By now you’ve almost certainly heard about Cuphead and its pronounced level of difficulty so let’s begin this review with a declaration: Cuphead is hard. But it’s also way less hard than you might think it is. Having just spent the weekend with the SNES Mini and being reminded of what true old school game design was like, it put a spotlight on the ways Cuphead emulates that school of thought but stops just short of totally committing to it in order to keep the player hooked in.
It’s been three years since Cuphead was first announced. Its striking art style that pulled inspiration from Walt Disney’s Merrie Melodies, Felix the Cat and Max Fleischer cartoons of the 1930’s drew the eye from the jump. Its design as a game, similarly, cribs from genre titans like Mega Max X. Cuphead is layering throwbacks on top of one another. It’s whole thing is asking you if you remember “the good old days,” be that in terms of video games or animation alike and then seeing if your skills have survived along with your memories.
One of Cuphead‘s many successes lies in the way developer Studio MDHR have filed down the rougher edges of both its major inspirations, cutting out the more malignant aspects. There are none of the racist caricatures so common in cartoons of that era. There are no hardware limitations to stifle or hinder the game’s design the way they were hindered in the SNES and Mega Drive era. Instead, what Cuphead presents is nostalgia in the purest sense — it is a combination of the two forms exactly as they are preserved in your childhood memories, free of fault or malice.
And this is why you should be putting misgivings about difficulty aside and giving Cuphead a go. Shmup fans familiar with titles like Gunstar Heroes, R-Type and particularly Ikaruga will feel right at home (indeed hardened Ikaruga veterans may run circles around Cuphead‘s early and mid-game). As much as it’s a game about whittling down the health of stupidly powerful foes bit-by-bit, it’s also about the value of learning from your mistakes.
The story of Cuphead follows a character of the same name, a guy with a cup for a head, who makes a deal with the devil. To repay his debt, Cuphead must retrieve the contracts of other creatures indebted to the devil. In return for these contracts, Cuphead will have his debt cleared and life will return to normal. Hunting down contracts takes the form of boss fights sprinkled throughout the game’s world, often in between run-and-gun levels. Playing on your own or with a friend in co-op mode, Cuphead will bounce from one boss fight to the next, unloading a barrage of endless ammo into any weak point that may present itself. While doing this, you will also find yourself manoeuvring around ever more complicated attack patterns, enemies and projectiles.
On average, a boss fight in Cuphead should only take you a couple of minutes to complete. This allows the player to quickly jump back in when they die and put new strategies to the test without it being too much of an ordeal. The fights are broken up into clear attack phases which allows you to plan accordingly (okay, this time I’ll duck here and jump here) and stay ready for the changes. There’s a dopamine payload waiting at the end of each of these boss fights that will leave your mind reeling in celebration even as you try to bring your frantic heart rate back under control.
There is a perfect way to take down each boss and it is only revealed to you through trial and error. When you figure it out and the last piece falls into place and you know for sure that this run, this run’s gonna be the one, it’s deeply satisfying. It may require the kind of cognitive reframing that Souls fans are already familiar with — stop thinking of death as a failure and start thinking of it as an important part of a greater information gathering exercise — because this will keep you from flipping out and throwing the controller away.
Perseverance and memorisation, nipping and tucking your approach until you get it right, is key. If you charge in full of bravado, thinking you’re going to wreck shop from the off then Cuphead will quickly and rather brutally correct you. You learn to watch for attack telegraphs in amongst the barrage of on-screen flak and will find yourself inching closer and closer to victory with each fresh attempt. All of this is the result of Cuphead‘s simplest design conceit — more than anything else, it is consistent.
No matter what part of the game you’re at, Cuphead will punish you for trying to speed through it and it will reward you for carefully teasing out your plan, taking the time to carve a path forward. No challenge is impossible — take a breath, get yourself together, think about what brought you down and what you could do to get around that, and get back in there.
Cuphead isn’t stingy with the weapon drops either. You’ll be unlocking new shooters and skills quite quickly and these open up even more options for experimentation. Cuphead can take two weapons, a power and a special attack into any given fight. Picking the right ones to take is part of the greater test — on your first round, you might not know that the enemy favours a barrage of swarming insects, but now you do and so for your second round you come back in with a short range weapon that lets you clear them easily, a power that rapidly builds special and a special attack that will clear the screen allowing you to get properly stuck in. Taking the time to think your loadout through will absolutely effect the difficulty of a given fight — take the wrong ones and its an uphill climb, take the right ones and you may find you trounce your foe in short order.
You can acquire more weapons and loadout buffs with coins you find strewn throughout the run-and-gun levels. What you should not be taking away from the trailers or even the game itself is the idea that Cuphead is a platformer because it’s not. There are levels that resemble traditional sidescrollers but they’re there to break up the boss battles. Here, the lesson I’ve been preaching so far isn’t really applicable. You can charge into the run-and-gun levels with a degree of recklessness the rest of the game won’t abide. It felt like an olive branch to people wary of the harder boss fights — look! Familiar territory! You know how platforming works! C’mon in and play!
Where Cuphead‘s dedication to the old-school boss fight weakens is in its final two battles. There’s a reason these kinds of fights fell out of the design zeitgeist years ago and Cuphead‘s finale is a grim reminder of why that was. The first battle pits you against a series of bosses, anywhere from three to a full deck of nine (!!) followed by what could be called a “bonus” boss. I don’t know why you would consider it a bonus but I’m having a hard time thinking of a better way to describe them. The final fight has to be experienced in all its unfair absurdity to be believed. Finally, I caved to my reptile brain and just got angry with the game. It’s torture, pure and simple, and while that may be a thematically apt way to close out the game, I can’t remember the last time I wanted to snap a controller in half that badly. But in saying that, this was the only time the game actually lived up to its reputation for being infuriatingly difficult. Where learning from your mistakes and accumulating a working knowledge of how to survive a fight has been the thrust of the experience up to this point, suddenly it becomes about luck, hoping the dice go your way rather than any kind of mastery over the situation. The fun evaporates.
For all its idiosyncrasies and the maddeningly unfair finale yanking the rug out from under you, Cuphead is a clinic in bringing a long-dormant genre back to life. You don’t remember the frustration, you only remember the moments when you got a win after hundreds of attempts, hundreds of little lightbulb moments that took a fight from insurmountable to manageable.
It’s worth your time and it’s not that hard, I promise.
Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Beautiful presentation; Smart gameloop
Lowlights: Final bosses let the end game down
Developer: Studio MDHR
Publisher: Studio MDHR
Platforms: Xbox One. Windows PC
Reviewed on Xbox One.