The Curious Case Of The Guy Who Couldn't Play Cuphead

How Good Should A Games Reviewer Be At Games?
Cuphead
Cuphead Studio MDHR

Dean Takahashi is a tech and games journalist of considerable experience. His profile on VentureBeat reveals an enviable career: 25 years of tech coverage, 18 years of games journalism and review, bylines at the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, the author of two books about Microsoft’s consoles and an organizer of annual gaming conferences.

Yet over the weekend, Takahashi made headlines rather than writing them when his first 26 minutes of Cuphead gameplay went up on VentureBeat ’s YouTube channel. You can watch the video below:

In his accompanying hands-on impressions piece, Takahashi admitted, “I suck at Cuphead ” and poked fun at himself for his abysmal performance in the above video. “Go ahead, laugh your heart out at my expense,” he wrote.

Many people compared this video to the infamous footage of Arthur Gies from Polygon playing Doom:

But the reaction from many gamers was one of rage and frustration, not good humor. Takahashi’s Twitter is rampant with furious gamers dumping a nuclear factory’s worth of toxic waste into his mentions:

On Youtube, Takashi fares no better. Enraged, incredulous videos slam Takahashi not simply for being poor at the game. They see him as being part of a trend of journalists, critics and other industry professionals who can’t play games, leading to what they see as an inexcusable simplification of games for people who don’t even have a passion for the medium. This frames the entire games press and everything about their work as “not real gamers” because they shared footage of being bad early in their experience with one game.

Others state that Takahashi’s career and position in the press makes him a figure of some authority and posits him as someone whose opinion should be respected, yet someone who watches his gameplay video might come away with the conclusion that Cuphead has finnicky controls or is far too difficult, instead of assigning blame to where they believe it properly belongs, the player himself:

In his response to one incredulous commenter on the original video, Takahashi takes a different view, making a case for accessibility and against elitism in the gaming community.

For my part, Takahashi doesn’t deserve even a quarter of the ire directed his way. In his hands-on piece, which is explicitly not labeled a review, he makes it clear that yes, he’s bad at the game and yes, he found it really difficult. This is backed up by the footage of him being bad at a game he finds really difficult. It is okay to be bad at the game and find it difficult, and if you’re a games journalist and that was your experience, it would actually be the dishonesty so many gamers decry to hide that truth.

But these disclaimers weren’t enough for many people who took umbrage at the footage, especially under its original title of “It’s Not Easy.” For some people this was considered a misrepresentation of Cuphead, which is not, after all, a Triple-A title from a Triple-A studio rolling in the big bucks, but a unique indie title made with great passion and at great personal expense. It’s meant to be a challenge, as Studio MDHR inking artist Maja Moldenhauer told Takahashi, but not difficult.

This same community is the community that continues to haunt any press about No Man’s Sky, a unique indie title made with great passion and at great personal expense, with comments about how it sucks and the No Man’s Sky team broke their promises and so on, no matter what No Man’s Sky does to bridge the gap between their promises at launch and their game’s current state. The same community that refuses to even consider being wrong about an opinion, let alone admit to being bad at a game, thinks Takahashi’s career is worthless because he had trouble with the Cuphead tutorial. Really?

No one who is furious at Takahashi’s bad gameplay has even considered that one of the main things a game journalist does, other than play games, is write. No one who is furious acknowledges that the average gamer doesn’t have to play any game they don’t want to, while a games journalist has to cover what’s out no matter their personal feelings or their experience with that type of game. Not every outlet has enough staff on hand to lovingly curate each journalist’s personal gameplay experience, serving them only the choicest morsels of their favorite genres.

To dismiss Takahashi for a single 500-word preview piece that offered his own personal impressions, where he clearly conveys that he is not good at the game, is to engage in the same kind of performative outrage so frequently labeled upon anyone who wants to discuss sexism, racism or homophobia in games. It’s not only childish, it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what journalism is, how enthusiast press differs from mainstream media and what it takes to actually do the job.

Did I cringe at the video? Yes. Could I do better? Yeah, probably. Would I blow you all away with my incredible skills on my first time with the game? Probably not; I find most 2D side-scrolling platformer/shooters tedious, repetitive and hard in a way I don’t enjoy, which is why I’ve never played them for fun and hence why I’m not great at them. But I still review them because my job isn’t to do what I like all the time, but to review games, all kind of games, and explain why I feel the way I do about them by providing context and sharing my experience.

Yeah, gaming journalists should be able to provide more meaningful context for games than “well, this 2D side-scrolling platformer/shooter sure ain’t Mario.” But that’s why we don’t have just one gaming journalist or outlet. If there’s one thing the gaming community has in spades, it’s a profusion of places where you can get opinions, impressions, reviews, judgments and critique. It is disproportionate for a handful of regrettable performances from one or two fish in such a wide sea to destroy your faith in the ocean.

What do you think about the Cuphead video? How good do you have to be before your opinion of a game can be taken seriously? If you’re bad at a game, is your opinion valid? Feel free to discuss in our comments section below.

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