Independent developers often offer something no AAA studio ever could. Inspired by Fleischer Studios’ nostalgic early hits, Chad and Jared Moldenhauer set out to create a hand-drawn run n’ gun like the industry had never seen. After refinancing homes, and a little push from Microsoft, Studio MDHR released Cuphead to mass praise. I love challenging platformers. Mega Man, Super C, and Castlevania Rondo of Blood are among my favorite games of all time. They all offered fluid control and a fair challenge. I’m always quite concerned when a game sets out to become one of the hardest of all time.
Cuphead quite clearly puts style over substance, so I’ll begin with presentation. Each and every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn. Character designs are unique and unforgettable. You can feel the effort bleeding from every corner. There are no corners cut or tricks on the mind. Sometimes you’ll forget this wasn’t an animated movie produced in the 30s. The soundtrack is just as brilliant. I can remember almost every song, and boss, without needing to think about them.
Cuphead offers three main styles of levels. Boss levels, platformers, and bullet-hell inspired shooters. Cuphead can have two weapons equipped that you’ll swap between, dash, parry pink objects, and use a super move. There’s not a lot of depth to the basic moveset. Cuphead feels just right. It’ll never be as fun as controlling Alucard or the Doom Slayer, but it was never clunky like Mega Man.
The challenge of Cuphead comes from the bosses you fight. Unfortunately, very few are fun. Patterns often get out of sync, randomized crucial platforms won’t spawn inaccessible locations, enemy projectiles are often hidden by the foreground, and sometimes you’ll just fall through the floor. It produced an experience I wouldn’t want to go through again. There are a couple of stand-out fights that truly felt fair, but that is certainly a minority in an already small game.
The shooter fights are some of the most infuriating stages I’ve played in a game. They managed to design a shmup that completely misses what makes shmups fun. Your movement is limited, your weapons are terrible, and bosses throw attacks out of Ikaruga at you while you deal with the mobility of a tank. Every single shooter level was infuriating, and they never should’ve been included. They did nothing to add to the experience.
Cuphead is extremely short, and conquering it brought great satisfaction. I can see every ounce of love poured into this stunning indie darling, but I can’t see the fun everyone else had. Cuphead didn’t test my mastery of mechanics or reaction time. Cuphead simply tested my patience. What I said at the beginning rings true, it’s style over substance, but it’s certainly not the worst rage-game I’ve faced.