Developer: Studio MDHR
Publisher: Studio MDHR
Platform: Windows 10
Copy borrowed and played with a friend (solo and co-op)
Conjuring nostalgia of a bygone era, Cuphead is the first game released from Studio MDHR. It’s a boss rush game, which is to say it’s a game where players face off against increasingly intense foes. The game also makes use of a play style where players jump and weave through an oncoming barrage of violent projectiles while counter attacking with their own. You’re equipped with a variety of weapon types, each possessing an EX attack that can be used at the cost of some of your special meter. The special meter will fill up as you attack the boss, and also whenever Cuphead uses a parrying attack to negate the damage of a pink projectile. Cuphead’s appearance is a callback to early days of American animation with bright and bubbly character designs. Despite the friendly exterior, Cuphead is tough as nails and many of the fights will test your precision as much as your patience.
Let’s get this out of the way first: the art direction in Cuphead is great. Cuphead has an immediately recognizable visual style that mirrors its 1930’s aesthetic. Every detail within the game matches this look to a tee giving Cuphead a coherent presentation that is visually breathtaking. Bright colours that contrast are used throughout making each enemy, boss, and both playable characters look distinct. I especially liked seeing the various designs that each phase of the many bosses would take on. While reviewing some footage I took of Cuphead for screenshots, the effort that went into the game becomes abundantly clear. The attention to detail going into every single attack will have upwards of fifteen different frames of animation resulting in a smooth and satisfying end product.
Along with the visuals being breathtaking they also service the gameplay. Players are only allowed limited mistakes before they are removed from a fight and must start from the beginning. Due to the unforgiving nature of Cuphead, it is very important that the game feels fair. Most of the time bosses manage to telegraph attacks in a way that allows players to react and move out of the way. Some cues are more generous than others, so some trial and error can go into fully learning a boss, but once players see any given cue a few times it becomes easier to distinguish what is about to be thrown your way.
In addition, the visual contrast between the elements of Cuphead in the foreground and the background help to keep Cuphead from descending into complete disarray. The background is a much subtler washed out colour palette compared to the brightness of the foreground. The contrast created helps relay what is and isn’t dangerous to the player, as well as providing some visual clarity to the chaotic boss fights. Between the various elements Cuphead does a good job of creating a beautiful presentation that also aids the gameplay as best as possible.
Another element I really liked about Cuphead is the weapons system. Before entering a fight you’re able to equip two different types of shots. Some examples include a single straight line shot, a shot that shoots in a cone, and a boomerang shot that arcs back returning like a boomerang. What I liked about the weapons was how each boss felt weaker against certain combinations. This made each encounter feel as though it had a rock, paper, scissors sort of approach where figuring out what types of shots work best can greatly improve your chances at beating any given encounter. While it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I found trying to figure out which weapons would give me an edge in the different fights quite engaging. It was especially gratifying when swapping to a new weapon type would greatly reduce the difficulty I experienced against certain bosses.
The final aspect of Cuphead I’d like to touch on in a positive light is the music. The score does a good job of matching the same 1930’s tone and atmosphere that the visuals are going for. Many of the tracks are big band style mixes featuring a variety of brass, wind, and percussion instruments. The upbeat tempo matches the frenetic nature of the game’s boss fights perfectly and add an extra layer of tension to each encounter that wouldn’t be possible without music. Even on their own the various tracks are great to listen to (provided you’re a fan of Jazz music). One minor gripe though, the bosses are usually too short and wild to get a good feeling for the music as a whole. I only ended up hearing a small portion of what’s on offer in Cuphead because most fights ended less than halfway through the track. Also, with how focused the game demanded I be I often ended up drowning out the music the closer I got to finally beating any given boss. Overall though, I think the soundtrack in Cuphead was a net positive.
The first hiccup for me with Cuphead comes from the super abilities. As previously mentioned you accumulate charges in a special meter. You can hold up to five charges at any time and these can be used on the EX variant attacks, or you can save up five charges to perform an ultimate attack. My issue with these abilities is they feel like more of a liability than an asset. Neither of the damage dealing attacks provide any invulnerability frames after being used leaving the player entirely open to attack. Due to the length of the animation, I usually took an attack head on after it finished. This made using what should have been my magnum opus feel unnecessarily punishing, especially because of how little room for failure is allowed. I should mention my criticism here does not apply to the ultimate that turns you invulnerable for a few seconds, and I’d recommend players use said ultimate once they unlock it.
Secondly, I’d like to touch on the accessories in Cuphead. While the variety of weapons added depth to the different encounters, I did not find the accessories did the same. Similar to the weapons there are six different pieces of equipment that you are allowed to use. You may take one in with you to provide a passive bonus throughout the fight. The problem I had with them was that the smoke bomb accessory feels exponentially better than all of the others. I think the intention with the different available options was to provide the same mix and match system that the weapons have, but being able to dodge through projectiles with the smoke bomb feels indispensable the further into Cuphead you get.
Thirdly, I had difficulty with Cuphead’s scoring system. You’re awarded a score based on how well you performed at the end of each encounter. Throughout my two times through Cuphead I never quite nailed down exactly how the scoring system at the end of each boss fight worked. Scoring parameters include HP, parrying, and the special meter. While the HP marking was always straight forward, giving a score based on my remaining hit points, the results for parrying and special meter would vary quite widely. Some fights I’d parry very little, but receive a perfect score, while other times I’d parry many times only to receive partial or no marks. The special meter was similar with me filling and spending the meter repeatedly, but I’d either receive a perfect score or a zero. As I wasn’t able to find consistency in the scoring system I found it frustrating. Without the ability to reliably earn higher grades over repeated attempts I found the grading system too annoying to add replay value to Cuphead.
Finally, I also had a problem with repetition in Cuphead. Mileage will vary on a player by player basis, but I found a lot of the bosses in the latter half of the game to be far too tedious. As Cuphead ramps up in spectacle, so too does the difficulty. My own lack of patience turned the many repeated attempts against any given boss into a frustrating nightmare as each subsequent attempt wore increasingly on me. I never experienced any payoff when I eventually did conquer that boss, which is why I found it so dissatisfying to keep playing. While overcoming the challenge of each boss started satisfying, I found it didn’t offer the same sensation the further into Cuphead I played.
Another reason for my frustration stems from how certain attack combinations feel like they can create scenarios where you can’t escape unscathed. When attacks are used in conjunction with each other a player who isn’t familiar with a boss, or who misread a telegraph can end up backed into a corner with no way to escape oncoming pain. When this happens it can throw off the entire rhythm of an encounter. Scenarios where my butt was stuck in a corner happened more often than I’d like to admit as the onscreen chaos regularly became too much for me to focus on and take in all at once. This was further exacerbated on the flying levels, which all play like a side scrolling bullet hell game. While careful planning, and perfect execution entirely prevent what I’ve described the chaos of some of the game’s boss fights resulted in what felt like some unfair moments.
Cuphead is a game I would be hard pressed to recommend. For the first few hours it is an absolute joy to play by oneself, or with a friend in local co-op. The vibrant visuals are reason enough to check it out. The musical score and trying different weapon types on the various bosses can also be quite engaging. Despite all the good, Cuphead had a few sour notes for me. The super abilities feeling like a liability, a host of underwhelming accessories, and lack of consistency in the scoring system were smaller problems that nagged me throughout my time with the game. These in combination with the tedium of repeated fights and visual chaos made me backtrack on my initial positive impression. There is certainly a market for Cuphead, but I do not believe I am a part of that market.