Cuphead – Don’t Deal with the Devil

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Cuphead is the first and only game developed and published by the Canadian indie developers StudioMDHR.  Founders and brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer tried to make a game like Cuphead in 2000 but lacked the tools to do so.  Following the success of indie game Super Meat Boy in 2010, the brothers decided to give it another go and so development on Cuphead had begun.  It was first announced in 2014 and gained instant fandom and admiration for its difficulty and art style.  Cuphead was released 3 years later on Xbox One and PC.  It later appeared on Switch, and now it’s on PS4, despite StudioMDHR saying “there will be no PS4 version”.  Cuphead is certainly a novel looking game, does it feel as old as its 1930s aesthetic?

The final stage of one of the bosses kind of sets the tone really. It’s like looking into a mirror

Gameplay

The story, in a nutshell, is that two happy little cups, brothers Cuphead and Mugman go to the Devil’s casino.  All is going really well and the Devil offers to raise the stakes; if the brothers win they get to keep all the cash in the casino; if they lose, the Devil will take their souls. Inevitably they lose after Cuphead rolls snake eyes. These happy little cups are happy no more. After much begging and grizzling, the Devil decides to strike a deal.  In order to keep their souls, Cuphead and Mugman must go round the island collecting the soul contracts that he owns from runaway debtors.  Sounds like it could be a 1930s cartoon right?

Cuphead is, at its core a 2D boss rush, run and gun shooter game, and a very unique and aesthetically please one.  It takes place in an overworld and you are free to tackle whichever level you please, and upon completion, it will open up a new area.  In terms of controls, it’s very basic like old school games and is a classic example of easy to control, but hard to master.  There are a variety of weapons available from the in-game shop that can be purchased with coins picked up in the run and gun sections.  These weapons can either make life easier or harder, depending on the level in which you use them.

Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road

Cuphead is often referred to as the “Dark Souls” of run and gun games regarding its difficulty.  Because of its game style, I prefer to liken it to a game called Contra on the NES.  There are two difficulties, normal and simple.  Normal difficulty can be challenging sometimes, but it makes want to keep going.  This I feel is due to the shortness of the levels. It doesn’t feel like a grind to get back to where you were to give it another shot.  Learning from your mistakes is the only way you will make it through.  I did get a trophy for completing a level without taking any damage, I can retire from gaming on that happy!  I personally would like a difficulty level between the two.  The simple difficulty is exactly that, simple.  It’s almost an insult being as most bosses I could do away with first time.

Something to keep in mind is to keep an eye on your HP because you don’t get a lot to begin with.  And if you are playing 2 players, keep an eye on your partner.  If they die and you don’t revive them, you’re on your own.  Regarding 2 player, I think the game could really benefit from an online co-op mode.  That is one thing I feel that is really missing.

I played this on and PS4 Pro and experienced no difficulties at all in terms of performance.

Graphics

Alright Woody, calm down!!!

The aesthetic of Cuphead has always been its ace in the hole.  The best way to describe it is, you are playing an actual cartoon.  With all the crazy action going on as you expect with the “rubber hose” hand-drawn animation.  The characters in the world of Cuphead have their own bespoke charm and you can’t help but smile as you play it.  I’m not one for watching others play games, but even as an observer I found a sense of enjoyment just watching.  The game is a graphical masterpiece and emphasizes that you don’t need fancy real-life graphics for a good game.  You just need a drop of imagination, a splash of vision, a dash of creativity and a lot of love and passion for your project.  I was unsure how it would work out when it was revealed in 2014, but hell did they pull it off!

Add to that, there is a secret black and white mode for extra authenticity. Can you find it?

Audio

What good is a game with a 1930s style with our original jazz and big band music?  This game has it in spades and really takes me back to my youth and watching old Tom and Jerry cartoons.  The songs are incredibly catchy and well written right from the opening screen.  While hungry for authenticity, the musicians recorded using the same basic methods of that era.  Effects and dialogue are the same as well.  For what little dialogue there is, you could be forgiven in thinking the shopkeeper sounds like Bluto from Popeye.

Longevity

I don’t think bursting Betty Boop’s tyre will do much good

Because of the game’s difficulty, coupled with its charm, there are hours and hours of fun to be had here.  If you stick to the simple difficulty you could easily get 10-12 hours of enjoyment.  Subsequently, playing on normal difficulty and getting the highest rank in all the stages will keep you busy for a solid 20 or more hours which is pretty good value for money.  Hopefully, the planned DLC Cuphead: The Delicious Last Course (see what they did there? DLC… Delicious Last Course) will come to PS4 to extend the fun and frustration even further.

Conclusion

Cuphead accomplishes what it set out to achieve. It is an elegant slice of 1930s cartoon authenticity, with a jazzy cherry on top.  In essence, it is a work of art, it is a masterpiece.  The only things holding me back from awarding Cuphead the Platinum Award is the absence of online co-op and it feels like it is missing a difficulty level in between the two we are given.  Other than that, the graphics, gameplay and music is superb. It is fun and frustrating, but ultimately the challenge is very rewarding.  So for that reason, I am awarding Cuphead the Thumb Culture Gold Award!

Developer: StudioMDHR
Publisher: StudioMDHR
Release Date: 28/17/20 (PS4)
Platforms: Xbox One and PC initially, Switch, PS4

Disclaimer: A code was received in order to write this review.

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