Tough but fair
Beating Cuphead should come with a complimentary Mensa membership. It’s a tough game, but Cuphead‘s difficulty lies more in exhaustive pattern recognition than anywhere else. Reactive shooting and jumping only go so far. Eventually, it’s hardly reactionary anymore; it’s muscle memory at that point.
There’s a cognitive brilliance about Cuphead that makes it more rewarding than most other platformer shooters. There’s a process to every single fight: Introduction, dissection, analysis, execution. Liberally sprinkle in failure at each step. No one is going to stumble into success in Cuphead. Every victory is earned. Every victory is sweet.
Cuphead (PC [reviewed], Xbox One)
Developer: StudioMDHR Entertainment
Publisher: StudioMDHR Entertainment
Released: September 29, 2017
Cuphead tells the story of the eponymous protagonist who’s up to his straw in gambling debts. Making matters worse: The devil is the bookie. The only way out of this is for Cuphead to act as an aggressive collection agency, fighting everyone else who owes the devil money until they pay up.
The structure of Cuphead is such that it rarely wastes time on lesser encounters. Most games would focus on how and where we find these bums; Cuphead foregoes the hunt in favor of delivering us right to these deadbeats. Essentially, it’s a series of boss encounters — each and every one legitimately different and special and memorable. The sentient teacup is eventually and inevitably outshone by the likes of a gigantic flower, an evil carnival ride, and a feisty Broadway actress.
Thematically, Cuphead is all over the place. There’s a cohesion in the stunning 1930s-era aesthetic (and the accompanying jazz soundtrack which is similarly fabulous) but most of the enemies don’t have much in common with each other. That’s okay, though! They’re consistently presented as independent challenges and besting any one of them feels like an event. They don’t necessarily need to be linked except by virtue of the fact that they’re all debtors.
Actually, the game probably benefits from this variation. It affords Cuphead an opportunity of sorts, the chance to get wildly imaginative in whatever way it possibly can. This potential is made good on time and time again in the multi-stage battles. Each boss becomes more and more intimidating as time goes on — not only by their more-powerful tactics, but also by their physical transformations. There’s a progression to each fight that’s equal parts logical and beautiful.
There’s an easy-to-ignore animation after every failed attempt that eventually comes to define the Cuphead experience. It’s a silhouetted bar that indicates how close to the end you came. Rarely will a dedicated player find themselves backtracking on that bar in subsequent tries. Every section is a hurdle of randomized patterns, and that hurdle will only be cleared through understanding and learning. Once you finally make a breakthrough, it’s suddenly not tough to replicate that success.
The key, at least at first, is to understand your own abilities before understanding what the enemies are capable of. It’s obfuscated to some extent, but the dash and parry maneuvers are just as important as the shooting. Cuphead has deceptively tight platforming mechanics, something that’s not likely to be noticed until you angle through a particularly hazardous spot. It feels more natural than it looks.
This is a necessity because Cuphead‘s reliance on platforming is greater than it seems. For all the colorful bullet-hell shooting that happens, there’s constant jumping and dodging that’s even more important. It’s an unending offensive barrage, sure, but its backbone is keen defensive play. Yin and yang.
Supplementing all of this is a glut of skills to choose from. I’m hesitant to call them upgrades because they really aren’t. They’re mostly just different from one another and some even come with drawbacks. For instance, one shot type is long distance and low damage, while another is medium range with good damage but a lowered fire rate; the charms — which are more passive abilities — have options like an extra life at the cost of decreased damage, or an automatic parry after a jump. (Parries are particularly important. Executing one on a pink enemy substantially fills the meter for Ex and Super attacks.)
It’s a lot to keep track of, which perfectly mirrors how every battle has a lot to keep track of. There are so many actions on the screen at all times, and it can be overwhelming. Everything makes sense though. All enemy attacks are telegraphed in some way. You just have to know what to look out for. Easier said than done, especially when you’re staying cautious of, like, three different attacks. Cuphead‘s always fair, though. Tough but fair.
Armed with that knowledge, going on the offensive is less about brute force and more about strategic movement. It’s easy to hit the opponent. It’s harder to hit them from a place where you’re not at risk. This is theoretically possible from most anywhere. Cuphead has an eight-direction firing radius, and it’s the weakest system in the game. Locked down with a button hold, it’s included for shooting in any direction. However, it’s always clunky and awkward. Attacks like the split shot spread out to cover several directions at once, and that feels like a better way to approach complicated situations.
The likely reason that there isn’t 360-degree aiming is probably because Cuphead was designed without the controller’s right stick in mind. The default bindings are confounding and ridiculous. Jump, attack, and dash are all set to face buttons, making it unnecessarily prohibitive to do all three in quick succession. (Keep in mind that your finger will hold down the attack button a great majority of the time.) To circumvent this, I assigned dash to the right trigger, freeing my right thumb to only worry about attack and jump. Admittedly, these quibbles are mostly just minor inconveniences.
Cuphead‘s incredible style belies its magical complexity. It’s so much more than a hard-as-hell shoot-’em-up with artistic flair. It’s cerebral in a way that these kind of games rarely are. Cuphead‘s commitment to forcing the player to understand is commendable. Those who don’t have the patience to learn won’t get far. That’s the kind of stand-your-ground moxie that makes this a hallmark of game design. My praise runneth over.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]