If you’ve been playing video games for the past 35 years like I have, it becomes increasingly difficult to be impressed by one. There’s no shortage of great new games to play, but it’s rare that one is able to completely take hold of me. I’m talking the sort of games that you think about playing even when you aren’t playing them; games that have you saying “just a few more minutes” when you have other (sometimes more important) things you should be doing.
For me, Cuphead is the first game in a long long time that fits the bill. When I first saw screenshots of the game while it was still in development, I knew I wanted to play it. It looked like an homage to the early days of cartoons in the 1930s, and being the animation aficionado I am, that really piqued my interest. It was about a month after the game’s release that I finally downloaded it and began to play, and for the next two weeks I was enraptured.
The brainchild of brothers Jared and Chad Moldenhauer, Cuphead is a loving tribute to the games a lot of us grew up with. Games that were obscenely hard and took a lot of time, patience, and repetition to beat. A few notable examples that come to mind are Ninja Gaiden, Bionic Commando, Castlevania, and Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts. These games would torment me with their obscene difficulty as I would replay the same level over and over and over again. Despite the frustration these games caused me, I felt compelled to keep trying to beat them, and that is a quality Cuphead has in spades.
You play as the titular Cuphead – or his brother Mugman if you have a second player – as you attempt to settle a gambling debt with the devil by collecting money other wayward souls owe him. The game is divided into islands, each of which contain a number of stages. Each stage is a nod to old school genres like schmups, side scrolling shooters, and platformers. Pattern recognition, timing, and precision are absolute necessities in order to progress through the game.
You get a letter grade upon the completion of each stage, but in order to get an A you typically need to not get hit, use your super power multiple times, and have three successful parries. Super powers, new weapons, and other upgrades are available via a porcine salesman and are purchased with coins obtained in each level. The various upgrades require you to make trade-offs such as power versus range; one weapons might have horrible range but incredible power, while another is fairly weak but can hit an enemy on the other side of the screen. The coins are few and far between though, and often quite difficult to get, so what upgrade to get is often a deliberative decision.
Most of the time, I was content with a B grade on a stage, but there were instances where even getting that required me to replay a level dozens of times. One of the neat things about Cuphead is that while pattern recognition is vital, the order in which enemies do their attacks is randomized. Imagine fighting a boss in Contra or Gradius and knowing all its moves, but not knowing the order in which it would do them. This made what would have been a difficult game all the more tricky!
I managed to beat Cuphead after a while, and it is one of the most satisfying victories I’ve had as a gamer. I am proud to say I beat the game on normal difficulty rather than easy, though the hard mode I unlocked was just too much. I gave it a shot, but it was so insanely tough that I decided I was content with having defeated it on normal. It’s beautiful, difficult, unforgiving, and altogether engrossing. If you relish a challenge, appreciate a unique aesthetic, and are ready for your thumbs to cry for mercy, you absolutely, positively need to play this game. It’s a refreshing departure from the homogeneity of mainstream gaming and a rewarding, if also maddening, experience few other games can even come close to replicating.