There are some games that just stick with you after seeing them for the first time. Sometimes this is due to a unique mechanic and others it may be the art style in the game. One of the best examples of the latter is from new developer StudioMDHR in their oft-delayed first game known as Cuphead.
In an age where games are trying to look more and more realistic, Cuphead eschews that idea for something very unique that you really don’t see in gaming. That is an animated design based on the old classic cartoons of the 1930s like Popeye and Betty Boop for instance. The animation feels as lively as those old cartoons, complete with the grainy filter and burn marks you would expect from watching the old cartoons in a theater.
Cuphead also features absolutely fantastic music, evoking the classic retro vibe throughout. The main menu music is downright amazing and really helps to set the tone for the game as a whole. The different levels in the game have regular background music that feels like it would have been in an old cartoon from the ’30s. Where the music is best is the actual lyrical ragtime music that sounds like it would be right in a jazz club, with the music from the Die Houses in each world being my personal favorite.
Like the cartoons of old, Cuphead has a very simple plot that has the siblings Cuphead and Mugman finding themselves in the wrong side of town at the Devil’s Casino where Cuphead ends up betting their souls for a big prize and loses. The only way they can save their souls however is to go out and hunt the souls of the debtors that have not paid up and collect their contracts, which sets up the premise of the game.
From there, you get put in a small overworld that is split into three separate worlds and then one final area with the last fights in the game. In the overworld, you will find two types of stages, the Run & Gun platforming stages and the boss stages. There are a couple Run & Gun stages in each world, which are the non-boss areas that were added and caused the game to be delayed in the past. The description of the stages is apt, as you will be running through these stages most of the time and almost always have your weapon firing, with the goal being to complete these stages and also try to collect the five gold coins in each.
The boss fights are the real standout here in Cuphead though, as you will be doing them a majority of the time. You might think that this would get tiresome or feel repetitive over time, but they just seem to get better and better as the game goes on. While each fight feels very distinct from one another, there are two main types of fights, the regular Cuphead fights and then special flying sections. These provide you with an entirely different moveset and everything, which has both its pros and cons.
Outside of the game’s aesthetic, the word you will hear associated with the game more than anything is some variation of it being incredibly difficult. Some people may not like this and get frustrated by it, but I absolutely loved it. This isn’t the type of game that you should be breezing through easily, but rather need to learn the patterns or tendencies of the bosses and develop strategies on how to take them down. You can even do the Simple version of boss fights, though you don’t get contracts, if you want a shorter and easier version of each boss as well.
The game itself is rather short, but the difficulty doesn’t seem like it’s forced just as a way to prolong the experience. Instead, it manages to bring about that Dark Souls-esque feeling where you want to keep trying until you succeed without it feeling unfair. The game even shows you a progress meter of how far you made it into the boss fight based on the different parts of the fight if you happen to die, which is a great feature that many more games should employ.
While the game’s difficulty is insane sometimes, the controls are very easy to learn, with your jump and fire buttons being the most commonly used outside of the analog stick. Holding X down will also do rapid fire, an important tool in Cuphead. Pressing Y will allow you to dash both on the ground and in mid-air, which comes in very handy in the later stages especially.
Cuphead has a few different weapons as his disposal, with his default being a straight Peashooter that can be shot in eight different directions. You also are able to purchase additional attack types at a shop via the coins mentioned above, with you able to have two equipped at a time. The Chaser type is especially great, as it instantly homes in on enemy targets, but at the expense of much less attack power. This really allows you to customize the way you want to play, which works very well in this game.
On top of these weapons, you also have Supers that you can equip and use in battle. Signified by a playing card on the bottom left of the screen, you can do a mini Super as long as you have one card, but you can use your full Super if you manage to have all five at once. These are actually unlocked through a fun little mini-game that reoccurs throughout the game, though I almost wish there were more of them.
You are also able to equip what are known as Charms, which are essentially boosts to Cuphead. Two of them, for instance, give you extra hearts, but at the cost of dealing less damage as well. These are the things you have to weigh in the game, with the difficulty already hard enough.
Cuphead not only has the single player option, but you can also let a friend join in as well. Just by simply turning on a second controller and pressing a button, Mugman can join you in your journey, though this definitely can make things a lot more hectic with two people on screen. The game only has local couch co-op, which fits this type of game, but it is a bit disappointing not to have online co-op included at launch at least.
There were only a few bugs I came across in Cuphead. The first came against a boss in world two where instead of the “Knockout” text coming up instantly upon defeating the boss, it froze for about 20 seconds before popping up and allowing me to advance. This happened both on the Simple and Regular difficulties on that particular boss, so it seemed to be isolated thankfully. The other came in the final world with a section of a boss that requires certain steps to defeat him. However, upon taking down everything possible to where he should be beaten, nothing happened except he kept moving around. This only happened once and worked fine after selecting Retry from the pause menu, so hopefully it was just a random glitch.
The wait for Cuphead was very long but it was oh so worth it. 2D platformers are already rare enough these days as is and the game manages to mesh that with a visual style we never see any less of in gaming for a near perfect blend of platforming bliss. The difficulty level is no joke, but the uniquely designed boss fights make it well worth the pain of trying again and again in Cuphead.
Cuphead has looked like something unlike anything else on the market since it was first unveiled. While it took awhile to get it, it has certainly delivered in both gameplay and visual style, proving that there is still plenty of life in this genre on a larger scale. If you enjoy platformers and don’t mind a steep difficulty curve, do yourself a favor and give Cuphead a try.
9.0 Retries Out Of 10.
Release Date: September 29th, 2017 (US)
Available Platforms: Xbox One (Reviewed), PC
Disclosure: Cuphead Was Provided By The Publisher For Coverage Purposes