Cuphead (Switch) review
"Cuphead said 'Devil just come on back if you ever want to try again...'"
There are two things that everyone who has heard of Cuphead knows about Cuphead: its 30s animation-inspired artstyle, and its crushing difficulty. But I am hear to tell you the depths behind it, its many innovations, its multiple layers, its... nah, I'm kidding. It really is just about the art and the challenge. Well, ok, maybe one more. The fact that the game itself is worth accepting that challenge as well.
But it does all start with that incredible presentation, what first draws your eye to the game and makes it instantly stand out. Everything is hand drawn in the 30s animation style, and it is done so well that nothing would look out of place 90 years ago. Every animation is reminiscent of the past, every eye and hair style and piece of clothing. Obviously, this isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, but it's so recognizable, so different, and done so well that only people actively hating the style wouldn't see it as a positive. I mean, I'm not married to this artstyle, I have no particular nostalgia for it. And I tend not to care about art or presentation in games as much as most do. But just look at these characters. How can you not love them?
The style is done so well because its a mix of both the obvious and the small details. Being a boss rush game, the bosses are obviously the highlight, and they are all so unique, so well drawn, and so perfect in their animations as to be straight out of a cartoon. But it's also all of the little details. There's a movie grain filter over everything, the sound is lo-fi, and there's even references to somewhat sloppy animation processes like the occasional incorrect coloring or the fact that you find bosses in what are obviously miscolored pieces of the background. It is ALL the details. The hourglass that appears during loading screens is a hand drawn animation. The genie background is a rotoscoped model. The music is jazzy and fits with the times. There is a reason this game took years and years to come out; the art team clearly took absolutely no shortcuts.
In other words, it is worth playing just to LOOK at the game.
Although, let's face it, you can't be focusing on all the fine aesthetical pleasantries when you are mere seconds away from death. The game is essentially a series of boss fights (19 in all), with an occasional parrying minigame and a few optional run and gun levels thrown in to give you coins for purchasing new weapons. There are no experience points or anything, and you can't increase your health unless you want to simultaneously forego any other aid (such as brief invincibility while dodging) and are willing to accept weaker ammo. You have a choice of six weapons, but can only bring two in to the fight. Each boss fight is roughly 2 minutes, and there is no saving, no checkpoint. Three hits and you're dead. That's what you get when you cross the devil.
Besides the limited health and length of the fights, there are three main aspects that contribute to this challenge. Each boss fight has multiple stages (and each one multiple types of attacks), so there is a lot to remember in a single fight. Since simply reacting to unknown attacks is virtually impossible, you have to keep all of those potential threats at the front of your brain through the entire 2 minutes. Speaking of all these attacks, there's a sufficient amount of randomness, both in the timing of the attacks as well as the sequencing. So no, you can't just get into a simple rhythm and expect good stuff to happen. But above all else, what will undoubtedly lead to wailing and gnashing of teeth is the fact that multiple stuff is almost always going on. As you are chased by a gobstopper and his little brother, there are little jelly beans running along the ground and the candy queen shooting her shotgun at you. Fight a clown while dodging the rollercoaster that keeps circling around. Jump from cloud to cloud to stay alive while little flames also jump around to kill you. So you have two different threats that must CONSTANTLY be at the forefront of your mind, and that's not even counting aiming and actually attacking your foe.
So yeah, it's hard. Sure, I beat the first boss without getting hit, and foolishly thought it wasn't as bad as some claimed. But the next boss, with simple patterns, lacking the multiple threat component I mentioned above, and downright easy compared to what awaits you still caused me grief. And yet I persisted, and persisted all the way to the end. I rolled off of Dark Souls, avoid shmups, and barely played the other boss rush game I bought for this system. I'm not a particularly skilled gamer. So why did I continue? Why suffer through 279 deaths (and since retries aren't counted, you can probably double that number)? Sure, the animation and art helps; it's so original and talented you almost feel like you owe the developers to continue. And the controls are tight and easy to learn. Just shoot, jump, dash, super shot, and a relatively simple parry system. There's no duel analog aiming, no tricky double jumps, no quarter-circle hadokens. The challenge is in the multiple threats and the randomness, so there's a decent amount of wiggle room to get out of jams and the game isn't focused on forcing you to input one singular precise sequence of moves. If you fail, you know it's your fault, and you can jump back in and try again in no time at all. So the "one more try" incentive is there.
But it's more than that. Remember the certain randomness that I referred to earlier? It can work to your advantage as well. Baroness von Bon Bon requires you to fight three out of five random candy lieutenants first, some of which are clearly easier than others. So even if you struggle against one or two of them, there is a chance you won't see them. While not all bosses are this explicit, the randomness of their attacks means you could end up with a fight in which they don't fire the tough ones as much. It doesn't feel like cheating; it's still challenging after all. And it isn't as if you can only win if the boss goes easy on you. But the randomness mixes things up and helps you to feel like there is an easier path to victory if you only try again. Same with the different weapons. Some are clearly more helpful in certain bosses, and you can bring two of them into a boss fight. You can choose to bring the weakest weapon that automatically locks on to the boss so you don't even have to worry about aiming, or you can bring the powerful charge shot if you know when there is a window to fire. So you can tailor the game to your particular skill level without feeling like cheating by playing on an easy mode.
But really, it's the design of the bosses that brings you back. Each boss has multiple (4-ish) segments, and often each segment plays completely differently. When learning to overcome a challenge, there are two phases. There's the conceptual phase, where you are learning the boss' tells, its attacks, and where and when you have to dodge and how to maximize damage. Then it's just the mechanical phase, where you are simply executing the plan without screwing up. If either one of these phases takes too long to master (you can't figure out what you are supposed to do, or you can't seem to get the button presses right), it gets frustrating. But the fight completely changes every 30 seconds or so. So getting both right, the conceptual and the mechanical, is actually relatively simple for each one, the challenge is often in the full gauntlet. But you're doing it in phases, so you might be practicing the mechanical for phase 1 while simultaneously working on the conceptual for phase 2 on the few times you make it that far. Instead of being stuck on one of these phases, you are constantly going back and forth between the two.
Which means you still feel like you're making progress every few deaths. Until in the end, you've been practicing the mechanical on phase 1 so much that you can breeze through it, and have enough of a grasp on phase 2 and 3 that you have a 50/50 shot of making it through unscathed, and then you don't even have to perfect the last phase because you still have a couple hitpoints left to work it through, not to mention your charged super meter. And so the boss goes down, and you can breathe again. And revel in your accomplishment. Sure, you reset 20 times, but the progress you made in between, every few resets, means you can see yourself clearly improving, so the frustrating never sets in. Yes, you know you'll spend half an hour trying to defeat this simple 2 minute boss. But that time never feels like a drag.
Other than the presentation, Cuphead is not particularly innovative in its approach, but that's ok! Because it excels in the approach it took. Since the animation was so time consuming, the bosses had to be challenging in order to make the game long enough to be worth the asking price. But while challenge can often lead to frustration, the multi-stage boss design, the dash of randomness, and the seamless control scheme with multiple options means it never, EVER got frustrating for me. Yes, difficulty level is very subjective, but I don't know how they could possibly have made a boss rush game any more approachable without dumbing it down to the point of irrelevancy. The execution of that challenge is close to perfection.
It is beautiful. It is hard. And it is fun.
Community review by mariner (January 31, 2022)
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