Thy cup runneth over
Cuphead treads that fine line between being hard and being fun. Every boss seems almost impossible on the first try, but as you progress you start to chisel away at each phase, and you begin to understand how to win. The game is a constant dance between you and the developers; for every step you take forwards, they shove you one back.
The result is a game that’s never frustrating – not really. You can retry the same boss 50 times, but you never get irritated, because you know, really, it’s your fault if you fail. The game never deceives you, it never tricks you: every attack pattern is laid out for you to see, you’ve just got to have the reactions, patience and skill to deal with it. Cuphead handles perfectly: every input performs onscreen and there is never a frustration with the mechanics of the title.
Maybe that’s because the enemies don’t have healthbars, so maybe in your head you think you’re doing better every time until you die and the progress bar shows you how far you got… either way, it’s a great psychological trick that really doubles down on the ‘just one more go’ psychology of gaming.
Cuphead himself is a china cupheaded character (surprisingly) with the body of Mickey Mouse who shoots projectiles from his fingers. His mission is simple: retrieve the souls of a series of minions across three islands and return them to the devil. The structure is simple, and the progression is addictive – simply clear an island to head to the next one. Anyone that’s picked up a platformer before will know how to progress.
But Cuphead’s appeal is deeper than most platformers. The game fits awkwardly between run and gun, bullet hell and platformer – it’s none of the above, really, but at the same time it’s all of them. At its weakest,
Cuphead is a good run and gun platformer with erratic enemy patterns set against a backdrop of wonderful, Disney-inspired environments.
At its best, Cuphead is simply the best 2D action game on Xbox One. The platformer levels are clearly an afterthought – they’re fun, but the boss fights themselves show the game’s original vision: every object shot by every boss is lovingly designed, the game design perfectly complements its overall aesthetic, and once you learn to read the game’s very specific visual language, you understand that this game does want you to succeed… eventually.
The detached surrealism of the whole game escalates as you progress – the first island is a few run and guns interspersed with boss battles and the occasional bonus level, too. But each island adds a new kind of level, ending up in some set-piece boss battles that are frankly some of the best boss battles we’ve played in gaming: one sees you travel through the various stages of a play as the lead actress wails on
you, using props from each scene as special moves, changing up the attack pattern and keeping you on your toes. Another sees you changing the rails of a ghost train as you head deeper into the trolley’s path… the creativity of the game extends beyond its wonderful hand-drawn art, right into the depths of its game design, and it’s spectacular.
Do be a quitter
Thing is, if you are struggling with a boss – take the living kettle full of fish, for example – you can either quit out and try another one of the bosses on your current island, or you could go back to the shop and purchase different items. Some projectiles act like a shotgun – better damage at short range – while others act like seeker projectiles. You can also add charms – an extra bar of health, or a dash that makes you invulnerable. Some bosses will require you to experiment a bit, and knowing there are a series of variables to experiment with is another way of keeping you invested, keeping your head in the game in spite of its difficulty.
We will say this: alter the game’s default controls. The initial setup puts practically everything important (Super move, dash, shoot and jump) all on the face buttons – so unless you enjoy playing with a claw, you’ll want to re-map some elements of the control to the shoulder buttons. There are some projectile spawn points in scrolling levels that seem to be completely random and thanks to the emergent nature of the scripting, it can feel a bit unfair. This happens maybe 1 percent of the time, though, and can be totally forgiven if you learn how to minimise your scrolling-level aircraft well enough.
Cuphead is a game that’s going to take you on an emotional journey – and not because of its simple storyline. You’ll find a boss, you’ll hate the boss, you’ll learn to understand the boss… and then you’ll kill the boss. You’ll be elated, your body will feel light, your aching fingers will rejoice… and then you’ll need to do it all again. That’s the beautiful rhythm of Cuphead, the wonderful rollercoaster every single level takes you on to form that delicious love/ hate relationship you only get with a game once in a blue moon.
“The detached surrealism of the whole game escalates as you progress”
far left No matter how many times you play, you’ll notice new details.
right Finding it tough? Drop the level to Regular – but this won’t unlock the ending.