After a weekend with Cuphead, I haven't found the game terribly fun. This isn't because I don't enjoy a tough game: Dark Souls, Mega Man, Contra, Super Hexagon, Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac, bring it on. I like challenging video games, but something's not quite right for me with Cuphead. Difficult games have to make you want to overcome them, and this falls short.
The default controls have actions that need to be combined scattered across the pad in an order that, to me, doesn't make sense. Jumping is on A and dashing is on Y, two actions that often need to be used together, which forces you to either re-map the dash or form a claw grip with your right hand. Eight-way firing is for some reason mapped to the right bumper, not the trigger, which feels unusual considering how consistently the button needs pressing. In addition to this, the right analogue stick is unused.
Obviously Cuphead is like this by choice. But you do find yourself thinking that moving with the left stick and firing using the right stick would have made so much sense. It confuses me that aiming is mapped to the same button as movement, and firing toggled with a separate button, when there are two perfectly good analogue sticks on every modern gamepad.
Controls are a matter of taste, however, and at least they can be re-mapped. The parry command, meanwhile, is designed as a skill move but its applications are so specific and finnicky that it's difficult to use reliably. I found myself dodging rather than parrying because I didn't want to risk dying due to an overly fiddly mechanic failing to execute properly.
I'm used to pixel-perfect parries (I love them in fighting games), but in most fighting games you judge when to execute that parry based on when the outer edge of your character is going to come into contact with a projectile or enemy. In Cuphead, the point you need to parry at feels like it's almost in the centre of the character. I'm fine with pixel perfect parries if it's possible to see the point of connection, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Also, It's not even really a parry, in that it doesn't reflect the projectile or any damage back at the enemy. It's just a way to increase your points, which is never worth the risk.
A much more pervasive and hard-to-forgive problem is that, very often, the hit boxes on enemy characters are not consistent with their visual designs. I only ever shot at the centre of enemies as I couldn't trust the outer edges of their character design to take a hit properly. A great early example of this is a dragon boss, whose ears look hittable - but shots just seem to pass through them without causing any damage. While the boss is designed as one beautiful whole, the areas you can hit seem to be confined to a rectangle inside of him.
The game's biggest problem for me, fundamentally, is that it is designed under the 'classic' principle of trial and error. Numerous times you'll be killed by things you had no way to avoid, bar replaying the level and knowing they're coming. The level design forces death upon you, depending on pure memorisation rather than giving players the chance to react on the fly and survive. You've got to really love learning patterns through repetition to enjoy Cuphead, and that's not me.
Cuphead believes difficulty is automatically fun. But I don't really think the grinding this requires is fun. For me, a challenge has to feel smart and fair — I want to feel, when I die in a game, that it really was my fault.
This is a gorgeous game, and beautifully presented to boot, but without that no-one would be talking about it. Cuphead may have a classic style to its challenge, but it's not tough in the way that Contra or Mega Man were. This is more about difficulty of execution, and memorising a level's obstacles, than getting 'better' at the game. Visually, this is exploding with ideas. As a game? It would've made a better cartoon.