Despite its reputation as a difficult game, Cuphead generously teaches players to become experts
Cuphead has a reputation for being difficult, so let’s clarify this up top: Cuphead isn’t impossible; it isn’t the Dark Souls of 2D shooters, nor is it the world’s cutest bullet-hell game; it isn’t even particularly punishing. For a game that has established an identity around an “old-school” (read: hard) design, Cuphead is unexpectedly accessible.
Announced in the summer of 2014, Cuphead cultivated a fandom around its art style, an homage to 1930s cartoons from Disney and Fleischer Studios. Brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer, along with animator Jake Clark, meshed the hand-drawn art with the run-and-gun genre popularized by pixelated games like Mega Man. The result is a throwback on a throwback, an ode to the good old days of games and animation alike.
Shrewdly, the creators lanced many of the warts that have festered on the “good old days” of both forms. Gone are both the technical limitations of classic games and, more importantly, the grotesque racist caricature of classic cartoons. Cuphead’s creators have emulated how we remember our nostalgic darlings, rather than how they actually exist today.
And that’s why I say Cuphead shouldn’t be missed because of preconceptions about difficulty (barring, perhaps, the finale, which I’ll get to shortly). It borrows ideas from games like Ikaruga and Gunstar Heroes, but it’s fine if you aren’t familiar with either of those. While it’s a game about battling overpowered enemies, Cuphead shares more with puzzle games, although it requires healthy reflexes, patience and, above all, a willingness to learn.
Cuphead is the story of an adorable cup that makes a deal with the devil, then has to repay a debt by collecting the contracts of the devil’s other debtors. Satan’s debtors amount to a few dozen stand-alone boss fights, which must be completed so dear Cuphead can save his soul. You (and optionally, a friend in local co-op) travel from one boss to the next, unleashing infinite ammunition into their eyeballs, tummies, appendages or other vulnerable spots until they submit. All the while, you dodge increasingly complex patterns of attacks.
The average boss fight in Cuphead, from beginning to end, is roughly two minutes long; short enough to be tested over and over and over again. Fights are themselves divided into a few phases, and each phase introduces its own new set of challenges (such as a tall wave of bullets) that inspire tiny epiphanies (rather than jump over the bullets, duck). Strung together to complete a stage, these self-taught lessons produce a real sense of accomplishment. It’s chemical. I do not fist-pump while playing games. I do not whoop. Cuphead had me doing both, while yelping “I did it!” to my very confused and indifferent dog.
Cuphead, at its best, educates the player on how to overcome each obstacle. Every boss fight has an ideal strategy discovered through trial and error. To avoid stress, it’s helpful to think of failure as a greater tool than any weapon. When a Medusa-like boss froze me in midair, I eventually found the spot to hide from her icy stare. After a ghastly horseman uppercutted me into oblivion, I knew to keep an eye on the bottom of the screen so I could spot him preparing a strike. With each round against a boss, I found myself progressing further, not because I was becoming some prodigious video game guru, but because I merely spotted and memorized each stone on the walkway to victory.