“This is the sort of thing you grew up with, eh?” an attendant at the Xbox One booth where I’m playing Cuphead asks me. I raise a quizzical eyebrow. “Exactly how old do you think I am?” I snap.
The attendant laughs and corrects himself. “No, I mean, this is an old school platformer. It’s really hard. Like you’d get back on the Sega Genesis. Like Megaman!”
I open my mouth to snap at him again, but decide against it. The truth I am old enough to remember Megaman on the Sega Genesis – a console that’s probably older than the attendant I’m talking to. Besides, at least he wasn’t using the cartoons from which Cuphead draws its visual aesthetic as barometer for my age – which is what I originally thought.
Cuphead looks like a moving cartoon from the Max Fleischer drawing board. The world and characters that the game presents are by turns playful, surreal and disturbing and the whole experience is presented at though it was shot on grainy film unearthed from the 1940s.
One or two players can take part in Cuphead’s eye-popping adventures – the second will control his pal, Mugman. The pair of them, incidentally, look like Mickey Mouse if you chopped his ears off and replaced the top of his head with a cup with a straw in it. Apparently the pair of them made the rather foolish move of gambling away their souls to the devil and now they have to work for him to get them back. Along the way they’ll battle numerous foes, including a malignant potato, a giant carrot and a giant bird with a cuckoo clock for a body.
The animation and soundtrack in Cuphead is utterly faithful to its source material; all the characters are exaggerated and outlandish and they move with a rubbery bounce that recalls early animation. Furthermore, since every last creature Cuphead encounters is trying to kill him, their wide, toothy grins and bug-eyed visages look wonderfully creepy.
From the demo on the shop floor at rAge, Cuphead seems to be framed as a series of boss fights. Players can move between the different levels via a top-down central hub, which is presented like a traditional RPG map. Once they select a level – which offer a clue as to what to expect in their names (Botanic Panic, A fowl afoul) – their shoved right into a fight with no build up and no preamble.
Oh, and at this stage we should point out that the player should expect to die. A lot.
You see, Cuphead is hard. Rock hard. Super rock hard. Contra hard. The action is essentially run-and-gun with the odd twist thrown in for good measure – one level, for example involved climbing a honeycomb, fleeing a rising tide of moletn honey while avoiding adversaries, while another sees Cuphead piloting a plane as a giant bird hurls eggs and carrots at him.
The key to beating a Boss is essentially the main survival tactic players use in Dark Souls; keep your wits about you, learn the enemy’s attack patterns and then attack. Sounds simple, right? Well, bear in mind that Cuphead is an unforgiving affair that will punish players for the tiniest mistake. Oh, and then there’s the fact that, just when the player thinks they have the Boss beat, Cuphead throws them a curveball in the form of quickly-timed attack that breaks the player’s rhythm or a brand new Boss. And then it’s back to square one.
That having been said, I’m looking forward to Cuphead, even if it’s just because it’s been a long time since a 2D sidescroller kicked my butt with such regularity. Some players may be put off by its overall difficulty, but for anyone who enjoys a challenge, Cuphead is one of those Xbox exclusives that Sony console owners should feel more than a tad jealous about.