When the game starts, a wistful, nostalgic smile tugs at the corner of your lips – it’s hard to resist with a masterful 1930’s cartoon aesthetic that tugs on the player’s earliest memories of watching Mickey Mouse chug along on a scratchy, hand drawn background.
In place of the richest rodent in history, the protagonist and star of the game is named, comically, Cuphead; in a world of anthropomorphic animals and household items, Cuphead and his friend Mugman act as the player’s avatar.
A run-and-gun platformer centred around some extremely intense boss battles, Cuphead seems to be just as good at manipulating the emotions of its player as it is at its game mechanics.
The nostalgia described above kicks in immediately, aided by the original show tune written and performed for the introduction.
The next emotion to kick in is playful competitiveness, taking shape almost immediately upon starting a level.
With tight controls that often take about fifteen minutes to become intuitive on a keyboard (remapping keys helps, especially moving the shoot button from X to the space bar) and bullet-sponge bosses that cycle through three stages of escalating difficulty, Cuphead gives the impression of immensely difficult but attainable.
You can beat it, if you just try one more time, and map the timing out just a little more. You’ve got this. How hard could it be to jump over a potato and shoot it in the face with your finger guns?
The next emotion that kicks in is a slow, mounting self-loathing. How hard could it be, right? Hard enough to die in the same place, at the same time, for twenty minutes. Depending on how truly bad you are, this could include more than fifty failed attempts to jump over a box, with one button, and shoot with another single button.
So why can’t you get the job done? This is where Cuphead excels, even if I would very much prefer that it didn’t.
Even in the most hopeless, pitiful hole of losing, it never seems like the fault of the game. The controls are all simple and they work; the game mechanics are easily understood and it shouldn’t take more than a few deaths to get the monster-of-the-week boss’ attacks down. But if it’s not the game, then it all comes back to the player.
Congratulations, genius. You spent forty minutes having boxer frogs punching you into next week and still haven’t beaten them. What a champion.
Finally, this raw, numbing anger is broken in an instant with triumph. Every jump and every dash was timed perfectly; you nailed it, and get to laugh as the boss fades into nothingness. Victory is a blessing and one that has been well-earned.
A passion project that took a very long time to make, the effort and time have resulted in an ultimately satisfying game – for those who are able to tough it out.