In defense of Easy Mode

A lot has been made recently of the concept of difficulty in video games. A little game called Cuphead has finally made its debut after years of hype and, as it turns out, the game is not easy. Some find the title’s difficulty invigorating while others find it frustrating. Some have wondered why the game doesn’t include an easier difficulty setting, while others feel that, quite simply, if you’re not good enough to beat the game as it is, you don’t deserve to progress.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with video games that are difficult and there’s nothing wrong with players that are really good showing off just how good they are. Twitch exists in large part for exactly this reason. However, there’s also absolutely nothing wrong with Cuphead, or any other game, also making itself accessible to larger audiences. Including an easier game mode doesn’t harm anybody, it would only help.

Barrier to Entry

Two items of disclosure at this point. First, I have yet to actually sit down with Cuphead yet, so I’m speaking of its difficulty purely in concept, not practice. How difficult the game actually is, is irrelevant to the point I’m trying to make. Second, if the game is as hard as people say, I will probably suck at it, at least at first. The game is in a genre I rarely play these days. While there was a time when I had played Contra so many times that I could beat it without using the Konami code, the time I’ve spent with Contra III on the SNES Classic recently has shown me that those skill are very, very rusty.

I have little doubt that I would eventually beat Cuphead if I could dedicate enough time to it, but that is exactly the issue. While my job involves writing about, and therefore playing, video games, that work takes time. When you add in the time that a four-month-old daughter requires, there isn’t much time left to play games for fun.

While many people are interested in the animation and have wanted to play Cuphead since they first laid eyes on it, thanks to the art style alone. Many now hesitate to start due to what they hear about the game’s difficulty. Not because they’re afraid they couldn’t beat it, but simply because they know they don’t have the time to commit to it. The time it takes to “git gud” doesn’t exist for a lot of people. After they die a few times at any given section they’ll have to put the game down. By the time they pick it up again, they’ll have forgotten whatever was learned, repeating the process ad infinitum, until, work comes along and they have to put the game down essentially forever.

Cuphead’s art design is unique among video games. Its homage to classic animation is so recognizable that it has the potential to appeal to people who might not otherwise even play video games. It’s a game someone might suggest to their partner for the look alone. As somebody who doesn’t play video games very often, and never plays games like Cuphead, the difficulty would clearly make them unable to enjoy it. What if a game like Cuphead could be a gateway? What if people attracted to the art, who found that they really enjoyed it, started to give other games a try because of it? Eventually, maybe they’d be able to speedrun Cuphead on its normal difficulty, but they’d have to start somewhere.

All of this doesn’t even begin to touch on those who literally can’t play a game as hard as Cuphead. Video games will probably always be difficult for many with physical disabilities to enjoy, but wouldn’t be nice if developers did what they could to reduce those barriers?

Beyond Cuphead

Assassin's Creed: Origins recently announced that after its releases, it will include a mode that won’t have any combat at all. It’s designed to let people explore the world of the game, and learn a bit about Ancient Egypt, without having to worry about the user’s skill. This is a great option which, honestly, every AC game should have had before now. As a history buff I look forward to playing it, and I’ve beaten nearly every AC game there has been. The historical element is what sets the series apart from other games, and now people will be able to enjoy it in their own way.

Cuphead is a game many people want to play, but the difficulty makes them hesitate. Regardless of the reason, difficulty or learning curve, people will feel this way. It’s frustrating, because the game clearly has a lot to offer a wide variety of people. Difficulty settings are a thing that games, especially games like Cuphead, have built in for decades. They allow your kid brother to enjoy the game as much as you do. They don’t harm the game simply by existing.  If the developers of Cuphead truly feel their game shouldn’t have an easy mode that’s fine, that's their right, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with the concept.