In my review of Cuphead [official site], I praised the inclusion of a much easier ‘simple’ mode that also strips out some of the game’s content. It’s true that Cuphead could have just had a single difficulty setting, and the game is better for simple mode’s inclusion. But what would have been lost if simple mode included everything, and just made the game easier?
In simple mode, the bosses have much less health but also have some of their attacks removed. It takes away entire stages from each fight, meaning players don’t get the opportunity to appreciate the full inventiveness of every boss design. They also don’t get to play the last 10% of the game, which only unlocks once every boss up to that point has been defeated on regular.
So, on the one hand we have the argument, in its most absolute form, that no content should be gated away from players because of difficulty. John recently wrote about just that, praising Ubisoft's decision to add a 'Discovery Tour' mode that removes all challenge from Assassin's Creed Origins.
There's a strong case behind it: the best game design in my view is the one that provides the largest net total of happiness. I diverge a bit from John and think that if all of Cuphead's content was accessible to everyone, then the happiness of the minority that previously had exclusive access to it would be reduced, but it’s hard to see how this wouldn’t be offset by the added enjoyment that everyone else would get.
Why, exactly, might the happiness of that original group be decreased? I can think of two reasons. 1) They would no longer feel special and 2) the actual experience would feel less rewarding because it could, with a flick of the difficulty setting, have taken less effort to get there. I don’t think that first reason should be dismissed out of hand. Feeling special is part of the joy behind finding a secret or chancing on some rare loot, where exclusivity plays a role in their value. What stops that from being a compelling argument is that here we’re talking about exclusivity of a different, more total kind. Rare loot and hidden secrets are side dishes, while Cuphead takes away part of the main meal.
As for the second reason, in my experience finishing a game when I had the option of making things easier for myself can actually be more rewarding than if the possibility of dialling down the difficulty hadn’t been on the cards. It means I can look back at those moments where I nearly buckled, and be all the more glad that I persevered. Not everyone’s mind will work that way, but if an all-access easy mode can increase the enjoyment of both people that don’t want a challenge and a subsection of those that do, it starts to look like a no-brainer.
I haven’t yet talked about the idea that perhaps difficulty is a core part of the experience, and people should be incentivised to play the version of the game that they’ll get the most out of. I think this is the reason why Cuphead’s developers made the decisions they did about simple mode. They want to nudge people towards the experience they intended. It’s why it’s called ‘simple’ mode rather than ‘easy’, it’s why they put time into changing the attack patterns of bosses rather than just giving the player more health or making them do more damage, and it’s why you can only play the final section of the game if you’ve beaten the rest on regular.
The problem is that for every person that does end up playing on the harder difficulty and enjoying themselves, there will be many other people who never try it or lose interest in advancing when they do. The decision to cut content only makes sense then if the total enjoyment of people who do shift towards regular difficulty is greater than that of the much larger number of people who would get to see everything that the game has to offer through a full-content easy mode.
While overcoming challenge is part of Cuphead, and a part that I take great pleasure in, seeing the reveal of each boss and the individual stages of those fights is valuable independently of that. It doesn’t help that the last stages of each fight are the ones that simple mode removes, as generally they’re the most surprising and unique. Cuphead is a better game for including simple mode, but an easy difficulty level that didn’t remove any content would have been better still.