In 2014, StudioMDHR announced Cuphead at the Xbox Briefing during E3; the developers had already been working on the game for more than a year before that, but this was the first time it was presented at an event so large.
In its 30-second trailer, the studio chose to tease us with something reminiscent of a cartoon from the 1930s, and a tagline: "Don't deal with the Devil." This was followed by a slightly longer trailer in 2015, where we were delighted with crumbs of its lore; Cuphead and Mugman had gambled with the Devil and lost, and now the two brothers must do his bidding if they wish to be spared.
It's 2017, and StudioMDHR has finally readied the game, or so I thought. As I was reviewing the game, I encountered a bug that set my progress back by several hours; I suppose day-one issues are to be expected, but in a game like Cuphead, loss of progress can cause a lot of undue frustration. However, I now realize that this little accident was for the better, as it taught me something interesting, yet seemingly obvious: the game is easier on the second go.
There isn’t much I can say about Cuphead’s narrative without spoiling its joyful discovery. It reminds me of the cartoons I used to watch when I was little, even though the game’s inspiration comes from an era before them.
The game starts with the scene of a book, slowly panning in, revealing the first four words: “Once upon a time,” as a dramatic jazz track plays in the background. It ends the same way as well, with the book closing, ending with a single word: "Fin." Its inspiration is obvious, and the game spares no expense in embracing it.
StudioMDHR has teased us with this bit of the story in its trailers, so I feel that it is justified to reiterate it; the gist of its story revolves around Cuphead and Mugman going after those who owe a debt to the Devil. As for why they are doing the Devil’s bidding, the answer is quite simple: because they gambled with the Devil, and lost.
Aside from learning the antics of your foes, there isn’t much else in terms of complexity.That’s also the theme here: Cuphead is a simple game. Aside from learning the antics of your foes, there isn’t much else in terms of complexity. However, the game does deviate from this in parts, and some of them don’t quite make sense.
A good example would be its ending, where Cuphead decides to surprise you with a wholly unnecessary choice between two endings, a dilemma that I found peculiar. It’s something that’s expected of modern games, but Cuphead borrows little else from them in terms of its narrative. It feels like an afterthought, a far cry from the rest of the game.
Speaking of afterthoughts; the entire game appears to be designed and scripted for two characters: Cuphead and Mugman, the two brothers. However, the game’s narrative doesn’t quite work if you are playing alone, as every in-game character and dialogue still refers to the two “lads.” It’s a minor issue, but for a game as detailed as Cuphead, it stands out as a sore point.
Game, Art, and Sound Design
As may be obvious, Cuphead is very much focused on its bosses – the folks who owe a debt to the Devil – but the game also features these ‘Run & Gun’ levels that offer a good break from the confinements of a boss fight, with levels that focus on platforming rather than learning the predictable pattern of a big baddie. They are also the only levels where players may collect coins that can be used to purchase new weapons and abilities, but more on that later.
Cuphead does offer two difficulty levels for boss fights: simple and regular. However, the game actively punishes the player if they choose to play it on an easier difficulty. If you face a boss on the 'simple' difficulty, you might find entire fight scenes missing, with the boss limited to only a few basic attacks. It's a case of simply cutting out some of the content, but there's more to it. If you do beat the boss on the easier difficulty – fair and square – the game would still not reward you with a win; it is necessary to beat every boss in the game at 'regular' difficulty in order to progress towards the final parts of the game and reach its conclusion.
In essence, it is impossible to finish Cuphead if one does not play it as is intended. This, among other game design choices, is a deliberate decision to make the game more difficult, and while I find it abhorrent, this is how the game is by design.
About those predictable boss patterns: they aren’t very predictable. In Cuphead, the boss fights go through phases, where the boss plays a new trick or transforms itself into a slightly more frightening form. However, most bosses come in multiple forms, which the game chooses at random; while each form has a predictable attack, not knowing which form is to come next was just enough to put me off-balance. I find that while it does introduce a semblance of variety to the game, it doesn’t do it without repercussions.
It’s not all about skill, there’s an element of luck involved.
