It has been a long and bumpy road to release for Studio MDHR’s Cuphead. The stylish shoot ’em up was originally announced way back in January 2014, but didn’t fully burst onto the scene until that year’s E3 convention. While originally intended to release a few months after, things clearly did not turn out how the studio hoped. However, where other projects would be canceled or given the dreaded “indefinitely delayed” label, MDHR has finally brought their project to completion.
Cuphead is a classic tale about the dangers of gambling. The titular hero and his brother Mugman are just two kids living with their guardian, the Elder Kettle, on the seemingly idyllic Inkwell Island. However, the brothers get in a little too far over their heads during an ill-advised trip to King Dice’s Devil’s Casino. After going up big on the tables, the two are goaded into wagering their souls in a bet against the Devil. As these things typically go, the two lose, and must strike a deal with the Devil in order to get them back. Unfortunately, in order to do so, they must claim the contracts of other Inkwell Island residents who have also made similarly terrible deals.
While squarely focused on gameplay and presentation, Cuphead’s quasi-moralistic fable did conjure up some memories of other classic cartoons. A tale about the dangers of gambling/dealing with the Devil wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary to see in the golden age of animation that took place in the 1930’s and 40’s. If anything, the plot of the game has about as much development as a classic Merrie Melodies cartoon would have gotten. It helps that the main bad guys in the game, in this case, the Devil and King Dice, have such memorable personalities. They’re each a fun slice of evil that fit perfectly into the world Studio MDHR lovingly crafted.
The vibrant and surrealistic visuals of Cuphead aren’t the only way the title draws from the past. The run and gun gameplay of the title is clearly influenced by the classic such Contra, and even a little by more modern bullet-hell titles. Instead of featuring more traditional level layouts, the game is laid out a little differently. The stages found on Inkwell Island are divided into two different types: regular levels and boss battles. The regular levels are challenging, side-scrolling set pieces that will challenge your ability to, well, run and gun. Completing them is also the main way for you to acquire coins, which can be used to purchase upgrades for Cuphead and Mugman.
One of the reported reasons why Cuphead took so long to release was that Studio MDHR added in the more traditional platforming levels after outcry over the fact that the title was originally set to be nothing but boss battles. I was probably one of those people that complained about it, but now, having actually played the game, I would have been largely okay with them being left out. It’s not that these levels are entirely terrible, but they lack the same care that the boss battles have. Mechanics, such as one level’s unique mechanic of being able to switch the direction of gravity, are poorly implemented, and the difficulty of each stage blurs the line between cheap and challenging. There are only a handful of these levels across the game, but unfortunately, in order to upgrade your abilities, they have to be dealt with.
Considering how great the boss battles in the game turned out, perhaps it would have been best for them to be the only part of the Cuphead package. Each boss battle is its own separate stage, and can be played on two different difficulties: Simple and Regular. Don’t let the title of simple fool you into thinking things will necessarily be easy, as the name only really refers to the fact that the battle will be simpler by way of being less hectic. It’s still plenty tough, and serves as a great way for you to cut your teeth on a particular boss if you’re having trouble figuring out what to do. Ideally, you’ll want to get to work on regular difficulty as soon as possible, as it is on this level that the boss battles truly morph into something special.
Trying to strike the right balance of difficulty is something many developers have failed to do. That’s why it’s such a relief that Studio MDHR nailed the challenge level of the game so perfectly. As much as I enjoy shoot ’em ups, I’m by no means an expert at them. I die a lot, and I’m not ashamed to admit that. However, whereas other games would make me want to destroy my controller in frustration, I never got to that level in Cuphead. Part of that is because the boss battles, whether it’s against a fading stage star or King Dice himself, are a blast to play.
The other part of it, though, is that I never felt like I was getting screwed over when I failed to conquer a boss. When I got hit by a runaway piece of magical silverware, I knew it was 100% my fault. And when I would restart a boss battle that I had just failed, I would build upon that failure. The game is great at letting you continue to learn the patterns of each boss, and how to then take that knowledge and piece it all together for a successful run. Whether that’s through recognizing a tell, or by figuring out what can be parried (which is probably your best friend outside of your main weapon), there’s continually something to learn. I get more enjoyment out of beating something that way, rather than just cheesing my way to victory through sheer luck.
Figuring out the right loadout for Cuphead to use is also a big step towards fulfilling your deal with the Devil. As mentioned before, during the run and gun levels, you can grab coins. These coins can then be used to purchase new weapons and charms from Porkrind’s Shop. You can equip two weapons at a time and one charm, so it’s important to play around with what suits your play style. I typically stuck to the short-range, but powerful Spread and the homing Chaser weapons, along with the defensive Smoke Bomb dash. Certain weapons and buffs work better for specific bosses, though, so it’s worth it to play around with your options if you get stuck.
What drew me, and I’m sure many others, to Cuphead originally was the game’s unique visual style. Inspired by classic cartoons such as the work of Fleischer Studios, the title boasts gorgeous hand-drawn animation that really stands out in today’s gaming landscape. Brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer (the main duo behind Studio MDHR) clearly have a love for this specific form of animation, and you can see it reflected in every aspect of the game. While a lot of the fun of the game comes from how it plays, you can’t discount the personality it has due to its style. I’m not sure if the boss battles would have been quite as enjoyable if they didn’t ooze charm and spectacle from each lovingly crafted frame.
If the 1930s cartoon look of the game wasn’t enough personality, the killer soundtrack is just as a good as setting the mood. Right from the opening title screen, which features a great song about the misadventures of Cuphead and Mugman, the soundtrack delivers in every regard. The backing track for Inkwell Island is whimsical and catchy, while the uptempo music for the boss battles suits their chaotic nature. The old timey announcer is another nice touch, but it would have been even better if a few more lines were written for him to say. The child who grew up watching classic cartoons inside me was simply delighted by the tracks composed by the talented Kristofer Maddigan.
Outside of the run and gun levels, I only have relatively minor complaints about Cuphead. The biggest, and one that could theoretically be fixed with a patch, is the lack of online co-op. The couch co-op in the game is a lot of fun, if a little too messy, but it would have been nice to be able to jump online with a friend (it’s worth mentioning that the developers are looking into adding online play in the future). While I deeply love the visuals, there are a few instances where something in the foreground will temporarily block your vision, which can be an issue in a game that requires a good amount of dodging. Finally, the load times sometimes run a little longer than you would like, particularly when you are returning back to Inkwell Island. I can see the high difficulty of the game turning some off, but Studio MDHR has been very upfront about the challenge of the game, so if you get mad about that, it’s kind of your own fault.
Sometimes when a game is delayed repeatedly, you begin to worry about what the finished product would be like. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little concerned about Cuphead, but perhaps the lengthy development cycle was for the best, as the title has exceeded my wildest expectations. The shoot ’em up gameplay is pitch-perfect, and the difficulty and challenge sit at the perfect level. It will test your skills for sure, but it’s not at the level where it is detrimental to your enjoyment of the game. The gorgeous and colorful visuals live up to the pre-release hype, and I would argue that it is one of the best looking games on the Xbox One bar none. And while there are flaws to be found, none of them are egregious enough to warrant any skepticism about the overall quality of the game. If being challenged isn’t something you mind, you owe it to yourself to pick up Studio MDHR’s fantastic debut.
This review was based on the Xbox One version of the title, which was provided to us by Microsoft.
Outside of a few nagging flaws, namely the frustrating run and gun levels, Cuphead represents the shoot 'em up genre at its absolute best. The boss battles are consistently exciting and just the right amount of challenging, while the 1930s cartoon visuals amaze in every regard.