As much as I love talking about all the games that everyone has forgotten or missed, sometimes we have to meander back toward the here and now. But don’t you fret – I wouldn’t be diving into the deep end of the mainstream (don’t expect more puns) if there wasn’t a good reason. Today, that reason is Cuphead!
Released a few months ago (September, 2017), and having already sold over 2 million copies, Cuphead has been described as a “run ‘n gun” game – think of the old platformers from the 80’s and 90’s like Contra, where you run around on a 2D map, attempting to avoid enemies/bullets while simultaneously shooting as many things as possible. As so many games do these days, it’s a bit genre-bending, with a world map to explore, boss-only levels (lots of those), and plane levels that turn the game into a sort of goofy Sine Mora.
There are a lot good reasons you should play Cuphead. It’s “only” $20 on Steam (also available on Xbox One), which is quite good for a game you’ll play a lot of, but seems steep for a side-scrolling shooter, especially when there are other, cheaper, options out there. That said, it has a properly well-made feel, which means you’re less likely to tire of it as a novelty after an hour. Even the soundtrack, which was nominated for several awards and won the Best Soundtrack category in the 2017 Steam Awards, contributes to the game’s overall worth and makes you want to keep playing.
Novelty plays a big part of Cuphead, though, and I’d argue that that’s not a bad thing. As soon as you open the game, you’ll notice a grainy, old-timey quality to everything, complete with crackly sounds in the background. It’s less noticeable as you get into the game, and you’ll get used to it pretty quickly, but that old-timey-ness is a constant. The animation is also excellent, and draws you in with its charm. Everything is hand-drawn cel animation and very faithfully done in a 1930’s cartoon style. This puts the adorable art at direct odds with the seriousness of the plot, being that the eponymous Cuphead and his pal Mugman have been duped into doing the Devil’s dirty work to save their own souls. So light-hearted, right?
In reality, the plot is a small part of the game. While I do love a good storyline, I am 100% behind the decision to focus on gameplay rather story in this instance. While it’s nice to know, in the back of my head, precisely why I’m killing supernaturally powerful vegetables and clowns, what matters more is that I’m doing so in the first place (especially the damn clowns). The developers were very deliberate in their choices regarding gameplay, and this fact shines through in every battle.
For starters, you’re given several coins right off the bat to buy an upgrade with. At no point are you told what to buy, which may throw off players who are used to modern games coddling them for the first several hours. The store, the proprietor of which is a dastardly-looking pig named Porkrind, immediately replaces any items you buy with shiny new ones, which then pushes you to earn more coins. This increases the longevity of gameplay and gives you a constant goal to struggle toward.
And struggle you will. If you’ve heard anything at all about Cuphead, it’s likely that it’s hard. Very hard. Some sources say it’s a “rogue-lite,” which is not at all a bad descriptor, but I think that in many ways, it’s more accurate to compare the core of the gameplay to the side-scrolling shooters of a bygone era. If you went to an arcade back in the day, you knew you would lose – most games literally had no option of winning. Instead, the point was about skill, showing off your high score and proving that you were the best around. *cue Karate Kid theme* The bad news is that Cuphead is, indeed, very difficult. You might play a couple of levels and think, “What was everyone whining about? This isn’t so bad.” Just give it a few more minutes and I promise you’ll be shouting yourself hoarse at a blue blob of indeterminate origin. Oh, and the armless blob has a boxing glove. Because Cuphead.
The good news is that, despite the extreme difficulty, it never feels unbeatable. Every time you die, you’re far more likely to be angry at yourself than the game, and you’ll gradually learn the various patterns, eking your way through death after death. This makes victory all the sweeter, as there is no question that you’ve earned it.
While we’re on the topic of gameplay, I’d like to go over a few tips (which I really need to follow, myself). First and foremost, if you are playing Cuphead on a PC, yes, it can be played via keyboard and mouse… and for the love of cheese, I beg you not to do it! For some perspective: I’ve been a solid PC gamer since well before I sold my PS2 in 2011 (yes, you read that right), and I can’t play most games with a modern console controller to save my life. I’ve let many amazing games pass me by because I’ve refused to pay hundreds of dollars for a console. And yet, here I am, telling you that, in the context of Cuphead, the revered input combination of keyboard and mouse is inferior in every way to a controller. If you’re unsure of what PC-compatible controller to buy, I have a Logitech F310, and it’s served me well for several years.
Once you start playing, remember to use everything the game gives you, which is tough in the heat of battle. You can parry anything that is bright pink, which earns you super-moves. If you’re playing with a friend, parrying their ghost before it floats off-screen will resurrect them with one health, so if you’re a cohesive team, you’re effectively immortal. Dash is also super important, as some enemies move rather erratically, and it is often very important to be anywhere but where you are currently standing. Also, don’t forget that you can equip two different weapons and switch between them at will. Almost every boss has multiple forms, so it’s good to have a versatile arsenal ready.
Quite possibly the most impressive thing about Cuphead is the way it constantly makes you want to play more. It’s so simple, yet it mocks you with that simplicity. “You know how to beat this level now,” it says. “Just one more time, and you can do it.” Fifteen “one more times” later, and you’re repeating the process with a different level. I’ve spent more than one morning at the office with my head inexorably drooping toward my desk, because I was unable to put this game down. There aren’t many endorsements greater than that.
Have you played Cuphead? Have any questions before you take the plunge? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!