by Sean Martin
reviewed on PC
HANDLE WITH CARE
Maybe it was after the telekinetic carrot? Or perhaps the sinister sunflower? Or the zeppelin lady? But at some point I started to realize that StudioMDHR’s new game Cuphead is hard. And I mean like really hard, on average I think its bosses might be harder than Hollow Knight, for anyone who has played any of those painfests (like Empty Vessel or the not actually possible False Champion). But this is so often the case with games that mostly consist of bosses, like Dark Souls or Bloodborne, and Cuphead has more bosses than either of them, each one styled into an episodic bout of utter craziness.
You play as the aptly named Cuphead, or if (unlike me) you have friends, one of you can also play as his partner in crime, Mugman. So the story goes: Cuphead and Mugman both accidentally saucer (I mean saunter) into the Devil’s casino, where they begin betting on the tables. Unfortunately, (surprise surprise) the Devil’s casino is rigged and he traps them both in a deal where he will take their souls if they don’t play the bounty hunter and collect the souls of his debtors instead. As you might imagine, these debtors have no wish to be made mugs of (Oh dear) and thus battle ensues. In this run-and-gun you wander the game map choosing locations and fighting the contracts located at each. You also play run-and-gun levels to collect coins which you can use to purchase upgrades.
Cuphead borrows its style from 1930s cartoons, and to me each boss fight feels like it’s mimicking the epic boxing matches of that decade. Every boss fight begins with commentating, and if you get beaten by a boss, it will even show them trash-talking you. Each fight is also episodic, given a title and a theme which the whole fight focuses around. But that doesn’t mean that the bosses are in any way boring or repetitive. On the contrary, one moment you might be fighting two boxing frogs before they suddenly transform into a giant slot machine. Every boss goes through many stages, but these stages often vary each time you play, making the experience less predictable and more about improvisation than your average boss fight (a set of choreographed responses).
Improvisation is a huge part of Cuphead: it’s reflected in the quirky yet improvisational soundtrack and in the games chaotic run-and-gun format. Plus the boss fights are absolutely crazy: they remind me a lot of Undertale in that 90% of the boss is literally surviving till they defeat themselves with their own escalating craziness. I also really appreciate the simplicity and nostalgia of [Cuphead: the combination of arcade elements and style literally made me feel like I was playing some kind of 1930s video-game (which I know never even existed).
TO BOSS OR NOT TO BOSS?
I love bosses, aren’t they great? I love how thematic they can be, how they can sum up an entire game area far better than anything else, or how they can be climactic yet sometimes muted. Cuphead is a game of bosses and I thought that I would love that entirely, but I realized it was missing something I didn’t even know was necessary. It’s the bonfire in Dark Souls, the bench in Hollow Knight, the typewriter room with the soothing music in Resident Evil 4. For me, Cuphead has no in-game breaks/occupations, it’s the sort of game where you slam your head against a boss till you beat him, then you walk next door and slam your head again his neighbor (inadvisable). You do open up areas when you beat a boss, but they are areas filled with more bosses.
The bosses are absolutely great, don’t get me wrong, because as I said, I love bosses. But to boss or not to boss? That often feels like the only choice the game is giving you. But then again this isn’t a huge problem, it just means that when you’re tired of a boss, you go and make a cup of tea instead. Maybe larger explorable areas is too much to ask for a game that has already accomplished so much? But I think the real key to avoiding the grind in Cuphead is to play co-op. The game feels like it was meant to be played that way, from both a story and gameplay difficulty perspective. In co-op you can not only deal with the boss and its minions at the same time, but you can also revive your partner as well, which would make each fight significantly easier.
But on the whole, it’s a fantastic game. Each and every boss fight is an experience that keeps you on your toes, never knowing what craziness to expect next. Cuphead’s use of style also feels far from novelty: the light, cartoon exterior conceals a dark subtext which fits perfectly with the grim realities that 1930s cartoons would often parody. Cuphead is a truly unique platformer, well worth a buy (and did I mention the bosses?)
Lots of bosses
Lots of bosses