Cuphead: A good game for a swell battle...
Updated: Jul 21, 2020
My experience with 30s/40s cartoons is somewhat limited; I love movies like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio because they are artistic marvels with simple yet wholesome messages for children and adults alike. When I found out about Cuphead I immediately knew that it was a possible Hall of Fame entry just from the art style alone. An artistic marvel with simple yet wholesome (?) messages for children (not really) and adults like (mostly adults).
The game’s story is somewhat barebones but is in keeping with animated shorts from that time; as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would only get released in 1937; I think Studio MDHR was aiming for the style of pre 1937 where story was less of a focus in order to show off the colourful animations and music. Cuphead and his little brother Mugman live a carefree life of fun and merriment under the ever watchful eye of Elder Kettle; that is until the two Cup boys end up inside the Devil’s casino (It was the 30s, regulation was not a thing at that time) to which, after getting dealt a bad hand by the Devil himself and equally villainous King Dice the boys are forced to become the most adorable leg breakers in order to save their souls from damnation.
And that is all you really need in regards to story, an excuse to fight a succession of extremely hard and extremely colourful boss fights. We never find out why they are in debt to the Devil and that is fine, we don’t need to have in depth back story for everything and it keeps the pacing up and the appropriately heavy handed moral message (don’t let children gamble, quite fitting nowadays to be honest but anyway) in focus. This is truly beautiful in its simplicity. It provides motive and reason for the game to happen and not much else.
The gameplay itself is split into three separate modes, between bosses and run and gun levels you wonder around, finding hidden secrets and buying things from nearby shops, each world (Inkwell Isle is split into four parts. Completing bosses and Run and Gun will gradually open up each Isle and allow you cross over onto new Isles once all the bosses have been defeated. This simple but effective method of rewarding players helps encourage the player to continue playing because every victory grants that little bit of process which is important considering just how aggressively difficult the game can be, every drop of encouragement is important. It offers the player the freedom to choose between which boss/run and gun level, allowing alternatives (at least until the final two) if they are struggling or don’t have the weapons needed to make it easier. It is nice encouraging design that does not force the player into playing a boss that they are not enjoying due to difficulty spikes or just good old annoyance.
The Run and Gun levels are pretty run of the mill platforming and shooting (kind of says it on the tin really) even though they are very short and you do not even have to fire a single shot they are just as murderously difficult to get through. Some have said the run and gun levels are shoehorned into the game and could be removed to improve the game. I disagree, as they are still enjoyable to get through and allow a break from the boss fights. Playing Run and Gun sections also offer the challenge of finding coins that you will need to unlock alternative weapons and skills to help make the game slightly easier (at least offers different means of confronting bosses as you will die regardless. The Run and Gun levels do have their place in the game; they might have been a last minute addition but to me they don’t feel like that. They are a difficult but short destruction and relief from the main meat of the game. The controls are tight and the patterns are consistent enough to encourage continuous retries, feeling reward for each bit of process made. Cuphead is a rewarding game for the most part
Now for the main meat and potatoes of the game: the bosses themselves.
I have not stressed the sheer creativity of this game enough have I? Good sweet flying spaghetti monster the bosses and Run and Gun are some of the most artistically inspired creations I have ever encountered in a game. (I will get into the actual art style and graphics later) they way the bosses transform and pull off their attacks in each stage (bosses are multiple staged by the way) their sheer ridiculous way bosses pound you into the dirt is in of itself a means of encouragement because you want to keep going to just find out what happens next. I think it is safe to say that no other game has two frogs turn into a gambling machine that throws coins at you and disgorge fierily platforms of death on occasion or an anthropomorphised roulette table as a Russian ballerina. The game difficulty is mostly consistent with only a few minor dips, namely with mausoleum levels where you unlock super abilities (very powerful skills like invincibility etc) which you can beat them in one try with the auto parry charm while some bosses can take (in my experience) a couple of days to finish. That is not to say it is not rewarding, if you watch my videos (no longer up) you will know that every time I would have a small orgasm every time I defeated a boss. In most cases the bosses are tough but fair, only requiring time and practice to overcome.
However there are times when the game is not very fair, sometimes the game uses cheap difficulty to prolong the game’s running time. My least favourite boss is Cala Maria because of a screen wide freezing ray fired in the second and third stage, there is no way to avoid getting stuck in either stage; considering that Cala Maria boss fight is a bullet hell shooter, giving a boss an unavoidable freezing beam when the screen is filling with projectiles causing you to get hit and lose health though no fault of your own is a mark of bad design. No game should ever put a boss move that forces the player to remain still in a bullet hell shooter as it feels cheap and demotivating to the player when they die after being hit by an avoidable attack made unavoidable is simply unfair. Considering the game is based entirely around trying to not get hit makes it all the more annoying and cheap. To a lesser extent we have bosses like Rumor Honeybottoms and Grim Matchstrick where platforms are semi randomised which can either screw you over or help you depending on placement. It is not as bad as Cala Maria but it is a little demoralizing that you could die because the number generator was not in your favour; when it comes to hard games I want to feel that any failure is entirely my own and not the game messing me about.
The weapons and charms themselves are pretty fun and they all have their uses depending on the bosses and situations, you will still die a lot but you can always mix and match to suit the play style you desire. A slight nitpick in that you have to exit the boss fight to change your load out, I can understand that it is to avoid changing the load out in the moment but then again they could have offered the option to change it after you die without having to go through two loading screens. Not the most important aspect in the world as loading times are not long in the slightest but it could have been tightened up for connivance sake.
The art style to my mind truly creates something memorable and wonderful. Everything from the sound design to the rubbery limbs and the slight deliberately inconsistent colours of Cuphead and Mugman’s gloves all come together to create something that is a wonderfully, loving recreation of 1930s animation. The sheer creativity in designs and transformations as mentioned previously are spectacular to behold. The ridiculous nature of the designs made me laugh on numerous occasions at the sheer about of effort, love and time on display. Love is the key word here, Cuphead is a game filled with love for an era long past. It makes the game utterly unique as well as a work of art. I cannot stress how much I adore this game’s art style and how well it replicates it.
The game has some minor frame rate drops but that is all really; a really well optimised game over all.
I have to confess I am in a love-hate relationship with Cuphead, on one hand it is a work of interactive art that had me laughing and in awe whenever I started a new boss but on the other hand I rarely left a session happy; at one point I was considering not putting on the Hall of Fame because of the design choices and the cheap deaths. However after finishing Cala Maria I gradually retracted my stance on not putting Cuphead in the Hall of Fame, because it is so unique and with artistic merit. Hell when the game is not being unfair it is a fun challenging game. I feel; it would be wrong of me to not put Cuphead into the Hall of Fame.
Just fuck Cala Maria.
(Not like that)
(Unless you want to)
(I won’t judge too much)