being mostly 2D, but if I wanted pixelated games, I'll buy the Genesis Collections, or fire up the actual Genesis on my basement TV, lol.  If they had made it modern 2D, I would buy it for sure.  I know they were going for a retro vibe, I just didn't care for it.  I heard Generations was good, but it's not on back-compat yet.
  • Sonic Mania is the best Sonic game in years. And it's absolutely beautiful.
  • " Some people are just starting out (think kids), and if it's too difficult, or there's no room for a learning curve" As kids we used to play a lot more frustrating and difficult games. If you really want to talk about kids then I think it's best that they don't have an easy setting. Kids should learn that in life there won't always be an easy way out or a short cut. If they want something they need to be patient, fight through frustrating time because the reward of achieving something that looked impossible is amazing. Kids should not be given short cuts that would be a terrible lesson and will just contribute in them quitting when things gets hard...
  • Again, I haven't played Cuphead, so I don't know just how hard it is.  And let's keep in mind we're talking about gaming here, not real life skills.  If something that is supposed to be "fun" to play is beyond infuriating, and you can't get past the first level without getting killed a thousand times, why would you continue?  When I was a kid ( I don't know what you played or how old you are) the most challenging games I had were on NES.  Mario Bros, Journey to Silias, Mega Man, Metroid, etc. were the games I played.  From what people are saying, Cuphead is insanely hard, and if they grew up playing those games, and they're saying that?  Sounds like something a child can't handle, YET.  That's why I mentioned learning curve.  My 5 yr old has beaten Mario for Wii, Wii U, and a Rayman game.  On his own.  But he had to learn on the way.  I make him tough it out in real life, and in reasonably difficult games.  By the sounds of it Cuphead is a sink or swim game.  My main point was that they could make variable difficulty so that they had a wider sales audience.  They don't have to, and I don't care that much if they do.  It's their game.  But I'm not gonna spend $20 on a game that reviewers are saying is so tough that my kid is probably gonna get ticked off at and refuse to play after 5 minutes. Maybe someday, but certainly not at the moment.  I spent my money on Super Lucky's Tale.  Which is challenging him, but I'm guiding him through it, and he's handling on his own already.
  • "Again, I haven't played Cuphead, so I don't know just how hard it is.  And let's keep in mind we're talking about gaming here, not real life skills.  If something that is supposed to be "fun" to play is beyond infuriating, and you can't get past the first level without getting killed a thousand times, why would you continue?"  
    Because the notion of "fun" is subjective. For some people, fun is just having an easy time, for some others it's about having a challenge and not given short cuts. Personally I don't find Cuphead that difficult. ofc there is a way of playing and advancing. And there is a learning curve. I wouldn't say it's a game for a 5 year old and that's OK. I think Super Lucky's tale or the latest Mario is more for a kid of that age. I think it's great for 9-10 years old and above.  The way they have done the game is that there is an easier mode, but this doesn't give you the "contracts" for killing the boss. So in my understanding I think it doesn't give you a true ending (I don't know I haven't played this mode). Personally I think this is a well made game and it is not for everyone. This is for gamers who wants a challenge and I think this is great for kids and teaching them that hard work pays off, not to give up and not to depend on short cuts... 
  • Shadow of the Beast! -Amiga 500
  • That was a GREAT game for it's time...a available on the PS4 remake (which was disappointing, but as someone who didn't own the original and doesn't feel like messing with amiga emulators, having it available is GREAT)
  • Most overrated game ever with the best soundtrack ever 😉
  • Original Quake with soundtrack by Nine Inch Nails was pretty awesome, too. I also liked how there was a "secret" NIGHTMARE level you could play - if you could find it.  ;-)
  • I didn't enjoy Cuphead because I like challenging games. Generally I actually don't like challenging games. I liked Cuphead because it's a gorgeous, interesting and different game. It's hard to really explain what's so good about it, but it's somehow not frustrating despite killing you a huge number of times even on the early levels.
  • Not hard to explain IMO. It's just dang well done!
  • True. I just normally find hard games frustrating and want story but despite its difficulty cuphead is ridiculously fun
  • Obviously everyone has their reasons, but my point is that the boss rush genre generally is like this.
