Cuphead First Impressions: Gorgeous but Difficult

Posted on September 29, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Games, Windows 10, Xbox One with 30 Comments

Cuphead First Impressions: Gorgeous but Difficult

As hoped, Cuphead is a visual delight that draws you right in. But it’s also far too difficult for most gamers. And that’s a problem for a game that, quite frankly, should be a lot more approachable.

Announced over three years ago, Cuphead took its time making its way onto our PCs and consoles. The wait paid off in the form of highly-honed cartoon visuals that recall the 1930s and such classics as “Steamboat Willy,” with the same bouncing energy.

But Cuphead is a throwback of another kind: In an age of ever-more-realistic first- and third-person shooters, this game is a 1990’s-style 2D platformer. This brings joy to my Amiga-fond heart, and its twitch-happy action focus reminds me of many a title from that wonderful computer of the past.

Sadly, Cuphead brings with it many of the frustrations of those Amiga platformers of old, like the original Shadow of the Beast, which was a visual feast for the day and yet was likewise impossible to beat. Cuphead isn’t quite as hard as Beast, but then it will attract a much bigger and more mainstream audience. And casual gamers will quickly throw up their hands in frustration. Sorry. But this game is simply too hard for most.

There’s a story behind Cuphead, but it’s almost too ridiculous for words. So let’s just focus on the basics: You move on a Mario-like map from level to level, hop, shoot, and outfight various cartoonish baddies and … well, actually that’s about it.

If that doesn’t sound too diverse, have no fear: Cuphead, in fact, serves up its own visual feast and it varies wonderfully from level to level while retaining the endearing 1930’s art style throughout. The sounds effects, music, and voiceover work is likewise top-notch.

But you will fail, again and again. And then fail some more. That will lead some gamers to try ever harder and figure out what it is they need to do to overcome whatever the challenge is. But many will simply give up, and quickly. Too many.

Here’s an example. In a level called “Botanic Panic,” you fight, in succession, three root vegetables that come out of the ground and hurl things at you. The first, a potato, throws balls of dirt and worms, and if you hit either you get hurt and eventually die, ending the level. But once you figure out the secret to beating this guy, the second one, an onion, appears, dropping tears from the sky. (Get it?) That one is easier to beat, but then the third vegetable, a carrot, appears, it throws little carrots at you in a new way. That one is very hard to beat and when you die—and you will, again and again—you have to start the whole level over. Every time. Meaning you have to beat all three vegetables in one pass in order to move on.

Again, that’s too much to ask of the casual gamers who would be attracted to this title. Yes, you can choose between two difficulty levels, and the easier one removes the middle root vegetables and lessens the number of projectiles coming at you at once. But the carrot is still very hard to beat. And I feel like I have pretty good reflexes, with a certain muscle memory for this kind of gameplay.

So I’ll keep trying. But there is a fine line between challenging and frustrating. And Cuphead‘s one sin is that it has crossed that line.

Cuphead is an Xbox Play Anywhere title, so it works across both Xbox One and Windows 10. I’ve played on both, the experience is seamless and basically identical on both. It’s only $20, which would help draw in the more casual player. You know, if it wasn’t so gosh-darned hard to play


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Comments (30)

30 responses to “Cuphead First Impressions: Gorgeous but Difficult”

  1. JCerna

    LOL Paul admit it, we don't have the reflexes of our past selves. Plus you brain can only compute COD games now ?. It is hard but it is fun.

  2. Erick Ledinich

    The thing is like megaman. When you have the right weapon it become quite easy.

    The carrot is very easy with the multishot weapon

  3. gregsedwards

    I bought this title on Xbox, but I'm having some issues installing Cuphead on my Surface Pro 4. When I select the Install button, nothing happens. I've checked my system requirements and there are no red Xs, so what gives? Any ideas?

  4. ErichK

    I'm actually starting to get a little bored with gaming lately. You know what I played this past weekend on my Xbox One? Brunswick Pro Bowling. Can't get any simpler -- pull back on a stick and launch a ball toward some pins.

    With how complex gaming has become over the years, I almost feel overwhelmed at times.

