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It’s got pretty desperate over here since I received my copy of Cuphead this week. While I have been informed that game journalists are naturally afflicted with a crippling inability to play video games, I had assumed that I would be able to beat Cuphead within a sitting or two. I had heard that it would be difficult, but I mean, run-and-gun games are always tough — I’d get through it, I thought. It’d be a challenge, sure, but I could handle it. I redeemed my code, puffed out my chest like an aggressive pigeon ready to defend its nest, and dived in.
Two days later and here I am, a husk of a man, forced to face the facts that I didn’t beat Cuphead in two sittings. In fact, I didn’t beat it in three, or four, or even five sittings. I still haven’t beat Cuphead, and now I’m staring vacantly at the desktop monitor in my office, a sweaty pile of nervous exhaustion, the words “GIT GUD” repeatedly scrawled across my office walls in red marker pen like that scene in The Shining.
Shitting hell, this game is difficult.
I’ve spent my morning reading Cuphead reviews, and the words “tough but fair” have cut through me like barbed wire. That’s how everyone is describing it: tough, but fair. Tough. But. Fair. Who are these reviewers, with their nigh-on superhuman level of restraint? How have they remained so calm in the face of a game designed to infuriate? How have they played through Cuphead, got to the other side with their controller somehow still in-tact, looked back upon the obstacle course of death they have just traversed and thought: “Tough, but ultimately, fair”?
I envy these people. In the late hours of Thursday evening, my girlfriend poked her head around my office door. “Are you okay?” she asked, notably concerned. “I heard a lot of shouting.” I swivelled around on my office chair to face her, my hair dishevelled and my eyes bloodshot. I looked directly into her eyes. “I honestly want to throw my PC through my fucking window right now,” I explained. She quietly nodded and brought me an ale. I went to sleep last night mid-complaint, still moaning about Cuphead. In the last few days, I’ve talked about Cuphead more than anything else in my life; it has planted itself as the very top of my list of adult responsibilities. If this continues, my bills will go unpaid because I am opting to spend all of my free time ranting about how I cannot beat Cuphead. I will forget to eat because I am too distracted by being miserable about Cuphead. My dogs will go unwalked because I have deemed screaming at Cuphead to be more important than their well-being.
There are going to be people who say that Cuphead isn’t that difficult. “It’s tough,” they’ll say, “but it’s also fair.” I’ll weep internally when those words exit their mouths. However, I do understand the sentiment. Cuphead is, ultimately, a memory game; while your reflexes have to be on point to overcome its various challenges, you will only succeed when you memorize the attack patterns of its enemies. Armed with only 3 HP and no option to refill your health pool mid-level, the game knows that you’re going to die repeatedly. That’s the point of it all. You’ll die because you didn’t notice the dragon’s tail charging an uppercut beneath you, or because you weren’t expecting the giant bird to fire out a flurry of feathers in your direction, but you know what to expect for next time. You play, then you die, then you play again until you’ve got the hang of it.
In this regard, Cuphead is fair. While its hard-as-nails gameplay takes many cues from old-school ’80s run-and-gun games such as Contra, you won’t have to start at the very beginning of a world if you die too many times — you’ll instead have to face the level all over again. In theory, this sounds pretty easy, which is exactly why I was expecting to swiftly beat it — if I can just keep fighting the same boss with no repercussions, I thought, then even if I sucked at it my persistence would ultimately carry me to victory. Each boss fight only lasts between 3-4 minutes, too, so it’s hardly like it’s an endurance test. However, playing Cuphead is not comparable with simply reading about Cuphead; contending with the boisterousness of its bosses, who throw everything bar the kitchen sink at the player, and demonstrating the near-perfect reaction times required to overcome its many challenges is something that’s best experienced before commented upon.
But despite my frustrations with Cuphead, I’ve still developed something of a love / hate relationship with the game. I love its vibrant, animated art style, its lively jazz soundtrack and its painstakingly detailed boss designs; I hate that it makes me want to die. There are many who won’t struggle with Cuphead as much I clearly have, and an equal number of people who will struggle with it more and refuse to push on past its second world. It’s not a game for everyone, and the feeling of satisfaction earned from defeating a tough level only lasts until the next ball-busting boss battle. However, the madness inspired by trying to push past the brutal learning curve that comes with each new challenge is addictive — sure, Cuphead is slowly driving me nuts, but I want to beat it. I have to beat it. And so I’ll continue on, willingly raising my blood pressure because the cartoon cup I’m controlling won’t stop bumping into fucking enemies. This is my personal Everest and I won’t stop climbing it, no matter how much it makes me hate myself.