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

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 (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

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.