“Are you a cup?”
Cuphead is a game by StudioMDHR in 2017. It has platforming as well as bullet hell type gameplay, with a heavy focus on boss fights. It’s available on Steam for $19.99.
This is a fantastic game – truly one of those games that will stand the test of time. I initially was interested in the game because of it’s amazing visuals, and I think that’s true for almost everyone who bought this game. However, while installing the game, I began to see reviews and comments complaining about how difficult the game was, and that had me pretty worried (admittedly, I should have done more research before buying the game…). One of the main reasons I bought this game was to play co-op with my brother, who is *ahem* not the best at platformers. As it turns out, this was a pretty serious issue – if your co-op partner dies, and you fail to revive him or her, then your partner just sits and watches you until you finish your current mission. This, inevitably, made me feel pretty guilty, as my brother often had to just watch me play.
However, when playing alone, Cuphead is a blast. I cannot emphasize enough how amazing the visuals are: the animation, the art style, the cheerful aesthetic… it’s all absolutely beautiful. The cartoony style doesn’t just start and end with visuals either; Cuphead, Mugman and the bosses often transform into different forms, which wouldn’t make any sense if it weren’t for the art style. Bees become planes, planes become moons, but it all makes as much sense as Bugs Bunny cartoons, so don’t question it. I mean, you’re playing as a guy with a cup for a head; nothing makes sense, and that’s how this world works. However, this is THE main selling point and a very well known fact about the game, so I shan’t dwell on it more than I already have. The two other standouts of the game are the music and the gameplay. The music is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard in a videogame; I would say that it’s even better than Undertale’s soundtrack, though that’s a very subjective statement. You should check out YouTube and see the making of the songs “Floral Fury” and “High Seas Hi-Jinx,” which really showcases the quality and effort that went into making these songs. Every boss, every stage, every occasion has a new song, and they’re all top notch.
The wonderful world of Cuphead is explored by a hub world, which allows you to access various stages and boss fights. There are three two types of encounters: Run and Gun, which may include a mini-boss, but is otherwise a standard platforming level, and boss fights. The boss fights come in two formats: you’re either platforming, like in the Run and Gun stages, or you’re in an airplane, shooting at them in a bullet-hell type fight, though bullet-hell is a hyperbole. What’s really interesting about Cupehad is that the boss fights significantly outnumber the Run and Gun stages. I remember playing with my brother, and we were both shocked that we fought two different bosses before we encountered our first Run and Gun stage.
The controls are very simple, but also very responsive. During platforming, you can move around, jump, shoot and dash. You can also parry certain attacks, which negates the attack as well as fills up your super meter, which allows you to do stronger attacks as well as a super move. I really like how the parry system works: you jump in the air, and then you press the jump button again in order to parry an attack. This means that you cannot parry an attack while standing on the ground, and it is extremely difficult to parry attacks that are coming down from above you, since your first jump will result in you just taking damage before you can parry it. I think there’s a slight delay between when you jump and when you can parry, but I’m not sure; either way, you should mostly parry attacks coming diagonally rather than directly from above. This detail subtly makes the game noticeably harder, as attacks go from boring to very deadly depending on your position. One last thing I want to mention in the platforming sections is that you have an assortments of weapons you can choose from. You initially start with the pea shooter, but as you find coins throughout the game, you can purchase more situational weapons, which work better for certain play styles as well as certain bosses.
“we’re fighting an army of robots… I have a bow and arrow… none of this makes sense”
The airplane levels are also a lot of fun. You initially start with just a bunch of regular bullets, but you also gain the ability to launch bombs in a trajectory later. The dash button transforms your plane into a smaller one that can move very quickly, which is extremely helpful for dodging projectiles, but your bullet range is severely limited in this mode. My only complaint is that the EX moves (stronger versions of attacks that drains your super meter) are very unsatisfying; they don’t seem to do as much damage as they should. Inversely, when your super meter is completely filled up, you can turn yourself into a bomb and do massive amounts of damage to the bosses, which is always extremely satisfying.
So the difficulty… how bad is it? Well, I was able to beat the game, which I can’t say for games like the original Castlevania on the NES or Darkest Dungeon. The main source of difficulty in this game is the lack of healing: except for one boss fight, you cannot gain health. You can increase the amount of health you start the match with, but that’s about it. If you or your partner dies, you remain dead until the fight ends; there are no revives. Practically, the difficulty just means that you can’t beat the bosses on the first try. All bosses have multiple phases, and you usually die when you get to a new phase, since you’re not familiar with their attack patterns. This forces you to get very familiar with and breeze past the earlier phases, so you have as much health left for the later phases, giving you a margin for error and allowing you to experiment and ultimately improve. By the time you master the last phase, you’ll be surprised by how easy the boss has become: after beating the game, I went back to get A ranks on all the bosses, and I managed to pull that off with only a couple of tries with each boss.
That being said, the game does experience some rather extreme difficulty spikes from time to time. Several bosses are significantly harder than others – for me, Dr. Kahl’s robot and the dragon were the hardest boss, especially the last stages. Additionally, some bosses have attacks that depend on luck, which is extremely frustrating if you’re trying to get a high rank on all the boss encounters. All in all, I enjoyed the difficulty. It kept the game engaging and challenging without causing frustration or crying. Every challenge seems daunting at first, but as you bash your cuphead against the wall, you start to figure out the patterns, and before you know it, you’ll have conquered that beast.
Please keep in mind that this is just my opinion. From what I’ve read by other people’s reviews online, they seem to complain that the game is way too difficult, and I would understand that this amount of difficulty is not your cup of tea. I think I found the difficulty manageable because I enjoy platformers, memorizing attack patterns, evading attacks that require a quick reaction time, and relying on muscle memory. If you prefer a slower-paced game, or a game that depends more on strategy than split second decision making, then Cuphead is not the game for you.
Lastly, the game has some small bugs. One I encountered recently was on the Phantom Express, where the Super Meter rating would always be 0 no matter how well I did in that level. Similarly, the skill rating, which depends on what difficulty you’re playing on (simple, regular, expert), would be different from what it should be.
One last thing I would like to add about the gameplay is the co-op mode. Besides the problem I mentioned earlier, where you have to feel guilty because your partner has to just watch you play if he or she died, the co-op doens’t really make the game easier, just different. On one hand, your team has double the fire power and can revive each other if you’re quick enough, but you also have much more to keep track of on the screen. You have to watch where your partner is, try to suss out what projectiles you have to dodge when there’s already a million of them on the screen, and the bosses become less predictable, since you don’t know if they’re targeting you or your partner. It’s a lot of fun!
In case you can’t tell, I love this game. The style, the gameplay, the music, and even the story behind its development all make it a shining example of what games can do and what they should strive for. I think one of the best aspects of this game is its simplicity: even if I don’t play this game for a year or two, I can pick it back up and get right into the swing of things, unlike games like Fallout New Vegas or Hollow Knight, which requires you to actually remember what you were working towards. Definitely check it out!