  5. OwenM

    Unfortunately there's quite a serious bug on the Windows 10 / Xbox version of the game. If you are playing it on PC, and alt-tab, it stops saving your progress. I beat a particularly frustrating boss and then was stung by finding out my game had not saved next time I opened it up again.

  6. Demileto

    LOL, are you serious? "Botanic Panic" is the easiest boss in this whole, frustrating game - I defeated them in, like, three tries tops - and you died to them? Sorry, Paul, but you haven't truly faced how hard this game is YET! :D The battle that their defeat unlocks, the frog duo, however, has a third phase that is an absolute bitch! :)

  7. cawoodstock

    Having level checkpoints would be a great step in removing some of the frustration after replying the same level 20 times in a row!

  8. rosyna

    Steamboat Willy was released in 1928. Mega Man 2 was released in 1989.

  9. WayneRobinson

    I can't even get passed the tutorial! Maybe if MJF and I got out heads together...

  10. JHawkZZ

    But the carrot is still very hard to beat.” I can honestly say I never anticipated reading a sentence like that on a site like this. :)

  11. Michael Rivers

    The only upside to the constant dying in this game is that you can restart the levels instantly. However, I do agree completely with Paul's take that the game is just too punishing. It's really too bad.

  12. Waethorn

    This reminds me of King's Quest 5. It was the first VGA Sierra adventure (I didn't have a VGA-compatible system at the time though). Back then, they touted the fact that they used digitized hand-painted backgrounds for each scene - a first for computer games. That's the nostalgia that I get from this. Also, the music from the town rings in my ears from time to time:

  13. Waethorn

    You've gotten soft, Thurrott! Too much Call of Doody for you.

    For a real challenge, try some Trials of the Nine this weekend. And then you'll know defeat.

  14. Jules Wombat

    Well what did you expect, when you underestimated the power of root vegetables ?

  15. Bats

    Lol... To me, the word gorgeous is synonymous with Monica Bellucci, Sophia Loren, Christy Turlington. Surface laptop, iPhone,

    Lol... It kinda makes me shiver. Lol..I don't know why, but it just does. The word, Gorgeous is beauty at it's highest form and it's for an cartoon? Lol.

  16. Rob_Wade

    I just don't get the interest in this game or games like it.

  17. crmguru

    Fired it up took some screen shots. 1.5 hour in... cursed and threw my controller, turned it off. I am an old geezer but this crazy hard. Sad as I would love to see all the other cool art. Looking at game mechanics I see that the NPC patterns are not always exactly the same.... This is like Dragon Lair after dropping a hundred quarters in the machine I quit, too hard. Fortza 7 just lit up and it too is gorgeous.

  18. Mestiphal

    I mean, but at least you can start back your level... old school games like Contra and such simply gave you a GAME OVER and that was it, no starting the lever over.. you had to start from the very beginning.... now days dying in games is like pressing Y in Forza, takes you 5 seconds back

  19. MikeGalos

    Cuphead is really about the visuals more than about the gameplay.

    That sounds like the recipe for failure but starting back with Myst, there's a long history of successes using that formula.

  20. Patrick3D

    It has been mentioned in early gameplay previews going back over the last 2 years that the game was extremely difficult. This isn't just Paul's impression but the impression of mainstream gamers and game press. It was originally designed as a boss battle game with platforming being an afterthought that got expanded upon to try and make it more appealing to a larger group of gamers. Personally, I don't care for extremely difficult games either, I never bothered finishing Viewtiful Joe on Gamecube for that reason.

  21. Billzeal

    I'm sure it won't be long before they're videos of how to complete each level and cheats and codes for invincibility. I guess they had to make it difficult as many would be soon bored if too easy.But yes having to restart the complete level is very annoying

  22. Skolvikings

    I watched someone die at that carrot dude on Twitch. She kept dying until she realized she could hold down the shoot button and it would just continuously shoot. By doing that, all she really had to do was focus on avoiding the little baby carrots falling and those beams the main carrot dude was shooting. She made a comment that the game was 10x easier once she realized that.

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