“I am not omniscient, but I know a lot.”
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,
“The following is a guest post by the Iron Mage.”
The 8-bit Review
The moment I booted it up, Cuphead made a tremendous first impression on me. The music is a grandiose tribute to big band swing, the visuals call back to the glory days of meticulously hand-drawn animation, and the gameplay is crisp and satisfying. I normally don’t remember any specific years being marked by the release of a video game, but Cuphead’s strong identity has certainly solidified it’s place in my memory as a landmark artistic achievement in 2017.
The Cuphead plot is best summed up by its tagline on StudioMDHR’s website: “Don’t Deal with the Devil.” Just like its obvious 1930’s-era cartoon influences, Cuphead’s story is deceptive: its playful mask obscures the dark undertones once it has been set in motion. It is based on cartoons, yes, but the premise is that Cuphead and his brother Mugman, both of whom are apparently children, owe their souls to the Devil and fear eternal enslavement to him. They must collect soul contracts from the Devil’s debtors in order to free themselves from their bonds. In order to do this, they must do battle with the soul contract holders in the shape of bosses, and eventually you are given the choice as to whether to hand them over to the Devil or not.
In terms of the story’s execution, however, there is very little to speak of, as there are only two full cutscenes throughout the experience: one for the intro, and one for the outro. It’s clear that a strong story was not the main focus of Cuphead.
And, while the game’s simplistic story is welcomed when compared to those that are bloated and meandering, one complaint is that Cuphead’s might be overly minimalistic to my tastes. With the exception of the storybook-like introduction sequence and the grand finale, there are very few actual cutscenes or any meaningful dialogue, and so the game’s background lore is left by the wayside. While I would normally not protest if a game were to not include a plethora of cutscenes and dialogue trees, I am only disappointed because I had genuinely been seduced by the absurdity of its quirky universe and the wit of its sparse writing.
While some NPCs are there simply to drop hints and tips for an upcoming level, I would have loved if there were more characters (akin to EarthBound) dispersed throughout the game’s meager maps, who could have been there to provide a clever contemplation, a metaphysical musing, or just a downright quirky quip. I’d have enjoyed more sidequests and more conversations with the Inkwell Isle inhabitants, but that is a very inconsequential grievance in the grander scheme of my enjoyment with Cuphead. Perhaps some peppered-in voice acting would have served as a nice touch of polish, too.
The core game is actually divided into three separate parts, each of which are strong enough individually to have their own dedicated standalone games. The first are the typical boss battle scenarios, in which the player is pitted against some large enemy, and must dodge incoming attacks and utilize very precise platforming, all of which are very dependent on the layout of the stage. It was reminiscent of a very complex Mega Man or Metroid boss battle, with multiple phases which gradually increase in difficulty. The player has the option to change their weapon, equip passive power-ups, and, once they’ve saved up enough power by dealing damage, can fire off a special attack. These first sections were apparently the sole portion of the game in its developmental stages, effectively turning it into little beside a glorified boss rush, but StudioMDHR opted to add welcomed diversity into the mix.
The second portions are similar but more akin to a shoot ’em up game, in which your character is placed in an airplane and must dodge projectiles fired off by the boss character. I actually found these sections to be more enjoyable than the boss rushes, because I had freer rein over my character’s movements, not being weighed down by physics and subject to the oft-randomized platforming segments littered throughout the boss rush portions. The player can even minimize their avatar using the Y button (or however they’ve decided to map their controller layout), which weakens their attack but speeds up their movements, and can use their occasional damage-dealing abilities once they’ve dealt enough damage to their foes.
During the game’s third part, the sidescrolling “run and gun” portions (which are, I would argue, more suitably called “platforming” sections, as they are slower-paced and more tightly designed), the player is tasked with finessing very harrowing levels. Often, you will find yourself perishing over and over again, having to replay the initially easier sections of the levels to eventually repeat the process of death–no checkpoints, no replenishing your health. This becomes frustrating when certain enemies are untouched by the player’s attacks, while others are allowed to be killed, and there is no clear way to distinguish the difference other than to shoot blindly at anything and everything.
Some more customizable RPG elements would have sweetened the already very nicely-tied package that Cuphead has to offer, as well as more ways to adjust difficulty level based on the player’s skill and desire to commit to replaying the game’s grueling levels over and over again. I imagine a casual gamer, or perhaps an impatient action gamer who wants to be rewarded constantly, will find Cuphead to be overwhelming technically and underwhelming reward-wise.
Of course, there are collectibles: coins, of which there are five in every run-and-gun stage, are scattered in usually easily accessible areas throughout. With coins, the player can buy new weapons and items. However, their functionality may vary–just as every deal with the Devil is met with a catch, so too is every purchasable item. If you want to buy an item that gives you an extra health point, be prepared to sacrifice your attack power. If you want a more powerful weapon, you must be willing to relinquish your shot range, which becomes extremely important in most stages. While it was nice to have the option of switching up my playstyle, it was difficult to justify using anything other than the default peashooter, as it simply seemed to be the most useful to deal with the game’s various obstacles.
When Cuphead was released, as I’m sure most readers have heard by now, there was a “news” story about a game reviewer/journalist who had played the game and showed a lack of skill (or talent) in playing the game. This story spawned an explosion of debates about how much skill truly matters in the critical analysis of video games.
