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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