Editor’s Note: This article was first published on November 16, 2017. We’re bumping it today for the release on the Nintendo Switch.
Releasing a debut title is undoubtedly a stressful endeavor for an indie studio, however, few have had the same amount of pressure that StudioMDHR has had with Cuphead. Fan feedback caused the scope of the game to explode after crowds of gamers were wowed by the incredible hand-drawn art that looked like it was ripped straight out of the 1930s. They promised a bigger, better game that would put as much of a focus on challenging gameplay as it does on its gorgeous animation. The hype had built to unbelievable levels, and many were worried it would fail to live up to the unrealistic expectations set by the community.
Luckily, their fears were unwarranted. Cuphead is not only a masterpiece, but it is also one of the greatest indie games ever made. StudioMDHR has created an instant classic that will be remembered for years as the new standard for smaller studios. Tight gameplay, incredible music, gorgeous animation, and a cast of endearing characters all come together to create one of the best experiences this year. It oozes a nostalgic charm while also demanding perfect inputs from the player during the entirety of the experience.
The story starts with protagonists Cuphead and Mugman accidentally wandering into a casino owned by the devil himself. They end up losing their souls to the devil in a game of dice, and after begging for their lives, they reach an agreement. Cuphead and Mugman must travel through Inkwell Isle to collect the soul contracts of those that have not paid the devil his due. The plot is simple, charming, and sets up the tone of the adventure perfectly. However, it’s the characters themselves that really shine. The unbelievable animation work brings out the unique personalities of Cuphead’s diverse cast of baddies. Players will easily grow attached to them, even without any sort of dialogue or cut scenes.
At its core, Cuphead is a side-scrolling run-and-gun shooter that centers around massive, multi-staged boss battles. Around 80% of the game is made up of a series of fights that are accessed via an overworld map. There are almost 30 in total, and while the first few fights may seem simple, they quickly grow more and more complex. Each fight feels completely unique with ample amounts of creativity to boot. Cuphead never feels tired or predictable throughout the entire adventure, as these are some of the most impressive boss battles ever to be featured in a game.
Cuphead is an example of a game that has somehow managed to surpass even the highest of expectations.
In fact, the only predictable thing about this title is its difficulty. Make no mistake, Cuphead is brutal. Most players will finish the main story with hundreds upon hundreds of deaths (if they’re even able to finish it at all). These deaths are almost always a result of the player making a mistake, as Cuphead never feels unfair or cheap. The game encourages mastering the gameplay rather than simply memorizing the enemies’ attack patterns. This is made easier due to how effortless it feels to control the hero; shooting, dashing, jumping, and parrying all work just as they should.
Even though boss battles make up the majority of the adventure, they aren’t the only obstacle in Cuphead and Mugman’s way. Optional platforming stages will challenge even the most skilled gamers, and if enough coins are collected in these levels, the heroes will be able to buy new shot types and special abilities. These light customization options add some great depth to the gameplay, as each weapon and ability feels completely unique. There are also a couple of side quests and secrets within the overworld, however, the game doesn’t go out of its way to let the player know they’re there.
The entire game is also completely playable in local co-op mode, with player two controlling Mugman. Co-op can be a double-edged sword, however, as bosses get increased health to compensate for the addition of a second player. Highly skilled players will be able to parry the ghost of their dead comrade in order to revive them in real time. It’s a nice balance and certainly doesn’t make the game any easier thankfully.
StudioMDHR has knocked it out of the park with their debut title.
Even though the developers have clearly made gameplay a priority with Cuphead, it’s the presentation that the game is most known for. Every single frame of this old-school adventure has been hand drawn to replicate the style of 1930s cartoonists, and the result couldn’t have been better. Cuphead is one of the most visually stunning games ever made, and it’s easy to tell how passionate the developers were in creating something that looked both authentic and fresh. The most astounding thing about the graphics is that nothing has been recycled; enemies don’t appear on more than one stage, bosses don’t recycle attack animations, and environments are completely unique throughout the entirety of the stages. The amount of work that has been put into the visuals is absolutely unrivaled, making this the new industry standard.
Cuphead is no slouch in the music department either. Around three hours of original jazz music has been recorded for the game, with each boss fight and stage getting their own original track. It manages to fit the aesthetic perfectly and will likely leave players humming their favorite boss tracks for weeks after the game is finished. Brass instruments take center stage here, and they do a fine job of conveying Cuphead’s frantic pace.
The difficulty alone will force players to have to spend quite a bit of time with Cuphead, however, there’s still plenty to do after the credits roll. Finishing the game unlocks Expert Mode, which is easily the game’s most demanding challenge. This mode allows players to face every single boss again in any order, except this time they’re even harder. More bullets, pattern mix-ups, and faster shot speeds turn some of these foes into an absolute nightmare (in a good way, of course). This mode is not for the faint of heart, however, it gives gamers plenty of reasons to return to Inkwell Isle time and time again.
Cuphead is another example of a game that has somehow managed to surpass even the highest of expectations. Every single facet of the game has been fine-tuned to perfection in order to create an experience that classic game fans will absolutely love. It’s a testament to how games can be beautiful without sacrificing gameplay and precise handling. The bosses are so creative and magical that it would be a crime if every gamer couldn’t see them at least once. StudioMDHR has knocked it out of the park with their debut title, as Cuphead will no doubt go down as an all-time classic.