I’m honestly not sure how a game like Cuphead exists. It celebrates a culture from so long ago, a 30’s animation style that seems lost compared to whatever Pixar usually pumps out these days. For that matter, it also celebrates a classic run-and-gun style of play in games that we haven’t seen in years. So it’s “vintage” in every aspect of the word, and yet here it is, for modern audiences to enjoy. And, honestly, I’m thrilled.
That’s because Cuphead has been in production for quite a while. Initially introduced a couple of years ago, the game is built on an interesting premise, and each time we’ve heard about a delay – or worse yet, not anything at all – we winced at the thought that the game might not ever see the light of day. But then, during its E3 2017 presentation, Studio MDHR quelled our fears and gave the game a specific release date – and it’s finally arrived. And how.
Before I gush about the many abundant features of the game, let’s go ahead and get the story out of the way. It follows two usual schmoes, Cuphead and Mugman, as they make their way to the Devil’s Casino to let off some steam in their quiet little world. But then Cuphead gets a little too much into his gambling, and the next thing the team knows, they owe the Devil their souls.
But he strikes a deal. It’s not their pithy souls that he’s after, but a few that have managed to elude his grasp. So he offers them a release from their debt if they can hunt down his targets and collect their contracts, with their souls intact. But these are no ordinary prey, as you’ll have to contend with everything from a candy castle run amok to the world’s angriest flower to an actress that isn’t prepared to go down without a fight.
During its initial design, Cuphead was meant to be a boss rush style of game, where you took on enemy after enemy in epic encounters. I would’ve been fine with that, as the boss battles are some of the most wonderfully designed since the days of Contra III: The Alien Wars. Don’t believe me? Just get to Balloon Man and see how well his defenses hold up. I’ll wait.
But Studio MDHR decided to mix things up a bit with some “run and gun” stages (that’s what they’re called), where you take on smaller enemies while dodging obstacles that can’t be hit (like woodpeckers that drop down to drill into the ground, and maybe even you). These are vital, because you can pick up coins that you can use to buy power-ups, like a classic spread gun (with small range) and a hunter weapon that hits enemies, but doesn’t have that much power.
You buy from this inspired one-eyed pig shopkeeper (“WELCOME!”) that offers up a variety of goods, so you have more than enough initiative to run back through and get every coin – even if it seems impossible. There are also mausoleums where, if you have the right defensive skills, you can pick up some great super skills as well, including a strong Cuphead-esque ghost that delivers multiple hits on an enemy.
Anyway, let’s talk about the challenge for a minute, because…my God. Studio MDHR was probably sitting around and going, “Hey, you know how Contra III is hard? Let’s go beyond that.” Boy, have they. Cuphead is quite a challenge when you take on the “Regular” boss encounters, as they continuously transform and throw more stuff at you. Even the opening boss battles are like this, as you take on a pair of boxing frogs that inexplicably transform into a slot machine that stops at nothing to squash you flat.
And it’s not just on the ground either, as some stages have Cuphead and Mugman climbing into airplanes and shooting at foes, “bullet hell” style. At least, that’s a good term, again considering the challenge. These may be my favorite stages, if only because it gives each boss a little more room to stretch out and go nuts – like a unicycling bug that suddenly feels like taking moon-shaped aspirations.
But it’s the good kind of hard. You’ll get frustrated, sure (I died 300 something times playing this game), but you never feel discouraged to the point that the game is impossible. It pushes you on to make you really work for your rewards, and when you get there, there’s no better feeling from it. There are also “Simple” boss battles if you need a breather, but to get to the game’s finale, you need to beat them all on regular. No easy way out here.
Thankfully, the game’s controls offer plenty of solace. The run and gun style of controls are tight and responsive, and the special techniques really come in handy, especially when you need to deliver one last crucial hit on a boss before they try and crush you. (Like the blue dude scooting around in the tombstone. Yikes.) I’m also a fan of the awesome parry technique, where you can bounce off pink objects with a well-timed jump and give yourself some additional height, or get out of harm’s way for a second. (And you’ll need that.)
Better yet, the game rewards you happily for your skills. At the end of each stage, you’ll see a screen with “The results!” that breaks down how you did. Grades are awarded, and the better you do (and the faster you dispatch a boss), the higher the grade is. This is a great side goal for you completionists that really want to “nail” a stage – though you’ll have your work cut out for you.
There are also some great bonuses to unlock in Cuphead that, again, come with effort, such as a cool black-and-white vintage mode (hope you like not shooting in run and gun stages), as well as an option that makes the game even harder. This is good, since you basically only have three worlds to run through before reaching the final boss battle. And we won’t spoil it, but…wow.
There is no online multiplayer, sadly, but Studio MDHR is talking about including it. But local fans will appreciate the fact that local multiplayer works like a charm, and working in tandem to defeat a boss is a refreshing feeling. On top of that, you can actually save a chum if he’s been defeated, as you can bonk his/her ghost and resurrect them if needed. And, yes, you will need them. It’s a great dynamic, and even if online isn’t added, I’m more than happy with this system.
That brings Cuphead’s art style into focus, and it’s magnificent. The hand-drawn quality of the game is the best we’ve seen in some time, as Studio MDHR has literally paid attention to every aspect to make sure it emulates the classic 30’s style. The final boss battle alone is a real eye-opener, just because you’ll be in such awe as to how it’s executed. It’s a beautiful, lovely game, with a fine use of coloring, animation, background design and savvy open-world map. It even has a filter for that old school film feeling. Wow.
Speaking of which, the open world map is awesome. Though some objectives aren’t so easy to find, it’s great to see what kind of world Cuphead and Mugman dwell, and what kind of dangers await. It’s also awesome to see some side characters contribute, even though that cheeseburger simply doesn’t trust banks. Hey, it is the depression period, after all.
Oh, and the music? Truly divine. The team has put together a wondrous soundtrack spilling over with 30’s style show tunes and jazz that really fits the action better than I could’ve expected. Some of the songs are a blast too, particular King Dice’s riff when you just don’t have enough souls to get in just yet. Give all these songs a listen. The sound effects and voiceovers are fun, too, especially the announcer at the beginning, who sounds like he’s primed to call some old-school fights. So, of course, it’s fitting.
Would I have liked to have seen more stages in Cuphead? Sure, but I’ll bet that Studio MDHR wants to save some content for the inevitable sequel, because these adventures need to continue. Outside of that, this game is pretty much perfect. Hard? Yep. Embracing an old-school style that we’ve never thought we’d see? Yep. But still damn well perfect.
Cuphead nails everything the best it can. The art style is incredible and really brings this awesome world to life; the music is wonderful and toe tapping; and the gameplay will definitely put your best Contra and Metal Slug skills to work. Plus, you’ll be promptly rewarded for putting in your best effort and powering up the right way, instead of taking the easy way out (though that’s still an option if you need to calm down.) So, in other words, this game pretty much has everything – and does it all soooo well.
Don’t be surprised if we bring up this game during our “best of 2017” discussion. There’s simply nothing like Cuphead – and it’s a gosh darn marvel to behold.
RATING: Five out of five stars.
Disclaimer: A review code was provided by the publisher.