Oh Cuphead. I wanted to love you, I really did. Your charming cartoony graphics, your plucky weird cups as people. But no, you wanted to be difficult. Not challenging, not reflex testing, just difficult to the point of exclusion and elitism and well, I won’t be riding your pain train anymore.
Niche appeal wrapped in a charming aesthetic
Cuphead will appeal to a niche market. The same group of people who try every day to perfect runs in Roguelikes and Roguelites will see the challenge and rise up to it. They will use great reflexes and memorising of patterns to whittle down bosses one by one until all 28 are dead. These same people will collect coins in the run and gun levels and buy the various weapons and learn that weapon ‘a’ allows you to beat boss 7 17 seconds faster than weapon ‘c’, thus it is better overall, except for when dealing with bosses 9,12 and 24. They will do this because the idea of a system that hints at a weapon doing okay or good damage appeals, the obscurity something to peel back as they master the bosses in the game. I am not one of those people, apparently.
This progression, this cadence of teaching you a technique, testing it, rewarding you then escalating the challenge, is completely missing in Cuphead.
I have beaten Lion King. I play N++ and I found Ori and the Blind Forest to be a nice exercise of reflexes. I have worked my way up to and beaten the secret level of Rayman. However, most of these games teach you a skillset over several hours, presenting new problems and techniques over time, making sure you master a skill before moving on. This progression, this cadence of teaching you a technique, testing it, rewarding you then escalating the challenge, is completely missing in Cuphead. The reward for beating a boss is that you beat the boss. That is it. You need to beat every boss on an island to progress, with a few platforming sections rarely interspersed. In those platforming sections, you can collect coins which can buy new weapons or charms in the store. These aren’t upgrades, as even the extra heart you can buy needs to be equipped (meaning you can’t equip say, the better dash) and while equipped your weapons do less damage. This means the enemies are alive for longer, so you have more chances to lose health.
Several of the techniques and tricks aren’t taught to you properly. Besides for a middling tutorial that can be completely missed, the game itself doesn’t try to teach you its own systems. In fact, the game doesn’t want you to look at the level you are on, or the boss you are fighting and learn or react before something happens. The game wants you to die, to restart the level and use knowledge of what just killed you and try to avoid it this time. Then you die again until you memorise the pattern. Then the boss changes up what it does in phase 2, so you die again. You try again and after multiple deaths, maybe even countless deaths you are so good at the pattern memorization that you can do the first minute of the boss without taking damage, just so that you can learn the final phase. You eventually beat the boss and while many would feel a sense of elation, a moment of celebration here, I didn’t. I saw one boss dying and three more rising up in its place, all with new tricks and cheap attacks that I will have to learn by dying to them again and again. This isn’t difficult in the sense of recognising a threat and reacting to it before it hits, like a fighting game or a technical jumping puzzle. This is cheap difficult. Tells (the telegraphing of an attack just before it happens) are really short meaning even with honed reflexes, the first time you see it you are probably going to be hit by it before the threat recognition, cognition and reaction occur.
This isn’t so much a platformer as bullet-hell shoot-em-up with feet.
Another area where the game takes a cheap shot is enemy hitboxes. Some enemies will have ears and arms and even mounts that aren’t part of their hitbox, but getting close to them will kill you. Bullets fly by doing no damage or a special attack soars through wasting magic energy. Considering this game is pretty much 90% boss fights, having bosses with poor hitboxes feels like a kick in the pants for no reason. This isn’t so much a platformer as bullet-hell shoot-em-up with feet.
Cuphead is difficult for difficulty’s sake, almost as if the developers were worried that the game wouldn’t stand alone on its aesthetics. The animators have outdone themselves, creating a charming recreation of 1930s cartoons with bosses that transform in a wacky journey, the morphing telling a story. I would love to see this as a cartoon instead of a game, or for the game to have an option for mass appeal, considering the aesthetic definitely has mass appeal. Sadly the game’s “easy” difficulty lets you beat a boss to move to unlocked stages but doesn’t award you their contract. This means you can’t move to the next island at all. Talk about inaccessible.
So be careful going into this game. You need certain skills from the get go and even with those you will need patience and a desire to learn through failure. Repeated, brutal failure. If a game all about boss fights where the bosses don’t play fair sounds like a bridge too far, then Cuphead is not your cup of tea. I thought it might be mine, but it tastes far too bitter. If anyone tells you the game is fair, accessible, easy or anything along those lines, there is a more than a bit of humblebrag mixed in with elitist twaddle bursting forth from their lips. Someone will list everything I disliked about the game as positive elements, and that is okay. I hope they enjoy the painful ride to the end.