Review: Cuphead (Computer)
- Release Date (NA): September 29, 2017
- Release Date (EU): September 29, 2017
- Publisher: StudioMDHR Entertainment
- Developer: StudioMDHR Entertainment
- Genres: Run and gun
- Also For: Xbox One
Single playerLocal MultiplayerOnline MultiplayerCo-operative
“Don’t Deal With The Devil”
The plot for Cuphead is pretty simple and is actually all summed up in the opening theme:
When Cuphead and his brother Mugman go on a winning streak at the Devil's Casino, the owner, the Devil himself, makes his appearance and raises the stakes in order to put a halt to the brothers’ luck.
“Win one more roll, and all the loot in my casino is yours!” the Devil boomed. “But if you lose, I’ll have your souls! Deal?”
Blinded by easy riches, Cuphead readily accepted and threw the dice, only to roll… snake eyes! Not believing their misfortune, the brothers pleaded for their lives and asked if there was another way to repay the Devil.
Being generous as he is, the Devil considers their plea and said that he might pardon them if they manage to collect the souls of his runaway debtors until midnight the next day!
At a loss about how to accomplish this task, the siblings head to the Elder Kettle for advice. The latter gives them a potion that allows them to fire projectile blasts from their fingers. And thus began the adventures of the brothers Cuphead and Mugman around Inkwell Isle on a quest to collect souls.
Right off the bat, the most striking feature of Cuphead is its art style. Heavily inspired by the 1930s cartoons like Betty Boop and Felix the Cat, the game boasts fully hand-drawn animation; a painstaking task that has been masterfully crafted to deliver a visual masterpiece. Akin to those cartoons, Cuphead kept the works' subversive and surrealist qualities. Take a look at one of the game’s bosses who is initially a helicopter-like figure riding a monocycle and then transforms into a raging bull-shaped cloud and then into an arrow-shooting angel of sorts and only to finally transform into the moon! Don’t try to make sense out of the bosses; they are each more cryptic and interesting than the previous one or the next! Unfortunately, the game does not provide any background about its intriguing cast, which feels like a missed opportunity to really flesh out the lore of the game.
It’s not the visuals alone that capture the rubber hose animation feel. The jazzy music all throughout the game plays along perfectly from the overworld to the load screen and the boss fights, changing tempo accordingly to match the atmosphere. Not to forget the flickering, grainy screen effect that is so characteristic of productions of an era of cinematography long gone, which gives the game that "aged film" look. Such attention to details have been meticulously orchestrated to make you feel like playing an actual cartoon developed in that era.
Heavily taking inspiration from games like Contra, Megaman, and Ninja Gaiden, games that have been famously dubbed as Nintendo Hard for their extreme difficulty, Cuphead does not stray much farther from the path of its predecessors. Afterall, another aspect of Cuphead that has been hailed for is its difficulty. The souls of the debtors are collected once they are defeated. Each debtor is essentially a boss-figure who might very well be the final boss of any indie game. But this is Cuphead and it’s loaded with boss fights. It’s the only fights you’ll have besides the platform stages. Defeating each boss will open up new areas where you’ll encounter even more bosses (and deaths).
In this fast-paced game, you’ll have to be on high alert mode, carefully scrutinizing every move of your opponents for even the slightest mistake, a stray bullet, a late jump can be detrimental. I found myself restarting fights after being hit early on. Even a single hit seems unacceptable, for you have but 3 life points. This game will turn you into a perfectionist.
To help “ease” your playthrough, you can play in co-op where the second player will control Mugman. However, things might get a bit chaotic in the bullet hell that you’ll both end up creating. Alternatively, you can play in Simple mode where the boss fights are supposedly less challenging than on Regular mode. Even if beating enemies at both difficulties will allow you to progress, only beating them in Regular mode will unlock the finale. But really, Regular mode involves the opponents having different attack patterns and/or different forms that you won’t encounter in Simple mode. So might as well go hard or go home.
While the numerous boss fights are surely challenging, they are rarely unfair. The key lies in pattern recognition, staying focused and executing your attacks whenever possible. Each boss will have a unique set of attacks, starting with simple ones and will move from one to the next after you deal enough damage. For example, the blue ooze boss will initially jump around until it headbutts in your direction. You’ll have to keep track of when it will launch its attack and stay at a safe distance at that time. After being dealt enough damage, it will grow bigger, jump further and deal a mighty punch. Apply the same technique to avoid getting hit. It will also “die” but its grave will follow you and attack you. All you have to do is keep shooting at it and dodge when the grave is about to land a hit.
A welcome news is that the controls are quite easy to master. Cuphead can move right and left, jump, shoot, change weapons and parry. The latter is quite an effective move if executed at the right time as it will avoid damage while propelling you to new heights and fill up special meter at a quicker pace. This will allow you to shoot a Super Shot once available. However, to up the challenge (and arguably spoil things), other fights will include random elements like minions popping up and shooting at you, so just relying on muscle memory won’t do. Nevertheless, even if you die over and over again in this game, it’s hard to stay frustrated for long with all of its cutesy animation and accompanying soundtrack. It actually gets quite addictive to tell the truth, probably due to the ecstatic feel guaranteed after each successful battle.
Of note is the lack of each opponent’s life points. The only way to know how far you were from victory is the silhouette track on the Game Over screen that indicates how far away from the end you were.
Less than halfway through... :(
More than just a Boss Rush, Cuphead does give you some breathing time in the form of optional platforming stages where you can collect coins for upgrades. These upgrades come in the form of different attack types, weapons and charms which can grant you an extra life or temporary invincibility. You can also freely walk across the map, selecting which bosses you’d wish to take on first. Defeating some will open up paths to previously inaccessible regions on the map. However, the map does not feature fast travel and going back and forth to take on enemies you left behind feels tedious at times.
It’s a shame that you barely have time to take in all of the visual magnificence while actively playing the game due to its fast-paced action requiring you to focus your attention on one part of the screen while so much more is happening all over!
That’s All Folks!
For those who still feel daunted by the game’s notorious difficulty, I might have a solution for you. Take your time, play the game at your own pace, as if considering each boss fight as a game on its own. The satisfaction of beating any given boss is guaranteed.
When all is said and done, I cannot help but wonder if by playing this game, the gamer is actually taking the role of the bad guy. Afterall, we’re working for the Devil, killing opponents to capture their souls...
Prepare yourself to get used to this screen
+ Perfectly captures the art and sound of retro cartoons
+ Unique art style and soundtrack for a video game
+ Challenging but fair for the most part
+ Bosses are all unique in their appearances and fighting mechanics
- Bare-bones plot
- No fast travel on map
- Lack of enemy life points
- Random elements tend to break the flow
Indie studio StudioMDHR brilliantly captured the retro cartoon look and feel with its unique hand-drawn animation and retro soundtrack, effectively giving you the feeling of playing an old cartoon.
The game lives by the motto “easy to pick up, hard to master”.
Cuphead is a game you’ll revisit over and over again, within… your first playthrough! Also Hardcore mode is extremely difficult.
out of 10
(not an average)
Cuphead truly stands out as a unique video game, an audio-visual delight and as an appropriate ode to an era of cinematography long gone.