Move Over, Dark Souls! There’s A New Meme In Town
I’ve written and re-written this review several times since I started playing Cuphead. I had been immediately charmed by the fantastic, hand-drawn animation and vintage jazz soundtrack; it was like watching all of my old favorite Disney and Warner Brothers shorts. However, the more I played the game, the more disenchanted with it I became.
It wasn’t for the reasons you’d think, either.
I knew Cuphead was supposed to be difficult. I started playing on the easiest settings just to get a feel for it before really taking the plunge. Turns out, the “hardcore difficulty” everyone has been lauding and bemoaning in turns is a combination of old-school pattern memorization and questionable design choices.
The first thing that really bothers me about Cuphead is the way the default keyboard controls are laid out. Players use Left Shift, Z, X, C and V to perform various actions like jumping, firing their (adorable) finger guns, target locking and air dashing while the ARROW buttons control movement. It really wasn’t that cumbersome until I had tried the target locking, which allows 8-way aiming. Now, 8-way aiming with ONLY the ARROW buttons is really difficult to master, especially in a precision gunner/platformer like this. Eventually, I gave up on the default keyboard and did a custom control map on my gamepad. Having a stick to move and aim greatly improved my experience and allowed me to start to enjoy the game, rather than get overwhelmed by my frustration.
While some may find this to be a minor complaint, I strongly feel that players shouldn’t have to look up a Wiki to figure out how to custom-map controls. Players should be able to pick up a game and have a fairly strong grasp on controls and mechanics fairly early on; I suffered for almost an entire day before I finally got fed up and used my gamepad.
The control situation felt a bit gatekeeper-ish to me, and I found that it was just the first in a long list of weird design choices meant to make players “git gud.”
Another huge wrinkle in the fabric of Cuphead is that players will be locked out of the final boss battle if they work their way through the game on the lower difficulty. To me, this is absolutely absurd. There are a myriad of reasons a person may play a game on an easier setting; difficulty with hand-eye coordination, unfamiliarity with the genre, slow reaction times from medications or neurological disorders, or (if you’re like me) you know who you are and you like to just have fun.
Personally, if I’m playing a game specifically for review, I’ll play through several difficulty levels to spot mechanical and storytelling differences. But if I’m playing a game purely for fun? I play on Easy. I never feel like I have anything to prove to anyone. I get a nice sense of accomplishment from finishing the game at all. I don’t like not being able to finish a game because of brutal AI, tricky platforming or difficulty-gates.
Locking players out of the final stage because they chose to play on an easier difficulty setting feels like a GIANT middle finger from StudioMDHR Entertainment. Anyone who follows our social media accounts knows that I am a huge advocate for accessibility in games; this includes difficulty curves. Anyone who has any reason at all to prefer a lower difficulty is shut out of the full experience of Cuphead. It sends a message that unless you’re willing to sink hours and hours into a game and endure countless deaths to hone your reaction times to a superhuman level, you don’t deserve to play this game. I realize they sacrified a lot in order to make this game, and they want people to fully appreciate their work.
But you know how you do that?
By letting them play the game how they’re most comfortable.
“Locking players out of the final stage because they chose to play on an easier difficulty setting feels like a GIANT middle finger…”
If you’re able to become the Keymaster to Cuphead‘s Gatekeeper, there is a damn fine game here. As I said before, the visuals and music are an absolute delight. The animation feels fluid and smooth, and makes me feel as though I should be in a darkened theatre, munching popcorn and watching reel after reel of Cuphead adventures.
Once I switched to the gamepad, the game was a blast to play. The variety of stages recall old-school Nintendo and Sega platformers like: Contra, Sonic the Hedgehog, and even Earthworm Jim. The stages aren’t linear. Instead, players start in a Super Mario Bros 3 style overworld map and can play the stages piecemeal; quitting particularly difficult stages to tackle smaller, slightly more tameable areas before returning.
I wish I had more positive things to say about Cuphead. It’s not a bad game by any means. It just feels very alienating to its audience. I just hope StudioMDHR Entertainment releases a patch allowing players to complete the game on lower difficulties. There’s no harm in letting folks just have fun.