A little late to the party, but here nonetheless, this week’s review is on the run-and-gun cartoon shooter from Studio MDHR by the name of Cuphead. Let’s go!
Cuphead, as previously mentioned, is a run-and-gun shooter, meaning that both running and gunning are important, believe it or not. Don’t be fooled by Cuphead’s lovable cartoon art style, or the wonderful soundtrack, or the fact that two anthropomorphic cups gambled their souls to the devil, this game is hard. Fun, but hard. There have been many comparisons of difficult games in recent times to games of the Dark Souls series, and there is some merit to those comparisons, but more on that later. What’s important to know is that, instead of losing your soul to the devil, you collect the contracts of other debtors for him, leading to a large variety of cartoon enemy boss battles.
Taking one look at this will tell a lot of people exactly what’s going on. Cuphead is a game based visually on the cartoon style of the 1930s. This was an era where everything was drawn by hand and cartoons were transitioning into color animation, where characters like Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor got their start, and all of this shows in the visual design of Cuphead. Between the smooth hand-drawn animations, use of color palette, the amount of personality the characters have, and even some animation references placed throughout, Cuphead takes the classic cartoon-y style and gives it new life here.
The music of Cuphead takes a similar turn, taking many notes and cues from the musical stylings of the 1940s as well. Each stage and boss fight has unique boss fight music, each of which usually has its own distinct flair to it. Much of it is various forms of jazz, smooth jazz, upbeat jazz, latin jazz, ragtime, and all of it is really solid, which is important because if you play like me, you’ll be hearing a lot of it. You can listen to the soundtrack here.
Now, onto one of the most important, and most infamous, parts of Cuphead: the gameplay. Cuphead plays as a run-and-gun 2D shooter game, much in the same vein as the original Contra games, or the Metal Slug series. You have access to running, jumping, shooting, dashing, a power attack that uses a super meter built up from hitting enemies, a ‘parry’ mechanic that allows for negating some obstacles, and a movement-lock mechanic to allow for 8-direction firing. The parry mechanic is very important, as it allows for not only bypassing some projectiles headed your way, but doing so also fills up your super meter, meaning you can perform more power attacks. It works like this: if you see a pink obstacle, jump toward it and hit the jump button again when hitting it, and that will parry it, destroying it in the process and gaining some meter. A tricky maneuver, but an indispensable one, as destroying a bullet and getting some super meter in the process can change the fight.
Now, like Contra, Cuphead is a hard game, as many online sources could tell you. You will not get to the end or beat the boss on the first try. The point of the fights is to figure out the boss’ patterns and jump and shoot accordingly. This is, in fact, why there are so many references to difficult games and Dark Souls, as they both follow a similar general formula. In both games it is obvious what to do, hit the other guy without getting hit. You have all the required tools to get the job done, but it takes coordination and good timing to do the job. If you do well, you progress, and if you don’t, you still have more to practice. And more often than not, you can see where and how you messed up, making things frustrating as you recognize your own mistakes. And so you want to try again. Fortunately, there are a few ways to make things easier in Cuphead.
First and foremost, there are upgrades available for your character, giving greater versatility in gameplay. These upgrades include different projectiles you can shoot, like a spread shot or a boomerang shot, and other boosts, like invincible dashes or an extra hit point. These are also unlockable Super Arts that allow you to make use of your entire super meter at once for greater effects, like an enormous beam attack, or temporary invincibility. You can’t have all of these upgrades at once, however. You have to pick and choose which upgrades you will use, with the option of two different shot styles.
On top of upgrades to make fights easier, there is also a Simple mode to fight bosses in, as opposed to the Regular mode. The Simple mode usually has less mechanics going on in the fight, and usually skips the last phase of the fight. This is useful for training for the real fight, as well as unlocking new areas to explore without dealing with the difficulty of the normal fight. You cannot progress through the game this way, however, as the Regular mode is the only way to get the progression items, the soul contracts you’re collecting for the Devil.
I’ve had a fair bit of fun with Cuphead and the frustration a game like this brings. At the time of this review have not yet completed the game, but I’m sure to fix that soon enough. If you’re a fan of challenge, 30’s cartoon animation, side-scrolling shooters like Contra and Mega Man, or all of the above, check out Cuphead. It’s currently available on PC and Xbox One.