  • Agreed. I often get frustrated with games when the deaths feel cheap. In Cuphead they feel deserved. I get annoyed when I die in the game, but I'm not annoyed at the game, I'm annoyed at myself for sucking haha This is the first hard game in a long time that I've really enjoyed. It's fine as it is. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but that's OK. It doesn't need to be.
  • Deus Ex HR did it best with tell me a story mode. Easier difficulty just for those that want the story. Personally it would put me off buying a game if I didn't think I'd make it past the first level, although I do play for the stories of the games I play, not always, but most of the time.
  • It's not, sorry but you can only die so many times on the same level and make little progress in the game before just moving on. Love the art style and actual gameplay but  me and my son are simply not good enough to make a dent in progress on it and we have moved on. An easier mode would have allowed me to play longer, yea just not good enough, oh well
  • Depends on your take on it, games like these can instill virtues of patience and determination. But that's just me lol, since we needed those to make it to end of the games with 1 life or a limited number of lives that we had as kids.
  • I don't get it, everyone is saying it needs an easier mode, it HAS one. I haven't bothered trying Simple mode myself, but is it still too difficult, or what?
  • The problem with the Simple mode in Cuphead is that you can't beat the game that way. Literally, your progress is stalled until you re-play the levels and beat them on Normal. I beat the game fine on Normal, but I'm surprised Studio MDHR didn't include easier difficulty options because not doing so undoubtedly cost them some sales.
  • Sales isn't everything. It's great studios stick to what they believe even if it cost them money. This is one studio I'll truly support and I'm glad the game sold so well...
  • Baaaah, it just takes time and dedication.  Many gamers now don't have the attention span or just plain spoiled on how things should be given to them.   I can remember how long it took me to do earn some level/acheivements.  I can remember playing for what seemed like hours just to earn the COD4 Mile High Club achievment on veteran difficulty.
  • Can still watch a playthrough if too hard...
  • I think that MDHR almost got it right. They do offer an "easy" mode for the big boss battles, but you don't get the soul contracts by beating them on this mode. This does let some less-skilled players skip some of the tougher bosses, but my beef is the run-and-gun levels. I appreciate the extreme challenge, but find myself avoiding those types of levels later in the game because I'm not coordinated enough any more to make it all the way through the punishing, long levels and, as a parent, I don't always have the time to dedicate to playing one level for a few hours to get every little detail down. Creating an optionally easier difficulty level which adds checkpoints, longer invincibility, ways to restore health, and/or increases power of your shots would go a long way for players like me. Heck, I'd even be happy with making the "easy mode" unlockable after a certain number of cleared levels or player deaths to force first-time players to at least give the standard difficulty a try.
  • This is quite interesting. I think most of the people complaining are either those who are used to easy games and haven't been gaming for a long time or are just complaining that they don't have the time and gets frustrated too quickly. There is a lot of trial and error. Trying to figure out ways to beat each stage of a boss is part of the game. The difficulty is part of the game. The nature of the game shouldn't be changed so that everyone can play it. It's people or gamers that should accept the game and just adapt/accept the rules if they want to beat it. People complaining should just admit that the game isn't for them and that's ok.  There are MANY easy platformers out there in the market...
  • I remember a few NES games it took 15-20 years to beat, no savepoints or anything. And often I buy games knowing it will be years before I finish them. That is part of the enjoyment of those specific games and it's not for everyone. Some things are just hard, and if it is too hard for you to enjoy, then not much to do about it but move on. We are fortunate now to have reviews, videos, and the ability to trade in or return games if it doesn't mesh with our tastes which was a foreign concept in the 80s and 90s. Blockbuster was a blessing to try a game before committing to it full time. I think people who are turned off to hard games should push for more option in game rentals rather than complain about not liking after purchase cause that can happen with any game..
  • And thats fine and well but remember the companies are trying to make money.  I won't buy it because I play games with my kids a lot.  We played it at a friends house and the game is just too hard for them and to be honest too frustrating for me. (do I just suck at the game, probably and I'm ok with that).  Thats a sale they loose. I understand the "games are too easy now" and "git good" people who like it hard but it really wouldn't hurt to put a "very easy" difficulty into the game.   You increase you base of players to include more than just those who like to be tortured by a game until they get every motion correct down to the millisecond.
