Cuphead is easily the most intriguing and unique game of 2017, but, what makes it so special and why should everyone be playing it no matter how hard they hear it is?
$19.99 plus tax. A steep price for some, chump change for others. That is the cost of admission. That is the deal with the devil one makes to play the most original, beautiful, dastardly game of 2017. Cuphead and his pal Mugman are two plucky kids who get themselves into a bit of a pickle with The Devil himself. They get a bit too confident in The Devil’s casino and bust their streak, resulting in a debt of servitude to pay off the deal they made. Cuphead and Mugman must dawn some deadly magic powers and collect the souls of all The Devil’s debtors across the Inkwell Isles to pay their own debt.
Born from the loving labor of two brothers, Chad and Jared Moldenhauer, nothing quite like it has existed before. Cuphead has been compared to the likes of 1987’s Contra in terms of its gameplay, co-op mode, and high difficulty level. Cuphead, however, is unique. It styles itself from animation to tone to music after the cartoons of the 1930’s the Moldenhauer’s loved as children. Cuphead is something special. After seven years of development and more than three years since its formal debut, StudioMDHR’s first published game is a feat of gaming.
The entire game is filled with references to the creator’s favorite cartoonists and studios. Some are as straightforward as the rhythmic movement of the characters. Others are direct homages to the characters, dialogue, and settings of Fleischer and Disney themselves. Many more original assets are so well made that they cannot help but be mistaken for callbacks to the original cartoons they take influence from.
Don’t Deal With The Devil
A widespread opinion on Cuphead is that it is an excruciatingly difficult game. Many an article and Youtube video can be found detailing personal accounts of players who could not best the first level of the game or who gave up after spending several fraught hours on the first of the game’s worlds. However, this sentiment is somewhat sensational, often designed to draw attention to the individual, not the game. The game is certainly challenging and unlike anything published in recent memory. But it is not unfair. Do not be deterred entirely from Cuphead on account of these inflammatory opinions.
Every lover of video games who has the financial means should attempt to play Cuphead. All the while, not every player should expect to complete it. The point of the game is not to become a master of it. Rather, the purpose is to be enthralled by its look, sound, and feel, and come back to it again and again. Perhaps on the next return, a new boss might be defeated.
This game has a special and unique value to it that warrants an attempt by every person who appreciates the art of video games. Every aspect of it is a masterclass in design that should inspire a new generation of game designers to come, as well as help current gamers appreciate the art of the other games they love even more deeply.
Cuphead’s success is not an accident. The care put into every detail was so meticulous, the development was prolonged far beyond its initially anticipated timeline. The music was composed as though it were the era it emulates. The characters were all drawn to look classic but went through hundreds of iterations in total before finding their final appearances. This is what helps Cuphead stand out from any of its contemporaries. But, it is the intense shoot ‘em up gameplay that sinks hours into the game.
Cuphead and Mugman have to fight their way across a quaint little town, a menacing carnival, and an urban downtown center. They must deliver a knockout to a flurry of unique and colorful bosses in unique and colorful backgrounds. Every stage has a unique flavor and feel to it that will keep up an appetite for pushing through challenges to discover more. There are many rewards and secrets to unlock and discover for committing to this game.
This game is hard. It has been lauded as one of the hardest in recent times. But, it is no less fair than the titular Cupdead’s deal with The Devil. It can be overcome with persistence, a keen eye, and quick fingers. The run and gun gameplay is straightforward with three variations. There are single-screen boss fights, traditional run and gun platforming stages, and aerial combat stages. Each uses a combination of shooting, jumping, and parrying to complete with the opportunity to mix and max different types of shots and other skills.
On A Mission Fraught With Dread
Cuphead is a difficult game. There is no two ways about it. It is reminiscent of a bygone era in gaming where a video game did not entitle its players to an ending simply for having purchased it. That is, until the game is dived deeper into. Each level has a discernable pattern that can be learned and adapted to, allowing players to overcome even the most harrowing challenges with enough patience and time. But that can be said of any game. What makes Cuphead special is that it can truly be overcome in more way than one.
The different layout choices permit the player to overcome certain tasks with more ease than others. The homing weapon, in particular, allows players to focus less on the accuracy of shooting and more on simply dodging the obstacles. The smoke bomb charm makes the player invincible while dodging. Shortcuts on the map allow difficult bosses to be skipped to try out other stages in the meantime. There is even an easy mode that decreases the amount of damage a boss must take to be overcome. This mode does remove certain attack patterns and bars players from the final two bosses of the game. It also provides an opportunity to gain a greater level of comfort with a boss before attempting it again on the regular difficulty. Cuphead masterfully disguises a novice-friendly game inside of a cripplingly difficult piece of art.
Every level has not only a different combination of weapons and charms that might make it easier or harder, but there are certain tactics that can be discovered in each stage that circumvent some of the challenges. They may feel to some like cheating, but to others, feel like sweet relief from the repeated prior failures. This is not to say these tactics, once discovered, automatically ensure a smooth victory. Rather, they provide the feeling of encouragement that perhaps that new way can lead to victory.
Then Come Back For More
Accessibility to a game’s full offerings has created quite a quandary over the medium’s history. Video games is the only art form that has in its history required a consumer to earn the consumption of its entirety. Film, television, fine art, theater, and any other form imaginable may have a cost of consumption, but those costs do not include skill. A video game has components of that art, including plot, characters, and design, that were once inaccessible to players who did not have the skill to unveil them. Or, at least, a friend, sibling, or neighbor who did. This is no longer true, however.
Today, the internet allows video game players and enthusiasts to behold all the art a game has to offer with a simple search. Youtubers and streamers can present to any and all who are interested an opportunity to observe over their shoulder all a game has to behold. Message boards and wikis can provide more detail than even the most attentive and skilled player may ever pick up on with regards to the lore, background, and details of a game. Not only does this mean that the entirety of a game is accessible to be viewed, but that less skilled players can have inspiration or instruction on how to proceed themselves should they wish.
The reality is, Cuphead provides every avenue possible to make their game accessible to a wide range of players and lovers of video games. The design of the early levels themselves even provides an unconscious tutorial on the skills and maneuvers requisite for beating the game. Winning is not everything in Cuphead, but it certainly feels nice. More so than most games, Cuphead is rife with opportunity to overcome its challenges, if only the player stick around long enough to do so.
Please Come Back For More
Cuphead will undoubtedly inspire the future of the medium and genre. It will do so by way of its accessibility, its stylized design, its replayability, and its simplistic fun. In fact, more ways yet will certainly emerge of how Cuphead was influential as new designers embark on their own video games. In the meantime, play Cuphead. Play it alone or play it with a friend. The journey will be challenging, but fair and rewarding. No matter how the game is consumed, it is a work of art that has the minimal barrier to consumption a video game can have while still maintaining its integrity and intent.
Cuphead is available on Xbox One, Window’s 10 and through Steam and GOG. This article was written after 10 hours of gameplay and 11 achievements out of 28 unlocked on Xbox One.
Jason is a graduate student at Binghamton University studying public administration. His mission is to find the universal values in the fictional worlds we love so we can make our real world better and more full. When not writing, Jason works on food justice and sharing music with communities throughout the region. Or he’s unlocking Xbox achievements.