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By Alex Sievers

[Reviewed on Xbox One]

For the past month, StudioMDHR Entertainment’s much-anticipated and ball-busting creation, Cuphead, has been consuming disgusting amounts of my gaming time. This hard-as-fuck run & gun platformer had its hooks in me right from the game’s initial announcement back at E3 2014. After handfuls of screenshots, trailers, some delays and various bits of information being released over the past three years, the game thankfully and finally saw the light of day in late September.

Now, as everyone and their dog’s dog already know about this particular title, Cuphead truly is the stuff of controller-breaking, keyboard smashing nightmares. Prioritizing immensely challenging gameplay and even tougher boss fights over plot and world building with an early 20th-century jazz score and 1930’s cartoon aesthetic, Cuphead is retro in practically every sense of word.

It’s also a damned good video game, too.

The plot here is minimal, bare bones stuff, but it does make for a nice little set up.

You play as the titular Cuphead, who whilst on a winning gambling streak at a place that’s literally called The Devil’s Casino with his brother (and co-op designated partner should you chose to not go alone), Mugman, they naively put everything on the line. Of course, the odds aren’t really in their favour, their winning streak ends and they lose their souls to the Devil himself. In order to break free from their now-doomed fates, the pair is given a way out: track down and defeat the Devil’s many debtors across the three Inkwell Isles. With some help from their mentor, Elder Kettle (Jesus Christ, at least the character naming is consistent) in the form of shooting fire blasts from their fingers, that goal seems doable. And so this sets the pair and you, the player, down an insanely devilish and rage-filled journey against 19 unique boss fights across four different worlds; the fourth world being a mentally crippling finale made up of two dastardly difficult bosses – one that’s a maddening boss-rush to end all boss-rushes.

As Cuphead (or as the lesser Mugman) you’ll be shooting at, jumping away from, ducking under, dashing over/past, and parrying attacks from some utterly nightmarish bosses. From an evil psionic carrot who shoots killing mind rays from its third eye; a fiendish dancing sun-flower that hurls all manner of shit your way while trying to kill you from below with its ensnaring roots; a tag-team duo of giant boxer frogs that combine their attacks together come the round’s end; to a cunning, unicycle-riding blimp who uses star signs to transform into various cosmic beasts before taking on her menacingly mechanical final form. (I wish I were even remotely making that last boss up). And that’s just the ego-crushing encounters you’ll have to deal with in the first world alone!

The first few tries of each boss as you reach each new stage of their overall fight and unveil their later move sets, patterns and various timings, is a heart-racing experience to say the least. However, much like other fiendishly hard titles from both the indie and the triple-A gaming worlds (your Super Meat Boy’s, your Hotline Miami’s, your oldies like Contra’s, as well as Souls-Borne series and its many clones), with such a great level of challenge comes with it a staggering level of satisfying pay-off. The kind of blissful feeling that makes it seem like you actually accomplished something, when in reality, you’re really just pressing buttons to control polygons but whatever.

In your time with Cuphead, you’ll sometimes feel like you’re simply beating your head against a very thick brick wall, feeling like progression is nothing a distant dream, before suddenly, EUREKA! You finally taste that sweet, sweet victory as the stress-reducing announcement of “IT’S A KNOCKOUT” is heard and you can breathe a deep sigh of relief. Other times you’ll be on your last remaining bit of health, flying by the very skin of your teeth as you enter a boss’s final stages, and with a little bit of luck, win out like you’re a bonafide pro who knew what they were actually doing. Such a moment happened to me in the late game to one of the final aerial boss fights and by god, I damn near wept when I won.

Truly, there are very few other greater feelings in gaming this year than those moments when you finally best the boss you’ve been stuck, nay trapped on for an hour only to reach a higher place of emotional and mental Zen as you crush that fucker in a prefect, no-hit run.

The game’s boss encounters are all dynamic fights, with multiple stages and physical forms for you to best, all usually ranging under the two-minute mark. A length that only adds to the stream-lined nature of this game, what with their being no backing track to be done here and with game reloading you instantly after you select ‘retry’ upon death. And you will die. A lot. But the trial and error tactics of such a quick reload means that you’re right back into the soul-destroying action in no-time flat.

However, when you’re not fighting vile bosses on the ground and when you’re not running through the game’s brief side levels, running and gunning while snagging up coins to use on new weapons and abilities, you’ll be fighting up in the skies. These various aerial moments when you’re seated in a plane against also airborne enemies are where the game’s intensive bullet hell situations arise; sections that’ll make your knees weak, palms sweaty, mum’s spaghetti – y’all get what I mean. Speaking of those sections and the game’s high difficulty, I have seen some criticize it so, saying that the difficulty is a brutal barrier to entry what is a beautiful game. With many summarizing that they cannot enjoy the game due to its constantly steep difficulty.

