Developed by StudioMDHR Entertainment, Cuphead is an Xbox One and Windows PC exclusive indie title that exploits the 1930s cartoons design.
“The difference in winning and losing is most often…not quitting.” – Walt Disney
I have been waiting quite a while to review this game, but I am now glad to be able to share both my excitement and rage with you. Cuphead is not an easy game and not designed for those that have anger management issues. All and all, the mechanics are simple and easy to grasp, but mastering this game and completing it takes skill and quite some patience.
A Deal with The Devil
Cuphead doesn’t have much of a story to tell. In short, you play a character called Cuphead and you have been gambling against the Devil, and lost – of course. Now, you and your good friend Mugman owe your souls to him, but there is a way out of this, he says. The Devil puts you on a mission to retrieve contracts from the debtors that owes him. You gracefully accept this task.
In terms of storytelling, there isn’t much depth. As you advance, there are little pieces here and there that get added to the story, but nothing worthy of a novel. The Devil is your ultimate goal and his job throughout the game acts more of a framing device.
A Chain of Boss Fights!
Cuphead is, in fact, a game with a heavy focus on boss fights. Almost every single level is a boss fight with various phases and challenges. Cuphead and Mugman can shoot continuously – there is no ammo – and in various directions, can jump/dash around, and use super moves depending on the weapon of choices and skill upgrade of choice.
Some levels are Run and Gun platform stages, whereas you have to go through it in order to complete it. Some of them might have a little boss at the end, while others don’t, a refreshing change of pace just when you need it. Run and Gun missions have gold pieces that you can acquire and keep once you finish the stage. These can be used in the shop to purchase power-ups.
Power-ups come in different forms: weapons, boosts, etc. For example, some of the early ones grant you homing bullets, a teleport dash, and more. Later on, it will be possible to exchange damage dealt for more life. There are tons of ‘buffs’ available; once you purchase and unlock one, another becomes available. Make sure you tune your character with the proper buffs to give you an edge against certain bosses!
Boss fights, as mentioned earlier, come in phases. As you damage the enemy – you do not have a visual representation of their health by the way – they will go through different phases. For example, an enemy I really enjoyed going against was the bird in the birdhouse. The first phase, he snipes you with eggs. The second phase, he gets angry and flaps his wings restlessly, thus sending out feather you must avoid. The third phase consists of a baby version of the bird trying to get revenge. Lastly, the father bird comes back, on a stretcher, using his last breath to take you out. They don’t all have a logical phase structure, but they are all as entertaining and funky.
A Trip Back in Time
I’m a 90s kid – early 90s – and cartoons were my entire childhood. I grew up with Bugs Bunny, Daffy, and the entire crew, with little memory of older cartoons. As I grew older, I discovered old classics and in terms of design, Cuphead looks just like that. Visually, the hand-drawn cartoon characters and environment look almost genuine compared to actual 1930s drawings. What appears to be a cheap tape filter enhances the visual experience.
The level designs also have a flair from the past. Looking at how animations work, everything seems to be layered just like old classics. The layers are very well defined, so you know what is part of the backdrop and environment, and what are actual obstacles. There isn’t anything complex in that sense, but there are quite a number of intricate details.
With a heavy focus on boss fights, enemy design is where the game shines the best. Every single enemy is funky in its own way, and bosses just look carefully drawn to look like bag guys. The facial expressions, the sometimes-weird movements… each and every single boss looks out of this world and shady, to say the least.
Learning & Exploiting
Cuphead provides you with a learning curve depending on which boss you are against. Each level of difficulty adds or removes some mechanics and elements. From the get-go, you have the option between Easy and Regular – Regular is not as easy as it sounds. As you play along, you can learn some of the patterns the enemies have, thus giving you an opening to exploit some of the mechanics and hitboxes. In games, exploits aren’t good; they usually reflect a poor design. However, in Cuphead, they are inevitable and really helpful in certain cases. Getting too comfortable with exploits can lead to your doom, so be careful.
Cuphead is not easy and you will probably have to restart a boss fight over and over again. Outside stages, loading times can be harsh and seem like a long minute. However, once a level starts, loading (or restarting) the stage is practically instantaneous. It doesn’t matter how long you take to down a level, or how many times you have restarted it, completing it grants you a satisfying feeling of accomplishment many games out there fail to deliver.
Cuphead is a great looking game that exploits basic jump and shoot mechanics and hitboxes. Just like classic Mega Man games. Every mistake you make is technically your own fault for not being at the right place, or for not shooting the right target. Cuphead is punishing like that, and that is what makes it so difficult and challenging as a game. It is also where it gets its charm, well with that and the carefully crafted 1930s layered hand-drawn design. Remember, no matter how hard, never give up!