In the game, this randomness is best hinted at by one of the first bosses the player encounters, Hilda Berg. As she changes her form, a constellation of stars shows up on the screen, teasing her next form. It’s a hint: there’s a lot of skill involved in this game, but some of it still comes down to what the stars put upon you. It’s not all about skill, there’s an element of luck involved.
This fact is only amplified later in the game, as the bosses become more difficult and you realize that some forms are easier to deal with than the others. In effect, beating a boss can be a breeze if luck is on your side.
Cuphead loves to tease players with such hints; it works well for the game.
Cuphead loves to tease players with such hints. I don't know if it is intentional or not (most likely it is) but it works well for the game. It's something that is also omnipresent in the inspiration for this game; the old-age cartoons often relied on comedic metaphors to get a point across.
Using this inspiration in the game’s aesthetics, however, is what makes it unique; the sound, the music, the atmosphere, the art, the animation. Everything is a beautiful homage to the cartoons of that era.
Cuphead, for the most part, is handmade; its backgrounds were drawn and watercolored not digitally, but with age-old techniques. Similarly, every frame of its animations is hand-drawn, albeit touched up digitally later on. For me, its awe is so great that it acts as a reward for beating the game's unforgivable bosses; for to witness the art, one first must deal with the debtors.
Its music, in a similar fashion, was composed by Kristofer Maddigan and recorded with a live jazz orchestra.
Alana Bridgewater performed the vocals for Die House, embedded above. It’s a track that doesn’t take too long to become synonymous with King Dice, the Devil’s right-hand man. The game’s soundtrack is an excellent rendition of that old style of music, with more than 55 tracks that play a part in giving the game its character.
Accompanying the music are the sounds and they mark their attendance right from the second the game launches, with an ambient noise of a rolling film. It’s one of the details that StudioMDHR has taken care of to create the impeccable atmosphere for Cuphead. All the other sounds and effects are just as detailed and joyful as the game’s music and animations.
What’s also noteworthy is that none of the game’s animations obstruct its gameplay: everything reacts quickly, something that is of extreme importance as the distance between failure and success in battling its bosses is often just under tens of milliseconds.
Gameplay & Controls
Cuphead primarily relies on three abilities to further his journey: dash, parry, and ex. I often found dash and parry to be more useful than attacks. A dash works, as its name suggests, by helping you get out of the way of enemies or their attacks. Parrying, however, relies on quick timing and judgment, as it requires jumping onto a pink-colored object, often an enemy projectile, followed by bouncing off of it at the last moment.
As for the attacks, it’s possible to equip two of them at a time and they can be purchased for the coins you collect in ‘Run & Gun’ levels. The game offers a variety of attacks, including ones that make it slightly easier, such as ‘Chaser’ that shoots projectiles that follow the enemy, removing the onus of aiming from the player, but at the cost of reduced damage.
Additionally, ex is something that the player gains while battling in a level; it’s essentially a special attack that charges up as damage is dealt to the enemy. While the game’s infamous tutorial does a good job explaining how dash and parry work, it fails to explain ex and its intricacies. Once Cuphead or Mugman have dealt enough damage to gain five ex charges, it becomes possible to trigger a super, as the game calls it. Super, essentially, is a powerful – and often life-saving – maneuver that can either deal a lot of damage to the enemy or help you get out of an impossible situation. As an example, one of the super abilities makes you become invulnerable to enemy attacks for about five seconds – an eternity in Cuphead.
Finally, the game also offers charms. These items, just as attacks, must be purchased with coins and can offer a variety of enhancements for your existing abilities. Smoke Dash, for example, makes you invulnerable during a dash, allowing you to teleport through enemies and their projectiles, rather than hitting them in an unfortunate accident.
It’s clear that Cuphead offers a number of mechanics, with each having a defined purpose that complements other parts of the game. However, in order to defeat Cuphead, one must have the patience to fail. It’s a challenging game, but it's generous in teaching the player how to make itself easy – if the player is willing to learn.
