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Get Ready For A Swell Fight!

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    Cuphead

    Rating: 4.5 – Outstanding

    Get Ready For A Swell Fight!

    It is hard to predict exactly what people will get excited about. Millions were spent on perfecting AAA games with next gen visuals where every single blade of grass blew just perfectly in the wind, yet what stole the show at E3 2014 was a four second clip of an indie title that used visuals that were straight out of the 1930’s. And somewhere, someone who spent the better part of a summer making sure the shine in the armor in their game was just right burst into tears. But sometimes a unique visual style or a unique approach to the gameplay can generate buzz in a way that just throwing money at a project can’t replicate. Cuphead has both style and substance in spades, and while it is an indie title it has big budget production and entertainment.

    Most of the time when commentating on games the art style isn’t really the first thing you go to, but in Cuphead it is almost necessary. The whole visual style of Cuphead harkens back to old timey animation, with fights playing out like little cartoons of the era. I’d say they look like cartoons from the 1930’s and 1940’s, but that almost feels like it doesn’t do the game enough justice. The animation doesn’t just ¡°look like¡± an old timey cartoon ¨C this game is an old timey cartoon. It is absolutely perfect, indistinguishable from that which inspired it. This is one of the best looking games I’ve seen in quite some time, and not only does it implement a unique art style, but it does so absolutely flawlessly. Everything, from enemy movements to types of attacks to even the idle animations is stunning, and this game would be worth playing for the art style alone. There is nothing else in gaming that looks even remotely like this, and the game can be simply mesmerizing to watch.

    It isn’t just that the game ¡°looks good¡±, either, because it goes beyond that. Overall the design is simply phenomenal, both in terms of aesthetic and function. There are 19 bosses in the game, and each and every one of them has a unique appearance, attack style, and background. So much detail went into every fight that it is hard to pick one that stands out because so many of them are so good. It never feels like you’re doing the same thing over, and a lot of effort was put into make each of the bosses memorable. Just in terms of design there is some great variety, with enemies ranging from a haunted ghost train, and evil genius with his giant robot, and a little mouse piloting a mechanized soup can. Almost all of the foes here would be the most creative enemy in another game, but here they will be one in a long string of great bosses. Of course, the visuals here certainly help and the bosses are worth seeing just for the animation alone. It is a beautifully designed game, and what is most impressive is how form often leads to function as the design of each and every one of the bosses is always borderline brilliant because of how effectively the battle unfolds.

    So much work has gone into the presentation here, and it shows through in every facet of the game. The game looks like a cartoon right out of the 1930’s, but perhaps even more importantly it feels like it actually is from the era. The filter the game uses looks like it is coming from an old film, with fake little tears or imperfections in the film to make it look like it is actually playing on an old projector. And the music is a perfect fit, right down to the great ¡°Don’t Mess With King Dice¡± song that sounds like something straight out of Cab Calloway’s catalogue. It is things like this that make it clear how much love went into the game, and the presentation here is downright perfect to even the smallest detail.

    Of course, if the game was little more than a 1930’s cartoon without the racism it would be hard to justify a purchase since you could always just google some pictures of it and call it a day. Fortunately, the gameplay here is similarly great and the game does the most making its distinctive art style elevate that even further. This is a tough as nails action title with a focus on long, multi-phase boss fights (although there is some other stuff to do along the way). Levels in the game drop you in right at a boss fight, give you three hearts, and wish you good luck before kicking you headfirst into the flaming pile of bear traps that is waiting for you. You will need to learn enemy patterns and take advantage of Cuphead’s movement abilities to dodge all incoming attacks while you are firing off a continuous stream of bullets yourself. Certain pink attacks can be parried, increasing your special meter, but for the most part the focus here will be on dodging. There is very little room for error here, as the three hearts you’re given have to get you through the entire battle. With nineteen different bosses in the game, each with their own unique attack patterns and battle strategy, you will have your hands full.

    One of the most defining features of this game is its challenge. This game is hard in the same sense that trying to knock down a brick wall by headbutting it is hard, and it is unlikely you will beat any of the bosses here on your first try. There are some you’ll likely tackle twenty or fifty or even a hundred times before finally getting the hang of it. You will need to dodge and return fire simultaneously and a lot of fights will have you jumping up and down, around attacks, finding the optimum time to fire off special attacks of your own, and of course pulling your hair out and cursing the sadistic madmen and women that made this game. The boss will change throughout the course of the fight, giving you new attacks to avoid, and there is plenty of RNG in terms of where attacks appear or precisely what attacks the enemy will be using. This is not an easy game, and it might even be frustrating for people that are looking for a more straightforward experience.

