Cuphead is, in a nutshell, a perfect example of the developers fulfilling their artistic vision with absolute clarity. You can feel the passion poured into every single hand-drawn frame of animation. For that unaware Cuphead is a 2D platforming and shoot em up game in the style of 1930s cartoons. The hand-drawn art here absolutely nails the look of cartoons of that era and the music and sound effects are absolutely on point with the styles of the time.
Every single frame of animation is hand drawn by the artists at independent game studio Studio MDHR Entertainment. On top of that, they’ve used a number of screen filtering effects to make it look like your playing the game on an old television with scan lines and blotches appearing on the screen which adds to the 1930s cartoon vibe and drew me in further to the experience.
Make no mistake Cuphead is tough, damn tough. If I were to make a comparison that older gamers might understand I put the difficulty as on a par with something like the original Super Mario Bros. It is not unfairly difficult for the sake of it though with every mistake being a learning process and with levels and boss fights that last only a few minutes at a time having to repeat them over and over until you’ve learned their attack patterns and mechanics has that great one more go feeling often lost in modern gaming. For me, Studio MDHR should be applauded for staying true to their vision and not dumbing down the experience to make it more appealing to the mass market. Just as much effort has gone into making sure the game is finely tuned and balanced as they have with the stellar art and sound design.
It is also a great example of video games as an art form. Replicated the look and feel of 1930s cartoons where enemy design looks like warped, menacing and unsettling versions of reality and really nails the crazy animation stylings of the time period. Music is used to great effect to convey the tone of what’s happening on screen as well and they work in perfect harmony to suck you in deep into the artists’ world.
Gameplay sees you play as the titular Cuphead and/or Mugman if you are playing with a friend in local two player. Cuphead & Mugman lose a fortune at a casino owned by the devil and he takes their souls to pay off the debt. But the devil makes a deal with them to get their souls back they have to go and kill all the bosses in the game as they also owe the devil lots of money and he wants to claim their souls. A totally bizarre plotline but one that fits in well with the tone and style of the game and sets up the gameplay nicely.
Most of the levels are boss battles with multiple stages. Bosses have several different forms they can morph into from a woman riding a tricycle flying through the air, to a cross between a cloud, sheep and a bull (yep), to a giant crescent moon as an example of just some of the forms from one of the boss fights. Enemy designs are all excellently zany and weird like the ones I’ve just mentioned and in the interest of spoilers, I won’t say anymore as seeing them for yourself is a big part of the fun. Each form has it’s own abilities and attack patterns and is completely random so you will have to play the same boss fights again and again with different results each time if you want to see all of them which is great for the game’s replayability.
There are also a number of levels that play out like traditional 2D platformers with lots of smaller but equally well designed and challenging enemies and other obstacles as well as jumping puzzles. Also, there are ghost houses where you have to stop ghosts from reaching an urn in the middle of the screen by jumping on them and performing a parry attack.
Shooting is similar to games like Contra, Super Ghouls & Ghosts or Super Time Force to use a more recent example. You can fire up, down, left and right as well as diagonally although you cant fire in full 360 degrees like you can in a twin-stick shooter for example. There are multiple levels set across 3 distinct worlds each with their own setting and with progressively tougher enemies. Although things are very tough right from the very first boss fight. There is also a shop where you can use coins gained from collecting them in the platforming levels to buy a variety of upgrades, special attacks and other items to help you on your quest.
It’s also worth mentioning you can replay any levels you’ve already played if you just want to play them again but coins are finite and won’t appear in platforming stages again if you’ve already collected them so you can’t spam those to unlock everything early. Everything is doled out sparingly to help you through the adventure. There is an option to play an easier version of all of the levels if you find it too difficult to begin with, but you have to beat every boss on the regular difficulty to fully finish the game and face the final boss.
Controls are also very precise and quick to respond, which is critical in a game that requires quick and decisive movement like Cuphead. It plays very much like a bullet hell shooter and avoiding enemies and their projectiles come thick and fast. Game design here is absolutely on point here. However, the default button layout I found to be less than ideal. The controls are fully mappable to your liking though and I would highly recommend changing the shoot button to the right trigger and air dash to left trigger. So that your right thumb only has to concentrate on jumping with A and occasionally pressing B to unleash a super.
You only can take a few hits before dying and having to start the level over. No health pickups here although you can buy more hearts in the shop using the coins collected in the platforming stages. The game also offers some degree of freedom with a few levels at a time opened up to you. So if you find one particularly troublesome you can try another with the platforming stages offering more coins to buy upgrades and get past that boss you’re stuck on.
Cuphead is an absolute work of art by a team of talented developers and artists with a passion to create something unique and special. In that, they have achieved with unfeathered and utter committal to vision one of the very best games of 2017 and perhaps the generation. It’s punishing difficulty may prove too much for some gamers to handle but I would implore everyone to at least give it a try and the feeling of satisfaction in besting a particularly difficult boss or platforming section is very rewarding. The fantastic animation prowess Studio MDHR has produced here coupled with fantastic audio work and elegant game design deserves to be experienced by as many people as possible.
Overall Score – 10/10