Cuphead First Impressions: Gorgeous but Difficult

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.

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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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  • JCerna

    Premium Member
    29 September, 2017 - 12:03 pm

    <p>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.</p>

    • Paul Thurrott

      Premium Member
      29 September, 2017 - 1:04 pm

      <blockquote><a href="#184613"><em>In reply to JCerna:</em></a></blockquote><p>It should be less hard and more fun.</p>

      • Polycrastinator

        29 September, 2017 - 3:13 pm

        <blockquote><a href="#184626"><em>In reply to paul-thurrott:</em></a></blockquote><p>That's what designers really need to remember sometimes: games need to be fun. (Tangentially, I'd love to see you do a review of Splatoon, which is my current gaming obsession, a ton of fun, and I'd be interested in what you make of it as an avid CoD player since it's such a different take on the shooter genre.)</p>

  • Billzeal

    Premium Member
    29 September, 2017 - 12:07 pm

    <p>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 </p>

  • Patrick3D

    29 September, 2017 - 12:49 pm

    <p>It has been mentioned in early gameplay previews going back over the last 2 years that the game was <em>extremely</em> 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.</p>

  • MikeGalos

    29 September, 2017 - 1:11 pm

    <p>Cuphead is really about the visuals more than about the gameplay.</p><p>That sounds like the recipe for failure but starting back with Myst, there's a long history of successes using that formula.</p>

    • Waethorn

      30 September, 2017 - 12:52 pm

      <blockquote><a href="#184638"><em>In reply to MikeGalos:</em></a></blockquote><p>Myst is based on the puzzle-adventure genre. There are only so many ways you can approach that from a gameplay stance. The entire Myst series backed that gameplay with an amazing story too.</p>

  • MutualCore

    29 September, 2017 - 1:21 pm

    <p>How about GIT GUD?</p>

  • Mestiphal

    29 September, 2017 - 1:32 pm

    <p>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</p>

  • crmguru

    Premium Member
    29 September, 2017 - 3:51 pm

    <p>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. </p><p><br></p>

  • Rob_Wade

    29 September, 2017 - 4:07 pm

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

    • Michael Rivers

      02 October, 2017 - 1:57 am

      <blockquote><a href="#184686"><em>In reply to Rob_Wade:</em></a></blockquote><p>There has never been a game like this. </p>

  • Bats

    29 September, 2017 - 4:53 pm

    <p>Lol… To me, the word gorgeous is synonymous with Monica Bellucci, Sophia Loren, Christy Turlington. Surface laptop, iPhone, Cuphead….no.</p><p><br></p><p>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.</p>

    • Mike Cramer

      29 September, 2017 - 6:25 pm

      <blockquote><a href="#184690"><em>In reply to Bats:</em></a></blockquote><p><br></p><p>Cuphead harkens back to the hand drawn animation of early Disney. That, indeed, is gorgeous.</p>

      • Waethorn

        30 September, 2017 - 12:52 pm

        <blockquote><a href="#184712"><em>In reply to Donkey_Gas:</em></a></blockquote><p>I'd still rather watch some John K. cartoons.</p>

  • Jules Wombat

    29 September, 2017 - 6:53 pm

    <p>Well what did you expect, when you underestimated the power of root vegetables ?</p>

  • Erick Ledinich

    29 September, 2017 - 10:39 pm

    <p>The thing is like megaman. When you have the right weapon it become quite easy. </p><p><br></p><p>The carrot is very easy with the multishot weapon</p>

  • Waethorn

    30 September, 2017 - 12:51 pm

    <p>You've gotten soft, Thurrott! Too much Call of Doody for you.</p><p><br></p><p>For a real challenge, try some Trials of the Nine this weekend. And then you'll know defeat.</p>

  • Waethorn

    30 September, 2017 - 1:02 pm

    <p>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:</p><p><br></p><p><a href="; target="_blank"></a></p&gt;

  • Michael Rivers

    30 September, 2017 - 1:56 pm

    <p>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.</p>

  • JHawkZZ

    30 September, 2017 - 6:55 pm

    <p>“<span style="color: rgb(0, 0, 0);">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. :)</span></p>

    • ErichK

      Premium Member
      02 October, 2017 - 12:04 pm

      <blockquote><a href="#185725"><em>In reply to JHawkZZ:</em></a></blockquote><p>You win the Internet for today. :-)</p>

  • WayneRobinson

    30 September, 2017 - 7:27 pm

    <p>I can't even get passed the tutorial! Maybe if MJF and I got out heads together…</p>

  • rosyna

    01 October, 2017 - 8:27 am

    <p>Steamboat Willy was released in 1928. Mega Man 2 was released in 1989.</p>

  • cawoodstock

    01 October, 2017 - 8:49 am

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

  • Demileto

    01 October, 2017 - 1:58 pm

    <p>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! 😀 The battle that their defeat unlocks, the frog duo, however, has a third phase that is an absolute bitch! :)</p>

  • OwenM

    Premium Member
    02 October, 2017 - 5:23 am

    <p>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. </p><p><br></p><p></p&gt;

  • ErichK

    Premium Member
    02 October, 2017 - 12:52 pm

    <p>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.</p><p><br></p><p>With how complex gaming has become over the years, I almost feel overwhelmed at times.</p>

  • gregsedwards

    Premium Member
    02 October, 2017 - 1:12 pm

    <p>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?</p>

  • Skolvikings

    03 October, 2017 - 9:56 am

    <p>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.</p>

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