Thy Cup Runneth Over (With Quality!)
Anyone even remotely familiar with StudioMDHR’s run and gun (but mostly gun) platformer Cuphead knows that its release has been a long time coming. Ever since we saw that initial trailer all the way back in 2013, many of have been eagerly looking forward to the chance to finally play it for ourselves. While it may have missed its original 2014 release date by a sizable margin, it’s exciting that Cuphead is finally here. And, although it might have been nice to have been able to play the game sooner rather than later, those 3 extra years in development did nothing but help out — because this game is a fantastic experience through and through.
Cuphead follows the story of brothers Cuphead and Mugman who, after losing to the Devil in a game of dice, are sentenced to give up their souls. Instead of doing that however, the porcelain protagonists manage to strike yet another deal. You see, Cuphead and Mugman aren’t the only two people who owe the Devil. There are plenty of others. And, if the two can collect the souls of everyone else who owes the Devil, he’ll let them go. Or so he says Desperate to avoid their fate, Cuphead and Mugman rush out to fulfill their task; not giving a second thought to what this might truly entail.
Though short, succinct, and not the focus of the game, Cuphead‘s story isn’t without impact — intended or otherwise. It manages to relay the very real, and very scary, consequences that gambling addiction and debt can have on a person. And it manages to retain that feeling despite how embellished and over-the-top everything is. Its gorgeous, old-school art style also help to lend a hand from this. In a way, Cuphead‘s story feels less like a story in a video game, and more like a propaganda piece that you might have seen back in the day. Using fear tactics, such as likening gambling to cutting a deal with the Devil, Cuphead sends a very clear message about how dangerous unrestrained addictions can be.
Shoot Scootin’ Boogie
When it comes to gameplay, Cuphead is the epitome of “easy to learn, hard to master”. Mechanically speaking, nothing is difficult. It’s a standard run-and-gun shooter, and doesn’t feature anything more complex than the ability to dash or parry certain attacks. Things are only easier when you consider how smoothly the game controls. So, what makes the game so difficult? Simple; there’s no hand-holding. Every victory achieved is one that you need to earn yourself. Or with with a friend, if you’re talking about co-op. There’s no way to breeze through levels. Bosses don’t have some kind of exploitable weakness. Cuphead is the kind of game that demands patience, practice, and even more practice. While that may not be everyone’s cup of tea (hah!), I find this level of challenge incredibly refreshing.
Cuphead is divided into two different segments, the first being what the game calls “Run & Gun”. Run & Gun levels are platforming challenges that focus less on fighting and more on survivability. Run & Gun levels are all incredibly diverse. Each features a highly unique level design, and many their own special gimmick, such as the ability to manipulate gravity. Hidden within every level are also 5 coins for players to collect. While these aren’t necessary, you can trade them for a number of useful power-ups. Because of that, picking them up along the way is definitely in your best interest. In contrast with most platformers, Cuphead‘s Run & Gun levels are actually very few and far-between. In fact, they’re not even necessarily mandatory. Their main purpose is to provide map shortcuts and money for the store. Still, it’s probably best to complete them if you’re able.
Taking What They Owe You
There may be a bit of platforming here and there within Cuphead, but that isn’t what the game centers on. No, most of us know too well that this game is all about boss battles. Brutal, brutal, boss battles. Each of Cuphead‘s four worlds is littered with creatures who, for some reason or another, owe the Devil their soul. And it’s finally time for him to collect. Or, rather, send Cuphead and Mugman to collect on his behalf. Now that I think about it, isn’t it kind of strange that he isn’t doing that himself? I mean he’s the Devil, so why…? You know what, I guess it doesn’t really matter. This makes for a better game, anyway.
Maybe it’s because they’re paranoid, but every single one of Cuphead‘s bosses comes out swinging. Because of that, it’s important to stay vigilant. Cuphead does an exceptional job with its slew of bosses. Every boss is highly unique, and there few similarities between them – if any at all. Ultimately, however, that only makes them more difficult. Cuphead expects you to be good. Really good. The game’s Regular (Normal) mode was enough to trip me up dozens of times; I’m sure that it will do the same to most of you. And, while I didn’t dabble with Simple (Easy) mode, I doubt that it’s that much easier. Heck, the last world doesn’t even have a Simple mode. This game is hard. And, if you’re going for a perfect score on every level (especially on Expert), then it’s only going to get that much harder.