    The thing is, though, this is the great kind of challenge, something that is truly difficult and yet at the same time not frustrating. Part of this is because of the design, where none of the bosses are longer than two or three minutes and with enough variety in their attacks that it doesn’t feel like you’re doing the same thing endlessly even while you’re failing. And, most importantly, Cuphead is just so much frantic fun that you won’t ever mind the challenge. It rarely feels like the damage you’re taking is cheap or unwarranted, and the game does a great job making things hard without artificially doing so with unavoidable attacks or unfair movement patterns. The gameplay has been polished to an absolute mirror shine, and by doing so it makes the game genuinely fun without ever becoming frustrating. You’re going to die (a lot). But you won’t mind doing so, and there’s always a feeling of ¡°ok, next time I’ll get him¡± no matter how untrue that may be. This is the kind of game you’re going to play until two in the morning and not even realize where the time went.

    Part of what makes Cuphead so remarkable is the controls. The controls here are so responsive and tight, and while things are simple they are also perfect for what the game is trying to achieve. Cuphead can move around, jump, shoot, and dash and that’s about it. It is brilliant in its simplicity though, and the controls all work amazingly well. You can parry attacks that are pink in color by pressing the jump button while already in the air, and this will add to your super meter. This also powers up as you score hits and lets you fire off more powerful attacks. And that is essentially all you need to know about the game. Everything can be picked up within minutes but it will take many hours to truly master. The movement is so good and so clean that the battles are truly engaging, and focusing on how to optimize your movement in order to avoid attacks while dealing out damage is a great deal of fun. The game doesn’t expect you to learn a lot of different things, but it does expect you to do it perfectly, and it makes for a very successful formula.

    This all works so well because of how well the fights are designed. It is hard to emphasize just how good of a job they do with these, but about half of the boss fights in this game would be the stand out encounter of most other titles. The game does a great job of doing just enough with enough variety to really challenge your skills but without ever really getting into what I would consider ¡°unfair¡±. One of the best fights has you dodging projectiles from one enemy while avoiding other enemies that fly in from the side randomly, and at the same time jumping up to new platforms as the level continuously moves upwards. You need to focus on like three different things at once, and when you finally pull it off it is such a rush of adrenaline and vindication. The game does a great job combining crisp movement in order to avoid attacks and strategizing the best ways to optimize damage output all at the same time. It is just a beautiful execution of design here, and it makes something that seems like it could be frustrating into genuine, enthralling fun. Most of these fights have different stages, and each stage is usually very different from the one before it. It is this variety that prevents things from getting too stale, even if you’re having to replay the same level a dozen times. Almost every fight is just perfectly crafted, making each and every encounter in the game memorable.

    There is a bit more depth to it than this though, although admittedly most of the additional stuff is relatively minor. There are coins that can be found, either hiding somewhere on the over world map or spaced throughout one of the run and gun levels you can find in the game. These coins can be used to buy upgrades in the shop, either abilities to make you a bit stronger or new kinds of weapons that might be more suited to certain fights over the standard ammo. There is an ability that makes you parry automatically, meaning you no longer have to time out your parries and making it easier to build up your special meter. Another one makes you invincible while dashing, which adds another layer to your movement and allows you to approach certain fights somewhat differently. The different types of ammo are interesting as well, with some doing huge damage over a short distance while others allow you to lob powerful shots with a low arc. This doesn’t add a ton of customization to your characters, but there is enough here that it is worthwhile to track down all the coins. The little bit of extra strategy these things add is nice, and it does help beef things up even further.

    While the review so far has essentially been me lavishing praise and constructing a shrine in the name of Cuphead, there are a couple of relatively minor issues here. Most notably, things go from excellent to slightly less excellent when the game gets away from its core formula and tries to introduce something a bit different. There are about six fights in the game that put Cuphead in a plane and force you to fight the bosses while flying it. It adds some different elements to the fight, the most important of which is your movement now is entirely different, flying up and down across the screen in an instant. It is interesting enough, but these fights are typically a major step down from the standard fights in the game. The main reason for this is the movement. In most boss fights, you have this brilliant platforming element to it where you need to really optimize your movement to make sure you are dodging everything that is coming your way. The plane fights take this away a bit, and flying around to avoid attacks just isn’t as compelling as some well-timed jumps. There are a couple of plane fights that do this almost perfectly, including a late game fight against a giant robot that essentially plays out like a bullet hell title, but for the most part the plane fights feel a bit like a step down.

