I wasn’t one of the people following Cuphead from the beginning. My early memories were an impressive trailer and a constantly delayed release date. I remember thinking it seemed impossible for such a small team to create something interactive that looked so aesthetically complex. But they did that and more. It wasn’t until the game came out that I heard its main selling point was extreme difficulty. Interesting, right?
Difficult games have a strange place in my mind. Like most things in game design, difficulty is a delicate balance. Too much and the game feels unfair, almost lazy. Too little and the experience isn’t rewarding, and the consumer doesn’t feel a sense of getting their money’s worth. Some of the most revered games of all time are tough as nails, like Ninja Gaiden, Super Meat Boy, or the properties of From Software like Dark Souls. But difficulty is an art. Make a game too hard, it’s no longer rewarding to play through. Make it too time-consuming, a player is likely to give up early. There are plenty of traps to fall into.
Cuphead had the twofold challenge of creating a visual tribute to rubber-hose, classic American animation and a challenging run-and-gun experience. One that would create a unique imprint on the industry.
Spoiler alert, they did it.
Cuphead is overflowing (pun intended) with personality. Its simple story references over-the-top calamity of shows like Pop-Eye or Tom and Jerry. The animation is suitably perfect — there are no awkward gaps where it was left out, and everything set piece is full of life. And the off-beat aesthetic is…just beautiful. Our two heroes, Cuphead and Mugman, are adorable twists on Mickey Mouse, and even though everything wants to kill you, the personality of all the bosses and enemies is enough to make you laugh every time. Lobsters doing the backstroke, a giant cigar, the queen of a colony of overwrought bees…this is the kind of stuff you see in this game. And it’s as good as it sounds.
The gameplay has just the right amount of depth. By collecting coins throughout each level, you can unlock new abilities and weapon types. Different loadouts are better for different situations, making the player experiment to give themselves an advantage. Some bosses are easier with an extra hit point, some are easier with an invisible air dash. Some might be easier with slow, charged shots that do more damage. The designers thought hard about this, and it paid off.
It also has a very clever parrying mechanic, where every pink object can be bounced off of by hitting jump while in the air. Most bosses require you to use it in some way, either to avoid an attack or move about the battle arena. Individual levels also have you use it to avoid enemies or platform through. It’s a simple but elegant way for the designers to give themselves more options. Just like how some levels give you a “pacifist” rank for not killing any enemies, adding another fascinating challenge.
Cuphead builds intricate situations rife with unique challenges, none copied from each other. Some bosses involve managing three simultaneous attack patterns, threading the needle out of ever-complicating attacks, and completing tasks in a certain order under pressure. Conquering each new beast is always satisfying, which is the core of the game’s character.
It’s still relentlessly difficult, but I rarely felt like it was wasting my time. Very few challenges involve random chance, and fighting a boss over and over again leads to improvement. You will fail quite a lot playing this game, and some levels feel a little bit too long. Although Cuphead‘s not for the faint of heart, it’s an excellent experience for those who love a challenge.
And if you don’t love a challenge, play it for the soundtrack and pretty backgrounds.