  • Again like I said this is not that type of game. The game was made like this. I'm actually glad they stuck to what the game was all about even if it means not making as much money. It is so rare in this industry these days. Like I said I'll support them and I'm glad the game did so well... Playing with kids isn't really an excuse imo. When I was a kid I used to play games that way harder and MUCH more frustrating. We got to remember that there are different type of games in the market and this is one that is made to frustrate player, make them figure out strategy/solutions to advance, learn for mistakes, helps build patience and provide great reward/satisfaction for all the hard work. It's actually nice in a way. In life, there can be very frustrating moments and there won't be short cuts to help you go through. All you need to do is fight for what you want. I actually think this is a great game for kids. And help them build resolve and strength without depending on outside help... These days companies are making games to frustrate players just so they can sell a shortcut to stop the frustration.
    A game like this is so great and rare... I love it the way it is... 
     
  • I thought it's only me. Played for 2 hrs straight (1000s of retries) and couldn't even reach the halfway of the first mission :P xD. But still enjoys the game :D
  • Wow so many low-skill losers giving up on this game. Geez...
  • Or, perhaps, people with a life outside of gaming.
  • Or because it was just plain tedious..
  • Got bored of this title in roughly 7 minutes....!!
  • LOL patience of gamers today... I guess this game isn't for you. I would say a game with easy mode and maybe games with microtransactions/loot boxes/pay2win so that you can spend some money after 7 minutes... :)
  • Tough but fun challenge is a reason why old school vigeogame classics are still remembered and why such games became a cult classic in a first place. When video games industry had little tools to tell a story and show stunning graphics, game makers was focused on gameplay and unique challenges during gameplay. Old games difficulty was so tough because in absence of fancy graphics and long story movies gamers was focused on gameplay process, spent 100% of time on gameplay instead of story video and dialogs and certainly had more time to sharp their skills to beat a game. If game wasn't challenging then it would be beaten in short time to much dissatisfaction of players. I.e. challenging gameplay was the only tool for the 80s games to provide reasonable play time and players engagement in absence of other tools like voice acting for long dialogs and story-telling video.
  • Or we remember them because we played them as children and remember it more with nestalgia than actually what it was like.  I don't know how old you are but I grew up in the 80's and there are many games/shows I think very fondly of.  Then, I go back and watch/replay them and am like "jeez, I liked this crap, its terrible." You're claim that they spent 100% of time on gameplay is in my opinion your nestalgia talking and not reality.  MANY NES titles were just shoveled out the door and were actually pretty weak.  The difficulty wasn't because they simply wanted to challenge you but rather that they had a limited amount of storage to work with so they make a game that just played the same over and over but getting harder and harder so you eventually loose.  That is how they got the play time up.
  • I think there is a great example. Wonder boy 3 dragon's trap. That's a game I played a lot as a kid. When I was a kid it was not the toughest game as I finished it and knew the game well. It had some difficult moment but that was far from being a tough game. They made a remake called Wonder boy Dragon's trap earlier this year. It was out on all major console and PC. The gameplay didn't change only graphics and sound. And when I read the comments of some people, and watch gameplay it's crazy to see how many people found the game difficult. Watching "current" gamers playing this on youtube was so frustrating because they were so bad at the game. Many complained that there were no checkpoints, no direction and it was just too difficult... Youtubers who pride themselves for the number of games they beat or for how good they are played the game on the highest difficulty but sucked so bad... This is when I realize what many "current" gamers are all about. I also understand why companies are trying to frustrate these players and through in microtransactions and loot boxes to make it "easier" for them... That's because they are weak, give up and gets frustrated easily ...
  • Growing up in the 70's and becoming a teen in the early 80's really shaped how I feel about games. They SHOULD be difficult, otherwise, it's just walking through the world; you want to walk through a world? Play WOW.
  • Have you ever actually played much WOW?  Once you start getting into raid content it can be very difficult.  You have groups between 5-40 people who all need to do their exact job at the exact correct time or everybody dies.  What the enemies do is different for every boss and most bosses have multiple phases where things change.  If you are in favor of the punishing difficulty of Cuphead you would actually like raiding in WOW.  Personally I hated it and its part of why I dont play it anymore.