Cuphead is one of those games that I’ve been keeping track of for awhile now. For awhile it seemed like it would never actually release. Of course its release date falls into this hellish half-month of nonstop releases where caffeine is the only thing keeping me sane. But you know what? I’ve already finished off all of the first area’s bosses (that’s what an achievement said, at least), so I’ve played far enough in to offer up some thoughts. First, though, note that I’m playing on an Xbox One. That’ll be a factor for rage when I delve into the slowdown issue that plagues this game.
It’s pretty friendly at first
The first thing you get is a bit of story about how Cuphead and his brother Mugman went off gambling at the devil’s casino and lost their souls in a bet. At least Cuphead did; Mugman knew better and got screwed anyway, but I’m playing this in single-player, which means that Cuphead has to fix this mess on his own. As he should.
The game teaches you everything you need to know in easily digestible bits, so it didn’t take long to get a feel for the controls and how to buy and equip weapons (you can choose which two weapons to bring into non-plane fights, so there’s some customization as far as play style is concerned). You buy things with gold coins, which seem to be found both by talking to characters in the overworld and littered throughout the rare run-and-gun stages. It’s all pretty simple to get a handle on.
The tutorials are especially great, giving you an opportunity to play around with the controls in an environment without any enemies around so that you can become comfortable with them and even experiment with things like your special moves.
Trial and error and flashing
If you’re sensitive to alternating white-black flashing, or really flashing in any form, Cuphead isn’t the game for you. Full stop. Period. Exclamation point. That kind of stuff only gives me a migraine, but I know it affects other people in much more serious ways, and this game has taken absolutely no steps to accommodate such people. Every stage begins with text that flashes wildly between white and black, and damaging enemies causes a lesser flashing effect. Certain attacks and effects also cause flashing, and all of this flashing can combine with the retro chromatic aberration effect to become truly overwhelming. Even if you’re not affected by flashing at all, this can make it difficult to follow everything on screen.
Most stages are multi-part boss battles, and you have to get through the entire thing while only being able to take 3 hits (4 if you buy an upgrade—there may be further upgrades, but I’ve primarily been buying new weapons with the limited coins I’ve found). That means that you’re bound to die a few times learning each boss’ attack patterns. Once you’ve figured that pattern out, though, any death-related frustration is replaced with glee as you blow through the stage without a worry. Sometimes it helps to use a certain weapon loadout. Sometimes it’s all about timing.
Then there are the run-and-gun stages. They’re kind of awful. I’ve only played for 1-2 hours, and yet I’ve already seen enemy attacks blocked by the exploding visual effect of a nearby dying enemy. Reaching the end of a stage after something like that doesn’t feel fair or like I’ve overcome some difficulty by learning. It feels more arbitrary and meaningless, and I’m not a fan. It doesn’t help matters any that I’ve discovered a weird bug and some irritating design choices during these stages.
This is where things get super negative
I hate the parry so much. The timing is awkward (you have an absurdly small window between pressing the jump button in the air to parry and being able to safely touch pink things), and like I mentioned before, the game sometimes suffers from slowdown that screws up the timing even more. The goal is to build up your super meter so that you can use a strong attack sooner rather than later, but what’s the point of taking the risk when you have so little health to spare? If I had to guess, I’d say that half of my parry attempts failed either due to being too close to the ground when using it, slowdown screwing with the timing, or simply starting the parry a split-second too soon (causing me to take damage instead). I can totally admit when something is my fault—case in point, I’ve died numerous times because I can’t wrap my head around how short the dash move is, which isn’t a failure of the move so much as my own incompetence—but the parry timing isn’t reliable enough.
I unlocked a homing weapon that’s straight out of Gunstar Heroes, color and all. I love this thing, and being able to attack while running in the opposite direction is a godsend. This weapon is also the cause of almost all of my problems. In the second run-and-gun stage I went through, I encountered a tree that was invincible until I jumped up to where it could attack me. The other trees aren’t invincible when attacked from below, so I guess the developers just didn’t anticipate this.
It’s when using this weapon that the game begins to seriously chug. It doesn’t show up in the video so much (whether that’s because it’s recorded at 30 frames per second rather than the 60 the game runs at or because the Xbox’s recording is chugging at the same rate, I have no idea), but it’s noticeable in many fights and totally messes with their timing. Switching to the short spread attack causes the game to instantly snap back to a decent frame rate, so I’m potentially facing having to either struggle with constant slowdown or avoid using my favorite weapon.
Oh, we’re not done with that second run-and-gun stage yet. It has a little boss fight at the very end where this insect thing makes the platforms under you disappear, forcing you to move around. That’s fine. Allowing it to remove 100% of the platforms, forcing you to take damage? That’s not fine. That’s not even okay-adjacent. This fight is annoying enough on its own because the way the leaf platforms act suddenly changes for it (before this point, standing on them causes a flame to come from below and burn them up shortly after you land), but taking damage because no one thought to make it impossible for the boss to eliminate all of the platforms is ridiculous. Also ridiculous? When I instinctively hit the center Xbox button to make a video out of rage that this happened, the leaves came back. Their timing is apparently independent of everything else, so the rest of the game can freeze and their timing remains intact. Or something. This whole thing is stupid beyond words.
Here’s an old favorite complaint of mine: distracting foreground elements. I don’t know why so many developers don’t understand that having things whoosh past the screen is annoying and needlessly distracting, but they don’t and it is. The things blocking the bottom of the screen make it astoundingly easy to lose track of something that can hit you for damage, and considering you’re already having to dodge projectiles while UFOs shoot beams at you from above with no warning (you’d think they’d telegraph it, but nope), the whole thing becomes infuriating.