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October 10, 2017
Joseph Rositano
Rocket Chainsaw / Feature

Cuphead has been teased for a number of years. Since its announcement at E3 2014, more footage and gameplay has been shown off each year wetting the appetites of those craving a nostalgic 1930s cartoon. Indeed, the artstyle is what grabs your immediate attention but Cuphead also plays incredibly well, has been fine tuned to the smallest detail, and is a worthy addition to any gamer’s collection.

Cuphead’s story is presented in the form of a children’s book, with still images setting the scene and text describing the adventure unfolding for brothers Cuphead and Mugman. The duo are enjoying themselves at the Devil’s casino, thanks largely to a winning streak at the craps table. The Devil, intrigued by their gambling, makes them a deal of a lifetime – if they can win one more roll, they will be given his entire casino. The brothers’ streak ends with an ill-fated roll however, and the Devil sets his sights on their souls. As they plead for their lives the Devil offers to release them from their contract if they manage to collect the souls of the casino’s runaway debtors throughout Inkwell Isle.

Cuphead’s general gameplay is split into three different types of levels – run-n-gun levels which play similar to sidescrolling platform shooters, and two boss battle variations. In the run-n-gun levels, players must reach the goal while jumping across platforms and avoiding hazards including ditches and, of course, dozens of enemies. By default, Cuphead can only be hit three times before dying, and with no healing items appearing throughout stages, even seasoned veterans of the genre will have a hard time avoiding death. The good thing though is that you never feel cheated when you die; it’s very much a game about learning enemy patterns, the layout of levels and, more importantly, mastering your abilities. Be prepared to replay levels many times over, which may prove a little alienating for some gamers. Those who are patient will reap the satisfaction of overcoming a level that you once thought unachievable.

Much of this applies to boss battles, Cuphead’s most boasted feature. The two variations of boss battles include fighting bosses on land and in the sky by piloting a small plane. The objective is simple enough – shoot at the boss until they are defeated. As your opponent’s health dwindles however, they’ll change up their tactics. An example is the Hilda Berg boss, who initially attacks with sentient blimp minions and the words “HaHaHa” which are shot from her mouth. After a while she will transform into various creatures including a charging cloudy bull and Cupid who fires arrows and blue stars. Multiple repeats of boss battles also reveal that most have a few alternative attack phases, which adds replay value and variety.

Most levels and boss battles last only a few minutes, so even though you may die frequently while learning attack patterns they’re just short enough to avoid being tedious. Interestingly the bosses do not feature a HP meter. Instead if you are defeated, you will be presented with a graph of how close you were to reaching the boss KO. This gives you a better sense of how much better you performed since previous attempts, and it’s oddly exciting to watch yourself slowly creep over the finish line.

Developer StudioMDHR are to be commended for the creativity and sheer quality of the boss battles. Each fight has its own distinctive style, ranging from whacky characters to the varying tactics required to defeat them. One moment you can be fighting a dragon that shoots fireballs, and the next you can be going up against a candy lady who fights with delicious monster treats. Even giant vegetables and chickens get in on the act! At some point you do wonder where the developers got all their crazy ideas from, but it works and is unlike any other game in recent memory.

Cuphead’s main ability is to shoot an unlimited supply of bullets from his finger, but he can also perform a special parry attack. This attack is essentially a double jump maneuver where you jump on a pink enemy or object and then time a second jump just as you make contact. This will become vital in order to reach coins that are used to unlock and upgrade Cuphead’s abilities, as well as avoid trickier enemy patterns in the run-n-gun levels. Some of the abilities you can unlock include making Cuphead temporarily invulnerable when performing a dash move, unlocking different shooting styles (such as a short-range but stronger bullet), and adding an extra hit point to his health. You are limited to the number of abilities you can apply to Cuphead so this maintains the game’s balance and challenge but also gives you that slight edge you may need to overcome a particularly difficult fight.

Cuphead’s brother, Mugman, takes a starring role when playing in two player local co-op. One player will control Cuphead, while the other controls Mugman. If Player One has already located some coins solo, these will automatically be applied to Mugman and can be used to unlock the same abilities as Cuphead. The main advantage of playing with someone else is that you can revive your partner (or vice versa) if they are defeated. When defeated the character’s ghost will float up to heaven, but if you perform a perry attack on the ghost’s heart they will be revived and be able to continue the fight. This should make battles a little easier for some, but unfortunately there is currently no online option available.

Visually Cuphead is absolutely gorgeous to look at. StudioMDHR have done an amazing job with hand-animating the characters and producing water coloured backgrounds to resemble a 1930’s cartoon. They’ve even gone the extra mile by adding various unlockable filtres including black and white, and two-strip. The audio comprises of various upbeat jazz tunes and some orchestral tones, which were heavily used in the 1930’s. This is almost as authentic as you can get to being in the 1930’s without the aid of a time machine!

Cuphead is a very unique game; not just for it’s inspiration from 1930’s cartoons but also its level of detail and engaging gameplay. Characters have been flawlessly animated by hand, gameplay is challenging but not overbearing thanks to some key design decisions, and there’s a sense of accomplishment when you finally beat a level after failing several times before. If you’re interested in run-n-gun platformers and have the patience to learn attack patterns and sharpen your reflexes, then Cuphead comes highly recommend.

The post Cuphead Review appeared first on Rocket Chainsaw.

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