It’s hard to believe when looking back, but there was a time in the late 1990s through the following decade, when 2D video games were considered to be outdated. Archaic. A worn-out dusty relic of the past. 3D games were the future, and the consensus of the time was that established game series had to adapt to 3D, or risk getting left behind.
This obviously did not pan out, thankfully. Thanks in great part to the indie game explosion of the past decade, 2D gaming has showcased its staying power as a worthy companion to 3D. Wonderful games ranging from Super Meat Boy to Undertale to Shovel Knight have all stood out as being some of the best, most thoroughly polished releases of the 2010s, if not of all time. Now, a new name is fit to sit proudly among these recent hits, and that name is Cuphead.
By now, you may have already heard of Cuphead. It’s certainly been blowing up in popularity this late into 2017, and its praise has been well deserved. However, Cuphead does have a very narrow focus in terms of the game it’s trying to be. A 2D run-and-gun shooter with a graphical style inspired by early 1930s American cartoons is not exactly the sort of idea any random game company could come up with, and it certainly will not appeal to everyone. If you’re intrigued by the idea, but aren’t sure if the game’s design or challenge would appeal to you, then hopefully this review will help you figure out if it’s right for you.
Cuphead, like many run-and-gun shooters, is a hectic experience. Bullets and enemies will fly toward you at all times in the traditional run-and-gun stages, while the boss fights (which make up the bulk of the experience) consist of multiple forms, each with their own erratic attack patterns that must be learned through trial and error. This is a game where dying is not only likely, but expected.
In terms of comparing Cuphead directly to classic games of its style, I think it’s most easily comparable to the Contra series – particularly a game like Contra: Hard Corps for the Genesis. Like Hard Corps, Cuphead has a strong focus on inventive boss battles with multiple phases, to the point where boss battles are more commonly encountered than stages with more typical enemy fodder. It’s clear that StudioMDHR did their homework in terms of figuring out what makes this type of design so engaging.
Cuphead‘s gameplay isn’t a 1 to 1 copy of Contra, however. It’s subtle, but the most signficant difference to me is the variable jump height that Cuphead and his brother Mugman both possess. This is nothing like a Contra or a Metal Slug, where both a slight tap or an extended press of the jump button will make your character jump at the same height. Having a variable height to your jump based on how long you press the jump button is more of a Mega Man or a Turrican thing. This isn’t necessarily a flaw, but it does require more thought given to how high you want to jump at any given time, whereas I find it easier to get “in the zone” and just let reflexes take over in the average Contra game.
Other elements that distinguish this from similar games are a horizontal dash you can perform at any time (even in midair), and a “parry-slap”, where you press the jump button as you’re about to land on a pink object, and bounce off of it. Parry-slapping is a pretty key component of the game’s design, with various obstacles that can only be avoided by mastering the parry-slap. It takes some getting used to, and you only have three hit points under normal circumstances, so you can’t afford to mess it up too frequently in any given stage.
Helping to break up the gameplay are certain fights that place you in an airplane, and play out like a horizontal shmup along the lines of Gradius or R-Type. Despite the change in style, these contain many of the same elements as the rest of the game, including pink enemies and objects that can be parried. They’re not a significant part of the game, but their inclusion is appreciated for the sake of variety.
If you’re not familiar with run-and-gun shooters in general, Cuphead will offer you a challenging introduction to the genre. It is however worth noting that the game’s design is pretty forgiving, in a similar manner to other challenging indie games like Super Meat Boy. The moment-to-moment gameplay is relentless, sure, but you have unlimited lives, and can retry any stage or boss fight at any time. Sooner or later, you’re bound to clear any given fight, if due to nothing other than practice and persistence. There is also an item shop you can visit between stages, from which you can purchase various weapons and upgrades (including a charge shot, or an invincibility dash, etc.).
