Cuphead, Studio MDHR’s highly anticipated action/platformer, has finally arrived. After feeling underwhelmed with my hands-on with the game during E3 2016, I wasn’t looking forward its inevitable release. Despite the fact that each trailer and reveal looked stunning, my experience with Cuphead was less than stellar. When I finally got my hands on the finished product, I was hoping for Studio MDHR to blow me away. After a rocky start, Cuphead exceeded each of my expectations.
To avoid spoilers, I’ll give a quick overview of the plot. Cuphead and his brother Mugman make a deal with The Devil, that’s a matter of life and death. The Devil tasks our heroes with hunting down those who owe him a debt. Following this objective, Cuphead and Mugman venture on a quest to fight these bosses and collect the contract that The Devil has on each of their heads. It’s a simple concept that works wonderfully.
From the stellar visuals (reminiscent of old-school Disney animated shorts), the catchy tunes, and the intense gameplay, Cuphead has a lot of appeal. What I loved the most about Cuphead had to be what the game became notorious for, the difficulty. I’m a huge fan of hard video games. As someone who grew up in the early 90’s, I’m used to video games with excruciating difficulty curves. My childhood consisted of Mega Man 2, Ninja Gaiden, Ghost & Goblins, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Even though it took years for me to beat these games, there was a tremendous sense of accomplishment when the credits started to roll.
My problem with modern video games stems from the fact that many of them are not challenging enough. Except for Dark Souls, one of my absolute favorites, most video games seem manageable, even on the hardest difficulty. Cuphead is everything I loved about video games growing up. It’s punishing, but never unfair. In fact, each time an enemy defeated me, it was clearly due to my error. While I felt frustrated, my determination never wavered. I would hit retry and attempt to destroy the boss who stood in my way.
Cuphead features over 15 boss battles with various degrees of difficulty and gameplay mechanics. Expert platforming, perfectly timed attacks, and quick maneuvering are required to succeed. There are also other levels on a plane that are fantastic representations of the bullet hell genre. Cuphead looks to the past for inspiration but does enough modern things to make the game feel fresh. Every boss has its own unique personality and attack to compliment their appearance. For instance, there is a boss fight outside of a candy castle. Each enemy that the boss spawns to kill you represents a different sweet. There’s a gumball machine, candy corn, and even an everlasting gobstopper that try and thwart your attempts at victory.
Another fantastic air battle is against a bird sticking its head outside of a birdhouse. Talking more about the fight would result in spoilers, but the presentation is top notch. Every single boss battle appears to be handled with care. From the art design of the enemy to the environment, every fight follows a particular theme. Nothing feels out of place.
Cuphead can jump, duck, shoot, aim, dash, use a super attack, and an ultimate move. While you can unlock new moves by visiting Porkrind, the vendor, none of these abilities require different button inputs. Since the game is challenging enough, it’s great that regardless of your setup, you’ll never have to learn a unique control scheme. Some abilities have caveats though. For instance, you can purchase a passive ability that increases your health count, but comes at the cost of your damage output. There are a variety of moves that grant you boosts, but disciplines you in other ways. The path to success is to mix and match abilities and new weapons that fit your playstyle.
From a technical standpoint, Cuphead is sensational. The visuals are crisp, appealing to the eyes, and it wonderfully brings a nostalgic factor for fans of classic cartoons. There’s also a grain filter used that made me feel as if I was in the 30’s. I adored the visual aesthetic. Studio MDHR should also be commended for developing a game without a technical issue. Throughout my time with the game, I never experienced lag or slowdown at all. The audio is magnificent as well. As the orchestra music radiated during the hub worlds, I found myself bobbing my head along. I let Cuphead sit outside a level a couple of times, so I could just let my ears enjoy the fabulous score.
I don’t have many negatives for Cuphead. I have two problems with the game. First, the Run & Gun levels are tedious and not up to par with the rest of the experience. These levels are mainly meant to obtain coins used to unlock new abilities. Since Cuphead’s main draw are the boss battles, I found these Run and Gun sections to not fit the tone of the game. Also, Cuphead starts off slow. The first few levels didn’t catch my attention, but after my initial impressions of the game, I began to love everything that Studio MDHR did with Cuphead.
After the first demo I played of Cuphead at E3, I was nervous about how the final game would turn out. After a slightly rocky start, Cuphead turned into the incredible game I had hoped it would be. Studio MDHR’s phenomenal game harkens back to a joyful time, where cartoons were hand-drawn, characters looked stunning, and everything had high production value. Cuphead is a game with its mind in the past, but its foot firmly planted in the present. The seven-year development cycle (it was announced in 2014, but development started in 2010) paid off. Cuphead has become the most pleasantly surprising game of the year. The young me is praising the team for making an old school video game and the older me is in love with the world Studio MDHR created. I can’t get enough of Cuphead. I plan on playing it again on a harder difficulty and another time with a friend. One thing is for sure, no matter how long the wait, I’m excited to see what Studio MDHR is planning next. They absolutely knocked it out of the park with Cuphead and you should definitely give it a shot.