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Cuphead – PC

Cuphead – PC

Platform: PC

Developer: StudioMDHR Entertainment

Publisher: StudioMDHR Entertainment

Release Date: September 29th, 2017

Genre: Run-and-Gun, Platformer

Reviewed By: Nips

IT. IS. HERE. At E3 2015, we were first treated to images of Cuphead, the wild and zany run-and-gun title featuring hand-drawn–I repeat–hand-drawn graphics in the style of cartoons from the 1930s. This was perhaps one of the most exciting projects displayed during that year, tempered only by the knowledge that we would be waiting quite a while for it to come out.

And now we have it. In just its first week, Cuphead sold over a million copies. Woah, talk about a debut! What are we waiting for? Let’s dive into this exciting game!


Cuphead begins with a really charming, hand-drawn story book intro about Cuphead and his friend Mugman. While gambling at the Devil’s casino, they lose their everlasting souls to the casino’s evil owner in a horrible deal-gone-wrong. In order to win their souls back, they must travel the land and retrieve the Devil’s soul contracts from a variety of monstrous enemies that populate the world.

So how do you fight these enemies? By shooting the crap out of them, of course! Cuphead draws inspiration from traditional run-and-gun video games, pitting the player against a myriad of enemies that assail them with a storm of bullets, often referred to as “bullet hell.” Utilizing a combination of platforming and shooting, the player dispatches their eccentric opponents with a variety of weapons and abilities.

I’ll admit that when I first heard about Cuphead, I was a little worried. Sure, the graphics and premise may be really cool, but will there actually be a game under all of that surface material? The answer to that question is yes, yes, YES. This game is hardAnd it’s not just hard in an arbitrary sense; it’s hard because it’s challenging. Any gamer alive can think of at least a few games that served them absolute bullshit, as the designers crafted an experience designed to be hard for the sheer sake of being hard, whether it was fun or not. Cuphead, on the other hand, isn’t simply difficult; it presents the player with a veritable challenge to do better. Each new level is novel and difficult, but just within the player’s skill level so as to be beaten with a bit of practice and focus.

The platforming, shooting, and abilities all feel incredibly tight. The hit boxes are almost perfect, so when you get hit with a thing, you know why. When you aim for a platform, you hit it dead on. To me, this is a really impressive feat, because pre-rendered graphics such as those featured in Cuphead can be an absolute nightmare for getting those hit boxes just right. The developers made the excellent decision to allow you to control your trajectory mid-jump, as well as to include a dash ability, which transforms bullet-dodging into more of an art than a game. This game just feels good, and you can tell that the developers put a lot of time into getting that feeling just right.

That said, I have one major complaint about the gameplay that I’ll mention here. Cuphead may be a run-and-gun game, but it seems like all you do is gun. I mean it; every single boss fight essentially has the player with their finger mashed against that fire button, causing more than a few cases of the ol’ arthritis. The main reason why I see this as a problem is because it’s just not interesting. There’s almost never an incentive to not shoot at a boss or other enemy, with very few consequences for hitting the wrong thing. So if the player has to shoot all the time, why not save them a little finger strength and set the default to auto-fire? I’m not saying that I’m a fan of auto-fire, but I really would have liked to see some variety there, preferably in the form of enemies that can punish the player for shooting at the wrong times or something like that.

So there are two different types of levels in Cuphead: “Run-and-gun,” which has the player running through a ridiculous gauntlet of enemies and traps; and boss fights, which pit the player against a good old-fashioned boss in the classic style of the genre. The run-and-gun levels are pretty fun, with a near-insane level of difficulty towards the end. These levels combine platforming with combat and precise timing to really test the player’s limits and ability to learn as they struggle to dodge a myriad of incoming enemies and dispatch as many others. Along the way, you can collect coins that are used to buy in-game upgrades and weapons.

The run-and-gun levels in Cuphead are fine, but where the game really shines is in the boss battles. There are 19–count ’em–19 unique boss fights featured in Cuphead with almost as many distinct mini-bosses. You can fight onions and carrots, dragons, genies, pirates, giant bumble bees, candy,  and–my personal favorite–even a giant cigar. Each concurrent boss is harder than the last, promising to punish the player for careless play while encouraging them to learn the attack patterns, thinking fast on their feet as the bullet hell before them threatens to crush their hopes and dreams at every turn. Each boss’s attacks are interesting and unique with a significant amount of randomization, offering a different sort of challenge at every step. The bosses shoot regular projectiles, bursting projectiles, large projectiles, small projectiles, homing projectiles, and even hurl themselves at the player in a ridiculous array of attack patterns that progress through at least two or three phase transformations for each boss. That is absolutely incredible.

