Slogging my way through “Cuphead” made me feel old. This self-consciously retro game called to mind how much time has elapsed since the mystified journalists on “20/20” tried to understand the so-called “Nintendo Generation” of which I am a part.
“Cuphead” not only reminded me of the time when 2D games were all the rage, it reincarnated for me the physical sensation of playing NES games like “Contra” or the arcade version of “Ghosts n’ Goblins.” Similar to those games of yore, it’s blisteringly hard from the jump.
In truth, I found it torturous to get into. To my slight consternation, I discovered that I lack the patience to learn lengthy sequences of precise inputs the way I used to; however, once I let a bit of my agitation go and made peace with the retry option in the menus, I rediscovered how intoxicating it can be to cruise through areas of past difficulty in a Zen-like trance. “Cuphead” made me unusually aware of my neurons contorting themselves to create new muscle memories through dints of trial and error.
Anyone with the slightest fondness for the 1930s Betty Boop shorts or the old Warner Brothers cartoons should be wowed by the game’s presentation. For all who ever dreamed of the day that video games would look like bonafide cartoons, “Cuphead” is a sight to behold with its crackly, grainy, gorgeous animation and its exuberant period-themed music. I’ve made people sit through its opening number – a barbershop song about how Cuphead and his brother Mugman allowed their fondness for dice to lead them into contact with the devil – because it’s so charming.
The player’s duty is to help the guy with the straw dangling from his noggin get out of gambling debt by collecting the contracts of other adversaries who have bargained with the devil. Accomplishing that means persevering through the game’s more than two dozen boss battles and surviving its “Run n’ Gun” side-scrolling sections.
In an interview with Time, lead artist Chad Moldenhauer, who co-directed the game with his brother Jared, said that he and his sibling revere games from the second half of the 1980s through the ‘90s. Their fidelity to retro gaming is clear. In “Cuphead” there aren’t any regenerating life bars, health packs or checkpoints. Rather, you start off with three hit points, then acquire the option to buy another with currency that can be found in the “Run n’ Gun” areas.
Unless you’re hyper vigilant, those hit points can disappear in a flash. You either beat a boss, getting through a level with at least one hit point intact, or you do it all over from the beginning if you want to proceed.
Bosses can be played on Simple or Regular difficulty. These fights tend to require you to stay on your toes for about two minutes, which can seem like an eternity when you’re constantly having to react perfectly against an onslaught of threats. Opting for the Simple difficulty usually removes one of the boss’s forms so that, for example, when you’re fighting the malevolent vegetables known as The Root Pack, you’ll encounter a potato that shoots clumps of dirt and a carrot that projects rings of psychic energy but not the baby onion who cries deadly tears.
It’s exceedingly rare that I opt for the easy mode in a game but I certainly did here to hold onto my sanity and to see enough of the game for evaluation.
At a certain point, I found myself getting so worked up over performing scores of correct moves (only to allow some slip-up to catastrophically derail my rhythm) that I adopted the habit of muting my TV so I could concentrate on learning the stages in as dispassionate a manner as possible. Another breakthrough came after I re-mapped the controls so that the dash move was tethered to the left shoulder button instead of the Y face button. This little tweak yielded outsized results as it enabled me to keep my thumb on X, or the fire, button at all times.
Although the game supports local co-op, so that you can play it with a friend in the same room, I found the extra support more a hinderance than an aide. Not only did I find that my friend and I tended to lose sight of our characters in hectic situations but we often died trying to revive each other. There is a brief window where you can jump on your companion’s departing ghost and bring it back in with one hit point, but because the game doesn’t grace players with an invincibility frame when jumping on a ghost, we were often hit when frantically attempting to rescue one another.
Yes, you can already find videos on YouTube of people who have bested all of the game’s bosses in no-hit runs, but that’s like saying that you can find videos of someone running a mile in under 4 minutes and fifteen seconds. Few people are destined to ever achieve such glory. Yet there is satisfaction to be had in venturing outside of your comfort zone.