‘Cuphead’ a pleasurable difficulty

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When the 3D era of gaming really got up and running, you’d sometimes hear conversations about the inevitable perfection of video game graphics. As games got better-looking and more technically impressive, it became tempting to think that one day, games would just be perfectly photo realistic. Unfortunately, the uncanny valley reared its unsettlingly ugly head, and game developers are still chasing that dream.

What we should have been paying attention to was the perfection of controls and game feel. Smash hit indie games like “Super Meat Boy” and “Rogue Legacy” dialed in 2D platformer controls to pixel-perfect accuracy. Characters moved around the level exactly as they should: without frustrating controls or glitchy hitboxes throwing things off. “Cuphead” marks another monumental achievement in tight game controls.

It’s impossible to remove the element of frustration from “Cuphead,” which can feel punishing in its complete lack of checkpoints within levels. However, the designers limited the aggravation of failure through the game’s incredibly responsive controls.

Tight controls were a necessity for “Cuphead” because this game expects the best of its players in terms of hand-eye coordination, memorization and pattern recognition. The only way to reliably beat it is to learn, via trial and error, each boss’s attack patterns and how to avoid them. I died so, so many times in this game, but I never walked away feeling like the game had cheated me.

Another aspect of “Cuphead” that helped me cope with its difficulty was the art style. In one of the most mechanically impressive art design feats in video game history, “Cuphead” is entirely hand-drawn. Every frame of animation is drawn by hand using the same animation techniques used by the classic 1930s animators that inspired the game’s aesthetic.

The effort paid off, for this is one of the best-looking games ever produced. I found myself frequently distracted from the action in the best way possible as I tried to absorb the lovingly animated background characters and set pieces.

A lovely instrumental jazz soundtrack gives a certain levity and energy to the action and serves to firmly place “Cuphead” in its strange, alternate cartoon version of the 1930s. The sound effects punctuate every action with satisfying impact. The rare voice-acted line seems to have been ran through multiple audio filters to replicate some of the earliest “talkie” films.

It has been asked – fairly, I think – whether “Cuphead” would have been so critically acclaimed without its gorgeous aesthetic or the interest generated by its long development cycle. While it is uniquely beautiful, and while it may control perfectly, “Cuphead” is not a perfect game.

“Cuphead” is short. It might take you a while to beat it, but that’s just due to the difficult, satisfying slog that is its gameplay. If a player were to do a perfect run-through of each of its levels, “Cuphead” could certainly be completed in a matter of minutes. It’s the process of learning the patterns and committing maneuvers to muscle memory that provide this game its length and replayability.

At $20, “Cuphead” is worth the time of anyone who loves platformers and isn’t afraid of a challenge.