Oh, Cuphead. Surely you’ve all already heard about this game by now. Everyone knows about the amazing hand-drawn animation and great music, and we’ve all heard that it’s a surprisingly tough game. Surely it can’t be that bad though, can it? People often say that retro platformers like Shovel Knight are very difficult, but they’re really not that bad. Seeing how goofy and simplistic Cuphead looked, I imagined that it would be much the same, slightly challenging, but not really that hard if you’re used to old-timey platformers.
When I began, it seemed to confirm my suspicions. I had heard that you only had limited life to get through each level, and that you’d have to start all over when you died, but it turns out that the levels are incredibly short. In fact, most of them aren’t even really “levels”, they’re nothing but boss battles. Ok, so the bosses are a little tough, but the fights are so short that retrying isn’t a big deal. You just need to try a few more times and no problem! That’s how I felt in World 1 anyway.
World 2 suddenly becomes drastically more difficult. One of the first bosses there is actually one of the worst in the whole game. You know the clown I’m talking about if you’ve played this. Suddenly the simple bosses of World 1, with their meager three forms and easily predicted and/or memorized patterns, were a distant memory and I found myself in a painful new world of bosses with up to five different forms, each with hugely different move-sets, and a seemingly endless supply of life.
Oh, crap. It really was that tough, and it only got worse from there. Where other super-difficult games at least usually start to feel like you’re slowly becoming better or more powerful, Cuphead’s difficulty curve is more…well, it’s not really a curve at all, more of a line that goes up to the top of the chart and then just ends up there. The various weapons and charms that you can buy during the game are of little to no help. There’s really nothing you can do except to quite literally “git gud”.
And even pure skill will only take you so far here. Boss tactics and toughness change so inordinately that very little of your experiences with previous bosses will be of any help to you. All you can really do is keep beating your head against them until you completely memorize their patterns, and even then, the fight will still probably not go the way you expect it to.
Imagine if Dark Souls cut out all the exploration and normal enemies, and was nothing but all the toughest boss fights back to back, and you had to stay level 1 the entire time. That’s what this is like. There were more than a few times where I considered giving up because it was starting to feel unpleasantly frustrating much more often than it felt fun. A more reasonable person would probably have turned the difficulty down to “Simple”, but this apparently doesn’t just reduce the difficulty, it also cuts entire sections out of levels, and I’m not ok with that.
So what does this all say about this game? I suppose that part of me must have liked it well enough, since I kept pushing on until I finished every level. The old-timey cartoon aesthetic is certainly very well done, and I did enjoy seeing all the crazy animations. It ran surprisingly flawlessly even on my horribly outdated PC too. Still, I feel like most of my memories of the game are not so much “gee, that was fun”, but “wow, that was really %@#!*$ annoying and I’m glad it finally ended before I smashed my controller”. The thought of ever playing it again makes certain parts of my body shrivel up in terror.
In the end, I guess it all really comes down to how sadistic you are in your gaming. If you really, really want a challenge, this will certainly provide that, and do so all wrapped up in a very well-produced package. If games like Dark Souls are too frustrating to be enjoyable for you though, don’t even think about this, because it will absolutely break you.