After years of delays and insurmountable hype, Cuphead is finally out.
Cuphead’s tough-as-nails gameplay, unmatched visual detail and wonderful sound design make it a joy to watch and a thrill to play. Cuphead is a deceptively simple game – With 3 lives per attempt, you have to run, jump, dodge, parry and shoot. After a cutesy interactive tutorial, you’re thrown out into Cuphead’s first hub world only to be greeted by brutally difficult boss rush levels that will challenge your patience and make you howl in frustration when your final life is taken when an enemy is on his last leg. Things will often feel impossible and occasionally cheap, but once you push on and accept that each level will require more than a dozen attempts, you’ll start picking up on enemy behavior and find a work around for a boss’s devastating attack. If you can accept that Cuphead is a game about struggle and perseverance, you’ll stop blaming the game for your poorly timed jumps and dodges.
While Cuphead frustrates frequently, it’s difficulty also serves to provide one of the best feelings in gaming. The first time you play a level, things seem impossible. Bosses are hard to read and your three lives can be taken from you in an instant. You retry the level, this time more focused. It doesn’t matter, you’re killed again, and again, and again and again. Finally, when you’re bargaining with yourself that you’ll just try a few more times before giving up, things will simply fall into place. You’ll dodge on time, the finicky parry will work as intended, the boss will move from phase one to phase two and three; each time you feel your wrists strain to keep up. Just when you think your thumb is about to cramp, the boss will shrivel in front of you, “A Knockout!” flashes on the screen. This sense of repeated and unrelenting defeat only elevates the sense of accomplishment when you at last beat the unbeatable.
There’s beauty in Cuphead’s struggle. Whether you’re navigating hub sections or butting heads with a boss, Cuphead always serves up amazing visuals with its entirely hand-painted world. Each level in the game features elaborate layering that adds depth to the 2D worlds. All of the action in the game takes place in what I would consider to be the middleground. Here, enemies will attack you and you’ll do your best to just hold on. Additional action will happen in the foreground and background that brings life to the scene. The background is usually contextual – the inside of a casino or an amusement park – while the foreground is typically used to show motion as you platform your way left to right or chase down a boss. In three or four of the bosses I got to in my playthrough, I found the foreground to be a little distracting. For example, one of the plane sections has windsocks that blaze by in the foreground to show motion. I constantly found myself dodging and pivoting up and away from them thinking that they could damage me. These sudden dodges often put me directly into incoming fire and got me killed. Lesson learned, they can’t harm you. While the trial and error nature of Cuphead’s bosses is rewarding and fun, I don’t know if extra level detail adds to the experience or adds unnecessary confusion to level layout.
The developer’s attention to detail stretches into capturing the ‘30s era sound as well. In-game noises like the snap of Cuphead’s fingers as he shoots or the creepy laugh of a boss are accompanied by the crackling, generally muffled sound that you’d expect of recordings from nearly a decade ago. Cuphead’s music is also entirely original, which means songs are often contextual and fun to take in. Much like the in-game noises, the soundtrack also has the same cracking and popping that really make each song feel like it was made almost a century ago.
Cuphead features a handful of run-and-gun platforming levels, but they only serve as a way to collect coins, which can be spent to upgrade Cuphead’s attributes. The bulk of the experience is spent in boss rush. Despite the dozens of bosses and the phases they go through, it never feels like Studio MDHR has run out of ways to challenge the player. Occasionally, boss rush gameplay is turned on its head with new gameplay modifiers like plane sections where Cuphead (and Mugman if you’re playing couch co-op) pilot ‘30s era biplanes. The plane sections have their own movesets that offer a great change of pace to Cuphead’s standard shoot and dodge gameplay. The diversity in how each scenario unfolds prevents players from feeling fatigued over time, which becomes of greater importance as later battles become more and more challenging.
Those looking to take in some of Cuphead’s beautiful levels without too much pressure will be happy to hear that the game does feature a “Simple” mode which offers the same levels with reduced difficulty and less chaos on screen. These sections are probably best suited for casual couch co-op sessions, but they’re also a great way to warm up your skills. You can get quite far just by playing and beating levels in Simple mode, but Cuphead’s final bosses are blocked off until all of the game’s levels are beaten on regular difficulty. Simple is a great addition to the game, but it really serves as a stepping stone rather than an alternative to the regular difficulty.
Cuphead will exhaust you, infuriate you and repeatedly break you. Then, when you’re about to put down the controller for the night, you’ll have a breakthrough or maybe just a lucky fluke – it doesn’t really matter – and everything will fall into place. You’ll perfectly time the dodge that you’ve missed for the past hour, you’ll mash the attack button as fast as you can, and just when you think you can’t hold on any longer, the screen will flash “A Knockout!”. Another boss down, another dozen to go, but it doesn’t matter because each win feels even better than the last.
Studio MDHR’s passion project isn’t for everyone, but those willing to push their reflexes and test their patience will find one of the most addictive and rewarding games ever made.
Cuphead was reviewed on Xbox One courtesy of Xbox and Studio MDHR.
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