When cuphead was first shown at E3 in 2014, it was said that the game was a stand out, and immediately captured everyone’s attention, despite the trailer only being 30 seconds long, and showing very little gameplay. While people didn’t get to see much, what we did get to see was that the people over at StudioMDHR had put an obscene amount of work into the visual style of a game that had been in production for nearly four years at this point. I think there’s a lot to be said for being able to simply see the visuals for a game, and just know that the people who made it truly love what they are working on. To further expand upon this, the creators of the game wanted the game to have a 1930’s feel to it. So, what did they do? They primarily used techniques used in 1930’s animation. Every single animation was hand drawn, and then the backgrounds we’re hand painted. It was said that as of the 2014 E3 trailer, just 40% of the total animations that would be in the game had been finished. Over that the last few years, before even being available, the game has already become a cult classic. There’s two types of people, people who Cuphead, and people who don’t.
The game also boasts a very 1930’s style story line, involving main characters getting themselves into a mix-up with the Devil. The Devil appeared as an antagonist quite often in older cartoons, and Cuphead doesn’t shy away from using him as well. The main story of the game follows Cuphead and his brother, Mugman, who live with an old kettle called the “Elder Kettle”, that watches over them. One day these rambunctious brothers wander too far away from home, despite warnings in the past from Elder Kettle, and end up at the Devil’s casino. The brothers go on a hot streak and start winning a fairly reasonable sum of money, until the Devil notices and gives them a proposition…
Despite Mugman’s objection, Cuphead rolls the dice, losing. When the Devil tries to claim their souls, the boys beg the Devil not to, prompting the Devil to give them one last chance. He tasks the boys with tracking down his debtors that owe him their souls, in exchange for their own, and thus the fight to keep their souls begins.
Cuphead’s gameplay actually covers quite a few different styles while never really straying away from the run and gun genre that it takes it’s core gameplay mechanics from. One type of level is the traditional “run and gun” level, where you collect coins and shoot bad guys while moving across the screen towards the end of the level, similar to Contra games.
You’ve also got boss fight levels, where you start the level in a one on one fight against a boss who has no specific health bar, and typically has multiple forms to beat before the fight is over.. The final thing you’ll run into is boss levels more reminiscent of games like Darius, and R-Type, where you are in a plane, flying around the screen while fighting a boss. During these types of levels, the way cuphead moves and attacks will be a bit different, so the game actually breaks it down for you pretty specifically.
There is also a special type of level that is slightly different from the normal levels. You’ll come across mausoleums in the game, that house an urn that you must protect. If you do, a friendly spirit will pop out of it, granting you a super move that does like, a bajillion damage.
Once you start your journey, the game has a map similar to that kind of reminds me of older Final Fantasy games. It’s top down, and you just kind of walk around to the next event, or area, (These are usually slightly brighter than the rest of the world around you, similar to how in old cartoons if a door were about to open, it would be shaded differently than everything else.) during which time you press A to trigger it, and enter any one of these various types of battles.
As you blow through levels, you’ll see ramps, or bridges appear on the map that let you go to the next set of levels that you can choose from. Occasionally, if you look hard enough, there are some short cuts on the map allowing you to get to areas without the use of a bridge or ramp as well. The game is broken up into “islands”, that these fights and levels are housed on. Once you beat everything on one island, you can move to the next one. Also, some of the characters on the map (see coin guy up there) will talk to you, and or, ask you to defeat a specific boss. Upon completion, these guys usually give you a coin. What are coins actually used for, you ask? Well, let me tell you about my dude, Porkrind, and his shop.
At Porkrind’s shop, you can buy potions that give you different attack abilities and charms that give you a positive status effect in exchange for a slightly negative status effect. For example, there’s a charm that gives you one extra hit point, in exchange for doing less damage. You can equip any of these from the main map by pressing the “y” button, which brings up your character card, showing what weapons, special moves, and charms you have equipped. The card also shows a list of discovered levels on the island, and whether or not you’ve completed them.
