StudioMDHR‘s action-platformer Cuphead doesn’t only boast lavish 30ies cartoon graphics and a stellar jazz soundtrack, but offers a tough challenge for even the most seasoned gamer.
(Canada 2017, developer/publisher: StudioMDHR, platforms: PC, Xbox One)
After losing at the Devil’s Casino on Inkwell Isle, young Cuphead and Mugman have to collect the soul contracts of runaway debtors if they don’t want him to take their own for payment.
A cartoon world to explore
The overall storyline doesn’t offer much in the way of surprises, even if the Inkwell Isles have an illustrious cast of wacky characters. While one can talk to them, they only explain parts of the gameplay and provide hints for a few challenges which are usually about the way how one completes levels and beats bosses.
As one simply walks from one run-and-gun level, boss or mini-game to the next, exploring the world to look for secret shortcuts or coins for buying items and weapons feels rather shallow. If one wants to make up stories about each character and place, it’s certainly a great setting, but neither the plot nor dialogues help to establish a real connection between the world and the player.
Different levels of challenges
The game is divided into both run-and-gun levels and boss fights, with the latter dominating most of the playtime. There’s a mini-game that takes place in various crypts where one defends an urn from ghosts by jumping on their heads at the right moment, but it’s simply practice for parrying attacks from colored projectiles during boss fights and not particularly engaging.
Completing the run-and-gun levels is necessary for picking up coins that can be used to buy weapons and perks in a shop, with only two of the former and one of the latter equipped at the same time. However, unlike other shoot-em-ups where one is rewarded with better gear the further one progresses, most of these are rather useless, except maybe for a teleport item or a target-seeking weapon that make evading projectiles and enemies easier. It’s telling that the final boss can still be beaten with the same weapon one started with, making the whole idea of shopping pointless.
The only reason one buys perks and weapons is to see how they work in certain situations. But with the game saving automatically after each purchase, one is stuck with the new additions, no matter if they are helpful or not. Switching between weapons only helps in some boss fights, but it’s again not essential. With some boss fights requiring Cuphead or Mugman (who play identically, anyway) to fly in aeroplanes which don’t use any of the purchased equipment, it makes even less sense to save up for them.
Running, gunning and boss fighting
Few of the run-and-gun levels are imaginative or fun to play due to the unfair placement of enemies and many pitfalls that can’t be predicted, resulting in lots of trial-and-error moments. As the levels can be skipped, one soon asks oneself why one should go through the whole ordeal of completing them, especially since one has to start from the beginning each time one dies due to missing savepoints and only one life (which also applies to boss fights).
Each boss fight is unique and memorable, consisting of various phases that require different strategies. Without a visible life bar for the enemies, the only way to know how far one has progressed is after dying and seeing how close Cuphead or Mugman have come to the finish line, making it both frustrating and motivating to start again. One should be aware that every level only takes a couple of minutes to complete, but often hours of frustrating practice.
Challenging to the extreme
The difficulty of the game is extremely high and even if there’s a simple mode, one is only allowed to fight against the final boss (and thus finishing the game) by beating every single boss in the regular version. This option could be used as practice and a serve as a preview of the different phases, but as these throw other unexpected things at the player, its inclusion is partly helpful.
A case of luck and randomness
Frustration is kept at a constant high, because unlike other old-school platformers or run-and-gun games in which one can learn attack patterns, in this case they’re often random and unfair, which is very noticeable in the boss fights. So it’s not surprising that the last level’s boss rush is presented as a boardgame in which hitting a rolling dice can lead to an easy or tough battle, depending on the enemy.
In addition, one can receive an additional health upgrade which makes it more likely to survive each new round, but if one is out of luck, one can be thrown back to the start of the boardgame and fight bosses one has skipped before, turning it into a tedious experience. However, despite all the frustration, beating each boss is extremely rewarding, and not just because of its humorous demise animations.
The end of suffering or a new devilish beginning
After one has finally completed the game, an expert mode is unlocked, although few players will have reached that point. There are also two different endings, with one of them made available by simply choosing a different answer to the devil’s question, which allows the player to see the credits without fighting against him and be “rewarded” by the title music played backwards, which is a nice touch.
Welcome to the 30ies
The presentation is a dream come true for 30ies cartoon fans, as the graphics offer outstanding hand-drawn characters and backgrounds that could be out of an old Walt Disney or Tex Avery short movie, accompanied by an amazing ragtime and big band jazz soundtrack, in addition to a few other nice classic instrumental pieces that fit the atmosphere for each level. Voice acting is kept to a minimum, but is done just as well.
A very special kind of cartoon mayhem
Cuphead is a game for hardcore gamers and people who have both fast reflexes and nerves of steel. Every boss fight is a tough challenge and beating the highly imaginative enemies is a reward in itself. However, as much as the game tries to imitate classic arcade games like Contra, Metal Slug, Gunstar Heroes or even home console titles like Super Mario Bros, the platformer segments aren’t a lot of fun and are instead frustratingly unfair. As the weapon and item shop system only adds to variety, but doesn’t necessarily make things easier, it’s another questionable design decision.
It goes without saying that the game looks and sounds fantastic with its cartoon graphics and era-appropriate music, even if there’s not much content in terms of story or characters to remember it. Only those with a penchant for failure and learning from mistakes will enjoy the title, with everyone else simply left behind crying in a puddle of their own tears. So playtime varies between 10 or 20 hours, depending on how many retries one needs.
Buy the game for Xbox One on
the Xbox store