Available On: Xbox One, PC
Developer: Studio MDHR
Publisher: Studio MDHR
Official Site: http://www.cupheadgame.com/
Release Date: 9/29/17
Where To Buy: Steam, Xbox Marketplace
Games from the 1980s and ’90s were traditionally brutal and difficult. As gamers grew up and the gaming culture expanded to wider audiences, games became easier and more accessible. Certain games have attempted to replicate that difficulty from decades ago, most notably the Dark Souls franchise. The latest Xbox exclusive to release replicates this formula but with a unique twist.
Cuphead from Studio MDHR is a sidescroller-platformer-shoot-em-up in perhaps one of the most unique art styles done in games. In a “Steamboat Willy” style, you play as Cuphead, and Mugman if you’re playing co-op, an adorable little character who gets into some deep trouble with the devil after getting a little too greedy in a night of gambling. In order for your soul not to be taken, you’re sent out to claim the souls of other debtors to him. With some advice and assistance from Elder Kettle and the wares of Porkrind, the shopkeeper, you set off into Inkwell Isle to battle various bosses and platforming sections.
The whole Cuphead game is separated into three separate worlds before the finale, and each world is divided between boss battles and platforming levels. Boss battles help to advance to the next world while the platforming levels are made for coin collecting to increase your arsenal and abilities. Each boss has its own set of abilities that make their fight feel different from the others. The separations of these two different types of gameplay actually do a lot to make sections feel re-playable.
This last note is good because Cuphead is nothing if not incredibly hard. Given only three hits before you have to restart the level, each battle is incredibly difficult to navigate as a number of different obstacles will be thrown at you. As you progress through each fight, more and more things are thrown at you until the final knockout punch. While there are two separate difficulties, simple and regular, the simple only removes some of the difficulty but not enough to truly make a difference.
What the game does best is capitalize on the “one more try” feeling that so many games from childhood managed to do. I can’t count the number of times (fortunately there is an in-game counter) I died, saw the progress bar, and dove back in for another shot. The game does everything in its power to make you want to jump back into tough battles and finally achieve that victory. Even when the game is hard enough to make me want to walk away, I can’t stop thinking about the levels and how to improve.
The two best things the game does overall are the unmatched art style and the perfect soundtrack. When you start the game up, you’re greeted by the bouncing characters and a delightful barbershop quartet song about them. Every inch of this game feels like it was laced with the love and care of Saturday morning cartoons. Playing in this world feels unreal and it’s hard to not a feel a smile creep across your face. This lovely art and music help balance out the pain and punishment of trying new boss fights for the first time.
If I had any complaints about the game, it would be that certain aspects of the boss fights are randomized. In each stage of the boss fights, different obstacles can be thrown your way. The problem is that some of these are fairly easy to avoid and others are incredibly difficult. Balancing this randomized effect with the fact that you only have three hits till death mean that you could get a set of very unlucky combinations that make for an even harder fight.
On top of this, the game’s difficulty makes it not very approachable for less experienced gamers. This is disappointing only in the sense that I can’t speak more highly of everything else the game does. The lovely art style and music that make this experience so great are likely to be kept out by a barrier of entry from the game’s toughness. While I appreciate the difficulty from an old-school gamer perspective, it does make me wish that there were more approachable difficulties for others who may not be accustomed to it.
Verdict: When Cuphead was announced, I was extremely excited for it. When they disappeared for a few years, I couldn’t help but feel nervous for the end result. When I loaded it up and saw the adorable figures and listened to the vintage soundtrack, I immediately had a good feeling. And when I died the first twenty times and then finished the first boss, I knew I was playing something special. Though it is intensely difficult, it’s also an incredibly rewarding experience.
- Lovable characters
- Excellent art and soundtrack
- Nails the "one more try" experience
- Randomization in boss fights causes frustration
- Incredibly difficult barrier of entry for newcomers