‘Cuphead’ Is a Game That Teaches Through Punishment: Spoiler-Free Review
If you somehow haven’t heard, Cuphead is an indie game based on 1930’s rubber hose animation. It’s a run n’ gun that has players constantly bob and weave on platforms while pea-shooting a series of delinquent debtors to the Devil.
There’s three types of levels in Cuphead (four, technically, but Mausoleums are few, and small potatoes compared to the others). The “Run ‘N’ Gun” levels are platformers with a mini boss usually at the end. Regular boss battles are the real meat of the game, and depicted like old Betty Boop or Felix the Cat cartoons with title screens as you open them. The dreaded, difficult, bane-of-my-existence flying levels are the third type, and feature plenty of dodging through bullet hell enemies.
One of the things I appreciate the most about Cuphead is that it doesn’t sacrifice its own aesthetics for difficulty; and it doesn’t ease up to look better, either. The most enjoyable thing about Cuphead is that its animation and gameplay are weaved together intricately. Cuphead has a way of making you feel like you’re not playing a game – you’re playing a cartoon, and you’re the protagonist.
It doesn’t have the outward appearance of something that wants to kill you (it does), because it’s not a game that wants you to think it’ll pull punches (it won’t).
The designs of Cuphead’s bosses are as delightful as the rest of the game. Each battle feels different, even those of the same level type, which is saying something for a game that has 30. I found myself appreciate the clever, cartoonish designs of vegetables, dragons, and sea-witches, even as they were whooping up on me.
Cuphead’s difficulty has been written about backwards and forwards, but there’s something very important to note about its gameplay: the game wants you to learn. You have unlimited ammo, and chances to customize your weapons to whichever boss you’re fighting, and all the collectibles are completely attainable. If you find yourself constantly throwing yourself at a boss, it’s because you’re supposed to. After all, how else are you going to learn to not deal with the Devil?
The only problem with this teaching-style is that Cuphead is also a game that’ll try to distract you. It’s pretty often that foreground trees or buildings flying by will cover up a pretty extensive part of the map. Two-player makes this even harder. For a game that’s pretty concise and clever with its fight design, it’s a little disappointing to see screen-obstruction as a technique for ramping up difficulty.
Even so, this gripe is minor. Cuphead is a game that knows its aesthetic and utilizes it really, really well. It’s refreshing to see a hard game that’s willing to be a little silly; just as it’s refreshing to play a hard game that doesn’t make me feel like it’s trying to cheat, or even be hard for the sake of being hard.