Taking on the challenge of Cuphead is a unique difficulty for a gamer to face. For years gamers have been hand held through tough parts, been handed so much, and generally did not notice their skills withering and dying. Don’t worry, a game like Cuphead will either put hair on your gamer chest or it will make you cry foul. Really, those are the only two ways you are going to come out of your time with Cuphead. It is a polarizing title.
The story, as most reviews must kick off with, is interesting and is even on par with the 30’s art style Cuphead has going on. Cuphead and his brother, Mughead, got into a bit of trouble with the Devil who has setup an extremely entertaining, and debt building, racket in a casino. Through some finagling and maneuvering of the brothers, the Devil gets them in a binding contract for their souls, a contract that has only one way out. This is the premise behind Cuphead, the brothers (or just Cuphead in single player) are on a quest to make use of the single escape clause in their contract with the Devil. The brothers must collect the souls of other casino dwellers that fell the same fate as the brothers. Unfortunately, many of these soul jumpers are not exactly “easy” to handle and will require more than a bit of work to bring for the bounty.
The art style of Cuphead is simply beautiful. No ifs, ands, or butts about it. StudioMDHR certainly put a TON of work into the graphics and music – both of which scream early Disney cartoons from the 30’s and 40’s. Hand drawn, water color looking, backgrounds slip by as you move Cuphead around the level and do your best to survive the action. The backgrounds are simple amazing and full of details that you really need to watch a video of to catch because the action is often too frantic to take it all in.
The levels themselves, as I already mentioned, are freaking amazingly beautiful and detailed. They run the gamut between, well, run and gun to Gradius side scrolling affairs. The boss battles are another story, they are all over the place. The boss battles also have almost as many phases as that doll boss from Dynamite Headdy on the Sega Genesis.
That is probably the game I reminded the most about while playing Cuphead. Dynamite Headdy had a lot of similar boss battles – bosses that effected the actual level you were playing in. From being in the background and allowing you to freely move in front of them to bosses that literally change shape as you force them to morph into another shape to continue their fight.
The Arabian desert level is quite impressive as the city in the background rotates as you fly. What is cool is, the way it appears that you are really flying around that city as you battle the enemies. This level also features a nod to Flappy Bird in your having to destroy certain blocks in the columns coming at you so that you can fly through. It is quite interesting how they implemented so many tiny details from other games into Cuphead. One boss screams fighting the dragon from Mega Man 2 on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Another boss fight is quite similar to Dynamite Headdy’s fight with the robotic geisha woman. There are plenty more nods to the classics in this game. Can you spot the nod to The Adventures of Batman and Robin on Sega Genesis?
Cuphead is tough. There is no denying that. You will get farther in the PC version if you have a controller because the keyboard is simply not a good gaming option unless you are talking first person shooter and add in a mouse. Getting very far in Cuphead is going to require both a bit of good luck and learning the patterns of the enemies. Some bosses are next to impossible to learn their pattern as they react to what you do. In those cases, you need some good luck and reflexes that can only be honed by trial and error and repetitive attempts. Thank goodness Cuphead is amazingly good at pulling you back in after kicking your butt.
The difficulty is something I feel needs to be addressed. Cuphead is a labor of love for a period of gaming that simply does not exist anymore. You will not find a hand holding tutorial to get you through the first few levels of this game. There is no forgiving checkpoint system to speak of. There is no life meter for enemies, including bosses, so you are left to your own devices to survive and go for the hail mary when you feel it is the right time. Believe it or not, but back in the day, during the 8 and 16-Bit days, we relished in games as difficult as Cuphead. It was not something special, it was not worth bringing up in a review like I am here, the difficulty was expected to be set on high. Instead, games that were too easy were lambasted in the magazines of the time (Electronic Gaming Monthly and Gamefan for instance).
To help get yourself acclimated to the challenge of playing something like Cuphead, I suggest you check your skills with these classic titles (some may be available on current platforms):
Contra on the Nintendo Entertainment System is a great starting point to get used to fighting enemies without life bars and to get acclimated to those enemies attacking from all areas of the screen. None of the enemies offer a power meter so just blast but use caution, this is something that will do you well in Cuphead – learning caution in your run n gun gaming.
The Mega Man franchise will help you hone your skills in jumping on platforms, with certain death waiting with one misstep, while avoiding incoming fire from enemies, shooting those enemies and collecting scarce items here and there. The dragon mid boss in Mega Man 2 will ring a bell when playing Cuphead, if you make it that far in either game.
Finally, just to get prepared for toughness you may want to play The Adventures of Batman and Robin on the Sega Genesis. This is a game that will make Cuphead cry. I am serious. If you think Cuphead is tough and “unfair” give this Batman game a run through, even with a Game Genie cheat device, you are going to have your butt handed to you. I suggest playing it to prepare yourself for Cuphead’s difficulty. While WAY over the top, Adventures of Batman and Robin will prepare you for boss fights that are set to 15 on a scale of 1 to 10 and help you realize boss fights are not all fought with the boss on the right side of the screen and you avoiding projectiles and other attacks. There is a lot of similarity between Cuphead and The Adventures of Batman and Robin. The only way to experience them is to play them both.
For anyone that grew up playing games like Contra, the Mega Man franchise, or similar titles, Cuphead will still offer a challenge that you have not faced for decades of modern titles. Gamers from the good old days will find a lot to love in this release while many modern gamers will probably have a beef with various things, starting and probably ending with the difficulty level.