Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Cuphead - Thoughts

Treasure—one of gaming's most unique and creative developers—may be essentially derelict nowadays, but Studio MDHR is proudly carrying the torch with their stunning debut, Cuphead. The brief trailer snippet of it from Microsoft's E3 2014 press conference was a surprise highlight of the show, and from that moment on the Moldenhauer brothers had a lot of eyes on them. This is important to mention because there was significant pressure for Cuphead to be good. And not just for the game to look good—it had that ever since its reveal—but for the game to play well and be fun too. After all, there's nothing quite as tragic as a game that's all style but no substance.

Not only did Studio MDHR deliver with aplomb, but they're successfully reintroducing gamers to what made so many platformers in the 90's great: smooth controls and hilarious creativity.

I brought up the high expectations for Cuphead because there were a lot of ways the game could've failed. Naturally there's a number of ways any game can fail, but when you label yourself as a "run and gun boss rush platformer", there's a few critical questions you have to be wary of: how do you avoid the game feeling too short? How do you keep the gameplay fresh? How do you make every boss distinct? And perhaps most importantly—how do you find the sweet spot in difficulty? I suspect that folks that watch game trailers don't often wonder, "Gee I hope this won't be too hard", but Cuphead seemed to have the Souls effect, where myriads of gamers were hesitant of its perceived difficulty.

Fortunately, Studio MDHR had spent so much time in development that the game is practically flawless. All of the questions above have been suitably answered: Cuphead lands in that comfortable "not too long, not too short" Goldilocks zone. The gameplay is refreshingly split up between overworld exploration, bosses of the platforming & shmup variety, and a handful of run and gun stages. The bosses are distinct via their memorable attacks, sharp visuals, and zany themes. And the difficulty is on point—it's hard enough to make you sweat, but never give up. I cannot emphasize how amazing it is that the developers got everything right in this game; the stars above had perfectly aligned to give us an amazing experience where you shoot a tangerine genie that wears magic lamps for shoes.

I would be sorely remiss if I didn't mention how wonderfully demented the animation in Cuphead is. The way the animation team stuck to the tropes, shapes, and motion of cartoons in the 1930's is brilliant; fighting a boss that can transform into an airplane mid-battle or turn their teeth into the bars of a prison cell is an utter delight to behold. The style is both wacky and imaginative, providing unexpected gameplay twists that will often make you laugh—usually right before you die.

And the music! How often do you hear a big jazz band play for the entire soundtrack? What's even crazier is that the quick pace and explosive energy of the music fits like a glove, keeping you on your toes as trumpets blare during tense moments. The sound effects are likewise a perfect addition, giving flavor to bosses through silly dialogue and slide whistles. The sheer amount of focus and effort put into making Cuphead properly honor old timey cartoons is breathtaking; the production quality displayed here is on par with AAA games.

I've been so enthralled with the aesthetics of Cuphead that I forgot to mention that the gameplay is really fun too. The Treasure comparison in the first paragraph isn't merely for show—the game takes its most obvious cues from Gunstar Heroes, from customizing your weapon load-outs to the outlandish multi-transformation bosses. But the way the game comes together gives it its own unique identity, especially in regards to the fairly tricky jump-parry mechanic. And there's more to Cuphead than its exquisite bosses (though they clearly steal the show); there's nutty Inkwell inhabitants to chat with and side-scrolling stages to stomp through. Throw in a repertoire of purchasable abilities, Expert mode, and a tough-as-nails ranking system, and Cuphead's $20 price tag suddenly turns into a bargain deal.

The only downside I can think of to Cuphead is that it isn't too accommodating for players unaccustomed to 2D platformers. It's a kind of merciless experience that some will be afraid to touch, but I 'd contest that the brevity of the battles turns failure into little more than a minuscule hurdle. If you can stomach memorizing a couple boss patterns, you're bound to have a swell time. Cuphead is a dream-come-true for everyone that mourns Treasure's inactivity; it's charming, challenging, and a straight-up hoot—don't you dare skip out on the star indie game of 2017.

Title obtained from: xbox.com

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