You shouldn’t take Cuphead’s reputation of being one of the most difficult run and gun games in recent times lightly, it’s true Cuphead is hard but that’s only half the story. From the, sometimes what seems to be impossible, gameplay and the cartoon visuals you will notice there are many elements that create the charm of this future classic.
Cuphead is the first game out of Studio MDHR and was created by a Canadian brother duo, Chad and Jared Moldenhauer with additional animation drawn by Jake Clark. Development started in 2010 but the public first got a look at it in 2014 at Xbox’s E3 conference. From there, curiosity about the game that many knew nothing about, started. The brothers used their love for 1930s Disney and Fleischer Studio cartoons, the studio behind Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor, to create the game’s unique hand-drawn animation and paint backgrounds.
The gameplay is a run and gun game with platform elements and an overworld like action-RPGs, with an emphasis on boss battles. Visually, Cuphead looks like nothing the gaming community has seen before offering classic cartoon animation meshed with a run and gun platform, a pairing that is unique.
The Devil is in the Details
The game follows the story of Cuphead, an adorable character who has a cup for his head, who makes a bet with the Devil but loses and must give up his soul. However, the Devil offers Cuphead a deal that if he fulfills allows him to keep his soul. It’s obvious that Cuphead hasn’t heard of the saying “Don’t make a deal with the Devil,” because he does. In doing so he agrees to the Devil’s conditions and must collect contacts from others that are in debt to the devil. From there, Cuphead goes on his journey across different worlds to collect. You also have an option to play couch co-op with a friend.
Similar to the story each stage in Cuphead is short and sweet, lasting about two minutes but don’t let that fool you. When you’re playing a stage, it feels like you are playing longer than you actually are; and that’s because of the number of enemies you encounter and the variations of bosses.
Keep on Moving
There are two types of stages you encounter in Cuphead, Run and Gun or the more frequent boss fights. The Run and Gun stages use the traditional platform formula of running through the level and shooting or dodging enemies or obstacles that come your way. Whereas boss fights offer more of a challenge and sometimes Cuphead takes flight; piloting a fighter plane while being equipped with different abilities like dropping bombs and shrinking. Despite which type of boss fights you encounter they work pretty much the same.
Bosses have different transformations according to the damage you inflict, and since there isn’t a health meter for them it’s a good way to know how far you’re progressing (aside from the gauge that appears when losing). Your success in boss fights will come from shooting down your enemies or outmaneuvering them and a great deal does come from memorization. Although bosses’ attacks are relentless they’re carried out the same time and time again. So, if you memorize what attacks the boss will throw at you next then you increase your chance of winning.
However, if you miss one jump or forget to shoot down of the bosses’ minions, you could unravel the flow needed to out pattern the boss. You can tell in certain fights that there is an effort to throw curve balls at the player, by shake up some of the boss’s patterns. However, if you’re determined and attempt the fight long enough you will understand the different patterns and win. Of course, items and various super upgrades also help.
Tough as Nails
Despite the difficulty of the game, there are things in place to help even the playing field. One of those things is the Porkrind’s Emporium that allows players to purchase additional heart, different types of shooters and charms. To make purchases at the shop you must have coins, they are found within the run and gun levels and hidden around the overworld. One of the most useful items in the game is the Smoke Bomb charm that creates a smokescreen when you press Dodge. Not only does it look cool, as you disappear and reappear, but it also allows enemies attacks to pass through you without damage if properly timed. Other weapons and items include Charge, Chaser, Spread (my personal favourite), Twin Hearts, Coffee, and lots more.
The best thing about the charms and items is that they don’t have to be repurchased once they’re used. Instead, they stay with you and you can swap them in and out whenever you deem fit. Cuphead and friend also gain a total of 3 super abilities throughout the game. Even though items and supers help you to win, it doesn’t do all the work. Instead, think of them as a way to help strategize an alternate plan.
Regarding what the Nintendo Switch version of Cuphead brings to the table, something to note is the partnership between Microsoft and Nintendo. First came Minecraft to the Switch, and now see Cuphead, the first game on Nintendo Switch that offers Xbox Live achievements.
Of course, this is possible after the whole fiasco of cross-platform, a feature many games today offer but only Nintendo and Microsoft embraced, leaving Sony out in the cold.
If you’re wondering how the port handles on the Switch hardware, it’s masterfully handled on Nintendo’s platform. In fact, this port is on par with the Xbox One version and is beautiful whether in handheld mode or docked to your television.
Overall, Cuphead is visually stunning with its homage to 1930s cartoons which is something we haven’t really seen before. At first, it does stand out because of the hand-drawn visuals, but you’ll soon realize that the difficulty of the game brings a determination that will make you want to win; and that’s rare when a game makes you feel that way. The game will make you love it but also be frustrated at the difficulty, and when you beat a level you will celebrate out loud. That feeling is sometimes hard for even big titles to create, but Cuphead does it and that is what we need. We need games that are different, challenge us and connect with us.
[A copy of the game was provided to us by the publisher for review purposes.]