Cuphead, is it a game, or just an amazing piece of art?

This game is hard!

Jason Hertz

Associate Opinion Editor

What marks the borders between games and art? Like most things in life, nothing is so clearly black or white as the answer to this question. You might have a painting on one extreme end of the spectrum and a copy of Super Mario Brothers on the other. But, what about interactive media like choose your own adventure books? What about a ‘walking simulator’ game like Dear Esther? What if the previously-mentioned painting is really a screen on an art gallery wall depicting a live playthrough of Mario? Is that art or a game? Definitions are difficult….

But these questions have returned to my conscious thanks to the recent release of Cuphead, the 2D platformer/shooter from developer and self-publisher StudioMDHR Entertainment. This Steamboat-Willie-era inspired cartoon adventure is definitely a work of art. Both its hand-drawn aesthetic and swing-jazz soundtrack serve as the main impetus for continued play; along with an innovative focus on lovingly arranged multi-phase boss design. Cuphead is certainly an enthralling—if difficult—experience. The issue is, despite its compelling nature, I just can’t see Cuphead on the game end of my previously-imagined spectrum.

Cuphead lacks interesting mechanics. The core of a game is gameplay; It’s the interactive elements, the controls, which a player can and must manipulate to craft the unique experience that separates a piece of art from a game. These gameplay elements, or mechanics, can be applied to video games or physical board games alike, but the crucial point to consider—and that I insinuate here—is that while games should be considered a form of art, a singular piece of art cannot be a game without gameplay mechanics or player interaction. Cuphead meets the criteria to be a game, but only just. And I would argue that the art of Cuphead can get in the way of the gameplay at times.

For example, some boss fights have a foreground art element which can obscure other art elements meant to telegraph an incoming attack. And the core interaction a player has with the game, the shooting, lacks sufficient audio and visual feedback to feel rewarding. It may be understandable why the player’s character is the least interesting visual art asset, since the boss design is a selling point of the game, but poor Cuphead tends to die often thanks to inconsistent parry timings and vague hitboxes. Not to mention a poor showing in weapon variety from the same team that brought us these wonderfully diverse bosses.

Cuphead is a piece of art first, and a game second; and I found that the experience suffered because of this fact. By extension, Cuphead ends up being a better viewing experience via Youtube, Twitch, or watching a friend in person than an enjoyable game. It is compelling, but only to see what happens next. Cuphead is not a good game, but it is a great piece of interactive art.