×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

‘Cuphead’: The Imperfections of a Perfect Port

Cuphead” arrives on Nintendo Switch this week. By all accounts, it appears to be a near-perfect port. And that’s what worries me.

Though absolute parity across every gaming platform does not technically exist, it sure feels like it does. And though much is gained by the relative ease of producing exact replicas of hit games across distinct systems, I can’t help but feel we’ve lost something in the process. I miss the days of asymmetric versions of cross-platform games. I miss the need to cleverly downsize experiences onto inferior hardware. And I miss the resultant mess of imperfect ports that each have their own personality, quirks, and memorable idiosyncrasies.

“Pac-Man” came out on the Atari 2600 in 1982, two years after the original arcade release. It was a sales explosion; the hunger for an arcade experience at home was so mighty it quickly became the system’s best-selling game. It is also a horrible, almost comedic wreck of a game that played a role in crashing the entire retail games market.

But “Pac-Man” on Atari 2600 is interesting in a way that a perfect representation of the arcade game could never be. It is a valiant attempt at an impossible task. Tod Frye, the game’s programmer, had four months to produce the most popular game in the world on a computer not up to the task. He prioritized. He made concessions. That the final product works at all is a stunning triumph of the will.

Frye and Atari were not alone in attempting to cash in on the Namco game’s popularity. More than eleven different versions of the game existed within a few years of the original game’s release, each with their own traits and differences. None are the exact arcade experience. Instead, taken together, they resemble some strange fractured notion of the idea of “Pac-Man,” a continuum of what this game might have been, or could be, or never was. The sum total of these attempted failures is a prism of possibility; their mistakes show us more clearly the vivid perfection of the original.

But not all imperfect ports are failures. Throughout the short history of games there have been many technical marvels on outdated machines (“Street Fighter II: Champion Edition” for the PC Engine) or successful but distinct attempts at the same license by different teams (“Aladdin” on Genesis versus “Aladdin” on SNES) or unneeded revisions that rescue a game from an obscure system (“D” for 3DO). During the last decades of the 20th century, games developed across multiple contemporary systems showcased hardware specialities and magnified flaws. Sound chips were different. Color saturation was different. The necessity to program completely different versions of the same game elicited a sense of intrigue that is non-existent today.

Often these limitations created an opportunity for improvement. Nintendo’s “Punch-Out!!” arcade game used gigantic sprites and two monitors stacked atop one another. For the NES remake, tough decisions had to be made. So they decided to make it fun. Forced to change the game at the very root of its coding, creator Genyo Takeda had to get creative. This lower-spec, highly-adulterated version is now a classic beloved by many; the arcade original is an impressive but frustrating curiosity.

Modern ports are essentially copies. “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” is much the same game played on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Switch (playable in Japan via streaming), or soon a Google Chromebook. The proliferation of such cloud-based technology which off-loads the needed processing power to off-site servers, so as to make beefy games playable on low-powered hardware, has been met with praise and Next Big Thing proclamations. My own thoughts are less positive; indeed, it is this very lack of friction, this ease of transferring any game to nearly any device with a screen, that is at the crux of my concern. Drop a rat in a maze and it will circumvent its obstacles with patience and creativity. Take the walls away and it will run straight to the cheese time and again, fatter and lazier with each slice.

When “Cuphead” was announced for Switch, reams of fans exulted. Players knew exactly what they were getting. For better or worse.

When a hit game moves onto a different platform now, the changes are minor or accumulative. “Rise of the Tomb Raider” came exclusively to Xbox One in 2015. When it arrived on PlayStation 4 the following year, this “20 Year Celebration Edition” included previous paid downloadable content, a new difficulty mode, and retro “skins” to allow the character to appear as she did in 1995. The original “Tomb Raider” appeared on both Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation with weird differences throughout: certain text has distinct fonts; sounds effects are changed; each has unique loading screens. One version has mirrored reflections whereas the other uses a single hue. The changes are minute but essential to the game’s overall character, the way a beauty mark is a single mole yet can completely transform a face.

