The announcement of the Nintendo Classic Mini a few days ago, or more accurately a scan of the 30 games built into said small grey box of what I assume is magic and nothing more, got me thinking back to the agony and ecstasy of '80s and '90s platformers. To a video game model we don't see today, at least not smack bang in the middle ground of industry-wide anticipation.
Capcom's Ghosts 'N Goblins, which is one of the 30, was massive in the decade of John Hughes and jumpsuits; as was Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse on its 1990 release – the game as good as made the Mega Drive before Sonic's arrival. Castle of Illusion, obviously, isn't on the Mini, but many more testing platformers are, from the Mario games to Bubble Bobble and the genuinely fuck-this-thing-I-am-done-with-it frustrating original Castlevania (both dating from '86). I lived through those years, and those games were tough, let me tell you. To look at them, all cartoony of aesthetic, cute characters and fruity pick-ups, and elemental of gameplay premise, with 21st century glasses on, is to see something astoundingly simple versus today's multi-faceted triple-As. But these games could be Dark Souls hard long before we had that yardstick to hand.
I still bear the mental scars of a debut slog through Castle of Illusion on my Master System, one summer holiday afternoon: butt-slamming chests for life-replenishing cake, ducking under bubbles (of all things) that would kill you, falling to my death so many times in the clock tower. The bosses in the game, while fiendish on a first encounter, were ultimately predictable – their paths around the screen could be memorised, their moves mapped. There was no clever AI in the mix, driving the angry bar of (more than enough for two) Dairy Milk at the end of the kid-friendly candy-coloured level. Play any of these games enough, and you'd ace them. What took me a couple of hours to get through, leaning on the crutch of continues, the very best can now speed-run in under 20 minutes.
And the very best speed-runners and retro-heads alike are going to have a ball with Cuphead, a game that's so evocative of the old-school platformers of my childhood that I couldn't play it for ten minutes without announcing to my co-op partner, as we failed again to ace an early woodland-set stage, "I shouldn't be this bad, I beat Castle of Illusion." But then, I pretty much haven't played a game like this since the dawn of three-dimensional gaming, the revivalist thrills of Rayman Origins and Legends aside. They impact upon the commercial centre so rarely today, and anyone raised on Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto titles is well within their rights to look at any 2D side-scroller and simply pass on it, given how primitive it must appear.
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But just like Bubble Bobble and SEGA's Mickey Mouse vehicle, Cuphead hides a beastly challenge beneath its sort of cuddly character designs. Each avatar is twisted in a fashion inspired by Fleischer Studios in the 1930s, more Popeye and Bimbo than Piglet and Dumbo, but they're certainly successful in masking the vertical face of difficulty that players used to having their hand held through video games are going to run face-first into. Why they're running into it, I can't say. The story beats of this adventure aren't clear after a 15-minute spell in its company – but we were warned not to deal with the Devil.
Its stages are selectable from a top-down world map, and in my preview I get to play two types: a left-to-right dash through an armada of enemies, and a boss encounter with a brilliant blue blob with a habit of swelling up to fill half the screen. (Originally, it was just bosses.) The former unfolds in a manner as akin to Contra as it is Castle of Illusion, with the player-controlled "cuphead" taking a slurp of its own brain gloop – gross – before following the on-screen command to "Run 'n Gun!" You don't actually have a gun, but the strange little creature's fingers become one, shooting out blasts of energy in fixed directions (horizontal, vertical, diagonal – the Contra model, except you can't fire beneath you) which splash over woodland meanies until they explode for good or, in the case of a couple of persistent critters, merely lay low for a few seconds before resuming their patrol. Every enemy pattern is readable, but they escalate wildly: one on screen becomes four, becomes eight, and suddenly crowd control becomes a real headache unless you find that ideal "racing line" through the chaos.
'Cuphead', E3 2015 trailer
Even in co-op, despite several attempts, this one stage can't be beaten in a single preview-event sitting. Likewise the boss, although a post-demise screen does indicate how close you came to either completing the run or doing away with the big bad in question (a couple of times, very). Ergo, this is an exercise very much in tune with the serious-commitment-needed affairs of 20 and more years ago. Cuphead offers you infinite restarts, but it only takes three hits per stage and it's back to the beginning to try again, with no obvious checkpointing – though I'd wager that any longer stages, if they exist in the end product, would offer a pick-up point midway through the bucolic bullet hell.
The concept of two Canadian brothers working under the banner of Studio MDHR, Cuphead has been turning heads since its reveal at E3 2014 – and rightly so, because look at it. It's just the most gorgeous thing in motion. (The music, too, is terrific, all tumbling piano keys and parping brass, stirring thoughts of slapstick-packed silent movies.) But this whole time, I've been wondering where it really fits with contemporary (i.e., the generation after me) gamers' tastes. And having had my hands on it now, I'm not sure that it does, at all – at least not when it comes to people who never owned an 8bit system, or weren't exposed to arcade platformers before gaming became more of an at-home pursuit than something you bugged your dad for coins in order to be a part of.
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Cuphead is unashamedly nostalgic for an era of video gaming that a massive chunk of its prospective audience never experienced, and that's a worry for any game that's had a hefty amount of hype pinned to it – this has been a "one to watch" ever since we first laid eyes on it. I foresee controllers thrown to the floor by younger players who just don't get this – how is something so primal of play proving to be such a bastard to break into? Is this really how we used to game? Enough, I'm getting back to head-shotting terrorists from fictional Middle-Eastern states. And so forth.
Personally though, I'm looking forward to picking up where I left off losing, because while my partner and I couldn't guide the sloshy hero of Cuphead to any single conclusion, the obstacles before us were never unfair. And that's a really important takeaway from my preview. Just like Castle of Illusion, I know that with practise, this is going to be beatable. And then what was palpitation-inducing becomes something more meditative, and the difficulty spike curves off into a manageable climb. Cuphead should be out this side of Christmas (I actually had a dream that it's out in September, just saying), making it a neat complementary acquisition beside the November-due Nintendo Classic Mini – here's what was, here's what is, and isn't it funny how, appearances aside, so much has remained the same.
Cuphead is coming to Microsoft Windows and Xbox One, sometime soon. Get more information at the game's official website.
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