The Moldenhauer brothers heard that retro is trending, but they probably misunderstood. It’s actually 80s Retrowave that’s hot right now. It seems they took the word “retro” too literally.
Cuphead immerses you in 1930s-era animation from the second you start it up. On-screen content is filtered with the same noise found at the beginning of the last century, and you can even unlock a two-strip Technicolor filter as a bonus. The game is more of an homage than something that can stand on its own two feet.
Given its sheer volume of references and quotations, you’re likely to spend an equal amount of time outside the video game as in it. You come to expect that Betty Boop will appear at any moment, and it’s no secret that the developers drew inspiration from the works of Fleischer Studios. Cuphead’s artistic direction is what has led to its success. Simply adding recognizable fan-service Sonic look-a-likes isn’t enough to make something a good game.
Cuphead’s concept is also very simple – maybe too simple given the industry’s current landscape. There are a handful of run‘n gun levels mixed in, which help to add some content to what could generally be considered more of a shooter than a platformer, but the experience is extremely basic. If you’re looking for straight gameplay, you’ll find consistent satisfaction.
The plot is a superficial draft put in place to advance the necessary amount of latent sadism. Your goal is to work your way through of a number of boss fights in order to pay your debt to the Devil: sort of a less boring version of dealing with Tom Nook in Animal Crossing. To achieve this, you must rely on a short list of weapons and abilities that are available to buy after you’ve collected the necessary coinage. The game is beatable with just the starting Peashooter, which can be aimed across the screen in one of eight directions.
Eventually, when you find yourself surrounded by enemies, you can take advantage of the short-range Spread attack. And yeah, you can trust it’ll happen. Using Spread, you have more fire power but a shorter range. This forces you to stay closer to enemies, meaning that how long you last comes down to your movement skills. The Charge shot, a straightforward sharpshooter move, is the most intriguing of the bunch. You can strike at a good range, but to benefit the most from it, you have to keep on charging the shot and releasing it at just the right moment.
It takes practice, and it’s not a great match against highly mobile enemies, but on average it yields the most benefits, for sure. Also power-biased is the Lobber, whose shots fly lower to the ground, making it a more situational weapon that can be difficult to start with. Each weapon has a special EX move. The Roundabout attack forces you to keep track of your firing, with a super shot that can hurt you badly.
Each weapon has a different damage value, which is what prevents the Chaser from being too overpowered. With this weapon, you gain the advantage auto-aimed bullets that barrel after every enemy on screen. But as much as it means constant damage, the reduced DPS will probably bring you a slower completion time. Instead, it lets you focus on defensive moves and evasions with a more conservative playstyle.
The Parry is a move you perform against specific pink objects to boost your super power meter. In some situations, it’s essential and unavoidable, though if you’re not that into it, you can set it to automatically execute by equipping Parry Sugar. Otherwise, with the Whetstone you can perform an attack while parrying an enemy. Together, with a pair of weapons you can alternate between on the fly, these two items are just some of the Charms you can use to adjust your technique.
Using the Heart and Twin Heart charms, you can add extra hit points to raise your chances of survival and allow yourself more room for error. Or you can choose the Smoke Bomb, which allows you to become invisible and avoid damage when performing a Dash. Then there’s Coffee, a charm option that makes your Super Meter grow even when you’re idling or not performing moves.
Finding the proper situational setup, or the one best adapted to your own playstyle, makes a difference. This game is anything but a long one. Each stage can be completed in under a minute, making Cuphead a speed runner’s paradise, with playtimes being locked in at under 30 minutes: in the same amount of time it took you to watch a single video of your favorite YouTuber making up Dark Souls lore, somebody else was capitalizing on every second by smashing this game.
If the idea of beating the game in the blink of an eye is pushing you away from playing it, indeed you’re just a fool. As it happens, racking up hours on Cuphead is insanely easy. What’s more likely to hinder you is its difficulty.
The controls don’t help, to be honest: as much as it would seem to fit the retro theme, having eight directions to shoot in but not being able to use the right analog stick is outdated. And you have to force yourself to remember that your character doesn’t double jump (an ability unique to one of the DLC’s new characters). Aiming while maintaining your position requires you to lock your movement with the continued press a button.
This kind of design can be mitigated by remapping the controls. As a side note: if you grew up thinking that old games were artificially difficult because of their crappy controls, you probably weren’t wrong. At times, it also feels like the system doesn’t receive your button presses correctly. This is more of a suspicion than a firm statement in a game with tight windows and a 3-strikes-you’re-out aesthetic. When you fail, you have to start the level over from scratch.
Vying against this game’s unforgiving world is a nice way to challenge yourself, which is how you have to approach it. You’re gonna have to die at least few times in the traps laid by the developers in order to cultivate pattern recognition, learn the enemies’ attacks, and find new openings to exploit. The developers are the real Devil of Cuphead – they know just how to tempt you into deadly situations. Every trap’s been properly studied. At times, you feel like an idiot, thinking there’s some kind of magnet or supernatural force driving you towards those treacherous smiling creatures.
There’s a lot of space in Cuphead for blatant scripted actions. Still, to prevent smarter players from gaming the system, there is a small amount of randomness to boss transformation patterns that’s meant to throw you off – as if that were necessary.
All your failed attempts are followed up by a jazzy, big-band, ragtime soundtrack that coherently blends with the art, as well as the scotch and whiskey shots you’ll take to preserve your mental stability after being stuck for an hour on one single stage. And the Prohibition can’t do anything to prohibit you from swearing between all the controller-smashing-on-the-wall intermissions you’ll take.
The choice in level design is brave. While being a shooter and an explicit imitation of Contra, the convention of appearing right in front of the boss as you wait for the announcer to give the go-ahead – or in this case, the “wallup” – is both a distinctive example of cutting corners on side-scrolling segments to manage a low budget and a clear nod to 1-on-1 fighting games. That said, the magic of Cuphead lies in its non-negotiable creative vision, which required an extraordinary amount of work and effort, as opposed to some commercial decision.
It’s the reproduction of a cartoon, made exactly how real cartoons were made. Paper (tons of paper) and pencils were used to draw each frame. This was then followed up with the same digitalization process that brought you all the old, 24-FPS cartoons. The end result is beautiful – but still accessible – with low hardware specifications.
Such work entails a long and tedious process that really requires one to ignore the corporate mentality. It also takes great passion, perseverance and knowledge in order to give birth to something concrete. But all the hard work really paid off with the delivery of a product that is one of the most unique and recognizable to date, despite the inevitable weaknesses of being forged in a homemade and inexperienced environment by creators without any proper programming skill. Lucky for us, they were smart in focusing on the things they’re capable of.
The concept of “boss fights only” should sound familiar to you with another beloved and acclaimed title, this one being a Sony exclusive. The Moldenhauers achieved their goals by building a game based on the same concept but with a totally different objective. Released in 2017, the misfortune of Cuphead is that for the general public, it’s more a game to try than a game to enjoy, complete and brag about.
Upon finishing the game, you sense that the content might be lacking and that this is compensated for by an extreme difficulty that forces you to try the same situations again and again in order to increase playtime. Still, some problems can’t be justified as “game design choices.” The long-awaited 2020 DLC release has been delayed yet again until 2021 and co-op mode is local only.
Regardless, if you gave high marks to a game like Shadow of the Colossus, you could do the same with this shooter. Considering where it’s coming from, as a game with indie origins, and the efforts needed to make it happen, it might make sense to reserve a special place for a gem all its own like Cuphead.