This playable cartoon looks old school, but your skills better be!
Hey all you cool hip cats out there, have you heard about Cuphead? He’s a cool swingin’ jive daddio that got mixed up with the wrong side of the tracks along with his pal Mugman- nope, wait… stop… let’s just forget about that…. Even though this game looks like a 1930’s cartoon, I just don’t feel I could keep up with this. I am definitely not cool enough. So with just a little bit of regular old me mixed in, let me tell you about their adventures.
You have probably heard about Cuphead over the last few years. It has this jaw dropping, aesthetically pleasing cartoon style that makes you think way back to Merry Melodies or Steamboat Willie. We first saw Cuphead announced at E3 2014. The game received a lot of praise for its hand drawn art style and brutally hard boss battles. In fact, the game consisted only of boss battles! Two brothers running a little unknown Canadian studio called MDHR decided to show off their little game. But their little game made big impressions, and the brothers realized they had a long way to go, and wanted to add more. At least, a lot more than they had first anticipated.
A year passes, we see a little more. Then another year passes, and some of us are starting to lose hope. Not that the game will release, but that it will live up to its expectations so to speak. This has been known to happen from time to time, with one game in particular called No Man’s Sky. Good game, but just didn’t quite deliver on what was promised after being delayed and hyped up. Another(albeit older) example would be Fable. All the way back when it was called Project Ego, it promised a great many things that just didn’t make it into the final version of the game, or they were very underwhelming for those that were following it. Still turned out to be a solid game. Was Cuphead going to follow suit?
After around three years of waiting, I can safely tell you Cuphead delivered on what MDHR wanted it to be. I have very few complaints here, which will be discussed, but I have to get something out of the way first. Most people are calling this game the Dark Souls of 2D run and gun type games. I get that it is cool to call something the “Dark Souls” of whatever, but come on. Having been through all the Souls games and Bloodborne, I can tell you they are hard, but manageable. And I get that you could reference the boss battles of each, but we are missing something here. Ever played Ninja Gaiden? How about Battletoads? Or even the more obvious Megaman or Contra? This is more in line with Cuphead, because the game was set out to be a throwback in every sense of the word. Not just from the art style, but even the mechanics of the game.
We see the game open up just like an old cartoon, complete with a catchy intro about Cuphead and his pal Mugman gambling at a casino, and they were on a hot streak. Well, this being the Devil’s casino, he didn’t much like the two taking all of his money. But he senses something else, and offers the two a bet. Win, and they would get everything in the casino. Lose, and the Devil will get their sooouuuuls! Queue Charlie Daniels. But unlike Johnny, Cuphead did not win, and the Devil was now going to collect. But Cuphead pleaded that there must be another way! So the Devil had some people that owed him, and told Cuphead and Mugman that if they collected the bounties, they could keep their souls. And away we go!
The game consists of three overworlds along with a final area where you can move around to go to the next fight. There are people to talk to, a shop to spend your coins on, and even two run and gun levels in each world, similar to Contra. But the meat of the game does consist of boss battles. And these inhabitants won’t go willingly without a fight! The controls have a very tight, spot on feel. And they need to be with all the jumping, ducking, and shooting you will be doing while moving around to avoid attacks and time up your shots. An early example would be a giant angry potato that spits out dirt and worms at you. Why are the worms pink? Well, if you played the tutorial(and hopefully finished it!) you will know that pressing the jump button a second time in midair will allow you to perform a parry move on pink objects. This is a must on later boss fights, and also counts as part of your grade when finishing the boss or level. There is also a dash move that you can do on the ground or in the air. Learn to use everything you have available. It seems like forever, and you are still putting shots into the potato. And he finally goes down! Yes! But then a giant onion appears in the middle of the screen. It is crying! Avoid the tears and parry the pink ones. The onion is down. Time to breathe a sigh of relief. Or not, as a giant carrot now uses telekinesis to throw smaller carrots at you and shoot a mind ray out in your direction to throw off your dodging! You only have three hit points, and you are down to your last one. You go right when you should have went left. You die. And on the screen will be something that you will become quite familiar with. It is a progress bar that shows each stage of the boss separated by little flagpoles. While each seems like a milestone, getting right to the very end and dying can be really frustrating at times. But then you hit retry.