The ability to select different levels and bosses from the world map is convenient, though it does lack the feeling of an all-out onslaught that traditional run-and-gun games offer. I personally prefer the relentless pace of those games, with how you’re expected to play through the entire game in one session without losing all your lives and continues. Cuphead breaks far away from traditional arcade-derived design in this regard, thanks to being able to try out multiple stages and boss fights at any time. It’s admittedly a rather minor thing to nitpick, and this approach ultimately offers a more accessible means of presenting a game’s content to the player, so I can’t be too disappointed about it.
The actual stages themselves are incredibly imaginative. One stage might have you running through a giant hollowed-out tree, then another stage will have you fight a rat piloting a tank built out of a soup can, then yet another stage will pit you against a queen bee protecting her hive, etc. These are all fun ideas, and each challenge always has something new to offer to the player.
As mentioned earlier, Cuphead‘s focus is on boss fights. There is a grand total of six traditional run-and-gun stages in the game, alongside a whopping nineteen boss fights that are each separate selectable stages. Most of the stages are intended to be completed in under two minutes each, but it’ll likely take hours of dying and retrying to make it through the whole game. It took me almost ten hours of playtime before I saw the ending, and that’s not taking into account that there’s extra content to unlock afterward (like a harder difficulty setting, and a “black & white” mode, etc.).
Like many classic 2D action games, story does not take a prominent role in Cuphead. That’s not to say there is no story, however; essentially, Cuphead and Mugman are tasked with retrieving soul contracts from the many denizens of Inkwell Isle (who comprise the boss fights in the game), under penalty of losing their own souls to the Devil himself. Despite the brightly animated aesthetic of the game, this is a pretty disturbing premise.
Other undercurrents of dark theming come into play in many of the boss fights, where the bosses resist your attempts to capture their souls by any means necessary. Some bosses literally die in the middle of fighting you, with their final forms being their ghostly spirit or their gravestone attempting a last-ditch effort to fend you off. With each boss you defeat, however, another soul is doomed to suffer in Hell… Pretty dark stuff all around, which is fitting for a tribute to cartoons made during the Great Depression.
Something surprising, considering the 1930s animation aesthetic, is that there’s a pretty high amount of references to classic ’80s and ’90s video games in this game. Most of them are pretty subtle, with the game rarely drawing much attention to them, but they’re there for people who recognize them. They range from more obvious allusions like the title screen menu resembling that of Final Fantasy VII‘s, to a jawbreaker enemy somewhat resembling Pac-Man, to the pirate pig shopkeeper being an obvious homage to Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap. These references are tastefully incorporated, and are a nice callback to other games while not feeling out of place.
Cuphead is a very polished experience, for the most part. One glitch I noticed, however, involves the spawn sequences for certain projectiles. As an example, in the fight against the phantom train boss, the eyeballs that the boss bounces at you in its first form are normally okay to deal with. There was at least one time however where an eyeball literally “blipped” into existence right above me, a split second before it hurt me, giving me absolutely no reasonable amount of time to dodge it. The fact that the eyeball appeared with no animation randomly in the middle of the screen, rather than being bounced toward me by the boss, seems like a glitch that should be looked into.
Generally the enemies and bullets onscreen are clear enough to distinguish from one another, but on occasion, explosions will “mask” nearby enemy bullets, which means you can get hit by a bullet you barely had a chance to notice if you weren’t paying attention several seconds earlier. It perhaps would have been a better decision to have enemy bullets take precedence in the foreground ahead of the explosions of defeated enemies, but the game is still very playable as is.
Beyond that, it’s tough to strongly criticize such an imaginative, engaging game. It looks and runs well on my Windows 7 64-bit computer with an aging Geforce GTX 660 graphics card. It’s beautiful to look at, with a smooth framerate and a gorgeous hand-drawn art style that is bursting with energy and creativity. This is a real labor of love.
I’d been looking forward to Cuphead‘s release for a few years now, and I’m happy to say that it has surpassed my expectations. It features some modern design sensibilities which make for a more accessible experience, while refusing to compromise on its central vision of being a hardcore run-and-gun shooter. In the absense of any new Contra or Metal Slug releases, I welcome Cuphead as the new flag-bearer for this style of gameplay.