Yahtzee reviews Cuphead.
Viewers, do you think there's something wrong with me? Rhetorical question; hands down, please. I asked because my favorite kind of gameplay is ball-busting difficulty, and all my favorite story-based games seem to be miserable and depressing. In fact, what might as well be my favorite game ever is both ball-busting and miserable; not that having your testicles mangled should ever give one cause for optimism, but you get my point. And then there was that time I shat all over Ori and the Blind Forest for pulling a happy ending out of its arse and giving me misery blue-balls.
But balls aside, I checked over my childhood for some kind of trauma that might explain this, and I couldn't find one in any of the memories I hadn't suppressed, so am I just a fundamentally negative person? Is that why I spent the last ten years swearing and talking about my balls for a living? Well, who can say? But things might be changing, because I actually quite like Cuphead, and it's not miserable at all; it's a bright, cartoony, upbeat romp. It is, however, so ball-bustingly hard that you'll be jizzing ball-shrapnel for weeks.
And having said that it's cartoony and upbeat, its premise, admittedly, is that you're crippled with gambling debts and now have to collect from fellow debtors or be murdered by Satan. See, the rub is that Cuphead is retro-style, but not in the usual sense, i.e., pixels the size of Plymouth; it's deliberately fashioning itself after retro animation, in the style of Max Fleischer or very early Disney, and pulls that off with quite remarkable success! The film grain, the scratchy audio, the big brass band soundtrack, the fluid, exaggerated animation where characters all move like warmed-up gummy worms caught in the spokes of a bike; it all feels so bloody authentic!
And most importantly, what a lot of people forget about early cartoons - here, we very un-subtly waggle our eyebrows at Epic Mickey's forgotten grave-site - is that they could be really fucking dark. See, back then, it wasn't generally understood that kids needed to have their delicate sensibilities protected, as odds were pretty good they were all going to die in a European trench war before they turned eighteen, anyway. So thematically, cartoons were lighter on wholesome lessons about friendship and heavier on skeletons and racism.
So there's something overtly sinister about Cuphead, which might be from subtly wrong things like the drinking straw in our character's head. I mean, the teacup-head thing I'd buy, but who the fuck drinks from a teacup with a straw? That's just pushing it. But I think it's the overall scratchy look and feel that makes me think the little girl from The Ring could push out of the screen at any moment and start making comical trombone noises. This surreal, almost-elegiac atmosphere pairs remarkably well with the relentless difficulty; this is a world where every inanimate object has angry eyes, gyrates constantly like it's busting for a piss, and desperately wants you dead, which is just as well, because you'll have obliged them several hundred times before the game is done.
Gameplay-wise, the closest comparison I can think of is Furi, in that the game consists mainly of a string of multi-stage boss fights with elements of bullet hell, in which you must balance pouring damage into the enemy against avoiding the damage that pours out of them. The difference is, in Furi, you had a big sword and a mysterious backstory and could regain health from therapeutically twatting people, while in Cuphead, you have a cup for a head that can take a total of three hits before it shatters as assuredly as to a pushed-off desk by the naughty cat of archetype, and you have to start again.
There's also a fairly-centralized two-player co-op mode I'm in two minds about. On the one hand, it seems like it'd be dramatically easier, since you're doing twice the damage with twice the targets and one player can even save another player from death; that seems weighed excessively against the lonely saddos of the world whose best friends and sex partners are attached to the ends of their wrists. But then again, it means you have to keep track of a few more of the several hundred moving objects onscreen at any one time, so maybe it balances out. And besides, a proper bollock-tussler of a challenge is something to be enjoyed like a fine wine, and personally, I wouldn't drink from a glass of wine with another person; that seems like a good way to make a mess and engender unwanted sexual tension.
The secret of enjoying gonad-distressingly hard games is to not give up, 'cos I guarantee you'll find a hundred things to complain about while you're struggling with a boss. Like how you die fifty times fighting, say, a giant hole-punch with angry eyes, before you finally squeak past its first two stages with one health left, whereupon the hole-punch turns into a fucking Powershred 64Cb paper shredder and you die instantly to its innovative jam-blocker technology. It can seem very unfair that you've worked so hard to memorize the best way to avoid the first two stages' attacks, only for them to be replaced by completely different attacks that you must now figure out in your estimated twelve nanoseconds of remaining life or start all over again.
The music's pissing you off, and your eyes hurt, and that fucking pirate has twice as much health as every other boss, I fucking swear, and you're pretty sure you're going to write down some very harsh swear words when you come to do the review. But then, all of a sudden, you enter a sort of cosmic state of hyper-awareness and beat the boss perfectly, and it's like someone's lifted a whale off your lower back and you just feel serene, until the game grades you with a C-, but honestly, stick your grades up your arse, Cuphead; I'm happy and I won't have to beat my kids tonight. See, if I had stopped because I was frustrated or because I should have walked the dog two hours ago, I'd only have been left with bad feelings and a pissy carpet. I'd have gone to bed that night with that fucking music stuck in my head, and woken up the next morning with teeth marks all over my pillow, mattress, and spouse. So it's important to put complaints about the game in the proper context. Yes, it's frustrating. That's the whole point; it needs to be for the payoff.
But it's not just challenge that gives Cuphead its weirdly hypnotic draw, because there was another, um... cullion-traumatizingly hard game that came out last week; Ruiner, it was called, and I didn't like it very much. Seemed like a cyberpunk ripoff of Hotline Miami with none of what made Hotline Miami interesting, like the psychedelic imagery, or the fast pace, or the not taking place in a succession of the most obvious fucking environments imaginable, and then trying to make them less obvious by illuminating them like a fucking ghost train ride. Yeah, the fights were hard, but I wasn't getting that all-important sense of payoff; all I felt I was "earning" was more chances to fight boring gang members in murky environments. That's the Cuphead difference: its utterly unique style makes it an instant breath of fresh air, even if that breath of fresh air also contains a thousand stinging hornets, and you tank the stings just to see what it's going to belch up next. It's like being stabbed to death by Dick Van Dyke: yes, it hurts, and it's probably not good for you, but you can't stay mad; it's too adorable, how he thinks he can do a Cockney accent.
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