What can I say about Cuphead? Cuphead is a “run and gun indie video game” developed by StudioMDHR for the PC and Xbox One. Cuphead is incredibly fun, filled with beautiful colors and incredible music. It’s also INSANELY HARD. That’s right, Cuphead, disguised as an innocent little kids’ game is a harbinger of doom and frustration the likes of which has never been seen in any recent game I’ve played including the Dark Souls games. It’s a game with very little room for error and no healing mechanics. Throughout my experience with the game, I found so many things that I absolutely adored and equally as many things that I absolutely hated. Its frustrations stem from its difficulty and in-game animations that cause problems during gameplay. There’s one more thing, I SUCK AT CUPHEAD. I’ve always been terrible at 2-D side-scrollers so I knew the game wouldn’t be a park, but I just had to play it after seeing all the hype and the comparisons to my beloved Dark Souls games. I’ll do my best to properly break down all of the aspects of the game, I can’t promise I won’t either gush about what I love or rage about what I hate about the game. Consider this an unbalanced emotional review about a game that evokes within me emotions on both sides of the spectrum.
The story follows Cuphead and his pal Mugman who are both apparently living tableware. They gamble at the Devil’s Casino and lose their souls to the Devil. In an effort to save their souls, Cuphead and Mugman strike a deal with the Devil to collect the souls of other deviants running from the Devil. These deviants makeup the 19 bosses on Inkwell Island who Cuphead must take down. Inkwell Island acts as a hub world for the game, where Cuphead can move around freely and interact with the various playable missions. The player can either collect the debts owed to the Devil by fighting the bosses or playing “Run-and-Gun” levels where they move through obstacles and fight multiple enemies in order to collect gold coins and buy more weapons and abilities.
The uniqueness of Cuphead is due to its visual and musical style paying homage to 1930’s animation. It’s obvious that the creators were heavily influenced by early Walt Disney animations like Steamboat Willie, and they executed their vision perfectly. The overall animation is flawless. All of the movements of the characters are seamless and if someone were to watch gameplay footage they might think they were actually watching an animation from the 1930’s. The screen is always filled with color, the visual flair of Cuphead makes it a spectacle of a game that is not only entertaining to play but also to watch. Accompanying the brilliant animation is the music, the other half of the aesthetic whole. Cuphead’s soundtrack, composed by Kristofer Maddigan, features original jazz, big band, and ragtime music that resembles the works of Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman. As a jazz musician who’s played a couple big band gigs, I can genuinely say that the charts here are spectacular. Every instrument has an audible and distinct sound and the selection of instruments vary from tune to tune. The tunes themselves range from whimsical calliope/circus-like to lightning fast swing or bebop tracks. In the boss battles, jazz has never sounded so intense, the upswing tempos and shredding saxophones create a frenzied pace as you desperately try to dodge a barrage of attacks. The ragtime and waltz-like pieces in Inkwell Island connect well with the movement and give you a nice change of pace from the intense action.
Speaking of the intense action, Cuphead tries to crush you with it. The difficulty, in my opinion, is through the roof. I say this having played through all three of the Dark Souls games multiple times. By the way, this game has drawn a lot of comparisons to Dark Souls in terms of difficulty so I won’t hesitate in drawing them myself. As I’ve said, Cuphead is way harder than anything from Dark Souls, and the reason why is because Dark Souls gives the player a lot more control. It is an RPG you have the freedom to move around, explore, run away, gain distance from enemies, and dodge attacks in three dimensions. If you’re having trouble with a boss, you can upgrade your weapons and buy armor and level up stats until you can face the boss on a better playing field. In Cuphead, your movement is usually limited to the area that is on the screen, half of which is usually taken up by bosses. This gives you little room for movement or error, forcing you into corners and platforms and giving you mere inches of space to dodge multiple projectile attacks. There is no leveling up, and you can only choose from six abilities and six weapons. Oh, and by the way, you can only take three hits before you die. Considering that each level features about twenty thousand projectiles flying at you every second, I’d say three hits means little breathing room for the player.
To beat an especially hard boss, sometimes you just have to be perfect. Your dodging and firing have to be exact and you need to anticipate the attacks before they come and be in a position to exploit them; Only then do you feel like a badass when you beat the bosses. Often times the difficulty is so frustrating you end up following a side-scrolling platforming version of “spraying and praying” which hurts the game just a bit. In Dark Souls, when I beat a really difficult boss I always feel this moment of overwhelming relief and joy. But because sometimes I’m just randomly firing at the bosses and hoping for them to die, I don’t feel as powerful or overjoyed as I was beating bosses in Dark Souls. Instead, I’m more relieved that the Cuphead bosses are done. Some of the difficulty issues stem from the in-game mechanics. The button to shoot on the Xbox One is X, but the button to jump is A, which is right next to X. It’s not a major hindrance, but it does take some getting used to since the buttons are so close together. The right analog stick not being used is another issue of gameplay. In order to aim, you have to hold down the RB button to lock the character in place while you shoot. This could easily be avoided by having the right analog stick to aim and RB or RT to shoot instead of X. Another issue is that sometimes the space is so small that you feel you are getting hitboxes in places where you shouldn’t. The animation, though very fluid especially with the bosses, can sometimes obscure important set pieces needed to defeat the bosses. I find myself getting hit for no reason until I notice small little projectiles almost completely blended into the background. Yet another issue, is that the backgrounds, though visually interesting, can sometimes interfere with the platforming. In at least three different boss fights, the platforms on which I had to stay on where lightly colored and melding into the light background. This would often be a frustration when I would jump to what I thought was a platform but was actually nothing, causing me to take a hit.
Despite the faults with some of the aspects of the gameplay, I still have to chalk up a lot of the difficulty to the fact that I suck at the game. All art is subjective, and when it comes to something that is complicated to figure out, whether it’s an intricate thriller film or a hard video game, peoples’ subjective views on what they see will often be affected by the obstacles that they faced in understanding the experience. I know some people who think Dark Souls is the greatest thing ever (me) and others who think it’s a terribly clunky game series with unnecessary difficulty. The experience of a game will be affected by the player’s ability to play through the game. Dark Souls is not for everyone, and neither is Cuphead. That being said, I still think Cuphead is a fantastic game. Aside from the few frustrating difficulty and gameplay issues, the game is wildly entertaining and a joy to look at. It’s a near flawless product if you consider sound design, graphics, story, pacing, etc. Being a big fan of early swing and jazz music, and early cinema and animation (I love Tom & Jerry), the style and aesthetic of Cuphead clicked with me more than anything else in the game. If you’re a fan of arcade-style games and aren’t afraid to die a few times (or a lot), then I would definitely recommend checking out Cuphead. Especially considering its price of $20, the game is a steal.