After my predominantly atrocious experience with Assassin’s Creed (review), I needed to play something that I already knew was going to be good. I chose Cuphead, a game I had only played a few times with my (now ex) girlfriend.
Developed and published by StudioMDHR, Cuphead is an impressive first outing by the company and one of the most enjoyable games to be published in recent years. The wonderful direction and design can be credited to the Moldenhauer brothers (hence where the MDHR comes from in the company’s name), Jared and Chad, as they created a delightful but simultaneously relentless run-and-gun platformer.
I cannot get enough of Cuphead’s bizarre art direction, inspired by the distinctive, 1930s rubber hose style of animation, which was the greatest attention-grabber for the game at the time of its release. Its classy looks are complimented with a wide selection of classical-sounding jazz tunes which blend exquisitely with its visuals, making it hard not to be spellbound by Cuphead’s aesthetic. What’s even more impressive is since the art style offered such a wide scope for creativity, there’s plenty of potential, and the developers certainly delivered. Every single level is entirely different from the last, and the creators stretched their imaginations to the limit with what else could be added to the game.
But is the gameplay any good? You bet. Cuphead is primarily comprised of boss battles, with the occasional run-and-gun level. One of the game’s more notorious attributes is its difficulty. The levels are brief, but so densely packed with plenty of unique enemies and obstacles to assure that the player is cautiously watching their every step. Cuphead’s bosses are equally as difficult and also excel in artistic creativity. Although Cuphead is indeed infamously challenging, it’s not unfairly challenging. Keen observation is key in a game like Cuphead, as many silly mistakes can transpire during play. Beating a particularly laborious level is a relieving and colossally satisfying payoff.
Cuphead includes various mechanics such as parrying, crouching, and dashing not only to aid the player, but to play a pivotal role in several sections, too, thankfully not putting them to waste and making your controllable character versatile. The run-and-gun levels also include collectible coins for unlockable charms and different weapon types. Fortunately, none of the weapon types overshadow each other, and the abilities aren’t too overpowered. This is a smart choice because rather than the game becoming less challenging as a result, it applies a strategy element.
Something is weirdly off with the escalation of difficulty, however. It took me less attempts to beat the final boss (who is literally the devil) than it did with some of the earlier bosses. At first, I thought this was perhaps due to my increased skill in observation, and though this may be true, I then noticed that in both length and difficulty, the levels don’t drastically raise any stakes. I’m almost positive this is due to the fact that every boss fight has learnable patterns that are subconsciously accounted for on later attempts. Perhaps the final boss — and other bosses as well — wouldn’t have been so moderately easy if some factor of unpredictability was added, or even if they had been lengthened. The skill of the player increases especially, but the difficulty of levels doesn’t, making a few of the later sections feel oddly easier. I can’t dwell too much on this point, though, because I’m still conflicted over whether or not I think it’s a proper flaw.
Other than that, Cuphead is one of the most refreshing titles to come out in recent years. The industry needs more games with idiosyncratic visions like this one. Although technically brief in content by today’s standards, it is made up for with challenging but fair gameplay. I recommend playing with a partner.