I’d also like to take a moment to talk about parrying, because it’s really important. Parrying is, essentially, a special type of guarding (however it does have a few special uses here and there). While each boss in Cuphead features a wide array of attacks, you’ll undoubtedly notice that sometimes some of those attacks (usually projectiles) turn pink. That’s your sign to parry. Parrying does two things. First, it negates the attack and gives you an extra boost in the air. While you can still get hurt if you aren’t careful, this second jump that you gain from parrying can help out a lot in tricky situations. Do be warned however that, as with everything else in this game, parrying can take some practice. Many parry-able attacks are fast-moving, and your reach and temporary invincibility (against pink attacks) are both incredibly short.
Secondly, parries quickly fill up your Super Meter. As you fight, you’ll notice cards slowly popping up by your HP meter. These cards can be consumed individually to launch powered-up projectile known as an “EX Move”. Their real usefulness, however, comes in when you’ve collected five (the maximum) of them. After completely filling your gauge out, you can press the special attack button to launch a Super Art. Super Arts come in three different varieties depending on which one you have equipped, but they’re all incredibly powerful tools that are quite capable of turning the table on your foes. By mastering the art of parrying, you can fill up your Super Meter much more quickly than you would normally be able to. Just make sure that you don’t miss when using your Super Art!
Don’t Fly Over Spilled Milk
Earlier that I said that Cuphead was a run-and-gun game. I suppose that that isn’t entirely true. Mostly, but not entirely. In the midst of all of your jumping and shooting action, you’ll also, on occasion, be presented with aerial boss battles. Controlling in a similar fashion to R-Type, or, more accurately, the flying portions in Super Mario Land, these battles will have you flying around in an airplane. The goal remains the same — to shoot your opponent into submission — but the technique behind it is a little bit differently. Mainly because, you know, you’re flying in an airplane.
Aside from giving the player a free range of motion, flying also changes up how dodging works. Mainly due to the part that, technically, it doesn’t exist. Instead of letting you zip-zoom around, pressing and holding the dodge button now shrinks down Cuphead and Mugman. Being tiny comes with a few key defensive advantages. Along with giving players a smaller hitbox, your newfound size also makes you much speedier. Aerial bosses tend to have what I call “all-out attack phases”, which temporarily transition the game into bullet hell territory. During these parts, you’ll be focused more on avoiding damage than dealing this. During those times, being small and fast will provide you with nothing but advantages.
Golly Gee, What Sights to See!
Cuphead‘s aesthetic presentation is phenomenal. In some cases, you don’t even to have played the game for that to be obvious. Sporting an exceptionally accurate 1930s vibe, Cuphead has some of the most believable old-school visuals that I’ve ever seen. It goes beyond that, though. As goofy as it might sound, this game’s presentation was so believable that, from time to time, I almost forgot that I was playing a video game. Sure, I was aware that I was controlling a character onscreen, but it looked like the game was doing everything independent of player input. Detachment of the player from the game due to the game’s graphical prowess isn’t something that I’ve ever experienced before. It takes a really special kind of game to make itself that believable.
Of course, Cuphead‘s visual presentation wouldn’t be quite as good without the proper audio to back it up. Fortunately, the game certainly delivers on this front, too. As with its graphics, Cuphead‘s sound effects and, most importantly, its music sound about as 1930s as you could get. Even if you don’t like this game, there’s no getting around how wonderfully it presents itself to the player.
Rowdy, Ruthless, and Red-Hot
Cuphead is an amazing title and, out of all of the games to have come out this year, definitely sits comfortably at the high end of my favorites list. With that being said, it isn’t the most accessible game that I’ve played. If you aren’t particularly good at video games, or at least those in the run-and-gun genre, then you might want to avoid this. The same goes for people who lose their tempers easily. But if you’re up to the challenge, and can keep a cool head, then you would be a fool to pass this game up. Featuring smooth controls, out-of-this-world aesthetics, and a level of challenge that always tows the line of being unfair but never quite crosses it, Cuphead is an absolute gem. If you want to test your skills and have fun while doing so, then you’ve found what you’re looking for!
FINAL VERDICT: 4.5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), Xbox One ; Publisher: StudioMDHR Entertainment Inc. ; Developer: StudioMDHR Entertainment Inc. ; Players: 1 – 2 ; Released: September 29 2017 ; ESRB: E for Everyone ; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Cuphead purchased by the Reviwer