by Emma Kostopolus, Video Game Columnist
Although Triple-A titles still reign supreme in the gaming world, every once in a while an indie game announcement comes along that catches the eye of the mainstream gaming community. Slightly less frequent are those indie games that manage to take the gaming world by storm upon release.
“Cuphead” is a game that managed to do both. “Cuphead” has been hotly anticipated since its reveal at E3 2014, and the team at StudioMDHR did not disappoint. With beautifully drawn graphics, spot-on audio and wickedly challenging gameplay, “Cuphead” is a refreshing nostalgia trip that says good things about the future of gaming.
The plot of the game is a bit over the top, but still fairly simple. Cuphead and his brother Mugman lose a bet with the Devil (you know, like you do) and have to go around collecting the soul contracts of the Devil’s other debtors in order to avoid losing their own souls. The gameplay revolves around a series of boss fights with these other unlucky folk, each with their own unique fighting style. There are some other level types scattered throughout, from platforming levels to reflex-testing mini-games, but the boss fights are clearly the main attraction.
And for good reason – although Cuphead’s mechanics are simple to the point of redundancy (you have one basic shooting attack and then a power-up that builds over time that releases a strong attack blast), each of the boss fights demands that the player find new rhythms and patterns to beat it. The bosses are all varied and unique, each with a drastically different set of attacks that the player must learn how to dodge or counter. No two bosses are anything alike, so even though the game has you do the same thing over and over again, it never gets old or stale. Which is good, because “Cuphead” is hard. Mind-bendingly, soul-crushingly hard. The game has been called “the ‘Dark Souls’ of run-and-gun games” for very good reason – you’ll spend a lot of quality time getting your rear kicked by each boss before you finally defeat it. But the difficulty of the game only increases the triumph you feel when you finally get a knockout.
The reason “Cuphead” garnered so much attention as an indie title was because of its graphics. The hand-drawn and painted scenes are meant to resemble old “rubber hose” animation from the 1930s. The draw of playing a game that looks and feels like an old Disney cartoon is undeniable, and StudioMDHR delivers on their promise with a game that never wavers from its retro aesthetic. The dedication to the era that inspired them also extends to the soundtrack, which is filled with big-band tunes and barbershop quartets. Even the sound effects feel like they come right out of an old film-reel.
The one place where it feels like “Cuphead” may falter is in its replayability. The game has an airtight look and feel to it, and the difficulty level will keep players invested for a long time in the initial playthrough, but once a boss is defeated, there’s little incentive to return to beat it again. Completionists may be tempted to return to the game in order to better their scores for specific encounters, but for the typical gamer “Cuphead” feels like a one-and-done sort of game.
Nevertheless, “Cuphead” is a delightful and entirely unique experience that is hopefully indicative of a new wave of innovation coming out of the indie game genre. Although you may only end up playing it once, the experience of stepping back in time and playing what feels, for all purposes, like a classic cartoon is well worth the $20 price tag on Steam and Xbox One.