Cuphead

September 20, 2019

Cuphead is one of the best games I've ever played. Beautiful artwork and aesthetic! Props to the Studio MDHR for producing such a classic! Once you hear the story behind the making of it, you'll really be inspired to go out there and put everything you have into a passion project.

 

There has never been a game that looks like this and there may never be again. Every scene is a masterwork – it’s a near-unbelievable achievement for an art style.

 

The plot is actually quite ingenious: Cuphead features one or two players taking control of animated characters Cuphead and his brother Mugman to fight through several levels that culminate in boss fights as to repay their debt to the devil.

 

Announced in the summer of 2014, Cuphead cultivated a fandom around its art style, an homage to 1930s cartoons from Disney and Fleischer Studios. Brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer, along with animator Jake Clark, meshed the hand-drawn art with the run-and-gun genre popularized by pixelated games like Mega Man. The result is a throwback on a throwback, an ode to the good old days of games and animation alike.

To collect these souls, the brothers basically have to shoot the hell out of everyone, kill them, collect their souls and hand them over to the devil. But of course these cheerful pieces of crockery don’t want to be in league with the devil, so they hatch a plan. That plan still involves killing everything in sight, but at least it might have a happy ending.

 

Inkwell Isle is divided into four separate sections, and to clear each one you have to collect all the soul contracts on that island. This means fighting a series of bosses, which forms the central premise. But to do this, you’ll need upgrades; guns and charms which can be bought with coins.

 

 

But it is the bosses where the game really shines, artistically and mechanically. The game utilizes its 1930s cartoon style with aplomb, depicting pugilist toads, malicious genies, sexy squid girls and violent vegetables. Part of the pleasure of Cuphead is discovering what weird and wonderful individual is going to show up next. The animations are sublime and energetic, while easy to read cues mean that the style is not only gorgeous, but functionally excellent as well.

 

Fighting these creatures is a joy. Whether you’re using the default pea shooter, the close range spread shot, or any one of the other four gun types available, fights are varied and energetic. They really possess that sense of ‘this is impossible’ followed by ‘I see how to do this’ and then ‘I’ve nailed this’.

 

If you are struggling on a fight, mixing up your load out - guns, as well as one of the various charms, including an invincibility dodge or an extra health point - can change the course of the bout dramatically. And when you die, a progress bar shows you how far into the fight you got, and how many phases of the boss are left. It’s a game designed around teaching you how to get better at it, with everything from the character animations to the post-death screen giving you clues on how to develop your skill.

Learning the bosses' attack pattern is oftentimes half the battle, and it's typical to run through a fight multiple times until you see everything that might get thrown your way. Every boss fight consists of multiple stages or forms. Bosses will change shape, position, and behavior with each new phase. And within an individual phase, you may see as many as four different attacks, though you aren't always guaranteed to see them all during subsequent fights. When bosses begin to mix multiple attacks at once, the potential for various deadly combos keeps you on your toes no matter how familiar you are with the fight in question.

Cuphead unlocks new weapons and abilities rapidly, allowing for further experimentation in pursuit of the optimal way to beat any given boss. In a fight, Cuphead can carry two weapons, a bonus power and a special attack at all times. A thoughtful loadout can impact the difficulty of a stage. For example, a stage with swarms of enemies benefits from a powerful short-range attack, a buff that automatically accumulates special attacks and a screen-clearing super move. Meanwhile, a humongous boss who fires large projectiles calls for homing bullets, a buff that prevents damage while dodging and a special move that grants brief invincibility.

For anyone interested in getting a taste of Cuphead without facing almost-guaranteed defeat, there are simpler versions of every boss that you can fight--but you won't be able to access the final battle unless you beat every standard boss on the normal difficulty. And in reality, you may as well stick with the standard fights as Cuphead is relentless no matter how you play.

 

Cuphead has been a longtime coming, and it's great to see that it lives up to its initial promises across all platforms. It's beautiful to look at, and with a pitch-perfect soundtrack, it flawlessly captures the era its developers so clearly revere. It's also an intense action game that pulls no punches. It could benefit from a few tweaks, and two-player co-op doesn't feel like the valuable addition you might imagine, but Cuphead remains a rare, unique game that truly stands out.

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