Murderous Melodies - Cuphead (REVIEW)
written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
Cuphead is a game I've been anticipating since the first day I laid eyes on it. Born from indie devs StudioMDHR Entertainment, run by brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer, Cuphead is the studio's first game... talk about starting out on a high note right?
The first thing anyone who checks out the game will notice are the visuals, Cuphead takes the distinct aesthetic of early 1900's era cartoons from Fleischer Studios, Disney, and influential cartoonists like Ub Iwerks and Grim Natwick; creating in my opinion the most visually striking title I have played in years! Running and jumping around as the titular Cuphead (or his player-2 cohort Mugman) looks like it was ripped right out of cartoons from that early era.
Utilizing techniques similar to animating 1930's cartoons, the hand-drawn character art stands out giving Cuphead a unique visual aesthetic in a sea of pixelated run-and-gun side scrollers. There were moments I forgot I was even playing a video game and instead registered this as watching a cartoon. While I've always said that visuals alone can't hold up a game; Cuphead is one where even if the gameplay was absolute shit, it would retain some value to play. Thankfully, as sublime of an experience it was to just look at the game... Cuphead's gameplay was just as exquisite.
If you grew up playing run-and-gun shooters like Contra, jumping in to Cuphead will feel familiar. Run, jump, dodge, parry, shoot; it's a simple premise but one that opens up a plethora of ways to engage in combat. Your primary fire is bound to one button with jump and dash bound to others. Holding down the jump button over simply tapping it allows you to jump higher. Some projectiles can be parried as well, hit the jump button and immediately before registering being hit... tap jump again and you can successfully parry the attack, in two-player mode you can bring back a fallen comrade by parrying his spirit before it floats up to the heavens. Tilting the left analog stick on your controller aims your shots in one of eight directions, the right bumper lets you stand in place while shooting/aiming in multiple directions. As you rack up damage on foes, you build up your super meter... letting you attack with a more powerful super-move.
Collecting coins during run-and-gun levels allows you to purchase upgrades to your arsenal, from augmenting your primary fire to more passive perks like an additional point of HP or giving you a free parry on your first attempt. Going forward, I would urge you to be careful with what you do purchase, the worst thing you can do for your game is to purchase an ability that doesn't fit into your gameplay style.
Cuphead is unforgiving in the sweetest possible way. Failing to complete a level or defeat a boss flashes a progress screen before letting you choose to retry, exit to the map, or quit the game entirely. Other Cuphead players will know the biting sense of disappointment when you see that you are VERY close to the end when your last point of HP vanishes. Spatial awareness and fully understanding the platforming mechanics is paramount to your success. The only way you'll be able to survive the onslaught is to dodge everything; easier said than done when projectiles fly toward you from practically every direction. Unlike other run-and-gun platformers, the world isn't littered with power ups and health items. Every level you play needs to be played nearly perfect to survive, there is very little wiggle room for error here.
While Cuphead is incredibly difficult, it's also one of the most rewarding gaming experiences I've had in a very long time. While dying near the end of a level is indeed demoralizing, beating a level or narrowly taking down a boss with 1 HP left was truly a euphoric experience. I could lose a level 20 times in a row... and granted I'd get tilted as the failed attempts racked up... but that 21st time where I finally beat the level gives me an incredible high I can't even begin to describe.
To be honest, I can't even blame the controls on my failed attempts. Gameplay is snappy and intuitive; despite the simplistic presentation, controls are so well-tuned that even when I failed I knew exactly what I did wrong and why it happened. My only gripe with the controls is a weird little bug during 2-player mode where after dying the controller would still rumble until the next point I took damage.
Much of the story involves Cuphead and Mugman tackling several boss levels to collect their souls, after losing big at the Devil's casino, the flatware duo has to repay a debt to the Devil or forfeit their own souls. These missions are all found on the colorful world map and can be tackled in whatever order you deem fit. Some parts of the map remain blocked off until you complete a run-and-gun level or a boss stage. This never felt constricting and though the game doesn't offer much for exploration, that's okay because exploring the world isn't the point of Cuphead.
Cuphead is all about the gameplay, while the driving force behind not losing their souls pushes our heroes to take on insurmountable odds, the meat and potatoes of the experience is all in the levels. From expertly crafted run-and-gun levels to boss stages that pushed me harder than I've ever been pushed before, Cuphead is like if Contra, Steamboat Willy, and Dark Souls had a baby... and boy what a baby it is...
5 OUT OF 5
Ridiculously sublime... so good!
+ Gorgeous visuals
+ Unique style and aesthetics
+ Tight controls
- I got nuthin'