The much anticipated Cuphead has finally been released. It’s a tremendously hard and beautiful indie run-and-gun game and Sam Brooks, despite being notoriously bad at video games, gave it a brave hoon.
I am very bad at video games. I feel like I need to preface this review, and any opinion I have on video games with it. I play BioWare games on casual or narrative, I play Dynasty Warriors on ‘novice’ despite having played that series for over half of my life, I’m the guy who uses the cheats in the Grand Theft Auto games because I think it’s more fun to do so. I’m not the guy who likes being beaten by a video game over and over again. When people talk about games like Dark Souls, I do my little prayerhands and politely murmur, “oh no not for me”. While I go, “absolutely not” on the inside.
So, Cuphead was a stretch for me. I walked into it not knowing anything about its years in development. Our video wizard José Barbosa asked me if I would like to review it, and I gave it a very (read: very) quick Google and decided I would do it. The art style was super appealing, I like platformers and I was sure if there was combat there would be some kind of easy mode where I could feel good about beating it despite it posing little-to-no challenge.
Reader: There is no easy mode in Cuphead, and the game is all the better for it.
I will give you a second preface and say that I got three bosses and three hours into Cuphead before I gave up. This game had beaten me. I loved all three of the hours I had spent on the game, but Cuphead beat me.
Because, as it turns out, Cuphead is not a cute platformer, even though you play a cup who has to go rescue some souls! The art style is cute; it’s even more than that – it’s flat-out gorgeous, not just referencing but fully embodying the art style of the old Mickey Mouse cartoons, Steamboat Willie and Felix the Cat. Cell-shaded graphics are a labour of love, it seems, but this is a reminder of how beautiful they can be when they’re done right. (See also: Borderlands, especially Tales of the Borderlands.)
But it’s not just the kind of art that’s a labour of love, it’s the amount of work they’ve put into the little details. I spent about an hour trying to beat the second boss, two boxing frogs who are for some reason fighting in a restaurant, and the amount of detail that is put into the crowd cheering behind them is incredible. There’s more personality in this frame than there are in many triple-A games. It’s this thing that makes Cuphead so compelling to play, especially when you have to see the same screen over and over (and over and over) again.
Because Cuphead is hard. It’s really hard. It’s not a cute platformer, it’s a goddamned boss-rush with platforming elements interspersed between. I would say it’s punishingly hard, but Cuphead stops just a hair before getting to that point. When you screw up in Cuphead, it’s because you screwed up, not because the game is cheap. Cuphead sets you up with the necessary skills, and then sets you free to get better at them, and to get really really good at pattern recognition. If you don’t have fast reflexes (I do not!) or a good brain for recognising and responding to patterns (I do!) then this game is going to be impossible for you. Return to the shadows, get better at video games, then go buy this.
As someone who doesn’t like difficult games, I was shocked to find that I actually enjoyed Cuphead. Even as I played this on a screen that faced the entire office who could see me losing constantly at what looks like a kid’s game, losing constantly to two dumb stupid frogs who shouldn’t even be boxing because why would frogs be boxing! I enjoyed slowly figuring out exactly what frame I needed to jump, when I needed to dash, when I needed to use my supermoves. I enjoyed figuring out this game and how to beat it; it’s something I hadn’t felt in a video game in ages.
So even though I only got three bosses (and one platforming level) into Cuphead, I’m weirdly proud of myself and feel oddly secure in recommending it. Especially as a debut game, it’s an incredible effort from StudioMDHR Entertainment. It’s possible that the game goes completely off the rails after three bosses. It’s possible it gets cheap. It’s possible it stops being fun. What feels unlikely is that a game that has had this much time, effort and love put into it goes off the rails. Even the parts of it that I played felt like they had been crafted to give me that experience; the apparent insurmountability, and then the gradual progression towards finally overcoming it.
It’s a hell of a ride, and I wish I was good enough at games, and particularly this game, to take it the whole way.
(There is a co-op mode in this game which I didn’t play because I don’t have any friends who are just as bad at video games as I am. I assume that mode is very good, and might even makes things easier for you if you were playing it.)
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.