Genres: Platforming Action, Run and Gun, Boss Rush
Consoles: Microsoft Windows, Xbox 360
Release Date: September 29, 2017
Developer: Studio MDHR
Publisher: Studio MDHR
Players: 1-2 (Local Co-Op)
Price: USD$19.99 (Steam, Xbox Live Marketplace ) USD$11.67 (GOG)
ESRB Rating: Everyone +10
Are you the kind of gamer that’s into classic run and gun games?
Are you also curiously into really old cartoons?
Live jazz music?
Cute bowls of ceramic?
Deals with the devil?
If you answered ‘yes’ to all of those questions, we literally can’t imagine how your niche actually exists and is able to sustain itself.
If you answered ‘no‘ to any of these, we can assure you there’s not a more satisfying way to get into any of these than Cuphead. (Note: The Nerd League does not endorse making any deals with the Devil, Iblis, Hades, Lehman Brothers or any other demonic entities.)
The first thing you need to know about Cuphead is what you will see.
Everything about Cuphead’s aesthetics is heavily inspired by cartoons from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s—i.e. Steamboat Willie (Mickey Mouse), Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, Popeye, Betty Boop, etc).
For that reason, every frame of the game is painstakingly hand-drawn, leading to extremely expressive animations that give a lot of character to the dozens of bosses in the game in the brief time you face them.
The game also happens to be very colorful and heavily detailed in every visual aspect, from the backgrounds to the micro-movements of a boss character’s hair. In short, the game is nothing but beautiful and witnessing the fluidity of the animations make it super satisfying to watch in action.
This nostalgic feeling is further enhanced by the game’s impressive soundtrack, comprised of live jazz recordings of the ragtime, big band and bebop genres that serve every facet of the game appropriately, although a handful of them are not that memorable.
In terms of story, the game is pretty straightforward.
In the game’s opening screens, Cuphead and his brother Mugman wander into a casino, win an insane amount of money and, seduced by the promise of more riches, bet their souls to the Casino Owner (aka the Devil).
Of course, they lose everything.
Begging the Devil to spare their lives, Cuphead and Mugman take on the task of recollecting the souls of the people of Inkwell Isle whose lives belong to the Devil in exchange for keeping theirs.
The game’s story is ultimately very simple and serves more as an excuse for the action to happen. However, since it’s an action-focused game, this takes away from the enjoyment of the game as much as a book’s binding being hardcover or paperback.
The gameplay itself consists of run and gun platforming.
You control Cuphead or Mugman (Player 2) as they fight their enemies by shooting them with different weapon power-ups in 2D stages. You can always freely aim your shots in horizontal, vertical, or diagonal directions by holding the corresponding movement buttons or lock in place and aim freely in these directions by pressing the Lock button. Regarding your movement options, your jump height is determined by how long you press the button, and you can quickly move in a horizontal direction by pressing the Dash button.
Your character only has three Health Points and there are no recovery items in the stages, resulting in Cuphead demanding near-flawless performances from you to beat any of their bosses.
You have a selection of six weapons (you can carry two at a time) that can be obtained by through the shop. Coins are earned in the game’s platforming stages or by helping the citizens of Inkwell Isle.
With those, you can also buy “Charms,” which are passive boosts to your character and you can carry one at a time.
There’s also a Special Meter that fills up whenever you do a certain amount of damage to your enemies or “parry” their attacks by pressing the Jump Button at the right time during a jump. When you fill one segment of this meter you can shoot a special move particular to the weapon you are holding. If you happen to completely fill your Special Meter, you can trigger at any time one of three Super Special Moves which consumes the entirety of these meters.
On certain boss battles, Cuphead controls a plane that comes with its own weapons and moves freely through the screen. It momentarily turns into a smaller and faster plane that lets you avoid enemy attacks more easily.
Although the game has plenty of power-ups, I feel that most of these are irrelevant. In my experience, I used three of the six weapons because they felt so much better than the rest. This is a more prevalent problem with the charms, where one of the six power-ups is so superior to the others, I ended up using it for the entirety of the game.
Thankfully, this issue is non-existent with the three Super Special Attack Power-Ups. Throughout the game, I would switch up between these three in preparation for different boss fights. This is what I think the developers tried to do with the charms and weapons but could not execute as well.
Ultimately, there is nothing revolutionary about Cuphead‘s gameplay. Nonetheless, that’s not what it’s trying to go for. Just like with its visuals, what Cuphead tries to do is not do something unique, but something tightly executed that serves as a love letter to both old school gaming and cartoons.
The Shadow of the Colossus of Platforming Games
The game has a few platforming levels that can grant you coins to spend in power-ups, but the game’s main focus is its boss battles. Around 90% of the game consists of Boss Battles and their different phases (generally three to six phases per boss) against dozens of very unique and challenging bosses that happen to have very different attack patterns, looks, and environments, every boss fight particularly refreshing.
The majority of these boss fights tend to be extremely hard but, almost contradictorily, I didn’t find them frustrating despite my countless deaths. Even after my 30th attempt, I didn’t feel frustrated at all. Rather than discouraging me, every attempt made me more determined to keep facing them (and eventually defeating them), which always felt satisfying in the end.
This is due to the fact that the bosses are designed to be hard instead of cheap, and most battles last no more than two minutes. The enemies’ attacks and movements are randomized for the most part, which makes the battles feel real. Why? Because you have to depend on your skill rather than your ability to memorize a boss’ attack patterns.
Although this works surprisingly well, there are a few times during gameplay where you’re met with unavoidable attacks that do feel cheap. Thankfully, these cases are few and far between. By understanding how the enemies’ attacks work you can generally evade them if you are prepared for them and have good enough reflexes.
Is the game worth your buck?
Depending on how good a gamer you are, the game can probably take an average of 10 to 25 hours, which is a great value for $20. There is a great amount of bosses (more than two dozen) and a few platforming levels which give the game a change of pace.
Even if the game is known for its difficulty, you can always play boss battles in the easier “Simple” difficulty, which tones down the intensity of the game a lot by making the boss fights shorter and the bosses attacks as strong
(Note: Defeating the Bosses in the Simple Difficulty can let you advance through the game but to beat it you will need to defeat the bosses in the Regular Difficulty).
Beating the game unlocks the “Expert” difficulty which makes the boss fights more challenging. However, even if they are indeed harder, I did not find these a big a jump as it was from Simple to Regular. Even if they are harder, the Expert Difficulty levels feel attainable if you can actually beat the game.
Despite its steep difficulty, Cuphead is an extremely enjoyable and satisfying game if you are in for a challenge. Even when getting your ass kicked, it is hard not to enjoy the experience, which is further complemented by the excellent visual and great music.
The game has a decent length, replay value, and post-game content in the form of a harder difficulty to keep you busy for a while.
Nonetheless, if you are the kind of gamer that is easily frustrated or leans more toward story-driven games, look elsewhere. This game is for masochists that get fulfillment from being constantly challenged and eventually succeeding.