Cuphead and why it’s okay to fail

Live. Die. Respawn.

Society in general greatly privileges success. We want to succeed, to be the best that we can be at whatever we do. Failure, on the other hand, is viewed as something to be avoided. But is failing really that bad? Shouldn’t we be able to see the value that comes from failure; that from it, we can learn to succeed? Studio MDHR’s recent smash hit, Cuphead, is a perfect teacher for this lesson.

One of my personal favorite bosses, the cutie that is Cala Maria.

Though it may look cutesy, don’t let its facade fool you. Cuphead is an extremely difficult run and gunner, challenging the player with frenetic platforming stages and diabolical bosses. If you thought Hilda Berg and her lunar assault was bad, wait until you get all the way to the board game boss rush that is King Dice. This Mario Party host reject is extremely unforgiving and will make you yearn for the days when your biggest worry was a telekinetic carrot. Suffice to say, you will die in Cuphead. A lot.

But that’s okay. Part of what makes Cuphead so enjoyable is being able to quickly pick the pieces of your broken mug back up. When you die, you’ll go back to the beginning of a short level or a boss fight, and you make another attempt. Death is only a minor setback. Whereas most games frame death with major consequences, with Cuphead, you hop right back into the action and get another chance to learn the patterns and intricacies of the stage. And when you die, rather than feeling punished, you might feel a small twinge of success if you managed to get further than you did before. The game even shows you how far you made it through the level. You can literally see how much you’re improving.

These words will endlessly haunt you in Dark Souls.

Dark Souls is similar in this regard. Not the same, but similar. A major part of what makes Dark Souls the cluster-bomb of frustration that it is is, when you die, you are thrown a long way back and lose all of your experience points (if you die again before collecting them). But Dark Souls also, for the most part, requires pattern recognition for the primary portion of its challenge. Enemies and bosses will rarely deviate from their, albeit sometimes dastardly, predetermined movesets. Once you begin to discern their mechanics, the virtual foes just become sequences you need to memorize. And with that, failure becomes a stepping stone to success. The frustration that comes from Cuphead is a bit more manageable due to the shorter levels and rapid respawn time.

Most games rely on Avatar Strength, where a game remains at a steady difficulty while the player character, not the player, becomes more powerful. It gives a sense of artificial improvement. You’re not getting better at the game, you’re just killing enemies with more health faster. To make the player proficient, a game must give them the opportunity to fail over and over again until you get better.

This is where Cuphead succeeds. It may be a struggle at first, but with enough time and patience, it becomes much less of a trek and more of an enjoyable jaunt through a technicolor world. Practice makes perfect. We don’t have to dwell on our mistakes, but we must use them to become better. We must learn to take pride in failure because that is our path to success.

Excellent advice from Jade Empire’s Jing Woo.

Written by Lee Feldman

Lee is a writer, game designer, and graduate student from Los Angeles, California. As a gamer, he is primarily inspired by fascinating worlds with deep stories, rich characters, and sharp gameplay, with a love of games both old and new. When he isn't collecting rare NES cartridges, he can be found obsessing over mixed martial arts.

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