The new hotness is Cuphead. It’s a game that started small, making its debut as a tiny fraction of a showcase of upcoming games. But people noticed, thanks to its wild, pre-old-school cartoon art style and its flawless dedication to a gimmick no average video game dork would ever expect to see. Because of that notice, perhaps, expectations immediately soared and with it, the scope of Cuphead. Years later, it’s out, and doing incredibly well for a game of its stature. Truly, it has become a phenomenon. Everyone is talking about it. Maybe they're going on about the soundtrack. Perhaps there are raves about its art style. It could even be about the gameplay in general. This is the sort of game that, years ago, would have flown under the radar and perhaps been entirely ignored. Yet, because of the quality and attention to detail, it has become one of 2017's biggest names in games.
The problem is, Cuphead is a very specific kind of game under the hood, and that kind of game is not friendly for all of the hundred thousand people currently playing it. As much as people have praised Cuphead, it seems like almost as many are disappointed in how challenging it is and in what ways that challenge manifests throughout the game. So here’s the part where we talk about it; is Cuphead too hard?
Cuphead, when you sit down with it, as someone savvy enough to even be aware of Cuphead, will probably feel at least somewhat familiar. Even without expertise the words “Contra” or “shoot ‘em up” probably mean something to you. Cuphead is that kind of game. It’s a sidescroller in which the player, Cuphead or Mugman, pew pew pew their way against an onslaught of myriad bad pew pew pews, and there’s a whole lot of jumping and dodging and dying along the way. All of this is painted in what looks like a 1930's or 40's Disney cartoon, until it reminds you that cartoons of that era weren’t all Disney-made or family-friendly. As Cuphead descends into the surreal and macabre, so does your sanity as you lose over and over.
Unless you’re patient like me, of course, and you’re generally skilled enough to make your way through at a steady clip. Then Cuphead is a blast and smacks you around, but also communicates what it has to offer: its speed, its responsiveness and its fun array of toys. Of particular interest to me is the parry, which reminds me of biting in Alien Hominid. It is a technique that affords skilled players an extra layer of mobility that you won’t get when you pop Contra or Mega Man into your NES-like device of choice. And then you’ll pop for things like the surprise, less advertised airplane levels or the wild super techniques. If you come in already speaking the language, you’re in for a great time.
But you can’t disparage people for being drawn in by the brilliant aesthetic, only to find disappointment as they unwittingly fly too close to a sun they didn’t see coming. Cuphead doesn’t do a great job introducing new players to its mechanical world. It doesn’t necessarily need to, either. But it also doesn’t offer any concessions either. You get three hits and that’s it – start over. Bosses and “run and gun” levels are split, so there’s no real need for checkpoints.
You can play on an easier difficulty, but you don’t get to play the full game. In one of the more baffling decisions of the game, going back to stubborn arcade ports on old consoles. Someone more used to modern conventions like twin-stick shooters may even struggle with the default controls. Also, a personal pet-peeve: the 8-way aim is far too strict and results in a need to focus too much on positioning shots. It’s especially rough after just playing Metroid: Samus Returns.
The bottom line is this: Cuphead is an incredible experience, provided you know what you’re in for. Cuphead wants you to fail, but it wants you to have a smile on your face in doing so. You’ll marvel at the sights and sounds and ideally also get used to the trial and error pattern recognition as your primary learning tool. But if you jump in with too little experience, with nary a Contra or Metal Slug under your belt, you may have a bad time. And there’s no avoiding it and no making it easier if you’re under-equipped. Cuphead’s impressive and inviting style has managed to both prop it up and bring it down – a double-edged sword like nothing else.
The important thing here is to keep perspective. If you see someone struggle, maybe reach out a helping head and make some recommendations for practice elsewhere. Screaming “git gud” into the void will only hurt what you may be trying to protect. This is a phenomenon now. It is an amazing game that is going to probably end up on multiple Game of the Year lists. People are going to want to try this incredible release. Help them out. Make it more inviting. Show some of that spirit Cuphead and Mugman share and aid each other so all people can enjoy this revolutionary release!