Cuphead Review: Yes, it is that Hard
I was indifferent to Cuphead joining the already impressive lineup of Nintendo Switch titles when it was first announced. Despite the beautiful animation and vibrant visuals, I’m not interested in run and guns. That being said, Cuphead quickly became the number one game on the Nintendo Eshop before it was even released. This alone made me reconsider how I felt about the gleeful shooter, and I’m glad I did because the game deserves every ounce of praise it receives. Many of my concerns were put to rest the more I continued to play. The animation, music, and memorable enemies distract you from the frustration of constantly dying, and the run and gun segments serve as optional levels to upgrade your anthropomorphic coffee cup’s abilities. Cuphead is a finely tuned machine that fires on all cylinders and it solidifies itself as one of the must have titles on the Nintendo Switch.
It’s hard to mention anything about Cuphead before mentioning the animation. Every single frame of animation is hand drawn to emulate methods of creating cartoons from the past. There’s so much life put into each character. Sure, giant, personified vegetables aren’t all that interesting, but what about a bee that turns into a plane, or a sentient sailboat that summons creatures from the sea? Creativity shines through level after level, and it’s hard to put the game down once you unlock a new area and discover new challenges.
The story is dark when compared to the lighthearted visuals. Cuphead and Mugman are playing in the woods, but get lost and find their way to a casino operated by the devil. They’re tricked into betting more than they bargained for, and unless they complete a favour and steal the souls from a list of debtors, their own souls are in jeopardy. It’s simplistic, and gives the player a reason other than “it’s a video game” to be fighting all these adversaries. Don’t play Cuphead is you want to be wowed by a story, but instead play it as it’s a quintessential example of a quality video game. It’s fun but provides a substantial challenge, all while never taking itself too seriously.
How Hard it is?
This is no walk in the park. Much of the gameplay is a sick lovechild between platforming and bullet hell. Victory is completely achievable, but not without sacrifice. It’s not relaxing in the slightest and I have difficulty playing something without more downtime. Not only that, the music is extremely high energy and certainly doesn’t help keep your heart rate down. Each battle is at most three minutes long, yet some levels took me over an hour to get it right. The game is unforgiving and brutal, but it’s fair. Not once in my play through did I blame the game for my failures. Cuphead pushes you to be a better and that’s why it’s simply excellent. With each replay, you get a little closer to hearing the victory bell ring. I applaud Studio MDHR for getting the balance right, as difficult games that require multiple retries usually make me want to break the controller.
Every fight turned out more or less than same for me. I barely scrapped by for the majority of them, and yet every victory I felt on top of the world. Each boss has several stages of combat and a variety of tricks to make you suffer. These changes in combat are you’re only active resource in identifying how close you are to victory. They have no health bars. Instead, the try again screen shows how close you came to victory. Being within inches of winning is soul crushing, but it’s fantastic motivation when trying again. For anyone that wants to practice with lower stakes, all bosses have a “normal” mode and a “simplistic” mode. While “simplistic” has less chaotic fights, you can’t progress playing this way. It serves a good way to see what the whole boss fights about before getting annihilated.
The Nitty Gritty
I mentioned earlier that Cuphead can be upgraded. Things like his attack, his ultimate, and a few other variables can be changed to give you more strategies to win. To get these collect these upgrades, like additional health or homing bullets there are option run and gun levels with minions upon minions. In these levels are gold coins, which are traded for the upgrades. These were my least favorite part of the game and I’m glad they were optional. I understand why they were added, but it was a significantly less exciting experience. Once I had some shiny new toys that I liked, I stopped doing these and found my groove with what I already had.
Thankfully the controls are simple and it can easily be played with a single joy-con. Using a standard controller is definitely easier to be successful, though. You’re constantly trying to dodge multiple projectiles at a time; you don’t have time to worry about your controller. Some projectiles are a bright pink, allowing you the opportunity to fill a fifth ultimate bar with a well timed parry. This is a great example of how the developers designed ways to help the player. No advantage in the game is not without it’s fall backs. You can be parry a pink projectile, but that may put you in a position to be hit. Yes, there are homing bullets, but they do significantly less damage.
Each boss fight is also ranked, in case there wasn’t enough to be worried about. I didn’t play around with this much, as getting through later levels was hard enough. Depending on how many parries you perform, or how much health you had at the end, you will get a letter ranking. I don’t believe this had an repercussions apart from personal motivations.
Cuphead is simply incredible. While it’s certainly not something you want to play when you’re trying to shut your brain off, it’s a lot of fun. There’s a great amount of content for it’s price, and even more if you feel like being a perfectionist. And it has couch co op, something that needs to be making a better come back. Cuphead is a spectacle that everyone who loves video games should experience. There’s something everyone can enjoy, whether it’s the animation, combat, or getting an S for every fight.
Reviewed by Kingphazer on the Nintendo Switch.