Is Cuphead all it’s cracked up to be?
We sent our worst gamer into the world of the much hyped retro call-back to find out
By Nathan Kunz, Staff Writer
I want to preface this article by admitting something I’ve struggled to come to terms with for a long time: I’m not good at video games. Despite playing them for a majority of my life, from N64 to Gamecube to Playstation 3 and now XBox One, I’ve never truly excelled at any game. For this reason, online gaming is a terrifying premise to me – competing against people who have spent hours upgrading and mastering their characters, learning every movement that will eventually drive me to a point of disgruntled exhaustion is a bit of a nightmare. This process is practically inevitable, nearly always leading to the relocation of whatever Call of Duty or Battlefield disk I’d shelled out the $80 or more for back onto the shelf to stay.
This deep fear of undeniable buyer’s guilt has led me to avoid games time and time again, often opting to fall back on the “Oh man, I would, but I’m so busy” excuse after a recommendation comes my way. However, occasionally this cycle is broken by a game that catches my eye as different for one reason or another. Most recently, this game was Cuphead.
The universally acclaimed retro indie platformer Cuphead was created by Canadian developers StudioMDHR. After years of fans salivating over trailers, gameplay footage and teasers, the highly anticipated game was released at the end of September on PC and Xbox One. First conceived of by brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer in the early 2000s, the game borrows art styles from early 20th century hand drawn cartoons produced by Disney and other American legacy studios. This unique art direction, more than anything, was the initial draw of the game for me. And learning that the frames were produced the hard way – designed from scratch frame after frame – only added to the intrigue. And while countless articles have argued on the “style over substance” debate, the idea of creating a beautifully unique game, even if it lacks depth in gameplay, is enough for me to be pulled in as a casual gamer sifting through the dense abyss that is the Xbox marketplace.
Lacking gameplay depth, however, is never a problem in Cuphead. The game’s side scrolling retro feel borrows not only the formatting, but also the standard difficulty that comes with the property. That is to say Cuphead is exhaustingly hard. Never, through my whole playthrough, did I hop into a level and reach the end on my first try. Though possibly flirting with a final stage of certain bosses on an initial attempt, my confidence was more than once snapped as my following efforts led me nowhere closer to a knockout. This difficulty, however, never becomes discouraging, as victory is always possibly only a short run away. The intuitive learning process of playing and replaying stages, learning tells of enemies, finding out how and when each moves a certain way and how a dash or jump could avoid it, all leads to an astoundingly fulfilling experience. Each run, even if it ends on the first stage, informs your next, creating a consistent sense of forward movement throughout.
Though stages only cycle through three types (Run & Gun, Standard and Airplane Boss), the variety of what the next battle will look and feel like is always exciting and motivating, especially when you creep into the second hour of play on a single boss you NEED to beat to move forward. Not to mention that each unveiled character comes with a distinct theme and character name, the best of course being the early battle against ‘Goopy Le Grande’, a continuously growing goopy ball that bounces in patterns the player must learn and defend against. Although Goopy is nowhere near the most exciting visually or in complexity, his name is ‘Goopy Le Grande,’ making him, without a doubt, the most memorable and loveable.
Though seeming as it may clash with my shortcoming as a gamer, the high difficulty of Cuphead is instead incredibly endearing. Unlike the multiplayer shooters that eventually feel as though I’m playing as target practice for some virtual marksman, Cuphead acts as more of a set of personal hurdle, forcing you to better yourself through focus and actively adapting in each stage. Each run’s fresh-slate feel allows for quick bursts of non-stop action without the fear of possible consequences for taking big risks. Paired with the unique and creative character and setting design painstakingly drawn into each level, Cuphead deserves every bit of hype and praise it’s gotten thus far. And if you don’t believe me, it’s only $28, which means even if you don’t like it, buyer’s remorse won’t bite you as hard as it has me so many times before.