By now there can only be a handful of gamers who have not heard of Cuphead. The screams of rage and broken controllers and keyboards have filled the channels of Twitch and most living rooms since this released with more saltiness than an ocean. It has taken a few years for this game to finally release and especially on Xbox One where exclusives are thin to say the least, Cuphead is here and oh boy is it one glorious barsteward of a gaming experience!
Studio MDHR have created one of the most unique gaming experiences of 2017, there is simply no better way to say it. I normally avoid games that simply do everything they can to just troll players with cheap deaths and AI designed to just kick your butt to the point of cheating to do it and going into Cuphead, this was indeed a fear for me. But Cuphead is very different; it is old school style difficult and a kind of difficulty that reminds you why you fell in love with gaming back in the day whilst it also teaches this modern gaming generation that sometimes you have to work for that victory screen!
So Cuphead is the story of two brothers; Cuphead and Mugman (greatest character name this year btw) who lead a fairly normal happy life by following the rules and being good lads. One day they stumble across the tracks and find themselves in a Casino, as you do, and begin having a really good run at the craps table. This luck soon grabs the attention of the Casino owner, the Devil himself who makes the lads one final offer and should they get one more winning roll of the dice then the Devil will give all the riches of the Casino to them but should they lose then he will claim their souls. Well of course this is an obvious “nah we’re good mate but cheers” kind of moment but much to the horror of Mugman (Still the greatest character name this year) Cuphead greedily grabs the dice and rolls….snake-eyes! They have lost and now begging for their very souls and lives the Devil agrees to do one last deal. He sends the boys out into the world to retrieve all the souls of the debtors he has, failing to do so means he will collect theirs. So off the lads go to save themselves on an adventure filled with danger and peril.
I must begin by talking about the incredible art style and visuals to Cuphead which truly take animation in gaming to a new level. Inspired by the early animation of the 1930’s, Cuphead is a stunning tribute to that art style and deceptively simple use of retro cartoon visuals. Everything is so beautiful to see on screen from simple movement animation to the levels themselves and finally the boss battles themselves. What is staggering to know is that it all hand drawn by a very small team of just two developers although I believe their wives also helped out in the final run to launch but even so, all this animation and art being hand drawn is mind blowing. There is literally thousands of frames of animation per boss fight and when you consider that no two boss fights are the same, that is a huge amount of animation work per fight. You just have to appreciate that dedication and amount of work and it shows through in everything Cuphead is as a game.
Cuphead is all about the boss fights as Cuphead goes about collecting the souls from the names on the Devil’s list, joined by Mugman if you have a co-op partner next to you on the sofa but I will come to that later. I did go in expecting platforming levels that lead to boss fights but nope, it is all about finding those on the list and boy each fight will make you work for it. The fights are multistage battles which will test your skill, patience and ability to adapt and learn on the fly as the boss’s strategy can change on a dime. The AI of the boss characters is one of the best designed adversarial systems I have encountered in a good many years. So yes Cuphead is just as hard as you have heard, it can be very unforgiving as it starts difficult and only gets harder the further in your progress as you work your way through the Devil’s list. Boss’s will change their attack patterns so just when you think you have it down it will suddenly switch to catch you of guard.
So yes Cuphead is very hard, it is completely designed to test player in their skill and patience but for the majority of the time when you fail it is your fault that you failed. Maybe you didn’t jump at the right time for failed to notice that one enemy or bullet heading your way. The fact that enemies do not have health bars means you never know how well you are doing until the next stage of the boss fight kicks in just adds that little extra edge to the fights. It blends the action of a side scrolling shooter with bullet hell so effortlessly that it all comes down to player skill to be victorious, something I really relish and like about Cuphead. Adapting to each boss fight means there is a lot of trial and error here and should you die you have to replay the entire fight again, no hand holding checkpoints here so there can be some frustration to battle your way to what feels like the final stages only to make a mistake and have to redo it all again. To make it worse, when you die a cheeky progress bar will show you just how close to the end of the fight you were which at least gives you some indication of how well you were doing.
There is a lot I really love about this game but it does also have one of the most annoying things that has surfaced this year in games for me, a co-op game without online co-op. Cuphead just screams at you to grab a friend and play this game, hell I would love the chance to be a Mugman in a friend’s game. But sadly the co-op is local only and as a result really sticks up an unnecessary boundary to really unlock the potential of this game. I want to share this game with friends or to be more honest, to share the pain of failure in truly wondrous rage outbursts. I really am fed up now with the sudden push to have local co-op after it had been put aside for many years in gaming to now have it but at the expense of losing online co-op, just have both and believe me, players will be far happier for it.
Also some of the boss battles can feel a little unfair at times, with AI that will just outright overwhelm you randomly. This does make each attempt feel different but after fighting the same boss five times in a row only for the 6th time the boss whips out an attack you haven’t seen before just makes you all the more Hulk Smash type of rage. That random sudden change up in difficulty just for the sake of not letting you win no matter how well you are doing can stop you in your tracks for a while and I found myself moving to a different fight to come back later if I felt the game had just decided to stick me on the naughty step and not let me have a real chance of defeating that boss.
But niggles aside, for the asking price of just under £17, Cuphead is amazing value for money if you want to be truly challenged and a fan of side shooters. Every boss fight felt personal and I have yet to finish the game because right now, I am just not good enough but like all good personal crusades, I will beat this game and all the rage-fest angry saltiness moments are balanced against amazing joyful moments of success and admiration for this game that on the surface looks like a friendly little cartoon game but is arguably one of the top shooters this year.