Ask anyone who’s played Cuphead, the cartoonish new 2D shooter from Studio MDHR, and they’ll probably tell you that it’s a fiendishly difficult game. But ask anyone who enjoys the game and they’ll likely throw in a load of caveats. It’s hard but fair, they might say. That it rewards patience and persistence. That the trick is to learn from your defeats, to memorise patterns and movesets and return triumphant. But ask me, and I’ll say this: fuck all that noise. Cuphead is exactly the sort of perverse difficulty porn that gaming needs to grow out of.
Let’s start from the beginning. Cuphead is a side-on shooter that draws its aesthetic from the creepy cartoons of the 1920s and ‘30s, complete with bouncing animations, googly eyes, and leering smiles. In a word, it’s gorgeous, seamlessly transposing that aesthetic to a new medium through a period-appropriate score, memorable characters, and dialogue that sits just on the right side of stilted. It even deftly excises the period-appropriate racism in the process. (For the most part at least – one boss that shifts from Middle Eastern genie to ancient Egyptian sarcophagus is an uncomfortable cultural hodge-podge).
In terms of gameplay, Cuphead consists almost entirely of a series of battles against single enemies (it feels slightly off to call them bosses when they make up 90% of the game), though occasional levels offer Metal Slug-style run ‘n’ gun opportunities. Either way you’ll be dodging incoming projectiles and enemies as you jump, dodge, parry, and shoot your way to victory. Or, more likely, defeat. Again and again and again and again and again.
“One of the game’s favourite tricks is to kill in ways you could never have seen coming.”
The point is, Cuphead is hard. Really hard. 10 attempts to clear the first stage on ‘Simple’ difficulty hard. Controller-hurling, fist-clenching, impromptu-invention-of-new-swear-words hard. You get three hit points – expandable to four with a specific purchasable buff – and must defeat each enemy across at least three stages. One of the game’s favourite tricks is to kill in ways you could never have seen coming as it enters each new stage, all but guaranteeing you can’t beat a battle all the way through, instead forcing trial-and-error upon its players.
And honestly, all that’s fine! Those try-and-try-again games aren’t really my cup of tea, but I understand the appeal – and once sank 10-20 hours into the first Dark Souls, relishing the experience. But that game, unlike Cuphead, gave you reason to keep going, with gear, and experience points, and little hints of story to keep pulling you forward. Cuphead just offers a handful of different guns and buffs to buy, and the promise of fresh animated enemies to kill you in new and exciting ways. And attractive as the game is, it’s style is also worryingly one-note – the details may differ but the theme remains the same, and seeing each new enemy for the first time isn’t the compelling pull forward that it could have been.
It’s at this point that an already-common defence of the game pops up: you’re meant to fail. You’re meant to struggle, and die, and in the process learn the bosses stages, learn their patterns, and come back to try again. Polygon’s positive review even suggests Cuphead draws more from puzzle games than bullet-hell shooters, but if so the devs would do well to learn from one of the last decade’s most successful examples: Portal. Now the first Portal is a great game, but one of the most important advancements Valve made in developing the sequel was to ensure that solving the puzzle was the essential step, avoiding the first game’s troublesome segments which saw players solve a puzzle only to spend the next half hour hurling themselves at it in vain attempts to execute those solutions. Cuphead has the same problem – learning the patterns is all well and good, but it only gets you so far, and you still need to be fiendishly good to realise those solutions in the game.
“It’s obvious that form has utterly trumped function.”
More frustratingly, at times the game just feels unfair. It’s obvious that form has utterly trumped function, which manifests in hitboxes that don’t match up to the sprites, vital UI elements tucked away into the corners of the screen, a lack of any visual indication of enemy health or progress, and often little to no feedback that your attacks are even doing anything at all. Typically you just keep shooting and jumping and dodging, no idea if you’re really getting anywhere, until suddenly, without warning, the bad guy just keels over. I guess that’s it then?
Dodgy hitboxes aside, you could write off almost everything I’ve written so far as the rantings of someone who’s just not good enough at Cuphead. And that’s fine! I’ve never had the reflexes or the patience for twitch games, and was never going to be Cuphead’s target audience – and the people who do have those reflexes should get games that put them to the test. But do they need to be so smug about it, to go to such lengths to be inaccessible to anyone else?
Sure, Cuphead has two default difficulty options – Simple and Regular. But even Simple is, for me at least, punishingly, frustratingly challenging throughout. ‘Simple’ it is not.
And that’s not even getting to the real kicker – you could fight through every stage in the game on Simple, spend hours mastering the rhythm and learning the patterns, but that’s not enough for Cuphead. You haven’t ‘really’ completed the game, so it won’t let you fight the final boss. The game is the artistic embodiment of the smug gatekeepers so desperate to keep casuals and noobs and ‘fake gamers’ away from the medium. You need to go back to the beginning and do it all over again, come back when you’re faster, stronger, better – when you’re worthy.
You’re not good enough for Cuphead. You’re not good enough to be a gamer. And apparently neither am I.