Personally, while I am all for more inclusivity in video games – from gender, sexuality, race, different beliefs and also opening the medium up to varying player skill levels – I am also a strong supporter of developers creating the art that they wish to create. And, StudioMDHR chose to make one hell of a tough game as their art of choice here. Yet while I am no master at the game quite yet, and much like the Souls-Borne games which people compare this game to, patience is a real virtue here. But even beyond the towering difficulty present, I can still see the fun, artistic merit, depth and the easy-to-play-hard-to-master systems on hand in Cuphead’s punishing yet wonderfully dark and interesting world.

Dizzyingly high difficulty aside, what makes Cuphead also stand out among physical and digital store shelves is its eye-catching 1930’s/1940’s cartoon aesthetic. Basically, think a colourised but equally bizarre take on the works of Fleischer Studios, all with the same dark tone and sense of surrealism.

As such, the world of Cuphead is bathed in film grain, with exaggerated, twisted and often-elongated character designs all presented via traditionally gorgeous hand drawn animations with stunning watercolor level backgrounds. It’s a dark yet beautiful world filled with life and a real sense of character. I mean, come on, this is a game where the motherfucking loading screen has a smiling hourglass jumping up and down for your enjoyment! Shit’s whack and I love it.

There’s really no other game in the same realm as Cuphead with this kind of art style, feel, and musical quality. I can almost guarantee you that we’ll see this early 20th century, “vintage” style grow into a new gaming trend in the coming years; from both future Cuphead installments and completely new titles alike.

The developers, and the game’s main artist, Chad Moldenhauer, have really nailed that particular 20th century look and feel. Yet another thing that works for the visual style is that the style of animations that Cuphead draws its influence from where notorious productions of a deeply racist period of modern human history. Yet, the game never once touches upon the negative connotations and racist elements of its art style’s origins, taking instead the charming artistic parts, and leaving behind the negative connotations of gross, outdated values. And let’s be real– if Cuphead even had any inkling of racist ideals housed within its art style, it’d have been largely crucified by media and gamers long before its release last month.

However, not only are the visuals a high point of praise, but so to is the music. The game’s original jazz recordings and killer OST is just as fitting, sounding and feeling like you’ve stepped back into the musical culture of the 1930’s and 1940’s.

Now, due to the tough-as-nails nature of Cuphead’s gameplay, here are five tips I’m going to bestow upon you, just in case you’re planning on picking this one up or are in need of advice to progress further.

1. Purchase the Chaser from the shop. My fucking god, do you want this ability in your arsenal! The Chaser help you deal with those constantly moving bosses and smaller enemies as it hones in on the nearest enemy in either of the eight-directions you can fire in. All meaning you can keep dashing and jumping while still ensuring that you’re damaging the boss and not getting hit.

2. Never. Stop. Shooting. Seriously, you can move, jump and dash all while shooting, so in most cases, hold that attack button down when things are getting a little too hectic. Which will no doubt happen anyway. Use this idea in tandem with the Chaser when you get stuck and your basic Peashooter move doesn’t cut it.

3. Everything that’s glowing pink can be parried. Every single boss fight and run & gun level will have pink projectiles featured that you can use to parry by hitting the jump button at the right time. This will help get past enemy attacks, and boost up your super meter. Master this tricky mechanic of timing and you’ll survive far longer than ever before.

4. Speaking of parrying, complete the Mausoleum challenges when you come across them in each Isle when you’re walking around a la Super Mario World. These are small challenge rooms designed to test your timing abilities as you continually parry the pink ghosts, bouncing around these rooms in doing so. Completing these mini-challenges is how you unlock your super abilities; the second one of which is a very hand temporary invincibility move that will save your bacon more than once. No kidding, that shit is near-essential!

5. In some of those messier, bullet hell aerial moments where the screen gets filled with projectiles, focus only on where Cuphead himself is and dodge accordingly. As often, you may get caught up watching the moving backgrounds, the bosses themselves, and other such things when you should be keeping a close eye on yourself and your general vicinity of the screen. Doing so really saved my ass at times.

CONCLUSION

There is just so much to love about Cuphead. From the timely big band/jazz soundtrack, the film grain over the game’s truly beautiful animations and backdrops, the challenging yet incredibly satisfying difficulty and hard gameplay; Cuphead really is something special.

Admittedly, I haven’t actually beaten the game just yet – I’m stuck on the final boss, funnily enough. But after approximately 12 hours sunk into this game and with a miserable 500+ deaths racked up so far (the game keeps track of your death ratio because of course it fucking does), I will indeed see this game through to that 100% completion. Why? Because I absolutely adore Cuphead! Hopefully, you will too.

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Cuphead is out now on Xbox One and PC. Buy it on GOG.com or Steam you scrubs. Pick this one up if you’re love hard games, are a masochist, have $30 to spare, or just want to feel worthless.

Also, if you enjoyed Cuphead and are looking for something similar, might I recommend Hollow Knight and Dead Cells – they’re also very good games.