An ambitious game that has paid off very well
I’m not a fan of attaching intangible descriptors to games, but for Cuphead I can make an exception - I’ve honestly never played a game with so much soul as this one until now.
Cuphead looks absolutely astonishing. Anyone who has ever seen the original Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons will recognize this surreal and constantly-in-flux animation style immediately. The pairing of such a unique art style and the acommpanying music means Cuphead truly is a triumph of uniqueness in an increasingly hegemonic gaming market.
Funnily, the almost innocent aesthetic that Cuphead presents does a very good job of masking the relentless, unforgiving and agonisingly difficult game that lies beneath. Each level in Cuphead falls into one of three categories - all of which are side-scrollers. One type has you running and gunning from left-to-right, emulating the likes of games like Contra. These are the easiest stages in Cuphead and often feel like a lull in action between the faster-paced and much more difficult levels. The next type is a sort of bullet-hell mode that sits Cuphead in a freely-controlled plane.
It’s worth noting that every battle in Cuphead is a boss battle, with a seemingly endless series of infinitely imaginative bosses doing their best to rid you of your paltry three hit points. Cuphead is a harsh mistress and you will die many, many times in your pursuit of the finish line. The third type of level in Cuphead - and perhaps the most enjoyable - are the platforming battles. This is where the fledgling game studio shows its entire creative hand, forcing you to work within the confines of Cuphead’s limited control scheme in brilliantly imaginative ways. One such battle subverts the already insane rules laid out by the game and turns a series of fights into a board game - it’s insanely fun and elevates the game to masterpiece status, if it wasn’t already there.
One of my only gripes with Cuphead, however, is that an already outrageously difficult game is made almost unfair by the developer’s baffling decision to introduce randomness into the boss encounters. While there is a large element of memorization to Cuphead, some of the encounters have random elements such as platform positioning or enemy generation that can mean that you sometimes have literallly no other option but to die due to randomness, and not player error.
Cuphead is an enormously ambitious game that has paid off extremely well from the developer’s point of view. An extraordinary work of art that has set a new standard for gaming.
Cuphead is an extraordinary work of art that has set a new standard for gaming.