Run-and-gun meets old school animation in “Cuphead”

Animation courtesy of Wikipedia

Platform: PC/Steam/Xbox One
Developer: StudioMDHR
Hours Played to Finish: 7½

“Cuphead” is a 2-D run-and-gun video game that utilizes an art style which harkens back to cartoon animation from nearly 90 years ago. Mimicking 1930’s-era cartoons like Looney Tunes and Mickey Mouse, “Cuphead” wears its inspiration on its sleeve; however, it provides enough reasons beyond its gorgeous visuals to warrant a purchase and see what this long-awaited indie game has to offer.

Since its worldwide reveal in June 2014, “Cuphead” has garnered a spectacular amount of praise. Fans have been looking forward to playing the game for years, and with the impressive visual style, it feels good to say that the game offers more than just pretty graphics. Running at a buttery-smooth 60 frames per second, direct control of the action feels good from the get-go. The player’s basic abilities is to jump, shoot and air-dash to the goal. There are some unique abilities thrown into the mix, such as the “parry slap” which offers a defensive maneuver against certain enemy projectiles. For the most part, though, the gameplay sticks to traditional run-and-gun action. Purchasing new types of blasters at the in-game store offers some variety to experiment with different playstyles, which is always appreciated. Holding the right bumper allows the player to remain still and fire in any pointed direction without moving, which is a very welcome mechanic in any 2-D run-and-gun game, “Cuphead” included.

“Cuphead” is a punishing game, offering zero checkpoints in any of its levels, boss fights included. This will turn certain players away, but thankfully the game offers two different difficulty modes to play around with. There is also a cooperative element in the game, giving two players the ability to play together throughout the entire experience.

The player controls the aptly named Cuphead as he and his pal Mugman adventure out into a fantasy world to collect souls for the devil, in an effort to preserve their own souls from his control. It’s a wacky introduction that feels right at home with the classic cartoons that the game looks fondly upon. While the storytelling throughout the adventure is barebones, the framework is strong enough to keep the player motivated to press forward in the quest to save Cuphead and Mugman.

The majority of levels in “Cuphead” are boss fights, and the remaining levels are reminiscent of the classic Mega Man and Contra games. The boss fights are the best part of the game, showcasing hectic action that forces the player to rethink their strategy multiple times during a single battle. Boss fights progress in phases as they take damage, changing up their appearance and arsenal. For example, there is one level that forces Cuphead to chase a runaway train overtaken by ghosts, while the giant boss ghost throws a neverending arsenal of eyeballs at the player as they jump out of harm’s way. When the boss ghost takes enough damage, he transforms into a large skeleton, forcing the player to adapt to the skeleton’s new battle tactics to win. It’s wacky, silly and feels just right in the game’s world. That isn’t even the craziest boss fight in the game, but it’s one that stands out. 

Unfortunately, the remaining levels that aren’t boss fights are a letdown. These levels involve the player running from point A to point B, defeating small enemies and sometimes facing mini-bosses along the way. Most of the environments these levels take place in feel uninspired, with forgettable enemies and some frustrating areas that become tedious due to a total lack of checkpoints. A lack of checkpoints doesn’t ruin the experience, but having a single mid-level save would be appreciated. While these levels aren’t necessarily bad, they pale in comparison to the stellar boss battles, and it’s obvious that these levels weren’t the development team’s primary focus. A soundtrack that will be described as passable is also present, feeling true to the time period that is being paid homage, but not offering a memorable tune that sticks after the finale. 

After numerous delays and years of extended development, the developers at Studio MDHR have managed to make “Cuphead” the game that they always wanted to create. It’s been said many times before, but the visual style that the game boasts is breathtaking. The platforming levels may be disappointing, but the experience as a whole oozes with personality and flavor. Offering dozens of stellar boss battles, a charming cast and simply breathtaking visuals that rival the best-looking games of this console generation, “Cuphead” isn’t an experience to be forgotten anytime soon.