While we’ve already discussed the types of levels we’re going to see, I don’t want to just gloss the core gameplay mechanics that we use to get through these levels. Cuphead actually has an array of moves at his disposal at any given time that can be used to survive. You’re always going to have some kind of basic attack available, that sees cuphead shooting out of his finger consistently as long as you hold the button down. You can hold two basic attacks at a time, which you can switch between by pressing the left bumper. Some attacks are short range and cover a larger area, some attacks are long ranger, slower, and do more damage. Sometimes you’ll notice certain types of basic attacks work better on the boss you’re fighting than others. You’re also going to have the ability to dash, on the ground, and in the air. This is often useful in “run and gun” levels where a platform seems too far away to jump to, and can also be used to avoid projectiles, or enemies, in the same way many people who played the “Mega Man X” franchise are familiar with. You’ve also got a “parry” move, which is typically most useful in boss battles, and mausoleum levels we discussed earlier. The way parrying works is, occasionally a projectile or an enemy will show up as the color pink on the screen. If this happens, you press “a” to jump, and then immediately press “a” again, and cuphead is able to essentially negate the pink object on screen, which, in turn, charges his super meter. In mausoleum levels, every enemy that is trying to attack the urn is pink, and the idea is to just keep parrying them until they stop coming. In boss battles, the idea is to parry to gain special charges, represented by poker cards. You can gain a maximum of five charges, and if at any point you do, you can expend them all for a super movie that typically does an obscene amount of damage.
The only gameplay element I have yet to experience myself, is the co-op. Due to a simultaneously understandable yet mind boggling decision to make the game couch co-op only, instead of online co-op friendly, I haven’t had a chance to see what it’s like when you’ve got two players on screen fighting a boss together. A lot of people are going to find this charming when they review the game, I imagine, as it falls in line with the older theme of the game. However, as a member of the generation who grew up on gaming, that are all now older, have jobs, have moved, have families, etc, it’s not easy to just roll up to a buddies house to play cuphead, of all things. On the other end of the spectrum, this current generation of gamers was brought up on online play, so expecting them to go out just to play a game with a friend, when they have literally hundreds of options they can play online, is a bit of a question mark.
Visuals and Final Thoughts
Visually speaking, I don’t think the word “masterpiece” being used to describe the end result of the work put into this games visual aspect would be going too far. You can see and feel the love that was put into every aspect of every character and every background of the game. However, as much as gamers, and the industry as a whole love to fellate themselves over artistic games, and visual triumphs, if the rest of the game doesn’t blow me a way, I really couldn’t care less.
While the idea of a game being 75% boss fights is a fun novelty, it honestly wore off on me after about halfway through the second island, given the repetitive nature of boss fights in these types of games. Another issue for me was game length. Given that the first island only took an hour to beat, and I was kind of rolling through the second one fairly quickly, it became painfully obvious that, for a game that was in production this long, it can be horribly short. For me the game took about 6 hours to complete, the six hours including a break to eat, two bathroom breaks, and a phone call. This will probably be the typical experience for any one familiar with these type of game mechanics, which is unfortunate, as the “replay value” is just “replay the game…but harder”, and nothing else. There’s no new rewards other than achievements to be had. Once you beat it, there’s no actual extra content waiting for you, which is a huge bummer.
While I’ve already discussed that the “novelty” of couch co-op only fits with the theme of the game, but is also tone deaf to the majority of gamers that exist, I had one more small issue with the game that will likely disrupt the flow of the game for a casual gamer. The difficulty of the game doesn’t seemingly scale in any way shape or form, creating weird consistency in difficulty spikes in either direction while on the same island. It just creates a level of inconsistency that feels like the developers were more excited about the idea of having the majority of their game be boss battles, than pacing the boss battles to the level of experience the player would have at that point in the game to create encounters that feel challenging without feeling either way too easy, or incredibly annoying.
Overall $19.99 feels like a very appropriate price for this game, and it’s worth every penny honestly. The game is mechanically sound, and the controls are very responsive. However, I just don’t feel that, because a developer put a ton of effort into making the game feel like a 1930’s cartoon, and honestly did a great job of it, that it makes up for the fact that the game is short, repetitive, lacks content, and lacks consistency. From what I understand, the developer plans to add more levels in future DLC. Depending on the price point I may check it out. But, hopefully the content lasts longer than an hour….