Hey kids, who’s nostalgic for the 1930’s? I’m not that’s for sure. As someone who studied politics and history for some time, I tend to associate the ‘30s with grinding poverty, the rise of Fascism and GCSE mock exams. Great period for animation though, and thankfully its from this that StudioMDHR Entertainment’s new platformer/shoot ‘em up Cuphead draws inspiration.[pullquote] Aesthetically, Cuphead might be the best visually designed game this year, and that’s saying a lot considering its up against games like Persona 5 or Pyre.[/pullquote]
Let’s get the obvious out of the way and talk about Cuphead’s distinctive art style. As I’ve mentioned, Cuphead derives its aesthetic from the cartoons of the 1930s and Christ above it pulls it off well. The animation is nice and fluid, the backdrops and overworld are beautifully illustrated and the character designs are brimming with imagination. This ‘30s inspiration also extends to the game’s sound design and narrative, though it’s the art style remains the game’s main draw. Aesthetically, Cuphead might be the best visually designed game this year, and that’s saying a lot considering its up against games like Persona 5 or Pyre.
But Cuphead is a game that wears its influences on its sleeve in more ways than one. In terms of gameplay, the game is reminiscent of retro titles such as Contra or Megaman. Much of the game consists of multi-stage boss fights who utilise various attacks that you must memorise in order to beat them, with some taking the form of a shoot ‘em up as opposed to a platformer. Between these there are the Contra-esque ‘Run and Gun’ segments wherein you must collect coins and dodge enemies as you progress through the stage. These coins you then use in the in-game shop to acquire new powers and passive abilities. Just as the visual design is a love letter to '30s animation, the gameplay is a faithful homage to the classics of the 8-bit and 16-bit era with fast, unforgiving gameplay that requires your undivided attention.Unfortunately, this brings me to my main problem with Cuphead. See, much like the aforementioned political movements that emerged in the ‘30s, Cuphead is fucking brutal. I know this is something to be expected with retro-style platformers but Cuphead really takes the piss with its difficulty. Its why I’m referring to this piece as a first impressions rather than a full review as at the time of writing I can’t get past the first fucking island. See, Cuphead doesn’t really seem to have a difficulty curve so much as a sheer precipice, with boss fights thrown at you right from the start. I know some wizards have managed to speedrun the game without a single death but I’m not entirely convinced that such deeds were pulled off by mortal hands. It wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t die in only three or four hits, but as it is, your character is more fragile than the actual cups in my mum’s kitchen. The shoot ‘em up segments are somewhat better as you have greater freedom of movement but even those are pretty unforgiving.
[pullquote]Cuphead doesn’t really seem to have a difficulty curve so much as a sheer precipice, with boss fights thrown at you right from the start.[/pullquote]
Cuphead’s biggest dick move however lies in its difficulty setting or lack thereof. When presented with a boss fight, you’re given the option of fighting them on an easier setting or as the game intended. However if you don’t beat all the bosses on the normal setting, the game locks off its final portion. Now you can argue about how accessible a game should make itself, but actively penalising players for taking an option the game itself provided is outright hostile. Nor are you even presented with this option in other stages such as the Run and Gun segments.
I really want to love Cuphead, and to its credit I haven’t completely given up hope on it yet. But for all its charm, the game is simply too inaccessible. I understand the game is doing well and I’m glad for it. After all, its nice to see a humble title succeed. But if they ever make a sequel I hope they tone it down a little. Difficulty can be engaging but even the most challenging of games like Dark Souls provide players a learning curve. Until then, I’d recommend holding off until the game comes down in price or you git gud.