‘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 becoming 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 Throughout the short history of games there have been many technical marvels on outdated machines (“Street Fighter II: Champion Edition” for the PC Engine) or successful but distinct attempts at the same license by different teams (“Aladdin” on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 have 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.

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