“Everything in this game smiles while trying to kill you”
Cuphead, oh Cuphead. It has been the talk of the town recently and with good reason. Casuals are complaining about it’s difficulty being too much for them and media guys are getting their clicks through the most simplest way in modern day- THIS IS LIKE DORK SULZ. Amidst all this buzz surrounding the difficulty of the game, very few people are actually discussing how good the game actually is.
Cuphead is a run and gun indie video game developed and published by StudioMDHR Entertainment. Cuphead was released on Microsoft Windows and Xbox One on September 29, 2017.
So while most people are associating Cuphead with Dark Souls, let’s get that dumb analysis outta the way. Cuphead is a boss rusher, very similar to Furi. Both are 2D games, gameplay wise (In Furi, there is no functionality of the Z axis) and both games revolve around learning the attack patterns of the bosses throughout the game. The only significant difference between Cuphead and Furi is that Cuphead has optional levels like a proper 2D platformer and an extremely rudimentary upgrade system apart from the fact that in Furi, you could take hits like a champ (That is probably because you were a samurai and not a cup made of Chinese clay). It’s not even technically an upgrade system to be precise, just a set of different weapons/supers that you can buy by earning coins from the Run & Gun levels or from completing mausoleums.
The supers charge up over time and are represented as playing cards in the bottom left-hand corner of the HUD. You can spend single cards on a mini-attack, or build them all up for a super, which have various effects depending on which one you choose. Managing these abilities gives a sort of variety to the game. Similar to what we had said about Nioh in it’s review, it is not always raw skill that you may be lacking, it might just be a change in approach.
The game has these short platforming levels through which the player can collect coins (5 coins per level) and then spend those coins on all sorts of offensive and defensive abilities. “Mixing and matching the weapons feels like playing Call of Dooty with flexible classes where the player can have a sniper and a shotgun together”. See, it’s so easy to associate Cuphead to Call of Duty.
As far as gameplay is concerned, there aren’t that many game mechanics, but the few that the game presents are incredibly well implemented and a pleasure to experience. Cuphead, just like some of the other games in it’s genre, does not overwhelm the player with the number of game mechanics. The controls are sharp, snappy and precise with the game requiring raw mechanical skills and reflexes to overcome obstacles.
The ability to parry will probably overlooked by many unless it is absolutely required by the player. It is not extremely important to defeat all of the bosses, but it sure does make things a bit easier.
The boss fights aren’t overly long and take about 2-3 minutes for the average joe. While consistently dying and retrying can that to about 15-20 minutes through repetition, the satisfaction of hearing the word “Knockout” after the end of each boss battle is immense.
The boss battles, as usual, are done in phases that contain various transformations and hence different attack patterns. The boss fights require a lot of focus and their attacks are random. But, Cuphead’s randomness is predictable. Moreover one needs to be aware of the various transformations, attacks, and their specific counters, to defeat a boss, and is not a game that can be baten by mere “dodge-hit-dodge” tactics.
The co-op feature of the game is intelligently balanced. Two characters do increase the damage inflicted on the bosses, but, the bosses’ overall health increases, compensating for the same. The only slight advantage is the ability to revive your teammate after he dies (that too by double jumping, which indeeds requires a hell lot of accuracy), but that gets compensated too by the distraction provided in the screen by the presence of a second similar character in a game requiring ample focus.
Apart from the boss fights and various levels, Cuphead has a hub-world that opens up in parts as the player progresses through the game by defeating bosses. There is not much to explore in the world which mostly functions as a “You are here, boss is there. Go there and defeat that boss” indicator apart from having a shop and a few characters that help in fleshing out the world a little. Cuphead has three main overworlds with different visual themes. The first takes place in countryside lands, with forests and farms, while the second takes place in an amusement park, with rides and other attractions.
I feel that the difficulty about the game has been bloated around a lot. As I have said, it requires raw mechanical skills and is not as punishing as something like say Dark Souls. It’s something like the PUBG effect. You can get into the action immediately after death which results in theplayer not having to wait long to actually get into the juicy part.
Personally, I played Cuphead in short bursts because it requires a lot of focus. I believe that complacency is the biggest weakness for any person and after defeating a boss in Cuphead, that’s the first feeling that came instinctively to me while playing the game. Many a times, Cuphead died because I was trying to purposely get him in the way of danger before pressing Alt+F4 on the keyboard.
Story & Narrative
Like most cartoons, Cuphead is also devoid of a proper intertwined story. Cuphead & Mugman, two brothers who live with Elder Kettle, recklessly make a deal with the devil and end up gambling their souls. The main plot of the game is that- two brothers (Cuphead & Mugman) run into a casino where they make gamble with their life on the stake. Naturally they lose and the devil asks them to collect a bunch of debts owed to him by various “characters” of the world. Some might definitely call it- The most cliched cartoon story. While they are not wrong, it’s not the overarching plot that is the focus here.
The various bosses tell a story within their transformations and through the environments (Probably something that it maybe holds similar to Dark Souls?), be it Beppi The Clown or Phantom Express or Sally Stageplay. It’s easy to overlook these smaller aspects in the broader picture, but small things like the baby dropping milk bottles in Sally Stageplay and the husband (I am assuming) worrying about her in the background at the end of that particular phase or King Dice stepping on the Cigar mini boss later on in the game. They flesh out the game’s story and characters more than the characters who we get to talk to in the hub world.
Graphics Sound & Performance
A major reason for why Cuphead gained hype was it’s 1930s-esque cartoon art style. Every frame in the game has been hand-drawn across a period of 3 years by the developers at MDHR Studios. Basically, it means that everything you see on screen has been painstakingly drawn by someone.
It’s easy to dismiss the kind of art style that Cuphead stands for as just another ‘indie game’, in an industry where the consumers can’t tell if they are getting ripped or not and keep buying the same games every year.
There is a very thin line between what Cuphead is trying to do when compared to many of it’s contemporaries. The aesthetic is deliberate here. The weird film grain that flashes considerably big chunks of black tears of inter-dimensional space, the grainy audio, the sound track and the various animations that look like the rubberband effect was applied too many times to each and every joint for every direction in a 2-D space in the animator tool- everything makes the game feel immersive. All those memories of older cartoons like Popeye, Looney Tunes etc just flow in as you play the game. Some of the characters feel like obvious dopplegangers from said cartoons. For example, Captain Brineybeard is a clear interpretation of Brutus from Popeye.
The cartoon inspired and retro styled music leaves no stone unturned as far as authenticity goes. The sound design further elevates the nostalgic elements of the game. The music comprises of big band and jazz intelligently mixed to further emphasize the 1930s feel. Each and every level has unique music that blends in well with the specific setup of the level, the boss’ character design and of course the hub world.
Every dialogue (The few of them that are there) in the game is spoken in a reverberating, extended and fuzzy voice along with some exclamatory dialogues spoken in a cartoonish tone, beautifully imitating the sound design in those days. Overall, Cuphead doesn’t disappoint in this department, and MDHR has amazingly implemented a praiseworthy soundtrack in an equally good game to uplift the player immersion and the ambiance of the game.
Cuphead doesn’t have a lot of hidden aspects. One thing that is bothersome though are the controls. The default controls make the game a lot harder than it actually is. I set the shooting and super to the left and right triggers while leaving the rest of it at default.
I can associate Cuphead to many other games other than the ones I have obviously associated it with in this review, but that won’t change the fact that Cuphead is a great game worth experiencing for any kind of gamer with a open mind. I do feel that it’s difficulty has been talked about too much and has overshadowed the actually good parts of the game that very few people are discussing.