The phrasing is important here: I say defeat Cuphead, because, at times, I felt that I was fighting the game itself, rather than the bosses it throws at me. Its difficulty set aside, there are some issues with Cuphead that need to be addressed, such as its default control scheme and its peculiar hitboxes.
If there is one thing that would make Cuphead easier, it would be to change its default controls. I played the game using both a keyboard and an Xbox One controller, only to find the default scheme for both unsatisfactory. I must also mention that I found myself triggering the Sticky Keys prompt in Windows quite a few times, as I repeatedly hit the Shift button: the default key to perform a dash. Interestingly, this phenomenon does not happen in the game’s Windows Store version; perhaps something that Microsoft accounts for on behalf of game developers. Thankfully, the game allows players to remap the controls – even for the controller – with absolute freedom. I took advantage of that feature to make my playthrough a bearable success.
There are also some issues with the hitboxes; I can’t really pinpoint what’s exactly wrong with them, but the issues I have had are most noticeable when aiming upwards, and is especially apparent in Treetop Trouble, the game’s second ‘Run & Gun’ level. As an example, I often noticed that I could dash through enemies when I shouldn’t be able to. I also noticed that I can somehow deal damage to certain enemies even when there are obstructions in the way, and sometimes the other way around as well. I haven’t been able to deliberately replicate these issues, but they happen often enough for me to take notice.
All in all, Cuphead has its gameplay figured out, and apart from a few technical issues, it executes its intentions in an excellent fashion. Its tutorial could be slightly improved, and its default control scheme could be worked upon, but those are just a couple of minor issues. I remain curious about the issue with its hitboxes, but even though it may sound like a considerable problem, it’s not as such. As it is, it’s hard to replicate; I encounter it once in a hundred tries, and when I do, I ignore it away.
Games – video, or otherwise – are a form of expression that is interactive; they require input from their viewers, for the better or worse, if they are to be experienced. However, this incredible trait also leads to an undesirable consequence, of which Cuphead may suffer from the most. As an example, when you start the game, you are greeted with a film grain filter that cannot be toggled off in the game’s options. It’s an artistic decision to have that filter. It’s what helps the game attain its nostalgic atmosphere, but it can also be an annoyance for the many who dislike such filters. Similarly, the game’s difficulty can quite easily put people off, which means they may not even get to enjoy the love and labor that went into building Cuphead’s music and art.
Cuphead isn’t for everyone, and it doesn't have to be, but it knows who it is for, and does everything to please that audience.
Cuphead is reminiscent of an era when games flaunted themselves in front of players, challenging them to figure things out themselves, rather than holding their hands through an experience. It is unforgiving and unapologetic, traits uncommon in modern games. Meanwhile, its art and sound design makes one feel as if it was somehow brought into this era in Doctor Who's TARDIS. Yet, its difficulty is not the kind that irks. Rather, it's the kind that makes you want to learn and perfect. The game expects you to fail, and it demands it. You will fail countless times, but you will be better for it. That's why the game is easier on the second go – you are just better at it.
Cuphead made me hate myself for being utterly incompetent, but filled me with great happiness when I finally worked out its designs. It is a learning experience; failure is not the end, but only a step towards perfection.
Indeed, there’s nothing wrong with being a difficult game. In fact, Cuphead pulls it off excellently despite its few flaws. It’s very good at what it does; an homage to an era that gave birth to characters like Superman, Mickey Mouse, Popeye, among countless others. But there isn't much to it in terms of game mechanics. It's a 2D bullet hell game, after all. If it wasn't for its unique art and sound design, it would be joining the several dozens of its brethren in the same genre.
However, many don’t enjoy reveling in their failures, and while the game could have accounted for them with its easier difficulty, it rather chose to alienate them. Simply put, if its difficulty doesn't appeal to you, then Cuphead is not for you, and that disappoints me, as the rest of it – that does not relate to its harsh gameplay – is absolute bliss.
Neowin was provided with a Windows Store copy to review this game. Cuphead is available for purchase now on PC and Xbox One, at the price of $19.99, or the regional equivalent, at these stores:
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