If you haven’t been living under a rock for the past few months you’ll no doubt have heard of the game ‘Cuphead’ released by StudioMDHR for Xbox One and PC. As a PlayStation girl myself I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to play it until this past weekend and I was met with a game that both frustrated and thrilled me.
Cuphead is a run-and-gun game, often compared to ‘Contra’, a 1987 game released by Konami. Like Contra, the gameplay mechanics of Cuphead constitute of two different ‘modes’ if you will, the first being a platform side-scroller and the second being a challenging boss level. What makes Cuphead so unique and appealing is first and foremost the outstandingly beautiful visuals and aesthetic. From beautifully painted backgrounds to each individual boss, the game offers so much to look at that it can occasionally distract you from playing the game itself because you’re so busy taking it all in.
(Allegra Frank, Polygon)
The visuals compare wonderfully with the audio of the game. The music fits in with the 1930’s cartoon aesthetic, making you feel like you’re playing through a betty boop or steampunk willy-esque short, and the sound-effects compliment this well also. Some aspects of the audio can occasionally come across sounding demonic which helps locate the audio in the narrative, one example being with the case of the character ‘Porkrind’ who runs the shop where you can buy more items (Every time he says “Welcome!” I feel a chill run down my spine.)
Besides the visuals and audio, the games simple narrative adds a great appeal that makes it stand out from other action games where a storyline is often lacking. Our title character ‘Cuphead’ was gambling in ‘the Devil’s Casino’ run by ‘King Dice’ one night alongside his brother ‘Mugman’. After a winning streak, King Dice called upon the Devil who raised the stakes – if the two brothers won, their prize would be the whole casino, however, if they lost, their souls would belong to the devil. Cuphead, being greedy, agreed and then, unfortunately, lost when he rolled snake eyes. The Devil then makes a deal with the brothers: for them to become his personal debt collector. The bosses Cuphead (and Mugman in two-player mode) proceed to fight are those whose souls are already contracted to The Devil.
(Chris McDaniel, Dash Cancel)
The narrative really makes the game feel like it has a purpose; it grants a higher level of enthusiasm for each boss level, making it feel like the player has a reason to keep persisting in each fight.
But the main reason for the appeal of Cuphead really lies in the challenging nature of the game, especially in the boss battles. Cuphead is a game that’s really deceptively hard, it seems easy enough when you’re watching someone play it on a stream- you say “Oh man, that looks easy, I bet I’d get through that quickly, no problem!” but playing the game yourself is a completely different story. It’s not even the case of controls being difficult – I can’t speak for PC, but the Xbox controller (With altered controller settings, mind) really doesn’t offer much of a problem in way of gameplay. The challenge comes from having to learn the moves of your opponent by trial and error, finding out how to get around obstacles while remaining patient as your death count quickly rises beyond the impressive amount you were hoping you could boast to your friends about. This challenge is what made me repeat the level over and over again, rather obsessively, until I’d finally done it – and trust me, when you finally beat the boss it is one of the greatest feelings you’ll ever know.
As great as I found Cuphead, not everything came up 100% positive: the side-scrolling ‘run and gun’ levels were a part of the game that really didn’t offer much excitement for me. Sure, they had their challenging moments at times, but most of the time I found them a bit boring, wanting to use the levels as a way to accumulate money rather than anything else. I wonder if these levels were needed at all, I think the game could have worked just as well being a flurry of boss battles.
Honestly, Cuphead was a game I didn’t think I’d like. I thought the challenging nature would frustrate me to the point of giving up and easily admitting defeat but found the opposite to be true: The frustration is what kept bringing me back. Even if the gameplay doesn’t interest you, the visuals and audio are enough to give it great appeal and if in reading this your interest has piqued even a little, I would recommend giving it a try for yourself.