Written by Andrew Boorman
Society often portrays failure as very far from success; an outcome to be avoided that exposes our deepest flaws. Yet in a cruel twist of irony, confronting failure offers us valuable experience and the opportunity to develop key traits for success such as creativity, patience, adaptability and resilience.
Cuphead is that rare breed of game which charms players in under the guise of light fun, only to school them in the hard of lesson of embracing failure, over and over again. Playing it is like enjoying a lollipop thickly coated in chilli … it hits you real hard but there’s a genuine sweetness to be found on the other side of perseverance.
The first thing new players will notice with Cuphead is its stunning presentation, which pays reverent homage to 1930s cartoons such as Betty Boop, in both visual and sound design. Intimidating larger than life characters fill the screen and animate in surprising ways that defy the laws of physics; all to the backdrop of catchy upbeat tunes.
The simple story of friends Cuphead and Mugman losing a gamble with the devil is told well enough, but undoubtedly takes backseat to the frantic ‘90s inspired gameplay of Contra 3 and Gunstar Heroes. In short, developer Studio MDHR offers us one of the most creative and challenging platformers ever made; thanks in large part to the hand-crafted feel of its jaw dropping boss fights.
The game contains 1-on-1 bouts that last a few minutes each, as well as classic run-and-gun levels that give you occasional opportunities to collect coins. These can be cashed in for new abilities like 8 way firing or air dashing, however it’s a shame there’s no way to experiment with them prior to purchase. One standard ability you should master if you want to receive “Grade A” level scores, is the jump parry, which requires perfectly timed double jumps only at pink-highlighted projectiles!
The real stars of Cuphead are the pitch perfect controls, colourful platforming enemies and delightfully seditious bosses who change shape, position and randomised attack behaviours. This means players must keep moving, study their enemies, hone their reflexes and think on their feet as tension continues to mount.
Things get even more chaotic when playing in co-op with friends, as there’s less perceivable on-screen space to jump and parry. Frustration can also set in because no visual or audio indicators are offered to gauge boss health.
Fortunately players can choose to play in “Simple” mode, although there is no avoiding Cupheads’ old school unforgiving nature, of which the hardest of hard-core will relish. On that note, for a game this tough it’s surprising no global leader boards were included at launch, although that could be an easy addition for future content updates.
In Cuphead, victory is always well earned, because death is an essential part of learning to succeed. It takes you on an emotional rollercoaster ride that demands your full attention, and hooks you with the unspoken promise of making you better. How much you’ll personally enjoy it will depend on your acceptance of failure, and what it teaches you on the road to success.