Late to the Game Reviews, Video Game Reviews

Late to the game – Cuphead: A Frustrating Faustian Fight

Cuphead is a 2-D run-and-gun platformer developed and published by Studio MDHR. Since its release in the Fall of 2017, it gained notoriety for its old-school animation style and soul-crushing difficulty.

The game follows the titular Cuphead, and his brother Mugman, who lose their souls in a bet with The Devil. Realizing what they’ve done, the brothers plead with The Devil and he strikes a deal with them. If they can get all of the soul contracts that his other debtors owe, he will consider letting them keep their souls. 

Seems trustworthy.

So, Cuphead and Mugman set off to claim the contracts and wipe away their debt. 

I really wanted to play Cuphead when it first came out. Unfortunately, I’m a Playstation guy and Cuphead was originally only available on PC or XBox. So, I bided my time, as most titles are eventually ported to other systems. 

This prediction finally came true in July of 2020. However,  I somehow missed its release. I eventually found it, and I’m glad/mad that I did—and not necessarily in that order. 

Hypertension

Cuphead’s gameplay is, on its face, pretty simple. You run, jump, dash, and shoot anything that moves. That’s basically it as far as controls are concerned. Sure, you can switch weapons, and there is a parry mechanic which is vital to several later levels, but for the most part, it’s pretty standard platforming fare. 

Each area of the game has two run-and-gun levels (where you acquire currency so that you can purchase different weapons and abilities) and several bosses. This means that roughly 75% of the game is made up of boss battles.

Unfortunately, this is a game that is easy to learn and hard to master. That’s a phrase that gets thrown around a lot, but Cuphead is one of the most pure examples of this. 

Near the start of the game, you get a little tutorial section on how to move and jump. The simplicity of the controls gives you a false sense of security. “Maybe this game isn’t really that hard,” you think to yourself. Then the game throws you out into the world, where you wander around for a little bit before deciding which boss to tackle first. 

Upon entering the first arena, you feel pretty confident. The boss appears and things are going pretty well, but you die anyway. No problem—you’ll do better next time.

And you do.

You do so well that you make it to the second stage of the fight. The boss’s eyes narrow and an evil smirk slides across its face. Suddenly, the screen fills with hazards, and you die almost instantly. You dive back in and die again, and again, and again.

Finally, you get through the second stage of the fight. You feel a thrill of exhilaration; you’ve made it further than you ever have before. Then the third phase of the boss begins, and you realize that everything that came before was mere child’s play. 

You are destroyed over and over and over.

Until that one try. That one attempt where you jump in guns blazing… and immediately die to the boss’s first form. To which there is only one correct reaction.

That is the exact moment that the difficulty of Cuphead will really sink in.

You will eventually defeat that boss, but boy howdy will you be pissed when the second boss is just as bad… if not worse.

Mix-And-Match

In Cuphead, your offensive abilities come from potions. Each potion conveys a different attack. You start off with a pretty standard attack that fires at a good pace and does a moderate amount of damage. Once you’ve acquired enough gold coins from the run-and-gun levels, you can begin to purchase more potions.. 

For example, the Roundabout shoots out a short distance and then flies backward across the entire screen. This can give you some coverage behind you. There is also Spread, a short distance attack that fires several projectiles in a cone shape. This can be devastating, but requires that you stay close to your foe.

Dangerously close

Luckily, Cuphead allows you to have two of these attacks equipped at any given time, and you can switch between them freely. 

You can also purchase Items that have different effects on Cuphead’s moveset. There is the smoke-bomb, which turns your dash into more of a teleport move, allowing you to avoid damage whenever you use it. There is also P-sugar, which automatically activates your parry maneuver whenever you jump, so you don’t have to concern yourself with getting the timing right.

Now, you might feel inclined to pick attacks and abilities you’re comfortable with and use them for every boss. While this could work, you’d be doing yourself a disservice. So, if you’re having trouble with a boss or a run-and-gun level, try switching things up. You might find that you really don’t need the smoke bomb so much as the P-sugar for a specific boss, or that there is no good opportunity to use the Spread attack even though you really like it. 

Art Of Darkness

My favorite thing about Cuphead is its art style. Actually, it’s not just its art style, it’s how complete it is. The film grain, double bounce animation, muted colors, and muffled sounds make you feel like you are somehow playing a cartoon from the early 1900’s.

I also like how they incorporated the trappings of that particular art style into how the bosses operate. There are frogs that turn into desk fans and then into slot-machines… Why? Because that’s how old-school cartoons used to work.

They also leaned into the whole “everything is alive” aspect of older animation, so it’s not too unusual if one of your enemies is a living stack of poker chips.

Beautiful, but terrible to behold

I think that the developers did an excellent job executing the vision of this game. Sure, it’s weird and bizarre, but it also works perfectly.

Devil’s Due

Overall, Cuphead is a pretty good game. I don’t think that I liked it as much as others did, but from a technical standpoint, the mechanics were solid, the controls were responsive, and the gameplay was… well it was hellacious (see what I did there?).

Anyway, I’m giving Cuphead a respectful 7/10.

There were times when I was ready to throw in the towel (mostly at Dr. Kahl’s Robot) and move on to something that didn’t cause the veins in my head to start throbbing. And while Cuphead was almost never “fun” to play, it did convey a sense of accomplishment and that’s just as good… right?

Please tell me it’s just as good. Tell me I didn’t suffer for nothing…

…Please.

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