Video games never look as good as “Cuphead.”
Just look at this:
That winking, sinister-looking cigar you see above is one of the game’s many bosses. And that frustrated-looking guy with a cup for a head? That’s actually not the eponymous “Cuphead,” but instead is his trusty partner “Mugman.”
The game is so gorgeous because it’s hand-drawn — something few games pull off, and no games pull off as well as “Cuphead.” The game launched recently on Xbox One and PC, and it’s more than just a pretty face.
First things first: What you don't do in 'Cuphead' is deal with the devil. Don't! Seriously. He's The Devil!
Jokes aside, that's the main premise of 'Cuphead': fulfilling the terms of a deal with the actual devil.
The game starts by Cuphead and his brother Mugman making a devilish mistake: gambling at a casino owned by Lucifer himself. Full of hubris, with dollar signs in his eyes, Cuphead bets it all on a single throw of the dice -- and the devil wins, of course. He always does!
For repayment, instead of taking Cuphead's soul, he's sent on a mission to retrieve the soul contracts of the devil's debtors. What does that mean for the game? It means you're facing down a ton of elaborate boss fights, as well as the occasional 'run-and-gun' level -- think: 'Contra,' or 'Metal Slug.'
'Cuphead' is a 2D side-scroller. Remember 'Super Mario Bros.'? That's a 2D side-scroller. 'Cuphead' is reminiscent of games from the Super Nintendo era (early-to-mid-'90s) in terms of how it plays.
There's a lot going on in the image above, I realise, so allow me to break it down:
- Both Cuphead and Mugman are playing through this level, moving from left to right -- you can see Cuphead walking along the ceiling, while Mugman is hopping around on the ground.
- Usually, both Cuphead and Mugman (or just one of them) is walking along the ground.
- Cars are moving along from right to left, both on the bottom of the screen and along the ceiling.
- A crazy duck with wheels is an enemy you can either kill or avoid.
- There's a twinkling playing card in the middle of the screen, which flips the level's gravity. You jump toward it, press jump again when you touch it, and suddenly you're walking on the ceiling (or vice versa).
This barrage of stuff is typical of 'Cuphead.' The image above is of one of the game's run-and-gun levels, meaning you progress from left to right until reaching an endpoint, but a similar barrage of stuff is typical of the game's complex, gorgeous boss fights.
Rather than jumping on the heads of your foes (a la 'Super Mario Bros.'), Cuphead and Mugman have handguns. I mean that literally -- their hands shoot bullets.
You start the game with a standard pea shooter -- hold down the button and Cuphead keeps firing, automatically -- but can quickly upgrade your weapons. Part of what makes 'Cuphead' feel fresh and modern, despite its anachronistic trappings, is stuff like the gun upgrade system.
You find gold coins scattered around the world map, as well as in the run-and-gun levels -- those coins can then be traded for new weapons, power-ups (like extra health), and other stuff. At any given time, Cuphead (and Mugman) can only have two weapons equipped. Thus, you must choose carefully for whatever you're doing next; perhaps you're going to fight a boss that is often very close to you, so you should use a short-range weapon. It's more complex than that, but there's a level of tactical depth in 'Cuphead' that makes it feel shockingly modern.
In many ways, 'Cuphead' is a mash-up of classic games like 'Super Mario Bros.' and 'Contra' -- but with a large pinch of 'Steamboat Willie'-era Disney animation thrown in.
Games simply do not look as good as 'Cuphead,' and that's because games aren't hand-drawn like 'Cuphead.'
More than just the game's characters and enemies, the entire game is hand-drawn -- I often find myself getting lost in the gorgeous backgrounds... and subsequently dying, once again.
On a more serious note, this is the kind of game that you call people in from the other room to come and see. It literally looks like a classic cartoon, except it's playable. Even at its most frustrating -- I'll get to that in a moment -- 'Cuphead' is outrageously pretty. I genuinely wish more games looked as incredible as this.
The beauty of 'Cuphead' is undercut by how punishingly difficult is is. If you're not paying attention for a single second, you're cooked cod.
If you're familiar with 'bullet hell' games, you'll be right at home with 'Cuphead.' The gist is this: A bunch of different things are happening on screen at any one time, and you have to decide where to prioritise your actions.
Perhaps it's most important that you keep jumping from cloud to cloud, lest you fall to your death. Or perhaps it's most important that you shoot that cigar in his stupid grin. The only constant in 'Cuphead' play is change -- you're constantly deciding what to prioritise, and that can change from second to second.
As you can see from the ghost of Cuphead above, he chose poorly.
You've only got a few moves to get around -- a single jump and a dash. Stringing those together with the weapons of 'Cuphead' is what makes up most of the game: Simple mechanics applied to complex situations.
Controlling Cuphead and Mugman feels great, as it needs to in a game that requires pixel-perfect precision at every stop. The same level of precision that games like 'Contra' demanded is also on display here; though the game's bosses and levels are outrageously hard, it's pretty much always your fault if you fail.
If your reaction time wasn't fast enough, or if you weren't paying attention to the right thing, don't worry: You'll get 'em next time, champ. At least that's what the voice in the back of my head kept saying as I banged my head against yet another difficult boss fight.
When you're not controlling Cuphead as a walking, sentient cup, you're flying him around in an adorable little plane.
Though only a handful of levels in 'Cuphead' feature the little prop plane, they're a nice respite. They operate relatively similarly to the levels where you're on foot, but there are a few small differences: You've only got one weapon, a machine gun, and the focus of movement is on avoiding bullets rather than leaping and air-dashing around.
Don't get things twisted, though: The biplane levels are still outrageously difficult, and you'll need the same level of focus on these as everywhere else in the game.
The good news is, just like the rest of the game, your patience and focus is rewarded when you finally, finally defeat the boss.
Other than the nice feeling of success you get from defeating the game's devious bosses, much of the drive of the game is simply seeing what's next.
After my fifteenth or sixteenth time fighting a boss, or struggling to get through a run-and-gun level, or having my plane shot down yet again, I often got frustrated. Why am I banging my head against this level?
The answer was always right in front of me: I wanted to see more of the gorgeous art. What would the next boss do? What would the next level look like?
No matter how frustrated I got, I was always thrilled to see what was next.
Cuphead can be hit three times before he dies, and then you have to start whatever level you're on from scratch. That's on the game's 'Normal' mode.
But don't worry: There's a 'Simple' difficulty setting that makes the game far more forgiving. If you just want to see what's next, you can do that without being crazy like me and banging your head against the game relentlessly.
That said, if you're getting frustrated, take a break! I found that I played worse the longer I spent with 'Cuphead,' and that a break often resulted in me doing better without getting quite so mad. And remember: Focus on Cuphead (or Mugman) instead of all the stuff going on. It's the equivalent of keeping your eye on the ball.
Perhaps you're so good at these kinda games you're worried it won't be a challenge? There's a hardcore mode as well, you masochist.
How hardcore is the hardcore mode in 'Cuphead'? It's so hardcore that the whole game becomes black and white. Whoa.
But seriously, after defeating the game's final boss (guess who), you can go back and play through the game on an even harder difficulty level. You'll be totally unsurprised to hear that I didn't do that.
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