And these attacks aren’t arbitrary, either. If you’re a fan of run-and-gun games or have at least played a couple of them, you’d be familiar with the typical “laser blast” or “laser ball” that represent the majority of enemy attacks. On-screen, it can look like a total mess. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that this makes a game bad. Furi, for example, is an excellent modern run-and-gun that utilizes plenty of lasers. Where Cuphead manages to stand out, however, is in the creative contextualization of its attack patterns and bullets. You don’t get hit by a random laser beam that came out of the boss’s mouth; you get hit by a fireball! The pirate doesn’t hit you with energy beams; he hits you with cannon balls, treasure chests, and sea lions! At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that the developers had to individually animate every single one of these unique attack types, so I am doubly impressed by this feat.

Ok, so I was a bit taken aback by the incredible gameplay featured in Cuphead. But what about the graphics? Y’know, the whole selling point of the game? Well, let papa Nips fill you in! You remember how, back in the day, cartoonists had to hand-draw each individual frame of an animation, so that the result looked something kind of like a flip book? That style is called cel animation, and it is used for the entirety of Cuphead’s animations. Today, we have digital tools, or even sprite art that makes animations a lot easier to do, filling in certain details with computer-generated elements. Cel animation, however, requires an artist to painstakingly hand-draw a character for every single frame it moves. Say a certain action, requires 30 frames to execute. That means that the artist has to redraw the exact same character 30 different times! That’s impressive, not to mention the level of skill required to make the character look the same in each of those frames.

An incredible amount of work went into the art, especially considering the number of bosses multiplied by the number of distinct phases for each one. Aside from that, a fun little filter is thrown over the entire screen to resemble the imperfections on a roll of film. My biggest and only complaint about the animation would be regarding Cuphead, himself. He’s simply not as distinct. His design is fine, even if it leaves a little to be desired, but, as the main character, he has but a fraction of the animations that a single boss has. He jumps, runs, ducks, and shoots, and that’s about it.

While that part may be a little disappointing, there is one thing that really, really stands out about the visual design, and that is the thematic consistency. What I mean by this is that from one enemy to the next, you can feel a sense of connection between them, and each individual boss uses attacks that make sense. Enemies in the plant zone are all giant vegetables and flowers, the sky boss turns into different zodiac signs, and the dice boss features an array of gambling-themed mini-bosses. This facet is extremely impressive, and goes a long way towards making Cuphead feel like a cohesive piece of art.

We’ve established that the animation is top-tier, but how about the soundtrack? Showcasing a fun variety of big band music, Cuphead’s soundtrack is nothing short of impressive. Each boss features their own song, which are all fun and well-choreographed, and the menu and map music are earworms in their own right. There are a small handful of songs with vocals, adding even more character to Cuphead. Rarely do I even consider purchasing the soundtrack for a game, but Cuphead is honestly one of them. It even peaked at number 9 for a minute on Billboard’s top jazz albums, and is available on vinyl as a 4 LP set, so that’s pretty cool.

Finally, let’s give a little room for the age-old debate: PC or console? I have played Cuphead on the Xbox One as well as the PC. There’re no bones about it; the PC version is way better. From my experience, the Xbox One version was extremely buggy, and also crashed more than a few times. This tells me that the developers probably had some trouble porting the game over. That said, the PC version is not perfect either. While the game may not crash, it can get a little buggy from time to time. Playing with a partner with PlayStation 4 controllers seems to be just a little too much for the game to handle, causing errors where the game either won’t recognize Player 2 or where controllers will freak out and vibrate indefinitely. There’s no perfect version of Cuphead in this sense, but if you’re playing on the PC with an Xbox controller you’ll probably be just fine.


So there you have it. Sporting a ridiculously impressive art and animation style, Cuphead seemed poised to charm us, but many fans, myself among them, were worried whether it would have the mettle to woo us. And woo us it has. Solid gameplay with tight mechanics, bosses that are each more creative than the last, and an irresistible design that beckons the player ever forward have all proven to me that Cuphead is a game with plenty of mettle. Seriously, as someone who is not a huge fan of run-and-gun titles, this game was a wild ride for me, with plenty of ups, downs, and, most importantly, that breathtaking feeling of exhilaration when I conquered my enemies. I just can’t wait to dive back in and see if I can beat my own high scores.

Nerd Rating: 8 out of 10

Written by Nips

 
 

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2 Comments

  1. really excellent review Papa Nips! Probably your finest review too! This game does look awesome, and the 4 vinyl soundtrack is a neat way to expand the game for uber fans!

    I would imagine the painstaking challenges the developers/ animators went through might make a sequel a LONG way out. But their creativity and innovation and dedication to a lost art style is doubly impressive

    great work my friend! play more games so we can read more of your reviews! a haha

     
    • Many thanks! I would be really excited to see a sequel, or even a spiritual successor that might tackle a different gaming genre. They definitely made the money for a new title. Who knows what’s next!

       

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