Struggling through gaming’s toughest platformers is rarely as rewarding as you’d think. You might labour through level after level of torture only to realise that the game you’re playing lacks style. It lacks identity. Cloudberry Kingdom, one of the hardest games I’ve ever played, is one that springs to mind. It’ll spike your blood pressure, but it’s also as bland as a saltless diet.
The same can’t be said for Cuphead which is dripping with style. Its take on classic animation from the earlier part of the twentieth century is not only stunning to behold, but it’s a technical marvel. I couldn’t even fathom the hours spent hand-drawing each of the game’s beautiful frames, but the dedication and care shown by every artist involved have to be both admired and commended. In a world where we hunt the uncanny valley and aim for lifelike visuals, Cuphead is confident enough to say no to that while being one of the most gorgeous games out today.In Cuphead, the eponymous hero finds himself in deep with the Devil himself after overextending himself on a bet. You then spend your time in the game repaying your debt to him by collecting the souls of a great many others who did the Devil dirty. It’s a simple plot, which harkens back to the very cartoons that Cuphead seems to be inspired by.
Cuphead’s presentation, on the whole, is out of the top drawer. While its art direction is the clear eye-catcher here, there are so many little touches that make it joyous to play. The colour bleeding, scratching and cue dots that make it look like an honest to God cartoon that holds its own against some of Disney’s classics. Even the infectious, swinging jazz soundtrack that underpins the whole damn thing. There’s no shred of derivation here, Cuphead is unique and original and it’s the first time I’ve been able to say that for what feels like ages.As Cuphead, your toolbag doesn’t exactly run deep. Though you’ll unlock a handful of weapons as you progress, you begin with a peashooter and the ability to jump and dash. That’s about it. Gradually you happen upon EX attacks and supers that help you deal a little bit of extra damage, but at its core, Cuphead is a true, classic platform game inspired in part by its predecessors like Contra.
The game itself pretty much consists of doing two things. A fair majority of levels are boss battles, each with their own unique mechanics to learn through a bout of trial and error, though there’s a handful of Run ‘n’ Gun levels too. Though there’s no time pressure, the idea is to barrel through these as quickly as you can to escape the endless spawns of enemies. These are super tricky, but once you find your rhythm and learn the routes, they’re definitely a lot of fun. But it’s the boss fights where the game triumphs.
At the beginning of any boss fight, you’ll be given the option of Simple and Regular difficulty. Of the two, Regular is where the challenge lies and only by toppling each and every one can you obtain the soul contracts you need to reach the endgame. Simple is going to be a manageable way to see most of what Cuphead has to offer, but Regular fights have an extra phase that sees the boss transform into a grotesque abomination. It’s so damn cool to see a fight you’re already familiar with flip on its head and become a whole new hurdle. So if you’re not prepared for a pretty tough slog, it’s likely you won’t even see the end of Cuphead. Though it’s a bold decision to gate out the ending to only the best, I feel like there’ll be kids who won’t get to see the game’s conclusion simply because they can’t get by some of the game’s tougher battles which is a big shame.
For how long it has been in its various stages of development, I’m somewhat undecided about whether the whole package has been worth the arduous wait. On one hand, their vision and goals changed frequently throughout production. On the other, the game consists of three small worlds and an endgame climax that a seasoned pro could tear through in no time. But for the casual player, there’s certainly enough. Replayability is in great supply for Cuphead, plus it’s going to take casuals a lot longer to reach that endgame.
It's a bit unfair to compare Cuphead to almost any other of the brutally tough platformers I've grown to love recently, as it lacks the filler. It gets straight to the good stuff and gives us an almost 'greatest hits' of boss fights. And if they don't get better and more rewarding as they go, I'll go eat. So while you've still got to be a masochist at heart to get through the 'true' Cuphead, people of all ages and backgrounds would be able to sit in front of the television and appreciate Cuphead for its sense of style and its ability to evoke that childlike wonder that was, until now, dormant in most of us.