At its core, Cuphead is split into two uneven camps: a large collection of boss battles and a handful of 2D platforming segments. As Cuphead and his friend Mugman lost a bet with the Devil, they’ve been tasked with collecting the contracts to the souls of dozens of foes. Each of these are bespoke, hand-animated fights against an enemy that will cycle through a number of forms and attack modes. If you succeed, you get a contract for the soul and the game opens a path to the next level. Failing presents you with a timeline showing how far into the fight you made it, or more like how tantalizingly close to the conclusion you were. If you fail, you can start again almost immediately, like in Super Meat Boy. Avoiding frustration by lowering the restart time as much as possible was key, and the developers have done a fine job of getting the player back into the action again with speed.
The problem with the boss fights is their simply overwhelming level of difficulty. While the early fights rely on set patterns of attacks and easy to understand forms, they still call for a high level of skill to execute correctly. The time loss in restarting and re-entering the fight is as low as possible, but the sheer level of frustration I was feeling upon reset made for a miserable time playing. Later bosses simply don’t feel as fair as what you’ve been led to expect. Too often I would feel as though I was left unable to move on screen from the number of projectiles, or that an attack was simply unmissable.
The platforming levels are relatively hum-drum affairs, seeing Cuphead navigate a series of enemies, collect five golden coins and reach the end before running out of lives. The encounters on these levels are unrelenting, but also uninteresting: there simply isn’t that much of a variety from beginning to end that will hold your interest. The coins are used to buy upgrades at a shop, like new weaponry, or super powers. Inexplicably, there’s no way to trial new items, or get a refund. As these platforming levels are the only way to get coins, I was stuck for three or four boss fights feeling ill-equipped from a lack of clear communication. It’s a massive oversight, and one that will be hopefully patched in the future.
Extreme difficulty is something that’s challenging to execute well and keep players engaged. Super Meat Boy, despite being intoxicatingly, frustratingly hard by its final stages always felt fair. Mistakes made in Meat Boy were of my own hand, rather than an unlucky dice roll, or an errant projectile. In Cuphead, there were dozens upon dozens of deaths that were my own fault, but more than a handful that seemed patently unjust. Whether these perceived inconsistencies were of my own doing or the games is irrelevant: all that matters is that in the heat of the moment I couldn’t trust the game would execute in a way that I considered fair.
There simply isn’t enough that can be said about the style of Cuphead, and the sheer variety shown in the encounters. The art style, cleverly invoking Fleischer Studios and the classic Disney animations of yesteryear is utterly captivating and incomparable from modern gaming. No other developer is making games that look like this, or that pull it off with such a fantastic level of polish, and charm. Every frame of animation has been meticulously hand drawn by a team of clearly incredible artists. The soundtrack is equally magnificent, a beautifully jaunty jazz mix that helps to up the tempo for boss fights. The game is desperately missing an option to mute the announcer, however – he knows about a half dozen lines, and repeats them mercilessly.
Characters can sometimes seem over-animated, as though there are too many frames of animation for the action that is being undertaken. Thankfully, the controls are tight enough to overcome any sense of animation priority. Cuphead only has a few possible interactions with the world and enemies, but their precise usage is consistently required. Cuphead switches between two weapons, uses two levels of super abilities, jumps and parries – that’s it. Bizarrely, the developers have elected to use a default control style emulating what appears to be that of a Super Nintendo controller, with all the abilities on the face buttons and bumpers, conspicuously ignoring the triggers. It’s a poor implementation, but thankfully it can be re-mapped easily.
The beauty and craft that went into creating Cuphead is undeniable, and I wish I loved it more than I do. It’s hard to look and see something so wonderfully unique and not derive anywhere near the level of joy from it that so many others are. I’m certain it will find a strong audience that can overlook a few jagged edges and can vent their frustrations easier than I can, but the simple fact remains that I don’t enjoy my time playing Cuphead. Though I’m not usually prone to this happening from video games, Cuphead is uniquely talented at making me frustrated, to the point where I can barely play for longer than 10 minutes. I’ve tried for weeks to give the game its due, but it’s time to face facts: Cuphead is an amazing game to witness, a joy to hear, but a nightmare to endure and I’ll happily never play it again.