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I grew up in the nineties and enjoyed the excellent Nickelodeon cartoons that were on at the time but I was also exposed to reruns of cartoon classics like Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry, Pink Panther, and many more. I love cartoons, I still watch cartoons when I can, and I have the utmost respect for animators. Jeremy and I met at school and we had to take an animation class once and let me tell you, it’s fucking work. Granted, we were working on digital animations but I can only imagine how much more work it is to create hand-drawn animations. Developed and published by StudioMDHR Entertainment, Cuphead is a run and gun style shooter, released for PC and Xbox One in September, 2017. What makes Cuphead unique, though, is its hand-drawn animation in a style that pays homage to classic 1930s cartoons. Just looking at it, you can tell a lot of work and care was put into the visuals. Jeremy and I were interested in this game from the first moment we saw clips of it way back when and knew it would be a day one purchase. After it released we teamed up for some cooperative action in hopes the game would be more than just an artistic throwback.
The story is set in a magical place known as Inkwell Isle. Living there are two brothers named Cuphead and Mugman. One day they wander far from home and end up entering the Devil’s Casino. These two happy-go-lucky brothers end up on a winning streak only for the casino’s owner, the Devil himself, to take notice. The Devil makes the brothers an offer, win one more roll and they can walk out of the casino with all of his loot. But if they lose, they must forfeit their souls. Obviously, the brothers roll the dice or their would be no game. Regardless, they lose the roll and plead for their lives and end up making a deal. The Devil asks them to collect the souls of his runaway debtors by midnight and if they succeed, they will be pardoned. The plot is provided in a storybook style with text and no real voice dialogue. Characters through out the game may mumble, groan, and make noises but to know what’s going on, you’ll need to read. The plot is simple, humorous, and is just a way to set up the gameplay.
Cuphead is a sidescrolling run and gun shooter in the vein of Contra, Gunstar Heroes, Alien Soldier, and other similar titles. You can run, jump, crouch, shoot, lock yourself in position and aim in any direction, dash to quickly evade on ground or in the air, and parry anything that’s pink. If the other player dies, you can parry their ghost to bring them back to life but you have to be quick before the ghost floats off-screen. You play as Cuphead or Cuphead and Mugman if playing cooperatively and run, jump, and shoot your way through four worlds each with multiple levels. I would say Cuphead is really more of a boss rush but there are several run and gun stages. The run and gun stages have you running and evading enemies and projectiles, collecting coins, and just trying to make it to the end. These stages can be very difficult and contain a lot of trial and error gameplay. You get hit, you lose a hit point, you lose all of your hit points and you die. You die and you have to restart the level. However, the difficulty is fair. If you die, it’s usually because you messed up. Memorizing the level layouts and memorizing enemy movement and attack patterns is the key to making it through these levels unscathed. The coins are what’s most important in these levels because you can then spend them at the shop in the hub world, otherwise known as Porkrind’s Emporium. You can purchase new attacks or charms which grant you special abilities like more hit points at the risk of reduced damage, automatic parrying, and one even lets you turn invisible when dashing. But coins can also be acquired in the hub world either by finding them hidden in various spots or by talking to NPC’s scattered around. You’ll also find Mausoleum’s where you need to protect a magic vase from an onslaught of ghosts. If you manage to do so successfully, you’ll be rewarded with new super attacks. I guess you can say there’s four hub worlds, one for each actual world. When traversing the hub world, everything is viewed from the isometric perspective and you’re free to roam around anywhere you wish. You need to defeat bosses and run and gun levels to be granted access to new areas but you can find shortcuts in the hub world that allow you to skip levels but why you would want to do that is crazy because the gameplay is just phenomenal. Even after dying repeatedly, I was always eager to jump right back into the action.
The run and gun levels are cool but it’s the boss levels that are the real highlight here. Whenever you approach a boss level you’re provided the name of the boss, the “episode”, and you can choose from two difficulty modes, Simple and Regular. Once you complete the game you’ll unlock the Expert difficulty mode where things become much faster-paced. The first three worlds have a handful of bosses to battle and the final world only has two. However, the second to last boss has you participating in a game of sorts where you roll dice, battle several what I’ll call mini-bosses, and need to make to the end of the board to battle the actual boss. All of the bosses have various phases and attack patterns that need to be memorized if you want to survive. They all have attack patterns but their patterns of attacks seem to be randomized. For example, they may fire this attack first and that attack second, but if you have to restart the battle you may notice they change up which attack comes first, second, and so on. It’s a great way to keep you on edge and you always have to be alert. Some boss levels have you flying a plane where you can fire machineguns and later on you can also fire bombs. When in a plane you can still parry and even shrink down to move faster and dodge attacks quickly but the range of your bullets will be significantly reduced. You can always enlarge yourself at any time. These levels are basically shmups but they manage to fit in nicely and are a great change of pace compared to the standard run and gun boss levels.
You can switch between two attacks at any time during gameplay and you can decide which two attacks to equip in between levels. You start with the Mega Blast weapon which is a basic rapid-firing attack. You can eventually buy and equip a spreadshot weapon, the chaser which is a homing attack, a charge shot, the roundabout which is like rapid-firing boomerangs, and there’s even a lobber which does good damage with a slow rate of fire. All of the weapons have their ups and downs and you’ll probably have your favorites but sticking with only one or two weapons is not ideal. Most of the weapons are best used in certain situations and you’ll quickly realize that after dying repeatedly because you may not be equipped properly. A weapon like the chaser will always land attacks but doesn’t do a lot of damage so it’s like a risk vs reward system. I don’t want to say the charge shot is overpowered but once I acquired it, I would always have it equipped. It’s a great weapon for any boss battle since it can do a ton of damage. As you shoot bosses and enemies, you’ll build up a super meter, represented by playing cards at the bottom of the HUD. As long as you have a card, you can fire a special attack that does extra damage and the attack itself varies depending on the weapon you currently have equipped. If the meter is full you can unleash a devastating super attack, which can be acquired by completing the Mausoleums, and equipped in between levels. Trying different combinations of weapons, charms, and super attacks is all part of the fun and you’ll eventually find a set that works best for you for most situations but you will need to mix things up every now and then if you want to succeed.
