For a few years now we have been in a sort of Renaissance for classic-style video games. New games are being released mixing new technology and trends with old-school gameplay and design. In many cases, this has been great. Hands-down the most well-known occurrence of this trend is Shovel Knight, an excellent, stylish platformer that feels timeless. Cuphead is the next major entry in this time of rebirth and rediscovery, blending traditional platforming elements with sleek HD graphics.
Immediately upon picking Cuphead up the amazing visuals stand out. Resembling a 1930’s cartoon with fluid animations and beautiful watercolor backgrounds, It creates an atmosphere that is unlike anything I have ever seen in a video game. Visually, everything is just perfect. It revives a style and theme that we just haven’t really seen in video games and it is a welcome change from rough-edge soldiers and anime chicks. Every one of the unique bosses are interesting and well-thought-out, having their own design and individual twists. Nowhere in the game are there reused enemies from level-to-level. Everything is original and even the many references to famous enemies from classic games put a unique spin on their design.
The gameplay is tight, responsive and as close to perfect as you can get with a platformer of this type. The closest game I can compare the feel to is Mega Man X. Cuphead has all of the elements that worked for that masterpiece so well but tailored to fit its own hyperkinetic world that rivals that of the famous Maverick Hunter in design and variety. It’s a refreshingly-skillful work of game design from a crew of relative newcomers to the titanic industry.
Now, one point of controversy surrounding Cuphead is its divisive difficulty. This game is not easy; It’s not casual; It’s not for the faint of heart. Cuphead will test your skills to an extreme degree. There are three major components to this level of challenge from my observation: First is the progressively-chaotic boss fights that add more and more challenging components as the battles go on, leading up to an enrage phase that acts as a final gauntlet for each fight. Then there is the rule that you have to beat each boss on the Regular difficulty to progress the game, with the optional Simple mode being nothing more than basic practice. Then there’s the RNG, which deserves a little paragraph of its own…
The one and only complaint I have with Cuphead is the RNG. For those who do not already know, RNG is a common speedrunning term meaning “Random Number Generator”, and references randomized events in games. For instance, the variable damage your attacks can do in an RPG, or the chance of getting a solid gun drop in Destiny 2. In Cuphead’s case, RNG comes in the form of enemy positioning and movement. This manifests more commonly in the non-boss gauntlet levels, but it’s there across the board nonetheless. It is a common problem in many games and can make parts of Cuphead frustrating. However, it is in many areas manipulatable with a little skill and so far I have only found a few places where the RNG is particularly egregious (“Perilous Piers” being a gruesome example). Randomized enemy placement and attack timing seems to be overwhelming at times and appears more manageable if you simply rush through the gauntlet stages, never really stopping to fight.
The bosses are where Cuphead shine and they are the focus for the game. Most of the stages involve interacting with an animated feature on the explorable world map, the initiation of which takes you straight into a battle with one of the games many creative big-bads. Most bosses follow a traditional video game 3-phase battle with a few exceptions. The first few phases are a warmup to the enrage, where the boss changes form and the fight gets more frenetic. In a few cases, the enrage phase changes the dynamics of the fight entirely from the previous phases.
There is a little bit of progression in the form of purchasable upgrades in the form of weapons, abilities and charms. These determine which of the two weapons from your loadout that you can carry as well as the effects of your dash, your ultimate attack and one other optional boost that you can equip. These upgrades are purchased with coins obtained in the non-boss levels. It is possible to play through Cuphead never getting a single coin or a single upgrade.
In closing, Cuphead is a masterpiece of modern gaming. Critical reviews claiming it’s “too hard to be fun” are missing a key factor: This game is not for everyone. This is really an appeal to nostalgia for the much-harder 16-bit era of gaming with its pace and design and older players are more likely to get the majority of enjoyment from this title. Do not be fooled by its cartoonish aesthetic, Cuphead is brutal and will require every bit of gaming skill and acumen gamers such as myself have accumulated over the past few decades. Cuphead is fun, challenging and worth the miniscule $20 price tag. This is a game that I predict will be ageless and just may become the next big speedrunning game, so members and fans of the running community can look forward to thousands of cumulative hours across many Twitch channels of frustrated gaming veterans cheering upon finally beating their PB!