Cuphead and the Forgotten Joy of Putting the Controller Down

9 months ago by James O'Connor

Games aren't always meant to be played quickly.

I have not finished Cuphead yet.

When I emailed Zam’s editors asking if I could write about Cuphead, and after they replied ‘yes James, we love you and would like you to have some of our money,’ I realized what I had just signed up for and sent a panicked email back to them explaining that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to review the game, per se, I just wanted to write something. I knew I wanted to play Cuphead, but didn’t know if I had it in me to beat it. I’d played the game at PAX two years earlier with a janky controller, struggling with a loose stick and occasionally turning to my partner at the time to exclaim ‘look at how good it looks!’ as I died repeatedly. I know my own limits.

Cut to now, and I adore Cuphead. I love how it looks, of course – the ‘old cartoon’ style has been nailed, which is evident even from screenshots - but I’m also really enjoying the slow process of learning how to take down a boss. I like figuring out which ‘tells’ signify which sequences, which sequences of attacks require which reactions, when to switch between the regular weapon and the less-powerful homing weapon I have equipped.

There are two difficulty options on boss fights – ‘Regular’ and ‘Simple’ – with the latter essentially acting as either a practice session for the more intense and enjoyable ‘regular’ fights or as an ‘I give up’ option if you want to beat the boss faster and unlock the next fights. The explicitly stated idea in-game is that you will come back to it later, as you haven’t really ‘beaten’ the level until you do so on Regular difficulty, which seems like a fair and good way of doing things. These are fun, well-designed fights, ones that I am gradually mastering over many deaths as I learn from my mistakes and form adaptable move sequences in my head, cooking up strategies for each scenario as I learn what those scenarios are. I love the game… but I don’t think I would love it if the option wasn’t there to put my controller down after a boss kills me twenty times in a row, walk away, and come back to it a day later.

This is the way I have experienced some of my favorite games. There’s a level in Super Monkey Ball for the GameCube that I took three years to complete. I’d come back frequently at first, but that dropped off; by the time I finished it I was playing the game maybe once every two months, although beating the level led to a bit of a renaissance where I started playing the game regularly again (although I never managed to clear every Expert level). About once a year for six years straight, I’d break out Elite Beat Agents again and try to beat the final song, Jumping Jack Flash, on the hardest difficulty. I don’t know if it’ll ever happen (the third section is extremely intense), but I think I’m going to try again one day.

As a games critic, this is an experience I don’t get to have often anymore, and I’m happy if Cuphead fills that role for me – something to chip away at over time. Maybe I’ll beat it in a month, and then start on the harder difficulty, which will become my new videogame White Whale. I would like that! But the way Cuphead is being discussed and analysed, and the focus on getting the game finished right away so that you can be a part of that discussion and analysis, seems to ignore the fact that this will be the game experience for many people.

The discourse around Cuphead has focused on two related concepts: difficulty and competency. Is the game challenging to complete, and does an inability to complete every single boss right away denote a lack of competency on the part of the player? Is someone who hasn’t aced the game by now too incompetent to, say, write about or critique games? The discussion keeps coming back to whether the game is too hard, or whether players (and more specifically critics) simply need to develop deeper competency so they can stop calling a game like this ‘difficult.’ I don’t think either is true.

I do believe that many people will want to take their time with this game, and that’s presently being ignored. I think the prevalence of streaming has something to do with this, because competency is a great way to pull in viewers. We now have access to playthroughs of games very soon after they’ve released, and we’re made to feel lesser for not having also aced the game.  Within days, speedrun videos of ‘perfect runs’ started to emerge, where players weave through every boss without taking damage. Yesterday I saw a video of someone finishing the game on a DDR mat, just as people have beaten Dark Souls with a pair of bongos and tackled just about every game out there with a Guitar Hero controller. This is enormously impressive, obviously, but it’s also perhaps warping our idea of what this game is, and how it will be played by people whose careers aren’t focused specifically on being so good at a game that watching them play it is entertaining.

So, while playing Cuphead, I decided to allow myself the pleasure of stepping away from the game when I wanted to. I haven’t put in any long sessions, but have instead played the game in half hour blocks here and there. I have died 110 times, and made it partway through World 2, dispatching with some of the bosses at Regular difficulty and others at Simple. I put the controller down whenever I feel like throwing it down is something I might consider if I die, say, ten more times. I see (positive) reviews where the reviewer confesses that the game nearly ‘broke’ them, and I wonder if that’s really the best way to experience it.

The way we critique difficult games usually requires us to get extremely good at them as fast as we can in a way that has always bothered me. I understand how important it is, for many sites and reviewers, to have your score up on Metacritic within moments of the game’s launch. I know streamers aren’t going to get people tuning in as they struggle with one of the bosses for half an hour before giving up to do something else for a while; the viewers aren’t going to see the way the fight plays out in their head while they’re away from the game, the way your understanding of a difficult section can deepen just from stepping away from it. This is the common player experience that the Cuphead discourse has overlooked.

This was not a review of Cuphead, because I have not finished it and people treat the concept of a ‘review’ with too intense a reverence for me to label it as such. But here’s my advice – Cuphead is wonderful as long as you get out of the headspace that you need to rush through and finish it immediately. Take your time. Take a year, if you want to. You should never need to throw your controller down in anger. Yes, Cuphead is hard. No, Cuphead is not too hard, if you don’t mind getting stuck for a while. Understand that nobody is going to take your ‘gamer’ card away if you don’t finish it within an hour while wearing a blindfold.