It’s not a platformer. Not really. There are some run and gun levels that involving platforming, and some levels require you to bounce around the single screen boss encounter, so I guess it’s a platformer of sorts. But despite the incredible visual and audio design, the colourful aesthetic that tricks you into thinking it’s a Super Mario-inspired fun-for-all-the-family romp set in the 30s, it’s just not. This is a shoot-em-up, and an old fashioned, hard as nails one at that. It’s not quite a Cave-esque bullet-hell joint, but it’s bloody hard all the same.
Most of the time, the levels are single screen boss battles that are as deadly as they are brightly coloured. The first battle sees you face off against three vegetables, after that there’s a flower, some sweets, a sunflower, a bee, ghosts… you get the idea. The terrible gnawing teeth suddenly spring from a smile that’s a lie, and it’s on. Like most in the boss rush genre, it doesn’t mess around. There are multiple phases (some more subtle than others) and you have a limited pool of hit points to stay alive. You don’t get more health mid-battle, it’s not that kind of game.
The battles are tense, controller smashing affairs. Every time you try, you’ll get nearer and nearer to success, and you know this because after you die (and you’ll die a lot, I had 123 deaths after finishing the first world alone) you see a little line that shows how far into the battle you got – how many phases you passed. How close you got before failing. Switching to “Simple” mode reduces a phase from the boss, and generally makes it easier, but you won’t be able to see every fight, nor “properly” complete the bosses. In honesty, Simple Mode is a bit too easy. Not so much so that a child could thrash the game, but going from Regular to Simple is almost two different games in how much the difficulty changes. It’s worth noting that you can’t “finish” the game in Simple Mode, either. If you want to do that, you’ll have to beat all bosses on the regular difficulty – and given how tough some of them are, that’s going to annoy a few people.
So far, so good, right? Well, sort of. The trouble with Cuphead’s fights are that they really, seriously go to town on you. Take a game like Bloodborne, for example. The difficulty is high, but it’s mostly a case of memorising patterns, understanding the fight, and spotting the tells. The phases will have a set number of attacks from the boss, and you can tell them by their wind-up. From there, a pattern emerges: attack A is followed by B, then A, oh, now a C, then back to the start. Cuphead ignores this style, and appears to have no rhyme nor reason to the attack patterns. You might get three of one, then two different ones, then whatever, really. This means that you are never bored, but it also makes beating some bosses a real pain. It also makes me wonder how the speed-running community will take to it, and given the fact you are graded on things like parrys (you can hit jump to parry pink objects) and time, it’s definitely geared towards that genre.
To mix things up, and I think to allow you to ease the strain a little, you can spend coins found in levels to buy different weapons, specials, and charms. Each shot-type (weapons really, but they all come from your finger, so they’re shots, I suppose) has a good and bad side to it. The Lobber is medium range but has good damage and a slow fire rate, but it’s the weapon that got me through that damn sunflower fight, that’s for sure. The “spread” shot fires a three-way attack, but it’s short-range with great damage. Each weapon type has an EX-version, which is usually a bigger, or stronger attack, and uses up your EX-meter (of sorts) which is shown by cards, which slowly fill up as you do damage. Super Arts do exactly what you’d imagine, and are executed when you have a full five-cards in your EX-meter. Charms affect other elements, like “Smoke Bomb”, which makes you invincible while dashing, or P. Sugar, which makes your parry automatic the first time.
Mixed in with everything else is an offline, drop-in/drop-out co-op. You’d think having two Cupheads (the second player is Mugman, which is a brilliant name) on screen would make the battles easier, but instead, it makes concentrating even harder. It also appears to slightly scale up the difficulty, because after failing around fifteen times on a boss, I went back to solo and it was a breeze. That said, you can revive a killed buddy with a parry as their ghost floats away, so there’s some potential for crazy co-op runs here, probably. The “run and gun” levels are the closest to pure platforming levels, but they’re also the least fun ones.
Inkwell Isle is a gorgeous place. The details are mesmerising, even down to the fact that for every way of dying, there’s a little jokey one-liner. The fights are incredibly designed, with bosses that morph and contort in demonic versions of themselves, each phase offering a new visual feast for the eyes that you must master. There are endearing characters everywhere, and though the story is simple, it’s fun and has some nice scenes to move things along. While it looks like an old Disney movie, it also has a soundtrack to match it. The songs are similar to the Randy Newman Disney compositions, explaining things as you go, giving locomotion to the story. There’s no doubt about it: Cuphead’s style makes it one of the best looking game of the year, and one of the best sounding, too.
There’s depth and challenge here, but it’s going to be too much for a whole lot of people, because while it nails the elation of besting a difficult battle, sometimes the view isn’t enough of a reward for the climb. It’s not what you’d call unfair and it’s entirely surmountable, but it’s the kind of difficulty few people will be used to in today’s market. It takes no prisoners, makes no apologies, but it also respects you in a strange way that, in all honesty, the retro games it harks back to never did. I like Cuphead a lot, but I am the target market for the game. If you like very challenging games that require dedication and high concentration, then knock yourself out. It’s not quite Super Meat Boy amazing, but it is, at least, still a very good game that requires you to understand its intricacies and perfect it despite some random elements. Thank God people are still making this kind of game.
Tight, rewarding gameplay
Probably too hard for most
Gatekeeping "completion" behind difficulty