Thu. Mar 23rd, 2023

Cup head is stupid hard and stupid beautiful. Video produced by Mark Walton.

COLOGNE, Germany—Cup head is difficult. I mean, really really hard. If you don’t die within the first few minutes of playing, you’re some kind of platform genius or you’re just damn lucky. But while that may sound unappealing to some, to those suckers for punishment — think fans of Super Meat Boy, Metal snailand contra et al.—Cup head is indeed great.

Run-and-gun games like Cup head grew out of the arcades and early consoles like the NES where the ultimate goal was to squeeze more quarters out of you and reel in the next sucker quickly rather than pushing you through a long and convoluted story. Cup head remains true to those ideals. There’s a three hit health system and you’re out and some insanely tricky levels and bosses to play through.

The beauty of those original run-and-gun games, even if they often became frustrating, was that you could always find your way through if you were good enough. Skill and perseverance were key; good level design and enemy attack patterns can be learned and overcome. Although it’s too early to say if Cup head managed to pull off the same trick, it is certainly a promising start.

The first boss level – we’re told a record is being broken 30 boss levels – contains a pissed off potato and a psychedelic carrot. The potato spits out clumps of dirt in front of the titular Cup head to jump over while attacking with his finger gun. Thankfully, you can just hold down the fire button while frantically jumping around instead of repeatedly pressing the button.

However, the carrot spice things up a bit: because it attacks from the top of the screen, you’ll need to aim your shots up to hit it. Both aiming and jumping direction are controlled with the same analog stick, so of course this gets really tricky, really fast. But it never feels unfair. As the carrot rains down smaller carrot-shaped projectiles and psychedelic circles from its exhausted brain, learn how fast they move and where they will land, and adjust your attacks and jumps accordingly.

This is a well-used terrain, but it has been executed with style and precision. Cupheads movements are crisp enough to feel like you’re really in control of the character without being so stiff that you lose that sense of weight and movement as he leaps through the air. Even after playing for just a few minutes, I found controlling Cuphead intuitive and natural.

While I managed to beat the carrot boss after a few tries, I defy anyone to beat the grumpy sea captain that came next without any serious practice. This time, instead of the only thing you have to worry about, the sea captain’s boss gives you several worries. It starts with the captain himself, firing small projectiles at you, and a chest moving across the top of the screen, occasionally dropping on you.

Then there’s the captain’s hitbox, which is selfishly small. To land a hit you need to be high in the air, in the bottom right corner and aiming upwards, leaving you vulnerable to attack. And even if you manage to land a few hits, the captain will start calling fish out of the ocean, crawling on the ground, ready to take away one of your precious life points.

I managed to get this far and was really pleased with myself…until a big shark suddenly popped out of the side of the screen and killed me. Frustrating? Yes. But have I stopped playing? Not really. There’s something about learning those patterns that makes it hard to put down this type of game. A later two-player level was even trickier, featuring not only small moving cloud platforms (with instadeath waiting for those to fall off), but also a great big dragon spewing fireballs and weirdly colored bombs from its eyes at an alarming rate. Suffice it to say I failed to complete that level.

I’m a sucker for punishment though, and Cup head is just the kind of game I love. Those with less patience will probably find it at difficult, but I would still urge them to give it a shot. The game is absolutely gorgeous and nails that 1930s cartoon right mise en scene with astonishing accuracy and feel. Not to mention the great soundtrack, which recreates the classic jazz and swing of the 1930s to great effect.

Unfortunately, Cup head won’t be out until 2016, but at least it will launch on Windows 10 and Xbox One for those without Microsoft’s console. That’s an excruciatingly long wait for a game I’m dying to play again. But I suppose all that time in development will be worth it. If the last thing ends up being something like the short demo I played at Gamescom, retro fans are going to be in for a real treat.

By akfire1

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