    This issue also manifests itself in the ¡°run and gun¡± type levels. In these levels you don’t fight a boss at all, instead taking part in a more traditional side scrolling platformer. There are enemies to fight and jumps to make, and everything works pretty well. ¡°Pretty well¡± probably doesn’t sound much like a criticism, and it isn’t, but when the boss fights are mostly extraordinary, ¡°pretty well¡± is a let down. They feel like they were shoehorned in a bit, crammed into what was otherwise a very tightly put together package. Don’t get me wrong, these aren’t terrible and most of them do a good job replicating what makes Cuphead great but in sidescrolling form. But at the same time they feel a bit pointless, and it isn’t entirely clear why these levels were added in the first place. It is worth noting though that when my most stringent criticism is ¡°well, some levels are only fun instead of incredibly fun¡± that you know the game really puts forward a great experience.

    The final nit to pick is the occasional unfair bit of difficulty. For the most part, the game does a great job making things challenging without resorting to cheap tricks, and that is honestly one of the best parts of the game. Still, occasionally the game can get a bit lazy and certain attacks can really screw you over due to some RNG shenanigans. One example of this comes in the mermaid/gorgon/medusa/¡±whatever mythical creature it is¡± fight. The fight itself is fantastic, one of the best in the game, but there is a point later on where she will start randomly turning you to stone. You cannot avoid this, and you need to wiggle out to break free. However, at the same time her snakes will be shooting projectiles at you and you’ll be traveling forward through a tunnel with obstacles you need to dodge. It is entirely possible to get frozen and then get hit by an unlucky obstacle and it just isn’t your fault. This is what I mean by unfair difficulty ¨C RNG screwing you over without anything you can do skillwise to prevent it. Fortunately, there are very few examples of this in the game, but it can be very frustrating those times poor design like this rears its ugly head.

    Cuphead is, simply put, a fun game. This is pure, unadulterated action with a perfect amount of challenge thrown in to make things interesting. The visuals are astonishing, and this looks like a perfect recreation of any number of vintage cartoons. The enemy design is fantastic, the movement crisp and clean, and this is one of the most visually stunning games in recent memory. And, fortunately, this is not just a pretty face as the gameplay is almost as good. With sharp controls and some incredibly clever fights, Cuphead is one of those rare extremely difficult games that almost never becomes frustrating. The design is just so tight that you almost don’t mind it smashing your face in with a brick multiple times every level, and even the minor flaws are quickly forgiven because of how enjoyable the rest of the game is. This comes with a whole hearted recommendation, so go out and play the game right now if you haven’t already. Or, if you’re terrible at it, at least watch someone play it, because this is the kind of game that honestly shouldn’t be missed for any reason.

    Steamboat Willie (THE GOOD):

    • The visuals are absolutely outstanding, and are more striking than anything you’ve seen in years
    • Animation is crisp and fluid and looks every bit like the old cartoons that inspired it
    • Sound is fantastic, and the music and sound effects fit things perfectly
    • It is the best kind of hard, with a fun level of challenge that never gets frustrating due to cheap tactics
    • Controls are unbelievably responsive and controlling your character feels absolutely perfect
    • Great boss design both in terms of concept and gameplay
    • Most of the fights feel incredibly unique and the game rarely uses the same concept or strategy twice

    Oswald The Lucky Rabbit (THE BAD):

    • Plane fights feel like a step back from the standard encounters, and don’t really use the controls nearly as well
    • Run and gun levels feel a bit shoehorned in, and while they were perfectly fine no one is going to enjoy these more than the bosses
    • One or two examples of cheap difficulty where you can get cheated by RNG

    One Of Those Really Old Cartoons They Can’t Even Show On TV Anymore On Account of All The Blackface(THE UGLY): Dying and watching the progress bar fill up all the way to 99% full at the after fight summary. Cool, so I needed only one more hit. Guess I’ll go find a pillow to scream into and I’ll be right back to try that again.

    THE VERDICT: 9.00/10.00

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