Cuphead Review: The Epitome of Cool

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There’s cool and then there’s Cuphead. Drawing inspiration from the surrealist non-children’s cartoons of Fleisher Productions and their 1930s contemporaries (besides the gratuitous racism), Studio MDHR’s freshman effort is an astounding aesthetic achievement. The hand animated stages and enemies are bursting with such an imaginative energy that the uphill battle against its brutal enemies are always worthwhile, if nothing else to see the next animation or boss design.

In emulating this long dead visual style, MDHR has revived this particular brand of dream-like fantasy, wavering between hellish and charming at the drop of a hat. The swaggering enemies call to mind the expressive character designs of the era that truly brought animation to life, individual personas coming to light in the length of a boss fight. MDHR’s meticulous use of cell-animation and watercolor painting has borne fruit to say the least. The accompanying soundtrack is equally genuine, a Jazz record that’s frantic pace is a perfect match for the bosh-rush style of gameplay. The catchy title song buzzes in my brain to this very day. In every aspect of its presentation Cuphead is near perfect. However, due to its unforgiving nature, the gameplay may prove more divisive for some.

Like many of the tales from the era it’s emulating, the story begins with Cuphead and his pal Mugman making a deal with the devil. As expected, this Faustian bargain goes poorly pretty quickly, a gambling mistake conscripting the young cups into Satan’s service as collectors of souls. Unfortunately for our heroes, these defaultees exist in the form of challenging bosses who will not give themselves up so easily.

While the look and style of the game are an homage to 30s cartoons, the gameplay takes a page from 80s arcade games like Gunstar Heroes. The majority of the content takes shape in grueling multi-stage boss fights, with occasional optional run-and-gun missions that award currency. Initially armed with just a pea shooter, Cuphead must jump, dash and parry his way through the gauntlets of boss transformations. After taking just three hits he is sent to an early grave, with no checkpoints to be found. This may prove to be the make or break aspect of the experience for many players, as initially many of these bosses simply feel invincible. But as the process of trial and error plays out, a neat graph presented on the death screen depicts your slow progress into each of the transformations. Many of these bosses demand patience and preserverance, inevitably weeding out a fair percentage of players who want immediate gratification.

By avoiding the use of checkpoints, a great deal of pressure is put on these bosses feeling fair. Impressively, almost every sequence of every foe feels as though it can be beaten by proper strategy and timing. The previously mentioned in-game currency is used to buy new weapons and passive upgrades. In Megaman-esque fashion, some of these projectiles fare much better against some bosses than others. But instead of this being based on a invisible damage property, certain weapons are better at different times simply because the trajectory and bullet spreads counter a given enemy’s move set. For instance, a boomerang move that curves behind its firing point is great for bosses that primarily attack from behind, while the shotgun is good for enemies that are frequently in your face. Additionally, all moves have an EX attack, which does more damage at the cost of meter. Figuring out the best strategy for battling each of the enemy phases is one of the most rewarding aspects of the boss designs.

But strategy means little without execution, and it usually feels as though the given movement tools are enough to dispatch the legion of defaultees. The parry mechanic, which negates the damage of pink attacks and causes a bounce affect, is an incredibly satisfying move to pull off, improving the odds against many onslaughts. The dash activates almost instantly, making even minimally telegraphed moves dodgeable. Despite the ornate animation, the controls feel responsive enough to deal with the significant challenge.

Although most moves are well telegraphed by expressive animations, occasionally the combination of enemy bullet patterns and general attacks can create situations that are virtually undodgeable from certain areas. While I’m sure there are ways of avoiding ending up in these situations, it’s still incredible frustrating to get hit by something that feels undodgable in such punishing game. If there is any notable failing in the boss designs this is it. Additionally, I personally found the occasional aerial bosses, in which you pilot a small plane, to be much less engaging than the normal boss fights. There just aren’t enough of these sequences to develop the core skills that are gained throughout the rest of the game. These parts also exacerbate the previously mentioned bullet spam issue.

But when the enemy patterns work, they make for some of the most memorable boss fights in any game I’ve ever played. Dodging row after row of bullets, bites, and flames, weathering the storm of increasingly intimidating transformations, and coming out the other side with the soul of your would be killer instills a state of flow and euphoria that competes with the best of old-school arcade games. Some of these encounters will continue to haunt my nightmares for a long time to come, and I’m not entirely sure how I survived the penultimate encounter. The positive feedback loop of conquering the blistering challenge of each fight, combined with the buffet of new gorgeous animated art is hard to refute. While the unforgiving boss fights definitely aren’t for everyone, its fully realized, singular style should be seen by as many as possible. Cuphead pushes the bounds of how games can look with its confident homage. While the way it plays doesn’t quite live up to its aesthetics, it’s still a deeply engaging challenge worth partaking in.

Rating: 9/10

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