Making a deal with the devil is a choice you would never want to make, and it’s a choice that is regretted in Cuphead. Following the upcoming indie-game trend, Studio MDHR’s first foray into gaming has garnered exceptional praise for its strenuous gameplay and art style, harkening back to old picture films of the 1930s. This odd combination of genres is blended together to make not only a well-designed game but a fun one.
Synopsis and Story
The main character, Cuphead, and his sensible but faithful brother, Mugman, are having fun when they find themselves in the Devils Casino and end up gambling their souls away to the Devil. When they lose, the pair are forced to take back the Soul Contracts from the Devil’s runaway debtors and return them to the Devil.
These contracts take the brothers on an adventure all throughout Inkwell Isle, fighting debtors and earning wealth to get their souls back.
Players get from place to place by moving through a map of Inkwell isle. There are characters to talk to that reveal more about the game’s story, and hidden collectibles for you to find.
Porkrind’s Emporium, a shop ran by Porkrind, lets you buy items, however, the main attraction here is the stages you can enter.
In Cuphead, you take control of Cuphead or Mugman as you fight in 2 different kinds of stages: ‘Bosses’ and ‘Run & Gun’ stages. These stages can be tackled with 2 players, where each player takes control of a brother. The game can become much easier this way, as you can parry the other player’s ghost if they die, bringing them back with 1 HP. Both brothers play the same, therefore it’s really up to preference on who you choose. While you can play the game solo, it’s much more enjoyable to defeat your foes with a buddy. The game does not allow online however, which is a bummer if you wanted to play with a friend from around the world.
Cuphead’s main dish is its Boss stages, where you face off against one boss, battling their multiple phases until the damage takes a toll and you defeat them. There are even stages where you hop in an airplane for a Shoot-em-Up Boss. You are then ranked based on your performance in the stage, such as the damage taken and time spent.
When playing Run and Gun stages, you make your way through a stage filled with countless enemies while collecting gold coins, the main currency of the game. There are 5 coins on every level, and they hold value as they let you purchase upgrades. These range from different shooting types, like a spread shoot and targeting shot, to “Charms”, which give you abilities such as extra health.
Inkwell Isle has 3 main worlds and a final world, with each main world having about 5 bosses and 2 Run and Gun stages. Depending on your skill, some bosses will be harder than others, but a normal run will usually consist of 2 to 3 minutes of gameplay. This number does not count for the multitudes of deaths you will experience. Most worlds will take a couple of hours to fully beat.
Battles focus on shooting magic bullets to do damage while avoiding a barrage of enemy attacks. Your movement options are limited, as you are only able to move, jump, and do a dash in order to dodge constant obstacles in your way.
However, by pressing jump again while on a pink attack or object, you can “parry” the attack, taking no damage and gaining height while also gaining a card in your Special Meter. These cards are filled when you damage opponents or by parrying and let you pull off EX attacks and Special moves. These range from a small blast to giving you a short period of invincibility. The controls feel very responsive, with the characters stopping on a dime and having a set walking speed. The tight controls are akin to games such as the Mega Man series, so inspiration from other titles is present in Cuphead. When you get hit in the game, it’s much less the game’s fault as it is your fault.
Cuphead does not give easy wins for almost all of its challenges. Running in ‘guns blazing’ will almost always get you killed. You have to strategize on your feet, learning intense boss patterns and figuring out the right tools for the job. This “Trial and Error” mentality is what made Cuphead infamous, but it shouldn’t scare off any players from enjoying the game.
While the game is harder than most current games, it’s more akin to games of the 90’s, where you had to pay attention and master the game’s mechanics to stand a chance. As long as you can think a couple of steps ahead, Cuphead becomes easy, and this old-fashioned attitude is employed in different areas as well.
Cuphead is an artistic masterpiece, as the effort put into making all the art pop is astonishing. The backgrounds are made from watercolor, and character designs, as well as the overall aesthetic of the game, are based on early movies of the 1930’s. Steamboat Willy, Felix the Cat, Silly Symphonies and more classic animations are the inspiration for this artstyle. You can see the effect of the time period in the game too, with alcohol, casinos, and cigars having major roles in the 20’s to the 30’s. The game also adds in static screen flickering in places to enhance this old-timey feel.
To create this style, frames were hand-drawn and then colored digitally. Drawing hundred of these frames by hand will show you the dedication of Studio MDHR, and it makes the game appear gorgeous to the eyes.
The jaw-dropping visuals of Cuphead can be distracting, especially when you have to pay attention to incoming attacks.
This is especially apparent when the detailed backgrounds envelop small blasts and attacks. While playing with 2 players, it’s virtually impossible to keep track of what’s happening.
The soundtrack in Cuphead is not something to be taken lightly. Almost all tracks have smooth Jazz playing, and every stage has its own theme around this Music Genre. “Goopy Le Grande” is a boss you fight who can be compared to a gentleman, so his theme has soft piano keys in the background along with strong Jazz to get you pumped up for the fight. “Ribby and Croaks” are a pair of fighting frogs in a fly nightclub, so trumpets play as if it was a brawl in the club. This theming extends even to other parts of the soundtrack, so it’s easy to visualize scenes based on the song. A soundtrack that can be recognized as easily as that makes Cuphead memorable.
Although Cuphead isn’t inherently difficult, the complexity of boss patterns isn’t something to be ignored. Some bosses unleash tons of bosses in a small space, and often bosses change up their patterns on different attempts.
Rage quits and shutdowns are par for the course when playing Cuphead, and the game is aware of this extreme. An in-game easter egg song tells you to take a break and come back, so Studio MDHR knows Cuphead should not be taken lightly.
The misadventures of Cuphead and Mugman to reclaim their souls take more adult and darker tones than cartoons today. The bosses and the stories told through their fights definitely take on the archetypes in animations of the past. Cuphead challenges players to adapt and learn from their mistakes, and all the while look amazing while doing so. A single playthrough will take from 10-20 hours, and there are a handful of achievements to collect. Beating the game will also unlock Hard mode, which features new boss patterns and a faster pace. However, on average most players will be done after their first playthrough. An online mode would have really helped to increase the longevity of the game.
While the game’s main attractions lead to having their own issues, avid fans of past 2D platformers, rogue-like challenges, and 1930’s animation will get a kick out of Cuphead.
Cuphead scores 9 out of 10.