First, a little context that most people will be aware of, but that’s bound to be lost over time: a game journalist was recorded struggling to get past Cuphead’s tutorial level in the runup to its release, something that caused much embarrassment as well as questions about what kind of playing proficiency it’s reasonable to expect/demand from those in the industry. Now that it’s finally out, there’s been a veritable flood of outlets putting out videos of employees making it through levels unscathed and reviews that are quick to mention how difficult—but fair!—most of the game is. I imagine many of these people genuinely liked it, and that’s nice for them, but let’s not pretend that the overwhelming praise has nothing to do with the fact that the game has become a litmus test for reviewer competency as far as the gaming public is concerned. Let me tell you about my decidedly less positive Cuphead experience.
Yes, I’ve beaten the game
I know that challenging games are rare, but the way some people latch onto them and dismiss any criticism as a need to “git gud” is nothing short of ridiculous. Not only did I beat Cuphead, but I did so while dealing with a litany of bugs that caused fun happenings such as: disabling my dash and causing parries not to register when using a certain weapon, disabling my special attacks and causing them to bug out in weird ways, and causing my character to use his special attack out of nowhere when I was trying to jump or parry instead. There were many other bugs, but those were the real hazards I had to hope didn’t happen on a good run through one of the more annoying bosses. That’s in addition to a near-constant slowdown/stutter effect that would straight up eat my inputs when things got especially chaotic, and since I played this on an Xbox One (on which no other games—save for maybe the bargain bin trash that is Valkyria Revolution—suffer similar performance problems), there were no settings I could adjust or software I could download to get around this.
Dealing with the devil
The basic story setup is that Cuphead and his brother Mugman wander off to the devil’s casino and lose their souls in a bet. Or to be more specific, Cuphead loses their souls in a bet and they’re both on the hook for some reason. The devil gives them the option to pay off their debt by instead collecting the soul contracts of various other characters throughout the world who are similarly indebted (because this world has a serious gambling problem), and they accept the job to bide their time until they’re strong enough to take on the devil. You can also choose to side with him at the very end for a different ending. Really, there’s no real reason not to do both since the game doesn’t start over or anything once you choose an ending.
The simple difficulty might as well not exist
There are three types of stages: run-and-gun stages, multi-phase boss fight stages, and a few minigames where you have to keep a bunch of ghosts away from an urn. The run-and-gun stages evoke Gunstar Heroes and exist mainly as a way of acquiring coins to buy new weapons and charms from the shop, while the rarer ghost minigames are there in order to drip-feed you the equippable super moves you earn after finishing them. The real focus here is on the boss fights, though, since these are the only stages that earn you soul contracts after finishing, and you can’t fight the endgame bosses until you’ve obtained them all. Boss fights can be played on either of two difficulty modes (on your first time through, at least—a harder difficulty becomes available after beating the game), “simple” and “regular,” and the difference between the two seems to be that the final form of bosses is missing on the simple difficulty. You don’t earn soul contracts after beating the stage unless you do it on the regular difficulty, though, so the simple difficulty seems kind of pointless.
The basic controls
I was unable to remap my controls for reasons I’ll get into later, but it would have been nice to do so because of how awkward the default layout is. X is the shoot button and A is the jump button, which is decent enough, but Y is the dash and B is the super move. It’s an understatement to say that it gets awkward trying to shoot while dashing, and when you add the parry on top of that—which is performed by pressing A in midair almost immediately before making contact with parry-able objects—things get truly chaotic. Especially in fights where parrying is mandatory; anything pink can be parried, which increases your super meter (this builds up as you do damage or passively if you have a certain item equipped), allowing you to eventually become invincible or unleash a damaging attack. Many fights take advantage of this and include parrying as a gimmick necessary to make the boss vulnerable to attack. This works decently enough in these cases, but there are also enemy projectiles that can be parried, and the timing for these is completely different since touching them before the parry causes damage. It’s rarely worth the risk.
There are all kinds of control quirks, too. If you hold the right bumper, you lock yourself in place and can fire in any direction around you, which is fine, but it’s impossible to jump up while shooting down without the game causing you to fall through the platform you’re standing on instead. This becomes an issue during a fight that requires you to rapidly platform upwards while shooting, and it seems obvious that anyone shooting down at something would prefer not to jump down and high-five that something with their face. Not obvious enough, I suppose.
Cuphead has some good-to-great fights
About half of the boss fights and run-and-gun stages here are at least serviceable, with a slightly smaller number of those being truly great. During these stages I can absolutely see the potential brilliance of Cuphead, where each attempt to get through a stage ends slightly less horribly and all mistakes are of my own making. Finishing these stages feels like an accomplishment, a reward for all of the failed, frustrating attempts preceding that moment. Finishing other stages designed with cheap tricks that are unable to be prepared for apart from repeatedly playing through them and learning all of the stupid ways you can suddenly die, on the other hand, never ceased to feel like more enjoyment was lost in the process than gained. And thus my opinion of Cuphead was slowly eroded until I could respect nothing but a small handful of stages and ultimately meaningless facets such as the art and music.
