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Cuphead review

cuphead

This game was a long time in the making. I remember when it was announced several years ago I was instantly hooked by the way the game looked. But year after year we’d get more footage, but no release date. Finally E3 2017 gave us a release date, and I could barely contain my hype.

Not much more to say here so let’s go straight to the review.

Read on!

Developer: StudioMDHR
Publisher: StudioMDHR
Date of Release: September 29th 2017
Platform: PC, Xbone (PC version reviewed)
Genre: Side-scrolling platformer

Rated E for Everyone

Presentation

Well if this game wins all the awards for best looking game of the year I would not be surprised in the slightest. It looks absolutely amazing.  It aims to replicate the “rubber hose” animation style of the 30s, and absolutely succeeds. Plus it runs at 60fps so you get exceedingly smooth animation. The animations on Cuphead and Mugman themselves are pretty simple, but the bosses are huge and there’s a lot going on with all of them. The wavy appendages and smooth rubbery movements and the ability for nearly any enemy to transform parts of their bodies into other things is just a marvel to look at. The fact that it imitates the style of those old cartoons (the most popular ones probably being from Fleischer Studios and Disney) makes me kinda sad that the few cutscenes aren’t also animated (instead they use still images). The boss animations, while all completely unique, all feel like I’ve seen them before, they’re very reminiscent of some of my memories of some of these old cartoons. I mean, all it took for me to be excited about this game was the very first trailer.

On the sound side of thing, well the soundtrack is amazing and I absolutely lack the music reviewing skills required to heap praise upon it. It is reminiscent of the era it tries to portray, and it does so perfectly. It has a big band kinda thing doing really cool jazz stuff, which is always fun and high-energy. There’s a ragtime band too which is a lot of fun. There’s a barbershop quartet which is really fun. I wish I were better at reviewing music… but man this soundtrack has a lot of awesome stuff. Plus it’s all original. On the sound effect side of thing, the weapons you use are a bit underwhelming but it makes sense since it rapid-fires and would get annoying if it was loud. As it is it works. There’s not much voice acting, but the voice acting that is there is the kind of low-quality stuff you might have heard in the 30s, and kinda creepy. It’s fine.

On the story side it is quite simplistic. Cuphead and Mugman gamble in the Devil’s casino, lose, beg for their lives (instead of being doomed to be the Devil’s cups to drink from) and are tasked by the Devil to reclaim the soul of people who owe the Devil a debt. So their grandfather Elder Kettle gives them a potion that has magic powers so they can shoot stuff from their fingers. Their goal? Pretend to work for the Devil and eventually fight him. I’ve heard some people say the story is extremely dark, but cartoons from the 30s had this odd tendency of being possibly even darker. Satan used to be a pretty common character in those cartoons, even up to Disney’s Fantasia (officially it’s “Chernabog”, but Walt himself said it was Satan). Check out something like Bimbo’s Initiation (which doesn’t even include Satan). In comparison Cuphead is pretty mild.

Gameplay

I’ve seen journalists compare this game to 2 things: Dark Souls and Mario. So here’s free advice for everyone: don’t read those sites.

Cuphead is a boss-focused platformer, with gameplay reminiscent of Contra, though there’s a bit more to it.

After the gruelingly difficult tutorial that only the most seasoned gamer could beat, you get a world map. It lets you access the shop, a few bosses and one of the run & gun levels (maybe 2, there’s a hidden shortcut as I recall). Beating a level or boss tends to modify the world map, giving you access to more bosses and levels. There’s King Dice’s buildings in-between the 3 main areas, separating them, and you can only go through if you bring him all the soul contracts from that area (AKA beat all the bosses).

So the base gameplay is pretty simple. You can move, jump, hold the shoot button and never let go (there’s really no reason to unless you have a weapon that charges), dash both in the air and on the ground, crouch (very low, more than you think you might), lock your movement to aim in all directions (you can also aim in all directions unless you’re on the ground while moving), use EX moves and use supers. Then there’s parrying, which can stop/destroy enemy bullets, or whole enemies… as long as they’re pink, and it uses the jump button so it can only be done in the air. Anything pink is a good target for parrying. Doing so also gives you one EX meter, up to a maximum of 5 (you also fill those up by hitting enemies with your normal shot). If you have less than 5 you do an EX attack based on the weapon you’re currently using at the cost of one meter, if you have all 5 you can use them all up to use one of 3 supers.