The sense of triumph is all worth it when you hear- Knockout! And see the words across the screen. You have done it. All the work has paid off, and your skills are being refined the whole time. This might deter some from actually finishing the game, but I promise you it is worth it. I got stuck more than a few times, but I never wanted to put the game down. It had me hooked. And what took an hour or more on a boss after repeatedly hitting retry, actually only takes minutes to accomplish. While difficult, the game never made me feel like I had been cheated, or that it was rigged for me to lose. I was always thinking of ways I could have been better, or even restarting the battle if I got hit early on. Getting hit also counts towards your grade. And just when you think you are getting comfortable, the game straps Cuphead in a bomber style plane and you have some side scrolling R-Type boss action. You have standard machine guns, and eventually a bomb that arcs through the air. Both have their own strengths, that you use along with being able to shrink and move around faster to dodge. But the catch is, your machine gun is weaker, and won’t travel very far across the screen, forcing you out of that mode most of the time to deal damage to the boss.
Whether on foot or flying, you will notice these playing cards that are slowly building up at the bottom of the screen. That is your super meter. Build one card up, and unleash an attack that reflects what weapon you have equipped. Build up all five and you can perform a super move, assuming you have unlocked them through certain levels in the game. One has you shooting milk out of your cup…head to deal massive damage. One grants you a sustained temporary invincibility. The third sees a ghost you attacking while you still fight, having to control both. I never cared for the last one, and never really used it. In plane form you turn into a giant missile, and you maneuver your way to the boss and explode. They are all fun to experiment with, and help you find a play style that fits you. Don’t like the regular finger blaster? Buy one that spreads out like the Contra spread weapon. Having trouble landing shots? Trade power for a homing bullet that while deals out less damage, will see you landing hits almost every time. Although if there is a lot going on the screen, your homing missile might target something else, making the fight harder than intended. How about a fourth and even a fifth heart to give you extra health? It is at the cost of the damage you deal though. The smoke dash gives you some breathing room because it makes you invincible while you dash. Almost a must on certain bosses. There are a wide variety of weapons that will help you against different bosses. Or just use the regular finger blaster the whole time, it is totally possible. Harder, but possible.
Speaking of harder, let’s talk about Mugman joining the fray! At first, I was very disappointed that the co op wasn’t online. After putting significant time into this game both by myself and with a friend, I can say this would be very hard to pull off. The timing has to be pinpoint precise during some points, and having just a tiny bit of lag will get you killed. Even playing this game on the same Xbox is frustrating at times. For starters, the bosses get more health, adding more time you have to dodge and dash which can lead to death. Not to mention the bosses where there is so much on the screen, it can be crazy at times to keep up with what is going on when you add another player moving around. Now don’t get me wrong, it still made for fun times yelling at the tv, or a friend, and then laughing when you beat the boss, sharing that triumphant moment together! So I am on the fence about it. I would still like to see online play there, but it might bring the game down for most if you can’t have that lag free experience, bringing you to that progress screen being so close.
The amount of detail that went into this game is astounding. From the hand drawn classic cartoon style mixed with responsive gameplay, what are we missing? The music! Which I find myself now humming right next to the greats. That catchy swingin’ jazz will be in your head for days. Some seem awfully familiar, which will lead you to getting other tunes stuck in your head. While the overall time may seem like an eternity for the development of this game, it has paid off in every way. I found myself asking- was it too long? Too short? And it can be argued for both. On one hand, when it takes forever to beat one boss, this game can go on forever. But after you have gotten most of the bosses down, you can fly through it beating bosses in minutes. So I would say it is about the right length. Difficult at first, adding length. Once mastered, you can go for higher grades, expert difficulty, and so on. The experience seeing each fight unfold will stick with you for sure. I am still playing it well after drilling that old Devil.
Whether on PC or Xbox, I highly recommend you see what this game is all about. Pick up a controller, solo or with a friend, and test your old school skills. Now I have to go put on my swingin’ clothes and jive to the Dark Souls that is Cuphead. On my couch.
That colorful hand drawn art style!
Seeing all the boss battles unfold is truly a treat
Sometimes too hectic for co op, but would eventually like to see a working online co op
I can see the difficulty turning some away, but stick with it!