Growing up in the 80’s I was always more partial to Trapdoor and Scooby Doo: but I would often watch the golden oldies. It’s strange that it took becoming a parent to realise just how disturbingly violent these old cartoons were. Well, it never did me any harm (maybe).
So here we delve into the adventures of Cuphead and Mug Man, two anthropomorphic drinking vessels cut straight from the cloth of the 1930’s. Cuphead was announced back in 2014 and has been developed by Studio MDHR. These two friends get into hot water with the Devil after gambling with their souls. In a bid to avoid oblivion they opt to become debt collectors and so we have our epic quest. You move between levels on a Zelda style map where you must select which encounter you wish to take on. As you defeat these characters you collect their debt (souls) and the path to new areas is revealed.
You ain’t the boss of me!
This is primarily a Boss Run game and this is certainly where its main strengths can be found. Each ‘Boss’ encounter is unique both in terms of mechanics and visuals. Even the sound and music is sui generis. Every boss comes with set phases that must be survived while you inflict damage. What is interesting is that the sequence of these phases can be changed and often the boss with throw the stage at you in which you died last: so basically rubbing your nose in defeat.
Cuphead and his compadre have the standard run and jump you see in most modern platformers. You can also duck, which initially seems pointless, but very soon it’s clear ducking is part and parcel of some fight solutions. You also have an assortment of ranged attacks, more of which can be bought from vendors with gold coins. In addition to these attacks, you can upgrade your abilities with charms and specials that give you further buffs and super attacks. Your attacks can be directed in eight directions so for the most part you will need to keep yourself moving. In fact the game does a very good job of keeping the pressure on you, so you never get chance to just sit and fire. Occasionally you will see pink projectiles and mobs which you can parry off. This requires crackerjack timing and adds that risk-reward element to the gameplay. It’s a big risk to take considering you can only take three hits as standard, but a successful parry will give you a power card and a better rating at the end of the level. Power cards allow you to fire a special attack which will be defined by the weapon you currently have active: if you save up a full set you can unleash a far more powerful attack. As you might expect, some weapons are better suited for different situations: the homing gun, for instance, is better for the run and gun levels but its low damage isn’t great for most boss encounters.
Old school toons
My wife doesn’t care much for games and if I ever want to send her to sleep I’ll starting telling her what I’m currently playing. However, something strange happened a few days ago when I was playing Cuphead on the sofa via my Steam Link. ‘Oh, what’s this game?’ she asked. There is no doubt in my mind that one of this games biggest strengths is how adorable the visuals are and how they draw you in. The developers have sought to infuse the style of the 1930s right into this plucky platformer and by gosh they nailed it (sorry). Every single frame of animation is a hand drawn with a mixture of cell shading and watercolours. It was only in 1928 that cartoons started to get sound so emotion and gags had to be conveyed with visuals only. This was why so many of the facial expressions and body movements were over the top. I’ve also always felt that cartoons from this era had a somewhat of a sinister vibe to them, I mean just about every enemy in Cuphead is sporting that wide toothy grin we saw back then. It fits well with the game because here many of these characters are out to knobble you.
In addition to the style, the developers have added many other effects that give us that vintage aesthetic. The granularity of small particles on the film, the while ‘cue’ lines and small specs of damage caused by dust or poor storage of film. The sound effects and music have also been completely designed to give that 1930’s feel. The voice work carries with it that exaggerated cheeriness, while the music is just a stunning love letter to this era. I don't profess to be an expert in music but I know that I get a wonderful burst of nostalgia when listening to these fast and punchy tunes. It’s also incredible that every boss comes with their own music: amazing work throughout.
So the visuals are just stunning and the gameplay is top notch: however, there are a few niggles here and there. You can play Cuphead in a two-player co-op mode and while this is always going to be fun it somehow does sit quite right. The bosses will scale up in health but often it feels a little messy. I would have loved for some more attention to be given to this side of the game, like a few co-op moves or a unique two player stage on every boss that needed good timing and teamwork. This kind of game was made to be played with two players and doing so reminded me of old classics like Gunstar Heroes. I just feel it wasn’t given the same amount of care and attention as the single player was, which is a shame.
When Cuphead was initially unveiled it was a pure Boss Rush game and didn’t have any platform in levels as such. Gamers who had assumed it was primarily a platform game expressed their disappointment and so in the final game we also have these ‘run and gun’ sections. I’ll be honest, don't like them: at least the one's where you are on foot. I do agree that this game should have a platforming element in between the boss encounters: however these levels feel like an afterthought. There are some stages where you take to the sky in a bi-plane and I have to say these sections I loved because like the boss fights; they feel well designed. Another tiny annoyance is that to visit old boss fights you have to traipse around the map, I would have loved these encounters to be in some kind of old journal allowing you to jump in at any time. These are all very small annoyances but worth mentioning none the less.
Is it PC?
In terms of performance Cuphead is as solid as a rock and I’m sure it would run well on a modern toaster. There aren't a lot of options for the visuals or music, but then we don't really need them in this type of game. I didn't even consider playing Cuphead on anything other than my trusty 360 controller and it works a treat. There is, of course, some old school folks who will use the analogue D-Pad but I found the stick better because Cuphead fires in eight directions. I have seen a few people on Twitter talking about how they changed the controls to be more user-friendly but I managed to tough it out with the default set up. I have been playing a lot of games on my Steam Link as of late and Cuphead works so well in this regard. This is a perfect version of the game on PC and I haven't come across any problems while playing.
Cup head is a very changing platformer that succeeds in blending an old-fashioned visual style with one of the most enjoyable Boss Rush games in recent times. There is no doubt in my mind that the game's appeal is more due to its visuals but then I do believe getting something from the way a game looks is in itself a quality worth recognising. With that said Cuphead is also a fantastic Boss Rush game in every regard, just watching the creative ways in which an adversary will change from stage to stage is highly entertaining. Do I recommend Cuphead? Yes, very much so. Just be warned: despite the cute visuals this game will push you to the edge and some might find it a little too difficult.
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