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On September 29, 2017, a small, indie game developing company Studio MDHR released "Cuphead", a widely loved shmup/platformer that was not only a love letter to fans of classic early cartoons of the 1930's, but also a throwback to the insanely difficult side-scrolling games of the '80s and '90s, such as "Contra" and "Astyanax".
I love "Cuphead", absolutely love it — it's not just my favorite video game of this decade this far, but one of my favorite all-time video games, period. I bought it for Easter this year on the Nintendo Switch and I've played it to death ever since. I'm absolutely in love with it.
The game is undoubtedly a masterpiece of not just video gaming, but also animation — it is an absolute delight, from its stunning hand-drawn visuals and beautiful watercolor backgrounds that feel right out of an early Disney animation, to its catchy and upbeat jazz scores that accompany the levels that become more intense as the levels themselves get increasingly difficult, to its difficulty that encourages you to continue and try harder rather than just give up.
If you like classic side-scrolling platformer/fighting games, buy this game. You won't be disappointed.
"A brawl is surely brewing!"
Boy, what to say about Cuphead that hasn't already been said. It drew a lot of attention a couple of years ago when it was selling itself as an indie Boss Rush game styled after the Deranged Animation of the 1930s, both for gorgeous art and insane difficulty. Fast forward a couple of years and we get a full game with proper levels, bonus stages, and yes, dozens of bosses to wallop, taking us somewhere between Contra and Metal Slug by way of Fleischer Studios.
Let's get the bad news out of the way first: This game is hard, and while it's quite fair, it is nonetheless the sort of thing that can drive some people to frustration. It's also slightly repetitive in that the gameplay tends to boil down to "die, observe pattern, die, learn pattern, defeat pattern," with a lot of rote memorization involved if you want to earn the best ratings. There's also the case where things occasionally bug out and leave enemies invulnerable or breaking hitboxes.
None of this is a deal breaker, however, and much of the charm and allure of the game is in its gorgeous visuals, catchy music, and solid gameplay, rivaling the 16-bit Mega Man X games in control tightness. There's also a bit of slack for players who are not hardcore speedrunners, with the game providing ways to catch up when falling behind (most notably the parry, partner revive, and super-shot mechanics). There's a little variety in the form of weapons and charms to keep the gameplay interesting without being entirely unbalanced (where the high-DPS spread gun has to be used at point-blank, the auto-aiming chaser bullet is fairly weak, etc). The balance for solo and co-op is also quite fair, in that when you screw up something you've already seen, it was your fault. Boss fights are heavily scripted precisely so players can learn their way through—indeed, half the fun is seeing what sort of zany thing is going to happen next in this madcap cartoon world.
In closing, do not be put off by either the cutesy aesthetic nor the posterior-crushing difficulty; this game is not only a labor of love but of genuine passion to make a game the feels as good as it looks. While it doesn't bring quite so much new to the Run-and-Gun category, what's there is slick, well created, and extremely charming. And hey, how often do you get to play a game with its very own Villain Song sung in classic 30s' crooner style?
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