Cuphead – PC Review

K3W3L

Connoisseur and lover of indie games in general, he loves trying out all sorts of new ones in an attempt to broaden his ever-growing horizons. Roguelikes and roguelites still remain his favourite, however. Currently approaching the final year of a degree in Computer Engineering.

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Genre: Action, Indie
Developer: StudioMDHR Entertainment Inc.
Publisher: StudioMDHR Entertainment Inc.
Release Date: Sep 29, 2017
Edited by KnightAvenger

Cuphead is wonderful.

In the modern gaming scene heavily dominated by crisp, high-quality, professional film-grade graphics, Cuphead is, all told, a brilliant throwback to the eras of yore. The Moldenhauer brothers, leads of developers Studio MDHR, were raised on 1930’s cartoons (Fleischer, Disney, et. al), and, as such, wanted to create a game that serves as a homage to that era.

As a result, Cuphead’s looks are also firmly rooted in that 1930’s era; I cannot think of any other game that has this exact aesthetic. The visuals are created via visually striking cel animation using the techniques of the era and gives an impressively authentic feel to it. Even though the game is run at a buttery smooth 60 frames per second, Cuphead’s body even looks somewhat similar to Mickey Mouse’s.

Likewise, the audio design is impeccable. Striving for audiovisual accuracy, the game excels tremendously. Kristofer Maddigan’s importance to the game’s success should not be understated-the jazz, big band and ragtime compositions marry well to the visuals, and both put together effectively are the headline stars in this vaudeville act.

Speaking of vaudeville, one can say that Cuphead’s subject matter is, somewhat, also built around this theme. In Cuphead’s (and Mugman’s, if playing local co-op) quest to save his soul, he has to battle a wide array of bosses, either platforming or shmup-style. This is somewhat reminiscent of Furi’s boss rush style, and every boss is incredibly surreal and requires their own strategies to learn and defeat. They are all tough as advertised, yet perfectly beatable once you learn their patterns. You don’t take long to jump into another attempt after you die or simply retry, which makes the learning process that much faster, eventually distilling down attempts to how well you can execute a strategy that you have formulated via repetition. It helps that Cuphead’s controls are tight and incredibly precise, so when you take damage, it’s almost always your fault. (The few times they aren’t is due to RNG, but I’ll get to that in a bit.)

Boss battles are accessed via an overworld map. Not all can be accessed at the start, though; beating a boss level will open up blocked off passageways so you can access the others. Also, there are two difficulties at the start: Simple and Regular. They’re kind of misnomers, as, even on Simple, bosses can be challenging-just that various phases are stripped out compared to Regular. You’re also unable to finish the game if you beat the bosses on Simple; to do that, you have to git gud and beat them on Regular. Once the game is beaten, Expert difficulty, which is yet more challenging, is unlocked for all bosses.

Besides these boss battles, there are also run-and-gun stages (two per isle world), in the style of Contra. These stages are the main way in which you can earn coins to purchase items called “charms” and weapons (the overworld map hides a few secrets, including secret coins). They’re welcome as a casual break from the boss fighting monotony but are just as hard to master and are, arguably, the weaker of the two kinds of stages.

As you deal damage with your weapons, you charge up your special meter, culminating in you firing off special shots (called Extra Special Moves)-one for each weapon. Each isle also has a Mausoleum level where you have to parry jump (a key mechanic in the game) to defeat ghosts, all to unlock a special ability called a Super Art. These super arts are your “ultimate abilities” and can be used once your special meter is fully charged, overriding any extra special moves.

With the choice of two weapons and one charm, there’s ample variety for you to mix and match your skills although it must be said that some weapons are better than others. I never used the Lobber or Roundabout at all, instead switching up between the other four (although I have, lately, been trying those out on Expert mode); on the charm front, Whetstone and the two health-boosting charms remained untouched.

Admittedly, Cuphead did not initially strike my fancy, and, at one point, was not even on my radar. I suppose, to that end, that the GamesBeat editor who comically struggled massively with the game’s tutorial and first run-and-gun level helped a significant amount in that regard; his inability to pass the first high dash jump and that level culminated in me thinking, “I’m pretty sure I can do much, much, better than that.”

Which I did. 18 hours worth of playtime later, I finished the whole game. I managed to get P (pacifist) ranks on the run-and-gun levels. None of the bosses were anything lower than A-. Arguably, for people who do not care so much about rank, this figure will be much shorter, and I reckon that figure would have been even shorter if it wasn’t for RNG. Bosses don’t exactly play out the same every single time you fight them; there are minute differences that are easily noticeable. What gets me, though, is how, sometimes, the RNG works in my favor. While not that big a deal in the early stage, as you progress, some of the bosses become, somewhat, more RNG-driven, up to the point where there are situations where you take unavoidable damage. Now, come on, I don’t mind if a game is difficult, but I mind if it becomes unfair. Taking damage and having absolutely no recourse whatsoever to deal with it is needlessly artificial.

Even still, it’s a relatively minor con, considering the fact that you can retry levels as much as you want in order to get the RNG working in your favor. Other associated cons include a lack of online co-op (which isn’t a huge con, as everything is scaled upwards for multiplayer), the control scheme (seriously, the default bindings suck, and I chose to remap the fire button to one of the controller triggers; if you prize your sanity and fingers, remapping is a MUST), and the high level of difficulty (unless you have great mechanical skill, this probably isn’t the game for you, as charming as it looks; the frustration could well outstrip any euphoria gained upon successful kills). There’s a Simple mode in this game (which is still kind of hard) that bars you from the final world, so this game is really all about “git gud or fail to progress further.”

Pros:

  • Visuals and audio are an exceedingly joyful and accurate homage to the 1930’s
  • Tight and fluid platforming
  • Amazing enemy variety and challenging boss battles
  • Upgrades give rise to a wide variety of weapons, abilities, and strategies
  • Local co-op
  • Seriously, the soundtrack is DAMN good

Cons:

  • Clunky default control scheme
  • RNG can, sometimes, cause unavoidable damage
  • Difficulty bars the casuals from enjoying this game
  • No online co-op

K3W3L gives Cuphead a Drastik Measure 9.5 out of 10 (95).

Cuphead is a stupendous achievement, and I’m glad that it’s been a total success in sales for the developers, but, even then, its difficulty makes it somewhat inaccessible to the most inept of gamers; don’t get it based on its looks alone. If you grew up in an era where games were meant to be hard, if you love hard games, if you’re skilled at difficult platformers, and/or if you’re quick and adaptable at learning and countering patterns (i.e. gitting gud), this is very well worth the $20 (USD) (on Xbox One/PC via Microsoft Store or on PC only via Steam) and then some. Add on an additional $10 for the soundtrack, if you can get around to that-at least three hours worth of amazing auditory masterpieces. Plus, if you can’t even beat the bosses, this might well be your only avenue of listening to the whole song…