Developer: Studio MDHR
Publisher: Studio MDHR
Genre: Shoot’em up
Release Date: 9/29/2017
Platforms: Xbox One, Microsoft Windows
Playtime: 16 hours
When Cuphead was first revealed at E3 2014 people were immediately drawn to the old cartoon art style, and subsequently, anticipation for the game’s release soon began to build. After three years of waiting, Cuphead has finally arrived, and hours of fun (and frustration) have arrived with it. The game challenges players at every stage with a difficulty that is surprising, given the game’s lighthearted aesthetic. Thanks to this strange combination, Studio MDHR has managed to deliver a strong first impression in the form of Cuphead.
You play as the titular character Cuphead, and after losing your soul in a game of dice to the devil, you are tasked with collecting the souls of debtors who have also lost to him in a bid to save your own. You explore the islands of Inkwell, facing off against debtors in a series of boss battles. These boss battles make up the majority of the gameplay, although each island does have two run-and-gun stages and a mausoleum. The run-and-gun stages are side scrolling levels that are filled with enemies and obstacles as you try to reach the finish. Mausoleum stages test your ability to use the parry move as you try to defend an urn from a group of ghosts. There is an overworld map which serves as your main hub if you want to change your character’s loadout or move around to explore the islands. While in the overworld map, you can also talk to other characters between levels (a few even give you small tasks to perform!) and you may enter the shop to purchase upgrades. To purchase upgrades players need to acquire gold coins either through the run and gun levels or through various means in over world map. While these features are enjoyable, the boss battles themselves are the focus of the game. Hence, they are where Cuphead shines. Each fight offers a unique experience, as each one has its own aesthetic and gameplay theme. Whether you are dodging the attacks of a furious flower, trying to shoot down a giant robot while flying in a plane, or getting blown away by a sea captain and his living ship, each boss manages to test your memory, timing, and resolve. Most players will probably need to play each boss at least a dozen times as they learn what each one does at different stages of the fight. At the same time, I never got tired of going up against a boss no matter how stuck I got. Even so, if you need help you can play with another person using local Co-op where another player will join you as Mugman. Doing this though will increase the difficulty, but it heightens the fun. If Cuphead had come out as an arcade cabinet then I would have dropped a fortune in quarters trying to beat it, yet I would not have regretted a single moment of it.
The gameplay itself is simple, following an old shoot’em up side style; you run and jump around on a side-scrolling map, all the while shooting at enemies and evading attacks. You can also charge a super attack when landing hits which which can be fired to deal extra damage. You can dash a short distance to either jump a gap or dodge enemies, and one can perform a mid-air parry maneuver on any object that is colored pink. This parry is used to great effect as it becomes not only a useful tool to avoid damage but also becomes your only option in several encounters to either make it past a large gap or avoid taking points of damage. Each encounter usually has several stages to it, each either changing how you need to approach the fight or increasing the difficulty as you slowly battle your way through it.
There are six different weapons that players can switch between, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Some simply have different trajectories when fired; others will increase the damage output but have a lower range. None of the weapons are really better than another except situationally so this lets players pick a loadout that suits their playstyle. Charms can also be purchased at the shop which give different abilities when equipped. There are charms that give you extra hit points but lower your damage, some help you charge your supers or land parries, and another (the best by far) which turns your dash into a damage-avoiding blink. You can only take two different projectiles and a single charm at any time, so you may sometimes need to consider what is best for each boss or stage. The ability to adapt to fights is useful–especially in some of the more difficult encounters. Some stages however don’t allow customization as these take place while piloting an airplane with a set loadout. Not being able to customize however doesn’t take away anything away from the experience as these are some of the more challenging and creative encounters in the game. Each stage also offers a simple mode if the regular difficulty level is proving too much for players who want to move on. If you manage to beat the story and make it past the last boss, Cuphead presents you with yet another challenge which comes in the form of expert mode. To anyone wanting to test their skills and patience, expert mode will do that and more as it lets players experience everything at increased difficulty. Frankly, regular mode was hard enough for me.
On top of the solid gameplay, Cuphead has one of the more enjoyable soundtracks in current gaming. The music is composed entirely with original jazz recordings which were made live in-studio. Each piece was composed by Kris Maddigan, several bands, and some individual talents. Each boss and stage has its own theme which helps make each encounter unique and enjoyable, especially when paired with the art style. MDHR was inspired by classic 1930’s cartoons and worked to keep the subversive and surreal imagery that was often depicted at the time when making Cuphead. Every image for the game is hand drawn with painted backgrounds, and each animation is painstakingly imitative of the iconic cartoons. The game would fit right in next to titles such as Steamboat Willie or Popeye the Sailor Man. This makes even just watching the game a treat as you get to appreciate the details and hard work that was put into every image.
Cup is a refreshing dose of retro gaming that focuses on gameplay and can challenge any player’s patience and skill. Combined with the fantastic art style and wonderful soundtrack, it is an experience that is definitely worth the time and effort that goes into beating the game. Studio MDHR has managed to create a game that was worth the wait and the hype that preceded it and hopefully will inspire other developers in future game-making.