Cuphead has been one of the most anticipated indie games since its debut back at E3 2015. Developer Studio MDHR immediately captured viewers’ interests with its smooth, hand-drawn art style, but after more information about the game was revealed, many were disappointed to discover that Cuphead was merely a collection of boss battles and contained no traditional run-and-gun platforming levels.
This feedback would delay the release of Cuphead, until last June when it was announced that Studio MDHR’s baby would finally hit the digital shelves September 29. With the finished product already consumed by completionists and speedrunners, its clear Cuphead has met its high expectations, although there’s still room for this potential series to grow.
The most immediate takeaways from playing Cuphead are its early 20th century cartoon art style and its hard-as-hell, run-and-gun gameplay. The two don’t necessarily complement one another, but work independently to an exceptional degree.
There are two types of levels: the game’s bread-and-butter boss fight encounters and a handful of run-and-gun sections. A sparsely populated hub world links the game’s levels, and helping out Inkwell Isle’s NPCs can earn you extra currency to buy new weapons and charms. Experimenting with different loadouts gives Cuphead an extra level of depth, as changing weapons can completely flip the difficulty of a seemingly insurmountable fight.
Fans of games like Mega Man, Contra and Gunstar Heroes will smile at Cuphead’s numerous callbacks to those classic games. Many of the weapons, enemies and bosses are ripped straight from those titles and are breathed new life inside Cuphead’s gorgeous hand-drawn world.
But Cuphead doesn’t use its inspirations as a crutch. There are plenty of original, insanely creative levels that demonstrate Studio MDHR’s level of expertise with such a storied genre. Many of them utilize Cuphead’s parry mechanic in clever ways. While parries are typically used to defeat certain enemies, you might use them to control a mine cart or expose a boss’s weak point. Parries add an extra layer to combat, as throwing parry-able projectiles into a barrage of enemy fire is a great way to keep players on their toes and ensure that they never get into too comfortable of a rhythm.
Each encounter is preceded by a brief title card, much like the cartoons the game is based on. In a way, the disjointed feeling of Cuphead’s boss battles feels appropriate as each level can be thought of as its own individual episode. But a lack of context or continuity between levels makes the game feel choppy. A bit more story would have went a long way towards making Cuphead feel more like a cohesive journey rather than a loosely strung-together series of levels.
Despite Cuphead’s awkward pacing, the beauty in how the game plays and looks shows that Studio MDHR’s could make something truly spectacular with a sequel. This first outing feels restrained by an indie budget and an unproven studio track record. A second title with dozens of levels across multiple zones (a la Super Mario World) seems like the next logical progression for Studio MDHR.
This isn’t to say that Cuphead feels incomplete. Even after your first run-through, there’s still incentive to improve your score, complete the game on a higher difficulty or try to unlock one of the game’s visual filters. So if you’ve been clamoring for the classic run-and-gun games of old, you can enjoy this incredibly competent platformer that’ll make you sweat, scream, and swear inside its Silly Symphonies.