Initial Release Date: September 29, 2017
Platforms: Xbox One, PC (reviewed)
Cuphead is a boss rush plus run and gun game heavy on style and noted for its long development time and toughness. As I went over in my post when I was playing through Cuphead, I’d been waiting for this game for a long time and finally scooped it up in a Steam sale.
Overall, the game impressed me with not only its style and general cartoon aestetic, Cuphead impresses with a variety of challenging and interesting boss stages that require learning and honing your Cuphead shooting and dodging skills.
The big draw to Cuphead is the highly unique cartoon style that Chad Moldenhauer, the artist for the game, hand drew. Moldenhauer would hand draw the characters and backgrounds before digitizing them. The result is a radiant display of the ol’ timey feel of classic Disney cartoons.
The style of the game is perfected further in the sound, music, text, and dialogue. The opening title barbershop music perfectly evokes the source material time period, and the text evokes the old silent films “gee golly gosh” placards to describe what was happening. Even the little flickers on the screen to emulate reeled film adds to the great detail and attention paid to evoking the Fleischer Studios style of cartoon.
Cuphead manages to keep this style fresh throughout its moderate length playthrough, throwing a variety of style of bosses at the player each with a different theme.
Story for Context
The story line presented in Cuphead takes what I like to cite as the Mario Approach, that is, giving just enough context to give the player some direction. Like the Mario games, Cuphead is more of a “classic” style video game, as many platformers tend to be, that focuses more on mechanics and gameplay over characters and story.
The basic premise is that Cuphead (and Mugman if playing in co-op) has gambled away at the Devil’s casino, creating a debt that the Devil demands come due. The bargain is that Cuphead go around, completing “contracts,” and bringing the souls of the other debtors back to the Devil.
Thus, each of the bosses is presumably in debt to The Devil and fights to prevent Cuphead from capturing their soul. This point is really never emphasized or referenced outside the beginning and ending of the game.
Furthermore, the fighting capabilities of Cuphead are hardly explained, outside their Grandpa Kettle alerting them to the fact that they can shoot projectiles from their fingers. While all of this sounds a tad ridiculous, it in no way takes away from the enjoyment of the game.
Cuphead Delivers on Style AND Substance
Cuphead presents the player with a strong style, but backs it up with solid platforming and run and gun gameplay. The potential failure to back-up the presentation with gameplay was my chief concern when I bought the game. Luckily, Cuphead delivers.
When I originally heard that the games graphics would be hand drawn, I was skeptical that such an ambition would translate well into gameplay form. When I heard that the game was going to be a difficult platformer, I thought that it might fall flat.
I was wrong. The developers have done a brilliant job in keeping the gameplay fresh and rewarding. The hitboxes are not the wonky mess I suspect they might be, but instead feel fair. The reloads after death are quick and snappy.
I played the entire game with a DS4 controller hooked into my PC. The controller worked great despite the game originally intended for Xbox, although I would recommend remapping the “Shoot” command to a trigger button to help make it easier to shoot and dodge at the same time.
Cuphead’s actual run-and-gun levels are weaker than the boss fights. Perhaps I just favored the boss fights gameplay more, but the run and gun sections that required more memorized platforming over reactionary controller responses didn’t feel perfect 100% of the time. Luckily, the run-and-gun portions are not necessary to actually get to the final boss, but are instead used to gain some coins to spend at the shop for upgrades.
Hard, but Fair
It’s best to start the discussion on Cuphead’s difficulty with the fact that I do not seek out the genre of games that love to present a hard challenge. In fact, I tend to avoid the majority of these types of games because I feel like I don’t have the time to give them an honest shot. However, I did grow up playing the original “Nintendo-hard” style of games that created high artificial difficulty barriers to simply add length.
With that disclaimer in mind, I thought that Cuphead presented a difficult but entirely fair set of challenges. The basic gameplay loop in Cuphead is to play through a boss fight many times to learn the phases and the attacks. Once you have these down, presumably you can equip the right weapons, and time up the right attacks.
This is where I think the difficulty diverges from some types of games that are simply very difficult for the sake of difficulty. Cuphead uses the learn and adapt as a mechanic. If a player was good enough to breeze through the bosses in one go, the whole game would take maybe 2 hours. Instead, the learning of each unique boss acclimates the player to the skills needed to take down that task.
Cuphead is also not a particularly long game so the difficulty doesn’t overstay its welcome. Without the addition of padding, each challenge feels highly satisfying and you advance at a fairly robust pace. However, every player will find one or two bosses that will terrorize you. Look no further than my top bosses post from a few weeks ago here.
Overall, there isn’t a feeling of cheap deaths in Cuphead. When you do die, you feel like you made three mistakes that led to the death. If the game required pinpoint accuracy for wonky hitboxes and delayed controller inputs, I’d be pulling my hair out. Instead, I felt I learned with each death and could make more progress each run. The quick reloads greatly facilitate this loop (and remind me of Super Meat Boy).
Items Felt Entirely Secondary
Cuphead begins with a basic pea shooter and one “super” attack. Throughout the playthrough, players will unlock more powerful supers, as well as spend coins to equip passive items as well as upgrade the weapon itself.
You can bring two different weapons and an equipped trinket into each level. While the variety is nice, in general, some of the items are so generally useful that you probably won’t switch around items too often. Hence, I considered the item game fairly secondary.
As an example, once I got the smoke bomb upgrade, which allows you to teleport a short distance as a movement, I never really considered the other trinkets. The smoke bomb was just so useful in so many spots that I didn’t see a need to get an alternative. I did use the extra HP early on, but quickly put it away when I got better at dodging.
As for weapons, I quickly bought and adopted a long and short range mix of weapons. With the shotgun weapon, you can do high close range damage. I paired that with the homing shot that allowed me to navigate platforming or dodging while simply holding down the fire button.
I will say, players may experiment with the weapons a little more than I did. I think the weapons are more fitting to the playstyle over fitting to the situation. It just so happened that my first few purchases matched what I found optimal. I did experiment with some of the other weapons, but never adopted them for long term use.
In sum, Cuphead presents a great ode to early 1900’s cartoons without sacrificing any gameplay elements. While the game has been lauded as difficult, it presents this difficulty in a fair manner, and integrates that difficulty as a mechanic that both casual and experienced gamers could manage. The attention to detail in both style and gameplay makes the game a must-play, unique experience.
+Evocative, highly detailed style
+Quick load times
+No filler gameplay
-Difficulty-as-a-mechanic concept may be intimidating
-Weak selection of weapons and items
Final Score: 8.3/10