Cuphead (PC): Review

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I’ve always been a proponent of the argument that video games should be considered art. Whether it’s a triple A title with gorgeous sweeping vistas or a smaller more intimate experience, games are simply the latest medium through which artists have been able to express themselves creatively. Studio MDHR’s 2D platformer Cuphead is no exception.  

 Poor Mugman hasn't realized he's doomed to become the Luigi of this series.

Poor Mugman hasn't realized he's doomed to become the Luigi of this series.

Long before its initial release I was enthralled with the art direction being presented by the games developers.  Drawing inspiration from cartoons of the 1930’s, Cuphead's character designs, levels and musical score create a visual and auditory feast.  When the scratchy record effects and old film textures are included it can quite literally feel like you are playing a cartoon at times. As a lifelong admirer of animation, I have a great deal of respect for Studio MDHR for having taken the time and effort to hand draw the games 19 ludicrously intricate boss fights. In an age where most indie game developers are competing to achieve a truly unique visual style, Cuphead comes to the forefront in terms of innovation. 

Yet beneath all of the games beauty there lies something truly diabolical, for Cuphead is as unforgiving as it is gorgeous. I freely admit that 2D platformers are not my forte but I was stunned when I found myself struggling to defeat the first boss, an enemy who is more or less a tutorial. I wasn’t ignorant of the fact that this game was going to be challenging but I was not prepared for the effect it would have on me. Every boss fight felt like it would drain 10 years off off my lifespan, but the sheer elation of finally achieving victory rejuvenated me entirely. The feeling of beating a level by the skin of your teeth after countless attempts is almost indescribable and has given me a deeper understanding of why some gamers seek such challenges out. 

 Pennywise has got nothing on this clown.

Pennywise has got nothing on this clown.

Cuphead is a game that requires patience, attentiveness and accepting the fact that you are going to die…a lot. While the game is difficult it very rarely felt unfair; most levels I became stuck in were often a result of me losing my cool and dying over and over again. Once I stepped away for a little bit and came back I noticed things I hadn’t before; a pattern in the attack that made it easier to avoid or a different weapon being more effective. In these cases I was able to beat the level with far greater ease. For me this is the beauty of a challenging game, it’s not so much about seeing your character get stronger it’s about seeing the player get better.  Some bosses that once seemed unbeatable look like jokes when you go back and revisit them, although others will still kick your ass. In the end you’ll be thanking these earlier bosses for giving you so much trouble because they prepared you for what you were going to face down the road. Every boss feels like a test, with each subsequent one incorporating more skills until you reach the final exam where you have to use everything you’ve learned in order to succeed.

 This sick bastard doesn't have a grading curve.

This sick bastard doesn't have a grading curve.

Although I revel in the difficulty of this game it’s apparent that such an experience was not meant for everyone. The challenging gameplay will definitely be a turn-off for some, especially those not into 2D platformers. I can easily see someone picking up this game simply for the art style alone only to quit before even getting past the first area. It would be quite tempting as the game is fairly priced at $19.99 on Steam and the Microsoft Store. That being said the game does feature a simple difficulty for most of the boss fights, however you are unable to unlock the final area when using this. Unfortunately the simple mode omits entire sections out of the levels in order to make them easier, thus forcing casual gamers to play an incomplete version of the game. While I understand that the game does not need to cater to every demographic of player in regards to difficulty, it’s unfortunate that those who wish to experience the visuals will only be getting a portion of the final product.

Outside of that there’s very little bad I can say about this game aside from a few nitpicks. At times there is an element of randomness that can be quite frustrating; bosses will often switch up their attacks and some are far easier to avoid than others. Personally, I find that the game controls are far better with a controller as opposed to a keyboard (it’s also easier on my fingers). Overall, Cuphead is one of the most memorable and unique gaming experiences I’ve had in years and I’ll definitely be watching Studio MDHR’s future endeavors with great interest.