Deal with the devil: Cuphead and difficulty

The phrase ‘git gud’ has become synonymous with the ‘Dark Souls’ series; games renowned for their uncompromising difficulty, punishing even the slightest hesitation in combat with a meaty chunk being removed from the player’s health bar. However, players who lack the reactions to best the bosses outright or the spare time to learn to strings of attack patterns are met only with scorn by the fanbase and the aforementioned cries of ‘git gud’. Take a peek through the Steam reviews for Studio MDHR’s debut hit Cuphead and you’ll be certain to see similar sentiments expressed.
Cuphead is a boss battle focused platformer with elements of ‘bullet hell’; a style of gameplay where the player must dodge enemy attacks in quick succession. However, the difficulty and reaction-based gameplay are where most of the similarities between ‘Dark Souls’ and Cuphead end. The former has a world and lore that suits its brutal difficulty with delightfully gothic environs and Cronenburg-esque monsters while the latter evokes some of the earliest Disney cartoons from the 30s, complete with satanic undertones.
The uncompromising nature of Cuphead can be undercut slightly by using the ‘simple’ difficulty; more of a glorified practice mode than anything else. At the very least, it does offer a way to start the climbing the ladder to the skills of the slick youtubers who can clear the game without taking a single hit. The only difficulty option in Dark Souls makes the game even harder.
So, the question is, why would anyone even want these games to have an ‘easy’ mode if the developers design them such a focus on tough gameplay? Going back to the world of ‘Dark Souls’, this can often be what attracts new players to the game, based on the extensive work that developer From Software did to create a truly immersive universe that lets the player get on with gameplay whilst subtly leaving flavour text and optional conversations for those who wish to learn more about the fiction. For some, the gameplay becomes little more than a distraction, holding the player back from experiencing top-class world and monster design.
The most immediately noticeable aspect of Cuphead is the level and character designs that seem like they could be from a lost pre-WW2 animated show, complete with screen flickers. To an extent, the game’s ‘simple’ mode could be used to treat the game as more of a visual experience than an interactive one, allowing the player to set about exploring the cartoonish world at a leisurely pace.
With reference to Cuphead in particular, however much it may sting to have gorgeous animation and a seductive jazz soundtrack locked behind intense platforming action, a change in mindset may be more important than a change in difficulty. For those invested less in gameplay, treat the beautiful nostalgic set pieces as a reward for accomplishing the game’s primary objective ‘gittin gud’.


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Harry Routley

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September 2021
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