Cuphead: Pure gaming nectar from the Indie gods
© Studio MDHR
You may have heard a lot about a game called Cuphead recently, and you can probably see why with that incredible art-style. But there’s a lot more to this game than its visuals, as we explore!
It’s difficult to look past that art-style. Each animation has been painstakingly hand-drawn -- something that hasn’t ever really been done in games before. Moreover, said animation is bloody good. It’s an obvious throwback to cartoons from back in the day; specifically those from Fleischer Studios, yet somehow Cuphead feels fresh and new amongst visual heavyweights like Horizon: Zero Dawn or Forza Motorsport 7. But the nostalgia baked within Cuphead doesn’t end with nods to the likes of Betty Boop or Popeye. There’s a marriage here between art and challenge, and in naming those two games mentioned earlier, it’s difficult to acknowledge that there really is challenge in modern gaming.
Sure, all Assists off in Forza makes it a difficult task, but you can keep on pushing through; climbing ranks, unlocking cars -- ever-rewarded because modern gaming is about appeasement to players. But classic games, games from a bygone era threw players under the proverbial Mode 7-powered bus, and then some.
The nostalgia baked within Cuphead doesn’t end with nods to the likes of Betty Boop or Popeye. There’s a marriage here between art and challenge...
Also recently, Nintendo let loose the SNES Mini here in Australia. Nostalgia wrapped up in a tiny little cute-as-hell SNES ‘trophy’, if you will. Or, more plainly, a SNES emulator with real controllers perfectly recreated from back in the day, but no other real moving parts, such as cartridges. And what this release, alongside Cuphead, has immediately shown gamers suffering from the modern gamer-appeasement disease, is that they simply have it all too easy. Of the 20+ games nestled digitally on the SNES Mini, more than half my household struggled to play competently, and this fallout had nothing to do with old graphics or unfamiliar controllers, it all simply boiled down to the challenges thrown at them.
Which brings us back to Cuphead, where nostalgic name-dropping is all the review rage around the Internet at the moment. Super R-Type, Mega Man, Raiden, Super Mario Bros and more are all a part of the DNA that makes up Cuphead’s gameplay. And make no mistake, this game will break you. In half. And then in half again, and again, just for good measure.
But lumping all of the above as solely the soul of this game is a huge disservice to what developer Studio MDHR has created here. Cuphead is very much its own entity, proudly wearing its inspirations on its sleeve, but beating deep within is one of the most charming and emasculating experiences I’ve ever encountered. The game’s purpose sees two, errr, sentient cups: Cuphead and Mughead at the heart of this adventure. They’re innocent enough, until they wander too far from home and find themselves in a casino where they hit an incredible winning streak at the craps table. But before they can take their loot and leave, the Devil himself offers them one more roll of the dice for all the marbles in his casino. But, if they lose, they forfeit their souls to him.
You can guess what happens next.
In striking a deal with the Devil though, the lads have a chance to keep their souls as long as they wander about Inkwell Isle and collect the other Soul Debts the Devil has accrued, whose owners aren’t paying up. And that’s all the premise you really need, and it’s also wonderfully fitting the cartoons and writing from the era the studio is homaging.
The game itself is split into an overworld map of sorts with little interesting characters riddled about, as well as standalone boss battles (for collecting the Soul Debts) and run and gun platforming levels (for essentially collecting coins). The overworld is split up into locked islands and you can’t move on unless you get all the debts. But here’s the kicker, each boss battle allows players to choose between Simple or Regular difficulty levels. Regular is the harder one, obviously, and so while you can open up the island you’re on by completing the boss battles on Simple, you can only collect the debts by completing them on Regular. And regular is ridiculously hard.
There are no checkpoints. There are no extra lives. You only have a limited number of times you can be hit before you fail the level or battle. It can be infuriatingly frustrating. But with each step you take in your war of Cuphead challenge attrition, you’ll learn patterns, and strategies. This is the traditional form of twitch gaming, and despite how many times the game kicks you while you’re down, getting those wins is one of the most elevating things ever. It’s funny just how much more powerful satisfaction and relief can be over frustration.
All that said, however, Cuphead isn’t a game for everyone. Its learning curve is steep. And its unrelenting challenge never lets up. There’s almost no room for breathing normally when you’re not walking around the island overworlds, and it will bring you to your knees. But if you crave a challenge, love it when games present as art or just want to take a peek at where gaming actually found its best groove, Cuphead is a near-perfect experience.