I believe the general consensus was this: one definitely isn’t required to possess a mastery over a game, but certainly a sensible degree of skill is needed when critiquing one. This is because our skill is, in many cases, directly related to our enjoyment of the experience—if I am terrible at a game, then my poor experience will shine through in my ultimate opinion of it. My responsibility then, as a “critic,” is to be aware of how much my bias is influenced by my own abilities and inabilities. Well, in the case of Cuphead, my lack of total mastery over the game was something that frustrated and disheartened, and thus, it’s hard to determine how much fun I really had when it was marred by discouragement.
The game is certainly challenging, but, in my opinion, not in the way that I’d wished it to be. Because most enemies have a wide variety of attacks, forms they can take on, and minions they can summon, these different moves show up at random, with no intelligible pattern. The problem is that Cuphead demands from its players that they make little to no mistakes–that means that it is nearly impossible to complete a stage without learning and memorizing every single attack, form, and minion that might appear. Because they occur at random, that means that one must have replayed the same boss battle several times before they might have seen every possibility. Several bosses use attacks that require perfect timing in order to dodge them, meaning that it would have been nearly impossible to honestly defeat most of them on one’s first try.
The reason I make these minor complaints is because games like Cuphead, which urge adept players to flex their reactionary skills, also demand a large degree of perfection from its design. That is to say that every death should feel as if it is in the hands of the player rather than at the fault of a random “bad (dice) roll”, so to speak, or because the physics or patterns of an enemy’s movements were unclear. One of Cuphead’s developers was quoted as saying: “a sufficiently skilled player should be able to potentially defeat every challenge on the first try; no trial by death or cheap hits.” However, this statement seems to be the antithesis to the experience that I had. Still, I won’t speak for other players who may be more dexterous than I am.
However, I know I would have loved Cuphead if I was a child. There’s something so fluid and tasty about the way it looks and feels, and I’m sure, despite it’s challenge, would be an abundantly exciting experience to any newcomer to video games due to its eccentric and gripping nature.
I believe, prompted by Cuphead’s outrageous visuals, that there should be a degree of practicality to aesthetics in games. There are many moments in which you are met with new enemy types, and their nonsensical visual design gives the player no clear pointers as to what their attack and movement patterns will be. While this normally would not be frustrating in easier games, Cuphead should have demanded a practical use for its enemy designs, as the slightest mistake during gameplay will send you hurdling back to the beginning of the level.
The screen is small and the enemies are big, meaning there is sometimes simply not enough room on the screen to give the player enough time to reasonably react to enemy attacks. There are also times when it was difficult to determine what was in the immediate foreground (that the player can walk on) and what was in the background (and only exists to beautify the game’s looks), and so there were a number of times in which I’d made a hopeful jump and ended up kicking the bucket.
Cuphead‘s art style deserves to be discussed more in-depth. Visuals in Cuphead have been taken into account and polished to accommodate for its highly fast-paced and player reaction-reliant twitch gameplay style–never sacrificing playability for visual fidelity. Still there is an obvious emphasis on emulating 30’s Walt Disney cartoons and such other classics as ‘Bimbo’s Initiation’ and ‘Swing You Sinners’. To get somewhat more technical (and I am by no means an expert of film or animation), most films run at 24 frames-per-second (FPS), while typical PC games (nowadays) run at 60 FPS. So, in order for the game to best recreate the cinematic magic of the works it is inspired by, Cuphead reduces in-between animation frames, making it an effective hybrid of the two mediums. Essentially, it felt like I was “playing” an old cartoon I’d found on VHS, and it was sublime. And StudioMDHR’s mission statement is also worth mentioning: to rejuvenate 2D animation on paper, which is something of a rare treat to see in video game circles.
Its art direction, as the developers themselves have stated, creates an “odd… creepy, adult atmosphere,” and this is something I agree with. There is undoubtedly something unsettling about the way boss characters twist and turn awkwardly, the way they transmogrify unpredictably. The particular animation style here has been described as “rubber hose animation,” which simply describes the very elastic and rubbery nature of characters’ limbs. Indeed, the way the entire game is designed seems to intend to constantly stupefy its players, since the most unassuming boss battle can turn into something bewildering by the end, and so expectations are constantly scattered as literally anything can happen. If Cuphead were to entrench its design into something more realistic, the potential for these absurd metamorphoses would simply prove to be odd, or awkward.
However, as I’ve mentioned, Cuphead‘s developers never strayed from their grail: creating a game. Visuals, while providing the crux of the game’s tone and mood, still comes second behind its gameplay. Its controls are snappy and precise. There is an abundance of very satisfying visual feedback when coming in contact with foes, and dodging through very tight spaces in between enemy attacks is a breeze. Within minutes of playing the game, it felt almost natural to me, comparable to the likes of Mega Man X.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
Cuphead is one of the most technically demanding games I have played in a long time. Ultimately, however, the game seems to boil down to being more of a test of patience and the constant crossing of your fingers in hopes of the game giving you the better deal: easier boss patterns and attacks for you to succeed, for example.
But despite my criticisms, Cuphead was something of a visual and technical marvel as I was playing it, and I only whine about it in hindsight. In fact, I felt very much like a child laughing my head off at my first Looney Tunes cartoons. I implore everyone to discover the oddities and absurdities that Cuphead has to offer, as there will always be something to chuckle at while it’s on your screen.
Aggregated Score: 8.0
The Iron Mage, in his natural habitat, is commonly found wielding his weapon of choice: his 8-string guitar. A musical fanatic who is also fascinated with studying the arts through a critical lense, his YouTube channel showcases his dedication to writing challenging progressive rock and metal music, as well as rearrangements of video game music.
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