Arts

Indie Game “Cuphead” Shatters Expectations

Has Incredible Old-Time Visuals Mixed with Modern-Day Mechanics

By: Brenton Mitchell

The Devil Confronting Cuphead and Mugman (Credit: Polygon.com)

Difficulty isn’t dead in the gaming world.

“Cuphead”, a run-and-gun action sidescroller, has revitalized the genre with 1930’s cartoon-inspired visuals layered over incredibly difficult gameplay.

Developed by StudioMDHR Entertainment, players control Cuphead on his journey to erase a debt with the devil by clearing his list of runaway souls.

The game’s plot is thin to the point of nonexistence, the premise only providing a backdrop to contain the gameplay.

Though instead of detracting from game quality, the lack of narrative bolsters the appeal by being both genre appropriate and allowing for the truly excellent elements to shine.

The most attractive aspect of “Cuphead” is the art and sound design.

With its old-time 1930’s cartoon style, the game drew massive attention when it was announced at the Electronics Entertainment Expo in 2014.

The finished product that released to Xbox and PC on September 29 of this year clearly shows that three years of development were well spent.

“Cuphead” is visually stunning, with art that is colorful and stylized.

Enemies are unique and varied throughout the stages, often appearing as if watching an old Disney cartoon on psychedelics.

Beautiful art is backed by strong gameplay, with crisp responsive controls that are intuitive and completely remappable for player comfort.

Except for a few pure run-and-gun levels that play out as spiritual successors to hits like the “Metal Slug” series, “Cuphead” is a game made entirely of boss fights.

In addition, each fight stands on its own within the larger scope of the game, allowing for unique gameplay elements to be presented independently instead of tied to an interconnected narrative.

A large part of the game’s hype relates to its difficulty, which captured the attention of gamers thirsting for an experience that will put their skills to the test.

After comparisons arose to the immensely popular “Dark Souls” series, fans took notice of the newest way to feed their masochistic desire for trials and tribulation.

However designing a good game takes more than throwing difficulty at the player and hoping they find enjoyment along the way.

What keeps “Cuphead” afloat are the same design principles that made the aforementioned “Dark Souls” games legends of their genre.

“Cuphead” is difficult but fair. Each boss has various stages that they transition to after taking a certain amount of damage, each stage having it’s own obstacle to overcome and manage to achieve success.

While many of these stages have different variations, overall, the difference between attempts is incredibly minimal.

The result is a game that allows players to learn from their mistakes through trial and error, eventually functioning off of muscle memory and game knowledge instead of pure mechanics and reaction time.

As such, some players may find themselves finishing the game with a logged total of 100 deaths, while others may accrue over 500 before reclaiming Cuphead’s soul.

The glory of the game is in the feeling of accomplishment that comes with a hard-fought victory, and mastery of the mistakes that kept the player down in the past.

Though there is more to the difficulty than catering to the player experience. With a total of only 19 bosses throughout the game, many of which can be finished in less than two minutes of game time, “Cuphead” is relatively scarce regarding overall content.

While the difficulty of each fight artificially inflates time spent due to repeat attempts, once levels are mastered the entire game could theoretically be cleared in less than two hours.

Carefully crafted boss fights are difficult and rewarding, but the level of detail comes with the sacrifice of quantity for quality.

It is a strange but welcome choice in a market where the trend is to create as many gameplay hours as possible to justify a $60 price point.

This “lack” of quantity works in the game’s favor with the incredibly smart price of $20, providing reasonable value for an excellently crafted game from top to bottom.

Cuphead may not be for everybody, but is as near-perfect as one could hope for from an independent studio. It is proof that there is success to be found in the quality of work, and the importance of understanding the limits of the product you produce.

Cuphead is successful by not being more than it needed to be, achieving all its goals in a way that inspires the player to challenge themselves and to push further.

It is fun found in frustration, and success celebrated with a sip from the cup of glory.

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