Studio MDHR’s Cuphead for PC and Xbox One has been receiving a ton of praise and adoration, both for its amazing hand-drawn art-style mimicking classic cartoons from almost a century ago and for its unforgiving difficulty. In fact, the difficulty of the game has almost reached meme heights after one journalist had trouble getting past the game’s tutorial. Well, I’m here to say that the game is partially as hard as some have said but not for the reasons you think.
One thing that needs to be dispelled is the myth that the game is just punishing because it’s hard to master. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and something that some speedrunners have run into when putting together their runs. But I’ll get to that in a bit.
The basic premise is that Cuphead and Mugman make a bet with the Devil and lose. As repayment they have to collect contracts on the souls of the various bosses scattered across three worlds. You can purchase upgrades using a limited supply of coins that you can get from “Run ‘N Gun” stages, which are typical side-scrolling platforming stages.
While the platforming stages can be extremely difficult and some may require a lot of time to understand the patterns and gimmicks, it’s the boss fights that are the real meat and potatoes of the game.
The early boss fights are pretty simple. They have mostly standard patterns you can learn just by playing through them a few times to understand the ins and outs of their attacks. If the bosses get too tough you can switch to an easier setting. The bosses are all extremely well animated with their own gimmicks and idiosyncratic quirks that really helps give Cuphead identity and visual posterity.
The fun in the game is in its simplicity and the accomplishment that comes with finally beating some of the hard-as-nails bosses. You only have a jump, parry, shoot and dash. Mixing and matching these abilities is how you overcome each of the bosses in the game.
Now it’s time to talk about what I mentioned at the top of the article about the frustrations of the game and the problems even speedrunners have been running into: Cuphead features randomly generated patterns for some of the boss encounters.
By this, I mean that some of the bosses will change up their patterns to the point where you could restart a match three different times and encounter three completely different patterns from the boss. This means that you can’t do like old 8-bit or 16-bit or even some 32-bit games where you could count the ticks between frames to memorize a boss fight pattern. You know how you could memorize the pattern of the HKs in Terminator 2: The Arcade Game during that stage where you had to protect John in the pickup truck? Or how you could kite around Vulcan Raven on your mines in Metal Gear Solid? Or easily defeat Eggman or the Koopas in Sonic or Mario games after memorizing their perpetually repeating patterns? Well, a lot of times that doesn’t apply in Cuphead.
Some of the bosses have fixed sets of patterns that randomize. Now this isn’t too much of an issue and it certainly adds replayability and unpredictability to the game; but the part that becomes difficult is when certain stage elements also randomize. A perfect example of this is against Grim the dragon, where the cloud positions aren’t fixed, and sometimes their random positioning will literally force you into an unwinnable situation.
You can still get good and kick the crap out of every boss in the game with enough dedication, but sometimes ending up on the wrong side of a randomly generated element within the level creates both uncertainty and a level of unfairness that – while still being fun – can easily create lots of frustration for some players.
Thankfully, most of the bosses have fixed patterns within stages that don’t have random platforming elements, which can remove some of the stacked odds against the player. Only a few levels rely on those RNG platforming factors, and they’re likely the ones to give you the biggest problems.
Now one way to even the odds with the whole randomness factor is with a second player via drop-in/drop-out co-op. While the screen can sometimes get claustrophobically crowded with entities filling up space from top bottom – such as the fight against the pirate on the docks, or the fight against the queen bee in the honeycomb – having a buddy to get your back after you make a mistake can really help alleviate some of the game’s hardships.
Cuphead is also extremely forgiving for two players given that you can just keep going even when you both run out of lives. This is accomplished by bringing back a dead player by using the parry move on their floating ghost before it leaves the screen. You can pull out some serious clutch comebacks with a little bit of timing and maintaining spatial awareness of where your teammate is located if they happen to bite the dust.
Beyond the gameplay mechanics and visuals… the soundtrack is probably one of the best of the year. It’s all big band, swing jazz with a hint of ragtime piano solos tossed in for good measure. The coeval music and visuals highlight just how much of an authentic Cuphead is to the era.
Overall, though, the game will provide you with anywhere between six and 10 hours of play-time depending on your skill level and whether or not you play the game in co-op. Some levels are easier when played solo while others are easier with a bit of teamwork.
For $19.99 it’s not a bad deal at all, but it’s likely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea since you won’t be able to simply go back and pick it up and play it quite as casually as you would a Sonic or Mario game. The required reflexes and hand/eye coordination coupled with the random bits of pattern changes means you’ll always have to be in expert mode to overcome the challenges. This is a hardcore game for real hardcore gamers. If you’re a casual, maybe you should try it before you buy it.