Books, film, and music have largely avoided such foundational, transitional shifts by virtue of the way each medium is distributed and consumed. Though there is a difference between a 16mm film run through a projector and a Blu-Ray disc, the moment-to-moment narrative of the movie remains the same. Books might be paginated differently in Hardcover or Paperback but the words never change. Though many versions of The Beatles’ White Album exist, you’re only ever hearing tweaks to the sound at an engineering level, distinguishable to only the most ear-savvy audiophiles; it always begins with “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and ends with “Good Night.”

Games in the past were fluid and malleable in a way that invites discussion. Which “Mortal Kombat” is the best: the one with the arcade-quality graphics and sound? Or the one with the blood? When “Mortal Kombat 11” comes out next week on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC, any distinction between the versions will be limited to a Digital Foundry technical analysis. I still own my copy of “Mortal Kombat” on Game Boy. The game is terrible. But what thick-headed ambition! What unearned chutzpah! Such flawed novelties remain a time capsule of a more flexible, unpredictable industry than our own.

More Gaming

  • Microsoft's Project xCloud Rollout Hits 13

    Microsoft's Project xCloud Rollout Hits 13 Regions, Capcom, Paradox Testing

    Microsoft’s take on cloud-gaming — an approach to game development and deployment that theoretically makes games playable on any system without the need for porting — continues its rollout, with the company on Friday detailing work they’re doing with developers Capcom and Paradox Interactive. Project xCloud now has custom server blades at Azue datacenters in [...]

  • 'Sonic the Hedgehog' Pushed Back Due

    'Sonic the Hedgehog' Movie Pushed Back to 2020 Due to Character Design Changes

    Paramount Pictures is pushing its “Sonic the Hedgehog” movie back three months, from Nov. 8 to Valentine’s Day. The delay follows fan criticism over the appearance and design of the titular blue hedgehog — particularly his teeth and lean legs. Director Jeff Fowler tweeted that it was “taking a little more time to make Sonic [...]

  • 'Mortal Kombat 11,' 'League of Legends'

    'Mortal Kombat 11,' 'League of Legends' Dominate Global Digital Games

    The world’s top-earning digital games for last month include “Mortal Kombat 11,” “League of Legends,” and “Fortnite Battle Royale,” according to a report from SuperData released Tuesday. The ranking of top grossing games for the month of April 2019 is split into three groups: PC, console, and mobile. The massively popular “League of Legends,” a [...]

  • 'Forager,' 'Weedcraft Inc.,' Crack Steam Top

    'Forager,' 'Weedcraft Inc.,' Crack Steam Top 20 April Releases

    April’s Steam releases were dominated by indie titles, including “Forager” and “Totally Accurate Battle Simulator,” according to a post on the Steam Blog Thursday. Valve released a list of its top 20 games for the month of April, which included only games released last month. The list was compiled based on revenue generated. The biggest [...]

  • Director Dean DeBlois and online game

    'Dragon' Director Dean DeBlois and PUBG's CH Kim to Keynote 2019 VIEW Conference

    Dean DeBlois, director and executive producer of DreamWorks Animation’s “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” and PUBG Corporation CEO CH Kim are the first keynote speakers announced for the 2019 VIEW Conference in Turin, Italy, in October. Since it began 12 years ago, VIEW, which stands for Virtual Interactive Emerging World, has continually [...]

  • Tfue to Create Own Esports Org

    Tfue to Create Own Esports Org After Faze Clan Split (Report)

    “Fortnite” streamer Turner “Tfue” Tenney wants to create his own esports organization after breaking away from Faze Clan earlier this week, according to PCGamesN. YouTuber Keemstar posted a message he received from Tfue’s brother, Jack Tenney, on Thursday reportedly outlining the streamer’s future plans. “Turner wants to create his own org, work with the brands [...]

  • Loot Box Bill Moves Forward With

    Loot Box Bill Moves Forward With Bipartisan Support

    Updated: A bill seeking to ban exploitative video game loot boxes and pay-to-win scenarios that target children is moving forward in the U.S. with bipartisan support. Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) formally filed his bill, called the Protecting Children From Abusive Games Act, on Thursday. If it passes, it will ban companies from publishing minor-oriented games [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content