After 30 minutes with Cuphead, I was mesmerized — and defeated.
Indie house Studio MDHR’s classic cartoon-inspired debut is something I've always dreamed of playing, as a lifelong animation nerd. It mimics the style and spirit of early shorts to the letter. There's a grainy quality to the graphics, and the character designs are instantly familiar. Cuphead is one of the most gorgeous games I've ever put my hands on.
An attractive, seemingly hand-drawn tutorial prepped me on the control scheme. I then met the world map with a big, dumb grin; same thing with the level I played, charmingly titled "Forest Foibles" like an old Merrie Melodies short. Seeing the world of Cuphead in motion, fluid and elastic like a Max Fleischer short, was a fantastic sight.
But then I died. And died again. And again, and again, and again.
An Xbox spokesperson tried to rouse me as I sauntered off from my demo, defeated and warm. "People try to play it like Mario at first," he said, "but it's more Metal Slug."
I didn’t make that mistake, because Cuphead isn't a platformer; just because it has a "kiddy" look by design doesn't mean it needs to belong to that child-friendly genre. (Besides, it's a common misconception that animation is made for kids, but I digress.) Cuphead is a run-and-gun game set in a warped 1930s cartoon land. Our sentient cup hero and a pal can shoot down enemies with their finger guns, jump and dash through the air and even transform into planes.
Run-and-gunners are rarely a breeze, but Cuphead is a special brand of difficult. When the rest of the players in my demo session and I struggled to finish this single early level, even on the easiest setting, there seems to be a problem. Cuphead is punishing, deceptively so.
Players have a limited health bar and arsenal to combat constantly regenerating enemies as they run to the right side of the screen. It feels like the odds are perpetually stacked against the player, especially when enemies require varying numbers of hits to take out. I shot relentlessly at some foes, for example, only for them to refuse to die.
That's not even broaching the boss battle I tried later. Alongside the constant missiles I dodged, which were being blasted from a gigantic, human biplane, I was still learning a new set of powers. The controls already felt finicky on the first level I played, particularly the jump button. Now transformed into a tiny plane myself, I had to navigate a new body in a more constrained area.
As pretty as the scenery is, there’s no chance to soak in the environments when you’re always seconds away from death. I shouted numerous times during my playthrough, although I never quite quit. I’ll give it up to the art design for that, even if it began to taunt me. I now have the “You died!” title card seared into my brain for good, I think.
If you're into Metal Slug and the like, then Cuphead is worth a try — or 25. I'd love to watch someone preternaturally skilled blaze through it. But I imagine Cuphead is the kind of grueling challenge that may put the less patient of us off. At the same time, I’m certain that those who take satisfaction from conquering their biggest nightmares will find a lot to love here.
Maybe I'm not quite up to the task of Cuphead, and that's OK. I'm happy to stick with watching cartoons and cartoon-y games, not playing them. It’s out on Xbox One and Windows PC on Sept. 29.