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Can Cuphead’s Gameplay Live Up to Its Masterful Visual Style?

News Bot Sep 2, 2016

  1. News Bot

    News Bot Chaos Immortal

    As a painstakingly accurate pastiche of 1930s animation, Cuphead’s visuals are not only unique among games, they’re also astonishing to behold. Playing Cuphead, it genuinely feels like you’re somehow controlling an 80 year old cartoon, gleefully bopping anthropomorphic carrots and buying period-appropriate upgrades from a pig with an eyepatch.
    But we’ve adored Cuphead’s aesthetic since the game originally debuted at E3 2014 with a brief yet impressive trailer. Now, more than two years later and with a firm release date still undetermined, a more pertinent concern is how the game plays. And at this point, the gameplay doesn’t quite live up to the sophistication and originality of the visuals. There’s still hope for Cuphead and its demanding approach to classic run-and-gun action, but I walked away from my recent demo at PAX West feeling slightly frustrated and underwhelmed.
    Though the team at Studio MDHR recently showed off the game’s first platforming levels, my demo focused solely on boss battles--four of them, to be exact, two of which were actually shown way back in that original trailer two years ago. Three of those four battles stuck me a relatively small 2D space with a large boss character, and in each case, that boss never strayed from its preset attack pattern.

    The blue blob boss, for example, would hop across the screen and back, pausing occasionally to turn into a giant fist that could punch halfway across the screen. Once my co-op partner and I hit him enough times, he morphed into a slightly larger blob and continued the same pattern. Honestly, there wasn’t much for my co-op partner and I to do. We would lay into him with our standard projectile attacks, dash out of the way when it looked like he might land on us, and employ our super attacks whenever possible. Though we actually died several times during this process, the fight felt more tedious than challenging.
    This is due in part to small but important details. For example, bosses don’t react to damage. They blink when you shoot them, but there’s no other feedback to indicate how close you are to victory or whether you’re even attacking the right way. Frustratingly, your own health appears only as a tiny number tucked away in the very bottom corner of the screen, and when you die, your co-op partner has only a split-second to jump and grab your ghost to revive you. If your buddy is slightly too far away or slightly too slow to react, you’re toast.
    Granted, it’s really not fair to criticize a game for being too tough so long as it's consistent and equips you with enough tools to fight back. And Cuphead is indeed both consistent and fair. You can, for example, parry certain projectile attacks to build up your super meter, which eventually allows you to unleash a devastating blast. You can also purchase and equip upgrades like a spread-shot projectile attack. And our deaths never felt arbitrary: when we died, we knew exactly what killed us and what we needed to do differently next time.

    However, once we learned those lessons, the boss battles became exercises in patience more than anything else. During another fight, we had to take down a giant violent potato (yes, it was pretty hilarious). The potato sat in place firing large, slow-moving projectiles at regular intervals...and that was it. Once we learned the rhythm, hurdling those projectiles while training our own weapons on him proved painfully straightforward. The only challenge came from timing our jumps properly; there wasn’t really any deeper strategy or mechanical complexity--I never once found it necessary to parry anything.
    Our third battle--this time against a sunflower--was a bit more diverse, however. The sunflower lunged at us both high and low, spat spinning seeds at us, and spawned smaller enemies that attacked from the ground and the air. That battled involved a great deal more dodging and parrying, as well as more coordination between myself and my co-op partner. With any luck, the final version of the game--which aims to include as many as 30 boss fights--will find a way to inject more of this kind of variety into its boss encounters and perhaps even trust players with other, deeper gameplay mechanics.
    While there’s clearly still work to be done on Cuphead, there’s also plenty more to the game that we haven’t yet seen. With any luck, the few months remaining in 2016 (the game’s purported launch window) will be enough to allow the team to fine-tune the experience and realize Cuphead’s massive potential. But hey, if nothing else, at least it’s just as beautiful in action as we all hoped it would be.


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