Cuphead (2017)

It’s not often that you will see a game with as much effort put into its presentation as Cuphead. This run and gun indie game was carefully drawn, frame by frame, in an attempt to recreate the legendary cartoon style from the 1930s. Animation studios like Disney and Fleischer obviously inspired Cuphead, and the artists went through great, painstaking lengths to imitate that classic cartoon feeling. Not only did Cuphead succeed in adapting the “rubber hose” style of animation to a game, but they also succeeded in making the game itself pretty damn fun.

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If you’ve heard anything about Cuphead you know these two things: it’s animated frame by frame by hand, and it’s hard as hell. It’s an interesting combination; many of the bosses look absolutely amazing and you just want to revel in their detail, yet you can barely find time to breath as you are being pelted by wave after wave of projectiles. The game looks like it straight out of an old cartoon, and it’s is apparent that an enormous amount of time and effort was dedicated to giving Cuphead its unique look. Additionally, an entire orchestra was brought it to create a magnificent soundtrack. The developers of Cuphead made sure that the presentation was authentic to their vision, and it shows.

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The premise of Cuphead is that you play as that the main character and his friend lost a deal with the devil, and as payment they must round up the souls of individuals who have been hiding from the devil. You travel across Inkwell Isle, fighting bosses and collecting their soul contracts upon their defeat. The vast majority of the game’s content are these boss battles, but there are a few scattered classic run and gun levels to provide a different sort of challenge. Mostly, you will be fighting various bosses, each with a few different phases and assorted attack patterns to learn. Dodging and weaving through projectiles, learning varying patterns, and using windows of opportunity to deal damage are key skills that the player must learn if they want to conquer Cuphead.

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There is no doubt that Cuphead is a difficult game, but it is rarely a frustrating game. The beauty of the game, other than its gorgeous visual presentation, is how compact its fights are. The vast majority of bosses are easily beatable in under two minutes each. Each phase of a boss will only last for 30-45 seconds as long as you are dealing consistent damage. Granted, these are intense bouts that feel far longer than they actually are, but in reality, you can quickly master any boss. These short fights make the learning process far more forgiving.

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You are going to die quite a few times when first encountering a boss, but you learn as you play, figuring out how to dodge tricky attack patterns on subsequent attempts. Some games can feel unfair when you get hit with some new attack pattern that you cannot possibly anticipate, but Cuphead diminishes this feeling by only having fights being a couple minutes long. You don’t lose significant progress upon death. Moreover, most attacks in the game are “fair” in the sense that you have a realistic chance of dodging them the first time you see them. You can react to fair attacks; they don’t come out of nowhere nor do they require previous knowledge to anticipate them. Unfortunately, there are a few instances of “unfair” attacks in Cuphead that can get a bit irritating.

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While most of the bosses and their corresponding attack patterns are well-designed, there are a few outliers that definitely were teetering on being frustrating. There were a few instances of attacks that came out ridiculously fast, or attacks that have very precise locations where you can stand to be safe. Both of these types of patterns feel unfair that you could not possibly react to them, you had to have seen these attacks and learn their signals to reliably dodge them. This isn’t a huge deal as battles are so short, as you can quickly retry with newfound knowledge. What is less forgivable are the more erratic bosses.

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There are a few late-game bosses in Cuphead that I felt had unpredictable, and sometimes undodgeable attack patterns. Grim Matchstick, Rumor Honeybottoms, Cala Maria, and Dr. Kahl’s Robot all made me pretty aggravated. All of these bosses have overlapping hazards: the first two have moving platforms that you have to jump between while dodging their attacks, and the latter two can launch multiple attack patterns at the same time. Both of these scenarios I would classify as unfair. The hazards often overlapped in ways that made them random, overly difficult, or straight-up unavoidable. It makes the process of figuring out the boss’ attack patterns far more maddening, as each attempt is going to yield different combinations and it will be difficult to reproduce success.

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Other than the occasional frustrating boss, there were a couple of minor and nitpicky issues in Cuphead. On rare occasion, the developer decided that putting things in the foreground to block the player’s vision was a good idea. It wasn’t. When I’m in an intense boss fight and focused on dodging waves of projectiles, I certainly do not want a pillar obscuring my character, the boss, or the thing that I’m trying to dodge. Another gripe that I have with Cuphead is its non-boss levels. These levels are classified as “run n’ gun”, and are akin to the classic titles run and gun games such as Contra or Metal Slug. These levels are not particularly offensive, but they are uninspired and dull in comparison to the more intricate and interesting boss fights.

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The run n’ gun stages just feel like they were slapped on at the end of development in order for the game to have content other than boss fights. Each of these stages houses five coins, which can be used to purchase various upgrades. These upgrades include different weapons and charms which can be used to augment some aspect of gameplay. The various guns were a great addition, as they are fun to test out and are incredibly helpful on some bosses. Charms, on the other hand, feel unbelievably poorly balanced. There are technically six charms to choose from, but in reality, there is only one charm: the smoke bomb. This charm is overwhelmingly more powerful than its peers, and at times it feels blatantly overpowered. It augments the player’s dash so that you are invincible while dashing. This is always incredibly strong, but it outright breaks certain bosses as you can easily dash through all of their attacks.

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Overall, Cuphead is a masterclass in presentation. The meticulous work done to replicate the recognizable animation style from decades ago is what sets this game apart. The gameplay itself is solid as well since most of the bosses are well designed. While it is a difficult game that can occasionally feel a bit unfair, its short battles keep it from being overly frustrating or tedious. It is for these reasons that I give Cuphead an 8/10. Cuphead is a glorious combination of classics. The cartoonish animations, the full orchestral soundtrack, and the recapturing of a classic video game genre all meld together for one great game.

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