Very few indie games ever received such unprecedented acclaim as Cuphead did. The game (deservedly) got a lot of nominations and rewards at this year’s Game Awards show, mostly due to its highly unique art direction and amazing soundtrack. Tapping from a lot of cultural references the game immediately activates your nostalgia-glands by bringing back those old good and warm cartoon days of ages past while adding a few referential nods to gaming of today. But warm childhood-nostalgia-induced memories aside the one question remains: is Cuphead a good game after all? How does it compare to more modern platformers? And why did this game – in times of Dark Souls clones – raise so much controversy about difficulty in video games?
Well, let’s step back a little, put on our analytical glasses and sit down with a good glass of whine, shall we? Starting our story in the “old days” of gaming, difficulty has always been a major factor. This started in arcades which were meant to get those quarters out of your pocket, and continued with the first 8- and 16-bit consoles, which had to stretch a game’s length arbitrarily due to memory limitations. In consequence they make you “work” for your money, artificially stretching that short playtime experience, but also giving you a sense of pride and accomplishment when overcoming their harsh difficulty spikes.
Cuphead is guilty of this as well: its difficulty clearly references the old “arcade” times, maybe even fully intended as form of homage. There’s a fallacy in that though: a player’s perception of difficulty is highly subjective, as not everyone is experienced in 30 years of gaming history. Today’s gamers understandably want this game to be measured by modern standards, meaning that a game that costs money should be fully accessible to a wide audience. And this is where and why the controversy started, ranging from arrogant and demeaning “git gut” statements to a more broad discussion on what sacrifices a game’s design should make in order to remain accessible. This discussion derails quickly when confronted with “the creator’s vision and how it was meant to be played” argument. I put that in quotes intentionally, because a personal vision is – you guessed it – also highly subjective and thus will rub a lot of people the wrong way either way. With that said: each game is not for everyone, and people should be careful of which aspects they criticize in a game. In Cuphead’s particular instance it’s a mixture of the more personal “this looks so great, I want to enjoy it in full” VS the more design-oriented “it’s meant to be difficult as means of personal achievement”.
For me this leaves only one final conclusion: you have to either design your game in a way it caters to all audiences (which can destroy a lot of unique appeal) or offer options for people to enjoy it on their level. Adjusting difficulty means is a lot of extra balancing work for any jump’n’shoot / bullet hell platformer, not only Cuphead. In my opinion the game does strike good a balance here, providing a “regular” and “simple” difficulty option from the get-go which allows most players to enjoy almost the whole game at their level. Well, almost – because the last two bosses require you master them at Regular difficulty – and that of course requires patience, practice and coordination to get that dance of evasion and attack just right.
Personally I found the “Regular” difficulty more than fair in terms of balance, being very comparable to older games such as the Contra-Series. All bosses in Cuphead – including the final ones – have clearly distinguishable patterns which can be learned and avoided, as it should be in any platformer. The only criticism here is a certain amount of RNG to all bossfight phases and attack patterns which can give you a varying experience. A very steep raise in difficulty on the last two few bosses is understandable on the one had, but remarkable out of place when compared to the other fights. Overall it’s all doable, but your personal percieved difficulty may vary greatly when comparing yourself to other players.
The (not so) good ol’ days
In addition to these many subjective discussion points Cuphead also has an objectively measurable downside: its short lenght. The game took me about 5-6h to complete, including all retries per boss on the default “Regular” difficulty, which in turn unlocks a new “Expert” level. This also quite harshly brought be back to the “old days” to me – albeit in not such a good way. Aside from the “others do it too” argument there is little to no justification for hiding that difficulty level behind a playthrough, and hiding the final bosses on a fixed difficulty wasn’t a really great design-idea either. With only 3 difficulty levels to master the game does offer too little content (some hidden coins and challenges) to really justify a second run. So aside from challenging yourself with the same 19 bosses just in order to get a better score rating there’s not really much to do. In conclusion it wouldn’t hurt the game to make this journey as enjoyable as possible for any type of gamer – enthusiast and casual alike.
It’s all fun and games
So in conclusion, what is Cuphead? Fun, yes, difficult also, but not overly so. The game got a lot of criticism which was only justified in part. The newcomers of StudioMDHR did a fantastic job with both the music and art direction of Cuphead. It’s a very special game that wants you to explore and find all the little details, references and humorous winks to gaming culture, and it’s clearly a work of love that everyone can appreciate. Just listen to this soundtrack and tell me that this hasn’t been done with a lot of spirit and motivation behind it:
The journey of seeing and overcoming those funny bossfights is the main appeal of Cuphead – and it’s a big one! My best recommendation to give is: challenge yourself as much as you can and enjoy this game for occasional pick-and-play sessions. When frustrated, stop, pick other fights or take a break to come back later with a new appetite for challenge. This game is arcade all over: play in short bursts, enjoy the game as long as you can. It would’ve been a nice thing for the game to provide you with enough difficulty options right from the start, but it’s not a deal breaker. Things like that can be addressed in patches, as the developers are already doing right now.
Cuphead’s a wild ride of bossfights, and each one is more unique and interesting than the last. The game makes you smile, laugh and experience highs and lows of joy and frustration. It’s a one-of-a-kind game that will stay in our minds and hearts forever – or at least until a better sequel is released. 😉