Many boss levels are scrolling and you always need to be moving in general whether its to not fall off platforms or just to dodge attacks. The areas can alter, or transform, during different boss phases so you’ll always need to be adapting to changes on the fly. Sometimes you may be moving in a specific direction, sometimes you’ll move to a different area with new hazards to be aware of, and there’s usually a ton of shit going on so you really need to pay attention. But adapting to change is all part of the game, even the battles themselves. Each boss phase is usually very different than the phase before with a whole new set of attacks so you need to prepared and even ready to die if it’s your first time battling a specific boss. All of the bosses look silly, have silly names, and can kill you in a matter of seconds if you’re not careful. You really need to master the controls to be successful. One wrong jump, or not dashing or dodging in time, can easily result in you taking damage, even dying. Before an attack, the boss has a tell which is like warning that they’re about to attack and after you realize what the tell is, dodging becomes much easier. Obviously, when you first battle the boss you won’t know any of this so it becomes a trial and error process. Now while the difficulty is fair for the most part, some deaths will feel unfair, usually due to the environment or the sheer amount of action on screen. During some boss battles, parts of the foreground can obstruct your view which is really a no-no in a game like this. The gameplay is very fast-paced at times and when things like attacks or anything that can harm you are not clearly visible, that’s just not cool and usually leads to you taking damage. Furthermore, when playing in two player, it can be very easy to lose track of your character. With giant bosses, busy backgrounds, bullets, and other projectiles flying in every direction, the screen can just become way too hectic, making it easy to take damage or die just because you can’t focus. It doesn’t help that Cuphead and Mugman look very similar with the most obvious difference being their color. These issues are easily forgivable, though, since the gameplay is so much fun and just prove that Cuphead isn’t a perfect game.
Cuphead does offer a good amount of replay value thanks to its fun and fast gameplay, memorable art style, and its scoring system. At the end of each level you’re provided a letter ranking based on your performance. If you’re one who loves going for high scores then Cuphead should be right up your alley. You’re scored based on time, how much damage you took, I think how many things you were able to parry successfully, and super meter which means if you used a special attack or multiple. Basically, you want beat the bosses as fast as possible, without taking damage, parrying whatever you can, and using your special attacks to achieve the best possible scores. You can earn a Pacifist ranking by completing the run and gun levels without firing a single shot and that is a challenge.
Now the visuals are absolutely incredible. Cuphead perfectly captures the 1930s cartoon aesthetic and the entire visual presentation is just jaw-dropping. It’s jaw-dropping because you can actually see the amount of work that went into each and every little detail from the watercolor backgrounds to the actual hand drawn cel animations. You’ll always see a film grain, with white spots, accompanied by sounds of crackling that gives off this whole oldschool cartoon feel. Whenever a level starts, Cuphead pulls up his pants and Mugman takes a drink from his head, and its just adorable. The backgrounds are full of little details like characters jumping up and down, sitting at tables, and waiters walking by during the Ribby and Croaks battle. You can see mountains, farms, and fields in the parallax scrolling background during the Hilda Berg battle. When you battle Werner Wernman, you can see the eyes of a cat peeping through holes from behind the wooden wall only for the cat to come smashing through said wall during one of the boss phases. The audio is another story. You’ve got your classic cartoon sound effects that should put a smile on anybody’s face but the music is on a whole other level. The soundtrack is full of these fantastic and catchy jazz tunes that are not only memorable but perfectly capture the 1930s theme and feel the game is going for. The entire presentation is downright amazing. On the technical side, the game ran smooth but was there was definitely some bugs. At one point, we both died but the boss battle just kept going as if we were still alive. And we’re quite certain you cannot beat the final boss battle if playing cooperatively and one player dies before the second phase starts. At least we couldn’t. When the phase starts, you’re supposed to jump down a hole and if the other player dies, when you jump down the hole, the camera doesn’t follow. We were forced to restart the entire battle. Hopefully, the developers will iron out these bugs with patches.
Cuphead is an incredibly fun experience. Many run and gun games are known for their difficulty and I enjoy them but I also go into them expecting to lose. I did the same with Cuphead and had a great time. But Cuphead is special. In most games within this genre, after constantly getting killed, I’ll eventually get frustrated or annoyed, and then just give up and move onto something else. But with Cuphead, I always wanted to jump back into the gameplay no matter how many times I died. It took Jeremy and I about four days of several hours of playing to beat the game once and we’re only disappointed that the experience had to end. Cuphead not only perfectly resembles cartoons from the 1930s but it offers gameplay thats fun, challenging, and addictive. Each death was a learning experience and gave us a reason to replay through a battle and admire all the visual details, while at the same time, enjoying the excellent music and exciting fast-paced action that just never lets up.
I would recommend everyone play Cuphead and if you haven’t played it yet, well what are you waiting for? If you don’t like run and gun games or sidescrolling shooters well that’s really a damn shame because you truly are missing out on an experience like no other. Yes, the cartoon visuals are what lured me in but its the gameplay that got me hooked. Cuphead is not just a generic sidescroller with a beautiful art style. No, it’s an incredibly fun and challenging game. It’s one of the greatest run and gun games we’ve ever played and is easily one of the greatest games of the generation. I really hope the developers work on some DLC, even sequels, because I would love to see more of this beautiful art style and see what kind of crazy situations Cuphead and Mugman find themselves in in future titles.