Opinion – Cuphead Embraces The Value Of Failure

by Elise Favis on Oct 04, 2017 at 03:20 PM

Many of us are taught early on that failure holds us back. From school to work, performance is graded on how well you do, and mistakes make achievement seem out of reach. Cuphead, a platformer from studio MDHR, reminded me that embracing failure as a key to success is important – not just in the realm of video games, but also in life as a whole.

Cuphead is unforgivingly tough. Its cartoonish aesthetic is a façade, masking its brutal nature with innocent-looking visuals that only show their darker side the deeper you go. When fighting a human-zeppelin hybrid in the clouds or an overgrown psychic carrot who shoots missiles, I died countless times. Each time I died, however, I easily found the resolve to try again.

Frustration is momentary in Cuphead, because dying never feels like a setback. The level instantly reloads without the need of much backtracking outside of restarting a short stage or boss battle, which can be beaten in a couple minutes once I establish a rhythm. By going in with the assumption that I’ll fail, the deaths don’t sting as much and become part of the learning experience. I take bigger risks without fear, and a gratifying feeling of achievement comes over me if I succeed. 

Dying is a way forward as I refine my skills, where I learn how to position myself or observe enemy cues to avoid attacks. Discovering how to defeat bosses requires patience, and failure becomes strategic. Seeing my mistakes play out teaches me how to be better, and it’s a healthy reminder not to be afraid of losing – because in Cuphead, failure helps you progress.

As someone who became disillusioned with overly difficult games, Cuphead surprisingly enticed me with how it embraces failure. Many games are about learning from mistakes, but the ability to jump right back into battle after death without the fear of lost progress means failure rarely feels like punishment in Cuphead. The difficulty brings both challenge and reward, but it also isn’t afraid of letting players face death on the regular without other repercussions.

This is a sentiment I don’t always see in games. Difficult games like the Souls series require a frustrating amount of backtracking following death. As for easier games, we see modern titles like the Tomb Raider reboot telling us what to do every step of the way, and failure in games like these is an inconvenience rather than rewarding. Cuphead’s mentality reminds me of Super Meat Boy: you are given infinite chances to try again without penalization, and can better understand what you did wrong when you’re forced to face your mistakes.

Cuphead has faith in the player. If you stick with it, this platformer will make you an expert because it relies solely on practice. When I played Cuphead for the first time, I struggled to stay alive, but after several hours I staved off death for longer stretches of time. When my Cuphead character waved his tiny arms in joy following the completion of a level, I found myself doing the same.

I want to see more developers – and gamers alike – view failure as a stepping stone instead of a drawback. Perceiving mistakes as a way forward isn’t just healthy, but also makes for a more entertaining experience. In Cuphead, achievement isn’t purely about survival; it’s more about accepting loss and allowing it to shape your time with the game in a positive way.

To read our review of Cuphead, head here.