If you look back at some of my favorite games from over the past several years, you’ll notice a trend. You’ll see games like Oxenfree, Firewatch and Life is Strange, and it’ll become clear that I tend to gravitate towards games that are more narrative focused and less challenge based. My skills as a gamer have never been impressive, I tend to suck pretty hard at most competitive online games and I steer clear of tough games like Dark Souls or Bloodborne. So what in the world would compel me to play Cuphead? A game notorious for its difficulty? Good question.
The obvious answer of course would be that Cuphead is just dripping with style. The game is a 1930’s cartoon brought to life and is reminiscent of old school Looney Tunes or Merrie Melodies episodes (without all of the racism thankfully). Every frame in the game is drawn by hand and the attention to detail makes for a stunningly beautiful game. The music is also top of the line with a catchy soundtrack featuring original jazz, big band and ragtime tunes. The entire package is just so attractive that it makes the game impossible to resist. But even with all of that going for it, I still was hesitant to play it because of the punishing difficulty I had heard so much about.
As I loaded up the game for the first time I was nervous. I wanted to enjoy this game so badly but I had this sinking feeling that I would find it just too frustrating for me. I began the first level and quickly found that all of the talk about difficulty was not an exaggeration. I died 5 times trying to get through that very first stage of the game, but after studying the enemies and taking my time, I was able to get through it. The next stage I played was a boss battle (the original design of the game featured ONLY boss battles) and I somehow managed to defeat it on my very first try! “Maybe this won’t be so tough after all!” I thought to myself. Well… that was wishful thinking.
Soon enough the game was making good on its promise to be a truly challenging experience that would test both my reflexes and my patience. As I went up against the game, the body count began to rise. Endless waves of zany cartoon enemies had me dying 5, 10 or even 15 times before I could make it through a level. But as I made my way past the first world and into the second, I began to realize that for as intense and punishing as the game can be, I was actually having a ton of fun playing it! And the reason is because of several brilliant design decisions that developer Studio MDHR has made to help ease the pain.
One of the nicest things about the game is how fast you’re able to keep the action going. The levels themselves are pretty brief, with most lasting no more than 3 or 4 minutes. And when you do die (and boy will you die), the game loads so quickly that you’ll be thrown back into the action before you know it. I found that I could attempt a level over and over again in the span of just a few minutes. It really makes the process of playing through the same level repeatedly much easier to swallow when you don’t have to worry about staring at a load screen for long periods of time.
Also, when you do die, there’s almost never a feeling that the game was being “cheap” or “unfairly difficult”, it usually boils down to a poorly timed jump or a mental error that you know you can nail if you just give it one more try… and one more try… and one more try. Every attempt I made, I felt like I was on the verge of getting it, and that made it easy to convince myself to carry on. And when you do successfully make it to the end of a level, it’s an incredibly satisfying feeling.
Cuphead is packed with other great design choices like the ability to unlock new perks and weapons to give you multiple options when tackling a tricky foe, and a world map that is somewhat open, allowing you to bounce around between different levels. It was nice to be able to take a break from one particularly tough level and go try something else for a while. All of these things add up to an experience that wants to challenge you, but in as fair and accessible of a way as possible.
I also found that my prefered way to play the game was in bite sized chunks. I’ll usually play for 15-20 minutes at a time, making my way through one (two if I’m having a good night) of the levels and calling it a night. I think if I tried to sit down and play for an hour or two the difficulty would become more frustrating, so it’s been a nice little gaming “snack” at the end of the day.
As I get older and my reflexes slow a bit, this is typically the last type of game that I want to play. But take it from an old fart like me, don’t let the reputation for controller throwing difficulty scare you away. Yes the game is super hard, but they’ve struck a perfect balance and made it as painless as possible. If you’re up for a bit of a challenge, I highly recommend you give the game a shot. And if nothing else, have I mentioned how damn good looking it is?