Collect souls to save your own in this brilliantly challenging indie masterpiece.
Video games are more plentiful and diverse than ever before. Blink and you might just miss a few gems that linger at the top of their respective platform’s ‘What’s new’ list before being buried by an avalanche of AAA titles. But despite the overload of options, many indie games are pushing their way out of the pile to find themselves critically acclaimed and lauded by fans across the globe.
In Gamers Guidepost, I’ll be highlighting many of these indie gems (and maybe a few not-so-gems) once I’ve put significant playtime into, and completed, each.
My initial blog will focus on one of the most popular and infuriating indie games of recent years: Cuphead.
Cuphead, startup Studio MDHR’s first and only game to date, incorporates ideas from several decades. Its cartoonish, over-the-top visual style is intentionally reminiscent of 1930s-style cartoons, and its side-scrolling mechanics harken back to those used in many games from the 1980s and beyond. Repurposing side-scrolling gameplay for a modern audience isn’t a new trend, but Cuphead’s smooth mechanics, stylized visuals, incorporation of RPG elements, replayability, and incredible difficulty have made it one of the most prominent modern side scrollers of the last decade.
I’ve never been one to shy away from a challenge, and despite the rage it can induce, I’m even drawn to overly-difficult games. Back in the time of the original Xbox, I very unsuccessfully attempted a run at the Ninja Gaiden remake – still considered one of the hardest modern games of all time. More recently, I ventured through the world of Dark Souls III and Dark Souls: Remastered. Thankfully I had helpful online pals to all but carry me through those latter two experiences. Games of this difficulty offer the most reward once the credits roll, but you never know how many controllers might get smashed along the way. After finishing Cuphead’s three island sections on my own, I recruited a friend, in desperation, to help me finish off the finale.
Cuphead’s two-player mode might be helpful for some, but in my brief time with that experience, it seemingly made the game just a bit more difficult. It’s like playing Super Mario U on the Wii U or Switch with a few pals – it’s fun and all, but you mostly get in each other’s way.
At its core, Cuphead is a simple game. You run, you gun by magically spitting energized pellets from your fingertips, and you evade. There’s also a variety of upgradeable core gunplay abilities and chargeable special moves. Upgrades can be bought by collecting coins throughout playable levels and equipped to better suit particular stages, boss fights, etc. But no matter how you equip yourself for battle, Cuphead is a game that will require even the most seasoned of gamers to replay maps multiple times in an effort to learn and adapt to the endless stream of cartoon minions and big baddies who are intent on your destruction. A limited health bar doesn’t help your cause in the least.
It’s actually a comedic twist that you are established as somewhat the ‘bad guy’. The simplistic backstory opens with Cuphead and Mughead gambling away their means and striking a deal with the devil to dig themselves out of trouble. The deal puts your team to the task of hunting down fellow gamblers who have yet to pay up – yes, you’re the devil’s bounty hunter. This story doesn’t much pick up again till the end of the game.
The gamblers you seek out represent Cuphead’s biggest challenges. Cuphead is split into an imbalanced mix of run-and-gun stages, and (more) stages that challenge you to a single boss fight only. The latter confrontations are tiered to present a variety of new attacks to combat as your enemy evolves throughout each fight. Usually, after the third form of each boss, you’re presented with a stage rank and ushered on to the next dizzying fight.
It’s certainly not one of the largest games out there, with five to seven bosses to topple per island, but you can easily invest a significant amount of time in Cuphead, especially if you’re intent on replaying it to collect all the coins, upgrades, and top ranks that your heart desires. For myself, I mostly decided I was satisfied with Cuphead once the credits rolled. At least, I’ll be satisfied until the Cuphead DLC: The Delicious Last Course is released sometime in 2020. For now, the steam that Cuphead caused to spring out of my ears is still dissipating.
Cuphead is available for digital download on Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC, and Mac.