From the moment you first load up Cuphead, one thing is abundantly clear: this is someone's magnum opus. Studio MDHR took the simple idea of a 1930's cartoony platformer and gave it a soul. The result is a surreal mixture of nostalgic sights and sounds that, when woven together, create an extremely memorable, totally original gaming experience.
Even if you have never given the action-platforming genre (made famous by classics like Contra and Megaman) a chance, Cuphead is a title that should not be missed. Thanks to the games charmingly creative visuals, impossibly catchy musical score, and razor sharp gameplay, the notorious difficulty that may turn some gamers off becomes more than just bearable. It becomes addicting.
Rather than continue my song of praise for a game that will surely receive its own chorus, I want to take the time to unpackage some of the most crucial reasons as to why Cuphead has managed to revitalize a genre and stir up such a buzz among gamers.
1. The Details Matter
This quote from Studio MDHR gives a hint as to why playing Cuphead feels like something special:
"Inspired by cartoons of the 1930s, the visuals and audio are painstakingly created with the same techniques of the era, i.e. traditional hand-drawn cel animation, watercolor backgrounds, and original jazz recordings."
None of these details are things that need to be in a video game. Cuphead's core gameplay and level design would, on the most basic of levels, still be fun and functional without over two and a half hours of original jazz music or painstaking cell-by-cell animation.
But, it's as plain as day that this attention to detail is vital to Cuphead's appeal. In the words of Mark Rosewater, head designer for Magic: The Gathering, "The details are where the players fall in love with your game". Watch any player that boots up Cuphead for the first time, and they will almost always point out a small detail that, inexplicably, connected with them in some way
For me, it was the way Cuphead snaps his fingers every time he fires a bullet and the way it sounded along the frantic Jazz music playing in the background. It was a small detail that made me want to explore the Cuphead universe further and also something that could of easily not been in the game.
2. Purity of Vision (Gameplay and Art style)
No one can know for sure when Cuphead's art director, Chad Moldenhauer, and its Lead Game Designer, Jared Moldenhauer agreed on the idea for an old-timey cartoon world that pits its heroes against the devil. But something tells me that, once the seed was planted, there was no turning back.
" There is no 'waiting for the good part'-- the whole game is the good part. "
When playing Cuphead, it's easy to sense a clear purity of vision that emanates from every aspect of the game's presentation. Everything in the games universe feels like it has been purposefully placed and considered. Nothing feels out of touch with the larger narrative or aesthetic Cuphead introduces within the first five minutes of gameplay.
It shows the stakes, teaches players the rules, and then ceaselessly marches towards the hair-raising gameplay that its developers wanted to create. No pandering or training wheels: Cuphead rewards patience players and mercilessly punishes the stubborn ones who underestimate the game's difficulty.
Cuphead seems to ask the player at the start of every level: Are you ready for more? Despite, always allowing players to switch to "simple" mode that is much easier to play, the games ever increasing difficult hints at the confidence the developers have in their games ability to entertain.
I can imagine that most game designers worst nightmare is the moment a player decides that playing their game just "isn't worth it". Out of that fear, designers may be tempted to coddle players in order to avoid frustration. However, as any classic gamer understands, coddling is the murder weapon that kills meaningful victory. On the contrary, Cuphead asks a lot of its players, promising a sincere feeling of accomplishment whenever one of its monstrous bosses finally fall.
3. Unbound by genre restraints
Cuphead takes the most fun part of action-platformer games and removes all the fluff that gets in the way. Boss battles have always been the most engaging and memorable part of the genre, so it makes sense that Studio MDHR decided to focus the core of Cuphead's gameplay around them.
If you are worried about the lack of platforming in Cuphead, rest assured, the bosses make up for it. The cycle of death, learning, and the "just-one-more-try" temptation of a good boss battle is Cuphead's bread and butter. Each boss is incredibly well designed and visually mesmerizing, making it all the more satisfying when they are finally defeated. Expect audible yells and celebratory moments when you finally kill that one boss that managed to put your life on hold for an hour.
It isn't a new thing to revamp a genre by taking away all the "not-fun" bits, but that doesn't mean it is easy to do. To achieve such a thing means every bit of the game needs to be made fun, and this is where Cuphead continues to shine. Basic things like visiting an in-game shop or customizing your character are infused with Cuphead's iconic visual style and musical score, making them a pleasure to experience.
"The cycle of death, learning, and the "just-one-more-try" temptation of a good boss battle is Cuphead's bread and butter"
Even walking around the overhead map becomes something players will look forward to: it's a playable part of the game designed with secrets and things to explore! Whether it is talking to one of the many NPC's scattered around the world, or just further exploring the games rich aesthetics, Cuphead never feels like a drag. There is no "waiting for the good part"-- the whole game is the good part.
So should you play Cuphead?
Yes and, even though it says available for PC, make no mistake, you need a controller to play this game. I also recommend the local multiplayer with a good friend, especially if they don't consider themselves much of a gamer. The music and art style will leave them hooked and there is always the simple mode you can set it to when they aren't looking.
For anyone who enjoys the action platformer genre or interested in playing the next cult classic, Cuphead is a must try game.
Cuphead is currently available for XboxOne, Windows 10 & Steam(PC)
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