Cuphead Preview - E3 2015
We go hands-on with this challenging, unique looking platformer
Two years ago, Cuphead was only a snippet of a Microsoft sizzle reel, literally a blip on the radar but even miniscule seconds was enough to turn the heads of Xbox fans and ask, “What was that?” Microsoft clearly heard the buzz about Cuphead, because this year the game wasn’t hidden in a sizzle reel, it was given a center stage moment so the developer, Studio MDHR, could let the world know what they have been working on.
There’s no way to see Cuphead and not instantly be swept up in the inventive art style. The game looks like something out of the golden age of American animation. This comes through in the vibrant colors used, the anthropomorphic creatures which fill the world, and the faded backgrounds which so starkly contrast with the characters they’re draped behind. In a time when so many indie games are channeling pixel art or other rote aesthetics, Cuphead stands completely on its own.
While Cuphead is described as a run and gun action game, there’s actually very little running involved. Most of the levels consist of large boss battles. You can take on these bosses in any order you wish. Cuphead’s over-world can be traversed like an old Zelda or Mario. Exploring the overworld leads you to dungeons and other locations where you can fight the ruling bosses.
Cuphead is bullet-hell through and through. Each boss battle begins with colloquial 1930’s phrases, then descends into chaotic madness as bosses hurl dozens of projectiles into the air, forcing you to duck, dodge, and jump to safety. The game may not be a platformer, but I found the tight controls were quite essential as you need to be quick to avoid taking damage. But chances are you’re not going to be very successful at avoiding damage the first time…or the second...or the third.
I died almost immediately when facing the first boss, and quickly realized that Cuphead is a game about quick loading back into a fight and learning from your mistakes. Trust me, you’re going to learn a lot. The game loads almost instantly, bringing both yourself and the boss back to full health. After a few bouts with a giant potato, I had him on the ropes, but instead of winning, I simply progressed to the next stage of the fight against a giant carrot with a mind-beam - yes, it’s as awesome as it sounds.
After what felt like dozen of attempts, which lasted mere minutes apiece, I finally lay the giant vegetables to rest and continued through the overworld map until I found my next fight. This time I was matched up against two boxing frogs in a 1930’s style night club. These amphibious brawlers again shot projectiles, but also manipulated the way I could move by sending swirling winds my way.
There’s something that is almost Souls-like about Cuphead. Something about how you try to hang back and learn the attacks of your enemy before going in for your strike. The titular Cuphead attacks by pointing his finger at the enemy and shooting some sort of projectile. These projectiles can be used to shoot the ones your enemies fire, saving you from having to do so much dodging.
You can either shoot a single projectile rapidly from a distance, or do a shot-gun type blast at close range. While the first firing mode is better as it allows you to be more agile and evasive, but with the duo of enemies, I opted for the shotgun blast. After you deal enough damage, you build up a special meter which allows you to do a super attack. Still, with these weapons, you’ll find yourself dying quite a bit.
Death is a pretty natural state in Cuphead. You die, you quickly learn from your mistakes and you get better. In that sense the Souls comparison holds up, but the game is so quick to load up and throw you back into the action, it is almost more like Hotline Miami. I took over the Cuphead booth during our time with Microsoft, neglecting to check if anyone was around me because I just needed one more go-round to try and beat a boss.
Eventually, after getting to another phase of the frog boss-fight where they split up and attack you from different angles, I decide to try something else. The next fight sends me airborne as I battle a bird stuck in the birdhouse who fires eggs back at me. Much like the frogs, and the vegetables before them, I die time and again as I start to learn the bird’s tactics. And also as before, just when I am getting comfortable and learning the tricks to beating the bird, the boss changes up their patterns and I quickly die.
The last boss I try is a ghost onboard a train. This fight is especially difficult as my room to dodge is limited to a small platform and there’s only inches of a space to dodge the incoming attacks. Again, I familiarize myself with the pattern of the game. Die. Learn. Die. Learn. It’s so addictive.
It’s easy to praise Cuphead for the aesthetics; it clearly stands apart with hand-drawn characters and pulls at nostalgia for cartoons of our past. But it’s unfair to neglect the work Studio MDHR is doing with gameplay. I didn’t see anything revolutionary during my time with Cuphead, but the seed of rewarding design with tight mechanics definitely had me captivated.
I got to spend some great minutes lost in the world, until I turned around and saw someone patiently waiting for me to finish. I had a moment where I considered pretending to not see him, allowing myself more time to be swept up in the fun, but my conscience got the better of me and I hesitantly handed control over. Luckily, Cuphead is co-op, so when you can finally play it at home, you’ll never be forced to experience this.
Cuphead will be available in 2015 (Microsoft says Spring/Summer, but that window is quickly closing). It will be an Xbox One exclusive at launch and priced at $9.99.