Cuphead has intrigued me for a number of years. The graphics and animation look just like a 1930’s cartoon, and the boss-fight inspired gameplay looked to be really fun. But after more than three years, can this indie darling ever live up to expectations?
Young Cuphead has a bit of a gambling problem, it seems, as he goes all in at the Devil’s casino and loses his soul as a result. However, he’s not the only one, and if the young mug promises to go out and reclaim other souls for Satan then he might get his own back in repayment. Cue a quest to muderise various boss characters around the world in order to claim their contracts and pay off the debt. The story is simple and effective, but it would have been nice to see a few more cut-scenes between the levels.
Cuphead starts off as a platformer focused on the boss-fights rather than the running and jumping aspects. Cuphead has access to a number of different weapons and specials – this is no Mario style game where jumping on top of enemies is all that’s required. In fact, Cuphead shares more in common with brutal 2D shooters like Mega Man, Contra, or even 90’s classic Gunstar Heroes. In fact, the latter is quite an apt comparison because the game features levels branded as ‘run and gun’ and others where Cuphead is inside a plane and the game basically becomes R-Type or Gradius. It’s an unexpected mash-up of gameplay styles that certainly adds some variety into the game, assuming you can even get as far as some of those early levels.
Cuphead is absolutely brutal. You can only take 3 hits before dying, and many of the bosses can take 5 minutes or so of absolute pounding before they go down, and can easily have 4-5 stages. You will be endlessly restarting levels and trying to learn the different patterns and timings before you can get a good run. Even the first level took a good few attempts to get over.
There’s no let-up either – whatever type of level you play, the difficulty is overwhelming. The most annoying thing is the lack of feedback. Cuphead is very much a timing/ twitch-based game, and it requires learning to overcome (along with natural ability or skill), and that requires a level of time investment that not everyone will be willing (or able) to put in.
Cuphead allows for 2-player co-op, but it doesn’t actually make the stages significantly easier. You can bring a friend back to life if you can parry their ghost, but having two of you on screen means dodging and jumping becomes trickier, and the game can be so deceivingly fast-paced that sometimes having a local partner makes things tougher. At least there’s no friendly fire…
Cuphead looks incredible, there’s absolutely no other way to describe it. Apart from the crispness and widescreen presentation, you’d be hard-pressed from a distance to realise that a game was on the TV screen. Everything from the art-style to the metronomic animation of the characters is perfectly aligned to the cartoon characters of the era.
However, sometimes this pride in appearance comes at the expense of the gameplay. Enemies don’t change in colour or appearance when they’re damaged, and Cuphead wouldn’t ruin the aesthetic by having something so crude as a health meter on screen. It adds to the already frustrating gameplay. Even your own health and special meter are so small as to be barely visible.
Cuphead has the best presentation of just about any game I’ve ever played. As a sensory experience, it is pretty much unrivalled. However, actually playing the game is far, far less compelling. The rock-hard difficulty and controls which are less precise than say, Super Meat Boy, make for a game that’s often as frustrating as it is fun, that requires endless patience and repetition to get the best out of.
Many people will give up before the game even opens up and frees you to play the shooter stages Cuphead is a strange one – I challenge anyone to look at videos of the game and to come away not wanting to play it, but your own mileage will probably depend on whether you had serious platforming skills in the 90’s or not.