Questionable design choices
One of the questionable choices I’ve seen mentioned by others pertains to hitboxes; the animations are great and all, but when the parts of enemies you can damage aren’t obvious and it’s never clear which part you can safely move through, things can quickly start to feel unfair. This is true to a certain extent, but one of the weapons you can buy is called “chaser” and is taken straight out of Gunstar Heroes. Basically, it homes in on enemies. It can occasionally get stuck chasing projectiles that it either can’t damage or that damaging would be a bad idea, but I found it a pretty handy tool for determining the vulnerable parts of bosses. A questionable design choice I haven’t seen yet has to do with the flight stages: why are you given no customization options for these? It’s insane to buy all of these weapons to aid you in certain situations, only for the game to go, “nope, now you’re using the default airplane gun and bomb and all of those upgrades mean nothing.”
Then there’s the fact that your progression is weirdly reliant on which weapons you’ve purchased and have available to you. At one point I got stuck on a dragon fight in the second area, but it was only its third phase that proved a problem. It would shoot fiery projectiles that all of my “lots of bullets” weapons would accidentally hit, causing each to split into four more faster projectiles. This killed me over and over again, but I couldn’t afford the (incredibly useful) charge weapon and had already picked up all of the coins in the area’s run-and-gun stages. It was only when I beat the dragon on the simple difficulty and moved on to the next area (I’m not 100% positive that beating it on simple unlocked the next area, but if so, that might be the reason for the simple difficulty’s existence) that I was able to get the coins needed to buy the weapon I needed to curb stomp this boss for real.
Then there are the cheap tricks
Cuphead’s cheap tricks all have one thing in common: getting hit by things you couldn’t possibly see coming. In one fight with a bee, she disappears off-screen, only for her head to randomly fly down and smack you from the top of the screen. There’s no warning or anything; you have to get hit by this to learn that it’s a possibility. Then right after you cope with that and reach the next phase of the fight, she transforms into a plane and hovers at the bottom of the screen, only to unexpectedly slash at you with her wing (which is a buzzsaw). Because of course that would happen. Losing the fight to things like this feels inherently unfair. Now, if the game had some kind of practice mode where you could practice against the late phases of bosses without having to go through the same early phases every time, this would be a non-issue. As Cuphead is now, it’s merely cheap game padding.
But nothing—and I mean nothing—in this game got under my skin quite as much as the distracting foreground elements. In a stage where you’re fighting a candy house, there are muffins obscuring enemies who spawn at the edge of the stage. In numerous flight stages, enemy projectiles will be obscured by things flying past the screen at the same rate. The edges of the arena in the first phase of the final boss fight (which I surprisingly found to be one of the good fights overall) aren’t visible because of foreground elements. This is an easy “style over substance” mistake made by many indie studios, but I can’t recall ever seeing foreground elements quite this consistently distracting. Cuphead needs an option to disable them.
Let’s talk about the bugs for a second
Consider that for all the negativity thus far, I haven’t even started talking about the slowdown or bugs. I have no idea what causes the former; I power cycled my Xbox One, tested a bunch of other games that worked perfectly normally, and nothing made a dent in the constant stuttering and frame rate chugging I was seeing. It seems unreasonable for a 2D platform game to be borderline unplayable during certain boss attacks while fully 3D games function smoothly and as intended. Hell, Recore is a Unity game, too, and stuttering never became one of its many (many, many) problems. As for the bugs, they were merely another layer of frustration on top of stuttering and boss cheap shots. When I rebinded my controls to something more sensible than the default controls, activating my special attack only worked about 50% of the time. When I used the charge shot, the smoke dash move randomly stopped working (once it failed on me twice in a row, causing me to run directly into a boss toward the end of an ill-conceived boss rush at the end that I haven’t even talked about because there are so many other problems here). It also caused some of my parries to not register, and parries are a required move for the fight at the very end of the boss rush. That’s a bad time for them to become inconsistent. I also found invincible enemies, invisible walls that would randomly block my shots, a way of causing the overworld music to stop playing, and more.
Great graphics and music, awful flashing
The music is jazzy and upbeat (arguably too upbeat, but my ideal world would involve capital punishment for those who write songs in a major key, so that’s definitely a “me” problem), and the graphics are hand-drawn and great. The only real problem I have here is the amount of flashing. Before every stage, you get text that flashes black and white, and it’s migraine-inducing. Those sensitive to flashing lights will definitely need to steer clear of this game, and it’s strange that it’s designed this way since it seems like a few small changes would have allowed Cuphead to be more widely accessible. I mean, the flashing isn’t a necessary feature or anything.