The independent gaming scene has provided many genres with a bit of a renaissance over the last decade. Dungeon crawlers, roguelikes, action RPGs, Metroidvanias, in almost any flavor imaginable, are all available for download if you have the right platform. One genre that hasn’t had quite that success are “run and gun” style shooters. Sure, you might get a Broforce or a Mercenary Kings every now and again, but these games are still few and far between enough that any promising game in this style will always catch my eye. Cuphead, produced for PC and Xbox by StudioMDHR Entertainment, is, therefore, a game that I had a great affinity for since I first saw it’s announcement trailer all the way back in E3 of 2014. The game not only looked like it had solid gameplay mechanics and ideas, but it had an amazingly beautiful look and art direction. My brief playtime of the game at the last two E3’s also left a smile on my face. The real question is, then, does this game live up its potential, or should Cuphead just be shelved?
So what’s this about?
Cuphead is an amazing depiction of a fantastical 1930’s cartoon world. The game takes place on Inkwell Isle, a land as colorful and fun as it is nonsensical. Players will take control of the eponymous Cuphead, or his brother Mugman in 2 player mode, and traverse this land in order to claim the soul contracts of those who are welshing on their soul debt to the Devil. Oh yeah, the plot of this game boils down to Cuphead having a gambling problem and getting into a predicament where he can either forfeit his soul or become the Devil’s lackey. Luckily he chooses the option that leads to an exciting platforming experience.
As I mentioned in my introduction, this game is a run and gun style experience ala Metal Slug, Contra, and Gunstar Heroes. Truth be told, something about the big, expressive bosses and colorful backgrounds made me think Gunstar Heroes more than anything else. Unlike those classic series, however, Cuphead consists largely of boss fights separated by a world map. The entire game is almost like a boss rush. Well, as each boss is its own encounter and they are not tied together, it is more of a boss crawl, but the point stands: this game is not your typical level based shooter. There are a few run and gun stages, but they are stand-alone affairs and are outnumbered by boss fights. Cuphead can also collect (and buy) various power-ups to customize how you tackle the various enemies and challenges you come across in the game, but most of the replay value will come from trying to perfect your score for each boss. Some of these boss encounters take place in an airplane, which turns the game into more of a “shmup” and adds some variety to the proceedings.
What does it do right?
Like most great run and gun games, Cuphead is as much a puzzle game as it is a twitch reflex experience. What I mean by that is that every encounter in the game is a carefully crafted affair and gamers will have to pay attention to learn enemy patterns and weak points. The game’s controls are simple but effective. You run, you aim in eight directions, you shoot, you dash, and you have a “parry” button which feeds a special move button. The special equates to more powerful shots, as would be imagined, but the parry move is fairly unique. Cuphead can parry pink items in the world, from bullets to ghosts to mines. It’s a bit strange as far as meter building mechanics go, but it’s simple enough to understand and never took me out of the game. I have heard others complain about the default control scheme (where all the action buttons are on the face buttons) but I had no problem acclimating. This may be due to years of playing games like Mega Man X where jumping and dashing were similarly placed, but even if you dislike the standard layout you can easily customize it to your liking. It should also be noted that this game is difficult, no question about it. It is also, however, fair. I never felt like the game was cheap, and as long as I paid attention to patterns I knew I would eventually get through whatever was standing in my way.
While the game controls and plays great, the immediate appeal of this title lies in its presentation. The entire game is hand drawn and its inspirations (1930’s cartoons) are carefully emulated with the utmost care. I have never before felt as much as I was playing a cartoon as I do in this game. The imaginative visuals never feel repetitive, either, as the game throws a wide variety of unique bosses at you, such as candy themed royalty, boxing frogs, frantic robots, queen bees, and much more. Amazingly enough, the game’s soundtrack is just as good as its visuals. A 1930’s jazz styled affair, it is a delight to listen to and I have found myself humming the tunes more than once since I started my playtime with Cuphead.
The final verdict
It might be too soon to crown Cuphead a masterpiece, but it is certainly one of the most fun and creative games I have played in years. It succeeds at exactly what it wants to do. My only issue is that I wish there was more of it! Truly, it is a testament to the game’s quality that none of the enemy encounters felt samey and that it was a joy to play throughout.