It took me 14 tries before I reached the psychic carrot. First, I had to get past an incredibly angry potato, who hurled giant balls of dirt and worms my way at irregular intervals. When I finally defeated the spud, I moved on to an onion who cried a storm’s worth of damaging tears. But the carrot was the real challenge. Possessing the ability to both fire homing missiles (in the form of tiny carrots, of course) and shoot out laser beams from its third eye, I struggled to avoid its deadly onslaught. Eventually, through a combination of luck and persistence, I avoided the carrot’s attacks long enough to get in the last, devastating blow and finish the level. It took me well over 25 attempts.
And that was only Cuphead’s first level.
Many modern games are built around the idea of accessibility: just about everyone should be able to pick them up and play without getting frustrated. Most of the time this is a good thing; many of the core elements of classic games can feel irritatingly dated today. But it also means that, on average, games are pretty easy nowadays, and sometimes it can feel like a vital part of the experience is missing. Thankfully, a pair of games that came out last week are built in part on the idea that a greater challenge also means a greater reward. It may have taken forever to beat that carrot, but boy did it feel good when I finally did.
Cuphead, which is out now on Xbox One and PC, is a game that looks like a 1930s cartoon, but plays like a late-‘80s run-and-gun shooter (think Mega Man or Gunstar Heroes). As the titular Cuphead, it’s your job to fight a variety of creatures in order to collect their souls for the devil. At first, these intricately designed battles seem impossible. The first encounter with the potato, for instance, begins with the sentient vegetable hurling dirt at you without warning. There are no instructions at all; if you want to beat it, you’ll need to figure out how on your own.
Like many similar games known for their brutal difficulty, dying in Cuphead isn’t really game over, it’s a chance to learn. In that first boss battle, I only really discovered what could hurt me by, well, getting hurt. And it’s only after you fight a creature multiple times that you start to understand their patterns and ticks. By the time I managed to get past the bouncy blue ball, another early boss, I knew exactly how far it could jump and shoot. I knew when it would leap at me and when it would expand in size or swing a huge fist at me. The same is true of all of the bosses I’ve faced off against, whether it’s a pair of boxing frogs or a towering mermaid.
If you grew up playing the old-school 2D games that inspired Cuphead, its challenging structure will feel familiar. But Cuphead is also a game that feels more fair than punishing. Sure, some stages require quick reflexes, but more than that, they require careful observation. You can’t brute force your way to success in Cuphead. Instead, you have to pay close attention to your every move, learn from every mistake, and keep all of that information in your memory. Beating a boss almost feels like pulling off complex choreography.
Ruiner, which is out on PS4, Xbox One, and PC, takes a somewhat different approach, though it’s similarly hardcore. It’s an isometric shooter set in a grim, dystopic future, where you play as an unnamed masked man fighting off evil corporations and gangs of punks. It’s drenched in rain, neon, and blood, sort of like a cyberpunk take on Hotline Miami. Each area of Ruiner — which includes everything from vast factories to grimy underground lairs — is divided into a number of smaller, enemy-filled sections. In each one, your goal is simple: murder everyone in sight, and then move on. Bad guys will crawl out from under cars, charge at you while rigged with explosives, or be dropped from a hovering transport vehicle. You’ll cycle through weapons constantly, and use upgradeable cyber enhancements to zip around your opponents or erect a defensive shield.
Ruiner is a messier experience than Cuphead. You don’t learn the intricacies of each stage — a set of movements that, if perfectly performed, would result in victory. Instead, you just need to hold on as long as you can. It feels more like survival than mastery. Often, I had to pause to catch my breath after a particularly tight firefight.
But for all of their differences in style and tone, success in both Cuphead and Ruiner result in the same kind of feeling. At the outset, the levels can seem hopeless — this boss is just too fast and strong, or this level is swarmed with too many enemies. So when you ultimately pull off a victory, it’s very satisfying. Both games also smartly sand off some of the rough edges found in more intrinsically old-school experiences, offering features like generous save systems, customizable abilities, and levels that are short enough you won’t mind playing through them repeatedly. You still get the satisfaction of victory, but it isn’t hampered by a needlessly punishing structure.
Neither game is the first to return to this idea of hardcore challenge. Indie classics like Hotline Miami and N++ are similarly old-school difficult, and the Dark Souls series has spawned a legion of memes due to its punishing nature. But both Ruiner and Cuphead are prime examples of the positive aspects of a really hard game. Sure, you might spend an entire afternoon swearing at a cartoon frog and his gang of fireflies — but it’s all worth it when you finally knock him to the ground a few hours later.