The Devil’s Game

Growing up, I’ve always had an affinity for classic cartoons produced by various studios such as Disney, Warner Brothers, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Thus, when the independent game Cuphead was released, I definitely took notice at its retro animation style, with a 1930s-inspired jazz soundtrack thrown into the mix. However, since my PC is incapable of playing contemporary computer games without technical issues and I had no intention to buy an Xbox One just for the game, I felt I could live without it. In 2019, though, a port to the Nintendo Switch released, and given the attractive nature of the game and positive reviews, I quickly felt inclined to give it a purchase, but was it worth it?

The game opens with the eponymous Cuphead and his brother Mugman stumbling upon a casino run by the Devil himself, where they have a winning streak at craps and are promised the gambling joint itself if they win one more round. Naturally, they lose, with the Devil consequentially wanting their souls, although he allows the siblings to keep them if they collect soul contracts from debtors doubling as bosses. The narrative doesn’t receive supplemental depth or development until the player reaches the endgame, and is scarcely a reason to purchase the game or a driving factor throughout.

Odds are that most mainstream gamers won’t even get to see the ending, given the unforgiving nature of the gameplay, focused mostly on boss battles. The fictitious Inkwell Isles serves as a top-town hub between said fights and run-and-gun levels where the player can obtain coins, five per stage, to use for purchasing equippable items from Porkrind’s Emporium, but all except perhaps one come with catches. Before entering a boss battle, the player can choose from simple or regular difficulty, although one has to win on the latter challenge setting in order to actually acquire one of many soul contracts necessary to advance to the endgame battles.

The chosen difficulty affects how many variant phases a boss fight has, with the bosses altering their attack patterns after the player has damaged them enough with finger blasts or whatever alternate weapons they equip on Cuphead or Mugman. In each battle, the player has three hit points that deplete whenever the active character takes damage, with the expenditure of all HP resulting in a loss and need to restart the fight from scratch. Death also shows how far in the fight the player got and what phase they were in, the opportunities to recommence the battle, quit to the overworld, or exit to the title screen presenting themselves as well.

The player can equip an item that grants them an additional hit point, although this comes at the expense of weaker attacks, with the only truly useful buyable ability being one that allows Cuphead or Mugman to dash without receiving damage. As either protagonist attacks, they accumulate points that eventually allow them to perform one of three different super moves acquirable from single-screen mausoleum stages where the player must “parry” ghosts by pressing the jump button when hovering over them, and where allowing a ghost to reach the central urn necessitates a restart.

The opportunity to parry attacks also presents itself in boss battles, the player capable of deflecting pink projectiles for supplemental super move points, although ill timing results in damage to hit points, which can make this risky. Outside bosses, the player can participate in side-scrolling run-and-gun stages to acquire up to five coins, with the rules regarding hit points playing part here as well, and death showing how far the player got in the level before having to start from scratch. Quitting a run-and-gun level also completely forgoes coins acquired at the time of death, and a few of these have daunting mini-bosses before at their endings.

The general absence of room for error will definitely off-put more casual players, and if they take damage early in a boss or run-and-gun stage, they might as well just die deliberately. While one can easily track boss attack patterns, there’s heavy randomization as to how and when they execute their actions, and even if a player knows what’s necessary to win, pulling off victories can still be tedious, given the general chaotic nature of combat and need to pay meticulous attention to all parts of the game screen. However, there are some rare bright spots, for unlike a certain masochistic RPG series whose name rhymes with “bark coals,” players can actually pause the action of boss fights.

Control has more positives, given the general linear direction and difficulty of losing oneself within the game world, not to mention simple menus and remappable controls, which some online guides highly recommend, although I actually didn’t have much issue with the default settings. The only true major issue in this area is the sometimes-long loading times, inexcusable given the non-compact-disc-based disposition of the game medium, but interaction is generally unproblematic.

The music, consisting of 1930s-esque jazz and vocal barbershop tunes, is another highlight that actually might make the soundtrack a purchase preferable to the game itself, with the cartoony sound effects further reflecting the retro milieu. Music during the load screens would have been welcome, however, but the aurals are another area in which Cuphead does better than worse.

Aside from the chaotic nature of the gameplay screen especially during boss battles, the visuals largely help more than hurt, with a retro 1930s animation style reflective of cartoons from the decade, fluid in animation and sporting some nice designs.

Though the game is theoretically beatable in one sitting, frequent repeated boss battles might drive ultimate playtime well beyond that range, and those seeking lasting appeal will find it in the form of in-game achievements.

In the end, Cuphead has most of the makings of a masterpiece, with its unproblematic controls, excellent soundtrack, and gorgeous art direction, but severely fumbles in its tedious, unaccommodating gameplay and unengaging narrative, the latter raising the question of why hardcore gamers consider it “rewarding” other than for bragging rights. I very much regret my purchase and have no intention to finish it; while some may suggest that its solid presentation values compensate for the gameplay, playing a game in my opinion should never be a chore, and being top of the class in art and music is reason to buy an artbook or soundtrack, not a videogame.


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