Written by Andrew Busch // Edited by Drew Beyer // Images courtesy of Studio MDHR
Studio MDHR’s Cuphead is a run-and-gun side-scroller that follows closely in the footsteps of 2D action titans like Megaman and Super Mario. Like these predecessors, the game requires precise timing, platforming skills, and pattern recognition to beat bosses and progress through the four main areas of the game. But, Cuphead is much more than an attempt to recreate the glory days of side-scrollers and platformers. It is a unique game with its own challenging twists and incredible art style that pays homage to the era of 1930’s Cel Animation.
Don’t let the cheery and nostalgic art style fool you. Cuphead is a challenging game that demands dozens of attempts to beat just a single boss or level. In fact, some of these battles are akin to encounters in Dark Souls or Bloodborne. However, Cuphead offers a different kind of challenge. You won’t need to do any extensive back-tracking in Cuphead because the frustration comes from the sheer unpredictability and difficulty of the bosses. The multi-phase combat gets even more challenging with each stage causing you to constantly change your strategies and adapt to the new moves that each enemy has up their sleeve. And with only three or four hit points (depending on player upgrades), the margin for error is extremely small.
This leads to my major beef with Cuphead. The game lacks consistency. In some ways, you could spin this positively. The fact that the stages for each boss aren’t always the same gives the game replay value. It also allows for the stars to align at certain moments giving you that one perfect opportunity to beat a boss. However, for the most part this randomness creates unneeded frustration and will have you bringing up the menu to hit “RETRY” when you get an undesirable stage during a boss fight.
Hilda Berg is a perfect example of how inconsistency will break you. As you battle her, she takes the form of certain astrological symbols. Once you damage her enough in her normal form she will always turn into Taurus in the second stage of the fight. However, after beating her normal form again in the third stage she can change into either Gemini or Sagittarius. This is where all you can do is hope that luck is on your side. If you get Sagittarius, you are screwed. He is a giant centaur that shoots humongous arrows in your direction surrounded in a cloud of small stars. This isn’t a normal arrow. It is a giant tracking missile with laser precision. If it doesn’t ruin your day one of the stars that hunt you down will. On the other hand, if you get the Gemini Twins you have smooth sailing ahead. They just make a portal that shoots a straight line of projectiles in a counter clockwise pattern that is pretty easy to dodge.
This incongruent split between the difficulty of Hilda’s phases is an example of how randomness destroys your agency as a player in Cuphead. More often than not, it is up to random chance if you will beat a boss. I found that if I got the right phases I was set up for success, but if I got unlucky I would eventually just start hitting “RETRY”.
At the same time, the fact that Cuphead does not grant players immediate gratification for their efforts is a reason why I keep returning to the game. If I ever have a few spare minutes I will take a crack at a boss battle. Each time I learn just a little bit more and get even closer to success. This element is not only rewarding when you finally take down one of the Devil’s debtors, but it also keeps the game extremely addicting.
Cuphead’s combat is also a major highlight of this game. The screen erupts with chaotic explosions of color as you battle your way through each major encounter. And while keeping up with the pace is sometimes difficult, its frantic action will continue to keep you on the edge of your seat. Also, the upgrades and new weapons, dubbed “firing modes”, keep combat from ever getting too stale. Each ability impacts how you approach a boss, how much damage you deal, and even how close you need to stand to them. This adds an added layer of strategy to the game and will cause you to make some difficult choices. For example, you could upgrade your character to have a dash ability that makes you invulnerable for a split second or use the same slot for an extra heart. These choices might seem small, but ultimately, they will make-or-break your success as you face some of Cuphead’s toughest enemies.
Finally, this wouldn’t be a Cuphead review unless I talked about the beautiful art style and the creative characters that Chad and Maja Moldenhaur have dreamed up for this game. Each of their bosses and basic enemies feel and move like the characters of 1930s cartoons. Even though the game’s characters borrow from this tradition, they are all unique creations with their own personality. One of my favorite villains so far is Beppi the Clown. At the beginning of the battle he looks like a normal cartoon clown, but as the encounter escalates he becomes a monstrous, demonic, carnival-themed beast. The more that I play this game the more I realize that the creative art style that Studio MDHR delivers works as the perfect medium to deliver the frenzied action of Cuphead’s gameplay.
Cuphead’s agonizing difficulty, explosive combat, and impeccable art style are just a couple of my favorite elements of this game so-far. Currently, I am only about a third of the way through the game so I am looking forward to returning to the Inkwell Isles to die another thousand times. And once I finally make it through Cuphead’s grueling tests of my self-esteem and patience, you will be the first to hear about it.
BUY, BORROW, PASS
Buy this game if you want challenging, fast-paced gameplay with creative bosses and couch co-op.
Borrow this game if you are not as tenacious but are still a fan of unique art styles.
Pass on this game if you are easily frustrated and you don’t like more demanding gaming experiences.