When Cuphead released in late September last year, it was immediately met with equal measures of both praise and complaints. Even though it had been making appearances at gaming events like PAX in the years leading up to its release, it still managed to surprise everyone with its tough-as-nails gameplay. Some were delighted by its difficulty, some endured it for the sake of the game’s other charms and still others were quick to vocalize their discontent. The complaints continued even after Cuphead’s reputation as a demanding boss rush had been cemented. Some even went so far as to argue that its design excluded lesser-skilled players and that seeing a game’s end is something owed to the player rather than something they have to earn for themselves. This line of thinking is inherently flawed. Not because championing the cause of the lesser-skilled is a bad thing, but because it’s based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of what games are. All games are built around some kind of challenge. Sometimes that challenge is trivial and sometimes it seems almost insurmountable. No matter their degree or form though, all gaming challenges pose the same choice to their players: overcome it and proceed or don’t. The choice of whether or not to progress is always left to the player and that’s what makes gaming what it is. Take that away and what was once a game might as well just be a movie.
Before going any further, there’s a large, yet oddly chill, elephant in the room that needs to be addressed. His name is “walking simulators” and he needs to be reassured that he’s not going to be left out in the cold here. He most certainly isn’t, but that doesn’t mean he’s going be completely happy. Walking simulators absolutely have a place in the digital entertainment landscape, but they aren’t games in the strictest sense. They’re interactive experiences designed to take their players on a tour of a virtual world or story. No impediments, no obstacles, no gameplay (just walking around isn’t gameplay), no game. They absolutely can be fun and enjoyable (otherwise they would have began and ended with the likes of Dear Esther), but the only thing that keeps them from being movies is their creator’s desire to take advantage of the nonlinearity that audience participation can create. A good walking simulator is a wonderful digital experience, but it still isn’t a game.
So yes, all games must offer their players some form of challenge to resolve. If it’s so simple a requirement, then shouldn’t it be enough for all games to be just mildly challenging? That way nobody would be excluded and everyone would be able to play through to the end of every game, right? Ah, but it’s really not that simple at all. While it’s true that making all games easy would technically make them accessible to everyone, not everyone would want to play them. Just as there are people who like and enjoy easy games, there are also just as many who like and enjoy difficult games. It’s impossible to make a game that appeals to everyone, because everyone has different tastes. This is big part of what makes gaming is as wonderful and diverse as it is; because making a universal game is impossible, what we get instead are countless games appealing to all manner of preferences and interests.
So what’s so special about Cuphead then? Nothing, nothing at all. It just so happens to be an incredibly difficult game with beautiful visuals. While it may be that part of the game’s enjoyment is found in seeing its throwback artwork, it’s still a bullet-hell shooter at its core. Bullet-hell shooters are difficult games that typically appeal to people who want a tough challenge. Cuphead isn’t unique in its difficulty nor is it unique in only offering that one difficulty. It’s not a game meant for players who want something easy and that’s perfectly okay. Once again, no game can be for everyone and those who are turned-off by it have plenty of other options. Besides, if one truly wants to play through the rest of the game’s stages, then all they have to do is play until they do. Just like every other game out there.
Difficulty isn’t about the game deciding if the player is worthy to continue; it’s about the player rising to meet the challenge the game is always going to offer regardless of who that player is. It always has been and always will be up to the player to decide if they’re going to progress, not the game. If they do, then great! Keep at it! If not, then that’s fine too. Take a break and come back to try again someday. All challengers are always welcome.