Also there’s levels that are shmup-style, so Cuphead takes to the sky with a single-seater plane old-timey plane. There’s eventually 2 weapons for the plane, and instead of dodging or locking in place to aim the plane can become miniature which reduces your hitbox, makes you faster and makes your gun shitty and short-range.

Your base weapon is the Peashooter, it’s actually pretty good despite the name and how straightforward it is. By finding gold coins hidden in the overworld or in the run & gun levels (which have 5 each), you can get into the store to buy new stuff. There’s 5 extra weapons to buy and a bunch of charms. You can equip up to 2 weapons at a time, and you switch between the 2 in battle. Charms are a passive bonus, you can equip one at a time. I usually go for extra health on the run & gun levels and coffee against the bosses, but you can also have an upgrade to your dash and several other things I don’t remember. There’s 3 supers, you get them from completing mausoleums which are quick challenge rooms where you try to stop ghosts from getting into a container (which always contains a chalice angel… gee I wonder if that’s a Bendy reference). In general the first super is the best (for me), but invincibility is really good in the run & gun stages. I really suck at using the Ghost super so I can’t really comment on that one, maybe it’s good, who knows.

So the bosses, which are the main focus of the game, are pretty awesome. They’re all fairly intricate. They all have several phases. The phases can either add more stuff to what they’re already doing, or they may change what the boss does entirely. So let’s say the boss does one or 2 attacks and you have to avoid those while dealing damage, their next form may add an extra attack that you have to avoid alongside all the stuff you already know, or the boss may just transform into other stuff and give you new patterns to learn. Some of the bosses will attack you with several random patterns, and you don’t know which one you get. So if they kill you, you may get different patterns/attacks than the previous time you fought them, or see them in a different order. All the bosses feel entirely different. With the fairly simple controls of Cuphead they managed to make a boss rush game where all the bosses are varied. It’s not just the visuals that are crazy, the gameplay design is top-notch as well. A lot of thought went into not only how the boss would crazily move, but what that would affect you.

The bosses are tough, but they’re not impossible, they’re all fair, and for the most part they telegraph their attacks enough that you could potentially react to them the first time (with a few exceptions, but I didn’t mind those). The biggest aspect of difficulty is having to memorize what the bosses are gonna do, so dying isn’t such a bad thing. Then even if you know the patterns, it’s about skill and being able to avoid enemy attacks. The game is punishing though, as any death will make you restart whatever boss or level you’re in, no matter how much of a boss rush level if might be. And there’s no way to heal yourself, except in one specific level.

The run & gun levels are okay. There’s some cool design here and there, but they kinda pale in comparison to the bosses. That said, this is were you get the majority of your gold coins, so get to it.

Glitches

I don’t want to dwell on this because they’ve been extremely minor so far. In a stream of someone else playing I saw Cuphead leave the screen completely (I believe after using his super in a flying level) and not coming back but the boss, its animations and its attacks were still going on (the Zeppelin boss) so the person had to restart. On my side, in the final boss I found an invisible, lingering, moving hitbox for one of his attacks… which you can avoid if you jump and dash, but it IS invisible so you’re likely to get hit by it anyways. One of the bosses, the monkey in the boss rush level, one of the times I fought it, went off the screen when I activated the phase where you can damage him and somehow gave me the victory (and a Steam achievement I absolutely do not deserve but will gladly take).

The game is mostly stable, I really only have those 2 weird circumstances and the one I saw on a stream. But I do need to mention this kinda stuff in a review. I also heard about some framerate issues but I got none. This game runs on a potato anyways.

Overall

This game is really fucking fun. The bosses are just so amazingly designed. The game is not only a blast to look at, or listen to, it’s also damn fun to play.

It’s hard, very much so. The 348 deaths I went through (maybe 15-20 of those were semi on purpose to switch equipment) are a testament to that. But I’ve talked about it. Deaths are because the design is really made to kill you, but enough skill and memorization will counteract that. No it’s not like Dark Souls.

Overall, buy this game now.

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