Cuphead is one of the most visually striking video games I’ve ever played.
It’s also insanely hard, a factor I think could end up being the title’s downfall. Under the game’s 1930s cartoon-inspired exterior is the most difficult platformer I’ve ever played, and whether or not you are a fan of extremely difficult video games, will likely dictate whether or not Cuphead ends up being the type of game you’ll enjoy.
Because of this, Winnipeg-based MDHR’s Cuphead actually has more in common with retro shooter platformers like Contra III, than significantly easier titles recent in the Mario series, the go-to title most people think of when the word “sidescroller” comes to mind. Make no mistake, this game is the Dark Souls of shooter platformers.
In MDHR’s game, players take control of Cuphead, a cutesy character that’s basically a cup with a face on it, and in the cooperative mode, the second player takes control of Mug Man – you likely already guessed it, a mug with arms, legs and a face.
“The main inspiration for the visual style stems from all of the cartoons my brother and I grew up with. We watched a lot of 1930-1940 era cartoons from all the great animation studios: Fleischer, Disney, ComiColor, Warner Bros., and Van Beuren – and it is still our favorite era of animation today,” said MDHR’s Chad Moldenhauer.
“Using this style in the game started as a lark; we incorporated some old Popeye, Mickey Mouse, and Betty Boop art as placeholders in a few concept images. We loved how it looked, and all our close friends agreed that this must be the style we use. The cartoons that stand out the most to us are Swing you Sinners, Bimbo’s Initiation, Minnie The Moocher, The Skeleton Dance, Cobweb Hotel, and Balloon Land.”
At Gamescom 2015 in Cologne, Germany, I had the chance to go hands-on with MDHR’s Xbox One game, and while I enjoyed what I experienced, I found Cuphead to be a little too difficult for my taste.
One boss battle I played with a random co-op partner involved dodging wafts of air shot by a maniacal carrot, complete with the somewhat maniacal 1930s aesthetic the game has become known for since its reveal at E3. Seriously, take a look at cartoons from that particular era of cinema – they’re twisted (and so is Cuphead).
I also repeatedly died during my first few attempts at the stage. Being successful in Cuphead requires pin-point accuracy, lightning fast reflexes, and knowledge of each enemy’s attack patterns, which means most players are going to be going through a significant amount of trial and error.
Cuphead’s controls are responsive and the game’s environments are even more vibrant in-person – complete with era-appropriate film grain and distorted colours.
In an interesting twist, Cuphead seems to be more about elaborate multi-form boss battles than run and gun gameplay, which felt a little strange and closed off at first, but I quickly warmed up to the concept after spending a short period of time with the game. This isn’t the typical format platformers follow, but Cuphead also isn’t an average side-scroller either, so this strange feeling change of pacing makes perfect sense in a way.
However, part of me couldn’t help but wish Cuphead featured longer, more traditional platforming levels. Perhaps the final version of the game will feel more like a typical platformer in terms of level design, but the version I played at Gamescom certainly didn’t.
My biggest take away from the experience is how mind-bendingly difficult Cuphead truly is. I’d heard murmurs about the game’s relentless difficulty and didn’t really believe what I’d heard; but they’re true. Cuphead is insanely hard and I’m hoping MDHR decides to tone down the game’s difficulty level, at least slightly. I understand the hardcore crowd will likely scoff at this request. However, Moldenhauer says his development team has made an effort to include a pick-up-and-play easy mode in the game designed for players who might find Cuphead exceedingly hard.
“The game is difficult, but it’s no harder than playing some of the classics like Super Mario Bros. 3, Mega Man or Castlevania. If you find the game fun, you will get better in a short period of time and enjoy all aspects of the game. But with that being said, we do know there are certain gamers who don’t like difficult games – and that is why we have an easy mode,” said Moldenhauer.
MDHR has created a beautiful world and one of the most graphically impressive platformers I’ve seen in years (next to Yoshi’s Woolly World). I’m concerned that if the game drops and still remains this difficult, it won’t end up reaching the audience it deserves.
Moldenhauer says he’s hoping to release Cuphead at some point in early 2016 for the Xbox one and PC but that the studio doesn’t have a firm release window for the title yet.