In my youth, there was no DSTV (I’m old, for realsies) and M-Net was for rich people, so my cartoon addiction got its kicks wherever it could get them. SABC’s offerings at the time were just as old and irrelevant as they are today, but the one benefit of this was that vintage Disney cartoons were a weekend staple, and I loved the look and sound and incomprehensible chaos of them. How did it take somebody so long to decide that this same stuff totally needs to be remade into a game? Studio MDHR were probably not the first to try, but they’re certainly the first to accomplish it with the studio’s debut offering, Cuphead.
Cuphead is a retro-as-in-hard but also retro-as-in-everything-else run-and-gun platformer, in which you take control of hero and, er, cup Cuphead and, should you partner up with your bestie, his brother Mugman. The problem is, Cuphead is discovering that he has a gambling problem. The game itself picks up in the wake of this uncomfortable revelation, where you can watch this lapse of good judgement immediately followed by another as he makes a deal with the devil. Essentially, you become the hitmen of the Prince of Darkness, the mob enforcers of Beelzebub, the wetworkers of Abaddon, Lord of the Flies and Blocked Toilets and Jars That Aren’t Properly Closed and, Like, Other Bad Things.
So, plot established, time to get out there and shoot things. And, hoo boy, do you shoot things. Not a lot of different things, though, but a few things many, many times. I’ll explain.
Originally, Cuphead was designed to be nothing more than a series of boss fights. Think Titan Souls, Prey for the Gods, that sort of thing. You’d get to wander around a central, overworld hub area and pick which boss you want to take on next. But sometime late in the game’s development cycle, it was decided that some run-and-gun stages – called, ingeniously, “Run ‘n’ Gun” stages – in the game should also be included, resulting in the game taking much longer to finish. There aren’t actually very many of these, only about two or three stages per hub area in the game, and there are only three hub areas. These stages are the only opportunity you’ll get to collect coins, the currency used in-game to purchase upgrades for your character at Porkrind’s Emporium, the in-game shop run by a 70-year old Porky Pig with emphysema. These upgrades include various weapons, health upgrades, and dash modifications. You’re only able to equip a limited number of these items at any given time, though, so finding a combination that works for you is important.
Playing the game itself is straightforward enough – moving, jumping, ducking, and shooting. Sounds easy, right? Depending on the stage, you might also get thrown into the cockpit of a plane to chase your mark through the clouds. Oh, and speaking of stages, each one is beautifully realised, and the setting is themed for the boss you are trying to, well, murder, I guess. So, ship for a pirate, circus for a clown, and so on.
Now, in the past couple of weeks since it launched, the game’s difficulty has become one of the biggest talking points about it. Players are frequently (and arbitrarily, in my opinion) comparing the game to Dark Souls and the like, because it’s hard and dying is such a big part of it. But this isn’t Dark Souls, guys. Yes, you die quite a lot and it’s definitely very hard, but these similarities are vague and pretty much end right there. The game’s difficulty is not exaggerated, however – it’s brutal and merciless, and in some cases feels completely unfair and unbalanced. Dying during a boss fight resets it every time, and you can only get hit twice before a third blow puts you back on the starting line (unless you bought a health upgrade, then you get one extra hit). And it doesn’t help matters that there’s no way to recoup this health during the fight.
I personally had a really hard time with how the difficulty scales in the game. As mentioned earlier, there are three islands in the game, followed by a separate finale. You must collect all the contracts on each island to progress to the next, so clearing a path to the exit simply isn’t enough, and you’ll need to explore and complete every level on it. What I had an issue with is how much the difficulty ramps up when you move to each proceeding island. The first one was tough, but the second island I found damn near impossible. I spent almost three to four times the amount of time on a boss on the second island than I did on the first, and the third island can just go straight to Hell in a pair of cup-shaped concrete boots.
Then there are the bosses themselves. Each of these jerks has between three and five phases, so just as you get your head around how to deal damage without taking any, the game changes it up, and the deadly dance continues without giving you a chance to catch your breath. Through a trial-and-error, Edge of Tomorrow kind of process, you’ll live, die, and repeat until you’ve mastered the actions required to defeat it. The dying part you do a lot, so best you get comfortable. You’ll find yourself having to be mindful of anywhere between three to five or more things that are going on at the same time just to keep your head above water, with each hit you take making you more and more aware of the fact that you are seconds away from being defeated yourself. The bosses are total bullet-sponges too, and the lack of any health or progress bar during the fight is frustrating.
Completing a stage earns you the contract for the boss, and presents you with a summary of your performance, “S” being the pinnacle of platforming prowess. Completing the game unlocks the Expert option on all the bosses, perfect for those who don’t already feel completely violated by the game at that point. Though to be fair, that might just be me, as others have shown that I’m probably whining a bit much, and not accept the fact that I just utterly suck at the game in general.
72The game was almost everything I wanted it to be, except for the difficulty scaling that left me with a bad taste in my mouth and some cardiac issues. So if you are looking for a real challenge or to showcase your gaming competence, or even just a game that looks like new and retro got together and had an amazing love child, then this title is definitely worth your hard-earned coinage. If not? Well then, I recommend you’d best preserve the status of you aortic pump and give this one a skip.