Notes from playing CUPHEAD

I participate in a game club with friends of mine. The idea is similar to a book club, but with video games: we pick a game together, decide how far to play before our next meetup, then discuss. Below are my notes from playing Cuphead.

OPENING & INKWELL ISLE 1

From the get- go the aesthetic of this game is spot-on, transplanting the player straight into a 1930’s cartoon. The art, the screen filter, the music all deliver this experience — even the writing, with “gosh” and “golly” aplenty. The first impression is wonderful, fun, and vibrant.

Early on the game play feels good. The tutorial is just right for introducing the mechanics and making sure the player understands how the fundamentals work. Controls are tight.

Boss design is fun, simple, and clever, especially in this first world. Encounters take less than two minutes to complete, and retrying — because the game is tough — is quick, making it easy to keep jumping back in for ‘just one more try.’ This is really smart and keeps the player engaged. At most, the player has lost only about a minute of game time after losing, so momentum is easily maintained and fatigue staved off. The progress track on the retry screen, showing how close Cuphead and Mugman were to victory, is also brilliant, encouraging those repeated retries.

The game is tough but the difficulty feels just right. It’s pretty easy to learn each boss’s patterns and mechanics, meaning any failure feels like my own fault — which makes it easier to convince myself to try again because ‘oh, I was dumb, I know better, I’ll get it right next time.’

There’s some light customization with upgrades and weapon types, giving the opportunity to develop and adapt play styles and tactics for each encounter. The downside here is that money for purchasing upgrades is hard to come by, so on the first island there aren’t a lot of options.

INKWELL ISLE 2

The boss encounters are getting more complex but overall aren’t much more difficult than in the first world. Mechanics are the same, so once mastered, it’s all about execution. Flying levels seem easier to me.

My most common tactic has become brutish: deal as much damage as quickly as possible. Coffee, an upgrade that constantly charges the meter for super attacks, and spread shot, a gun type that with higher damage per second but shorter range, are my go-tos.

Coins are scant, making new upgrades uncommon. The downside here is the player doesn’t get much chance to change up loadout tactics for bosses. This also allows for quick buyer’s remorse if the upgrade purchased — the only upgrade affordable at this time — isn’t immediately useful. I wish there was a way to preview upgrades and weapons before buying them.

It’s made clear on this island that parrying will be the way to succeed at this game. Fortunately, I’m being taught to get better with each encounter.

INKWELL ISLE 3 & FINALE

By now I have found enough coins to buy all but one upgrade: I have all weapons (6) and super abilities (3). This gives plenty of options for engaging with each boss — and the bosses have certainly gotten more complex.

Bosses on this island have more phases, more ways to trip up the player, and more ways to make it harder for the player to deal consistent damage. Reducing hurt-box size on enemies is a fair way to improve difficulty. Parrying is now necessary in order to not lose in multiple fights.

Plane levels are still fun and overall easier for me. Except for Dr. Kahl’s Robot.

By now, I’m dying enough to wish the option to change weapons and upgrades from the retry screen.

The last two bosses are great, challenging, and clever — especially King Dice. However, King Dice is too long, primarily because of loading screens. While most bosses took less than two minutes to knockout, King Dice took me more than five minutes.

OVERALL

Really fun, delightfully crafted game. There’s very little for me to complain about here. The best lesson to learn is how well the game keeps momentum between boss attempts, encouraging the player to keep trying again and again.

I played Cuphead on Nintendo Switch, with 100% completion. I mostly played solo but replayed a few bosses on Isle 1 with a friend.

Published by Kye

Husband, father, Christian. Producer at ArenaNet. Raised on TMNT, dinosaurs, The Legend of Zelda, JRPG's, Lecrae, C.S. Lewis, and sweet tea. SDG

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