Every now and then a truly original game breaks onto the scene and takes the masses by storm. Cuphead: Don’t Deal with the Devil is one of those games. The latest indie darling, Cuphead is a classic run and gun title from developer Studio MDHR. But not everything was roses and sunshine for Studio MDHR. First unveiled in 2014, Cuphead saw 3 years of development hell as it’s hand-drawn (frame by frame) style animation became an understandable, albeit wildly unique albatross around the neck of any release date. Fortunately, the title has managed to see the light of day, and the overwhelmingly positive reviews have been pouring in ever since. Without further ado, here is plus/minus.
As previously mentioned, the animation style of Cuphead is hand-drawn animation in the fluid, bouncy style of 1930s cartoons like Betty Boop. Not only that, enemies and bosses are wildly imaginative, often disturbing even as they transform and distort throughout battles. Even the over world is wonderfully delightful and atmospheric. Cuphead’s visual charm is something that will likely stay with gamers for some time after playing.
The plot of Cuphead is a throwback to classic storytelling of the time as well. Rather than remaining grounded in a smaller scale story, Cuphead jumps straight into the fire with the kind of themes typical of the time, such as the dangers of gambling and the struggle between good and evil. Depicting gambling as wicked behavior -quite literally dealing with the devil himself, Cuphead and his friend, Mugman find themselves indebted to the Devil and his right-hand man, King Dice. With their very souls on the line, Cuphead and Mugman (the latter of which is only playable in 2 player) are sent out to collect on numerous “runners” who have done “business” with the Devil. Along the way, Cuphead must figure out a way to win back his soul and end the Devil’s reign of tyranny. Simple, but effective.
Following once more in the 1930s vibe, the sound design and music of Cuphead and whimsical and upbeat. Enemies “burst” with comical pan-clubbing thumps as white puffs of smoke and red and blue stars burst all about. Cuphead’s “guns” fire little streams of light from his index finger as he snaps his fingers with a harmless popping sound. In spite of the fact that you’re objective is to “run and gun,” thereby killing all enemies in your way, the sound design and animation actually manage to “defang” the violence. It’s worth noting Bosses aren’t actually killed but rather get the equivalent of a big knot on their head as their eyes roll about in their skull and they wave a small white flag. Again, a delightful touch in keeping with the stylistic choice of the period.
The one draw back of Cuphead is the length of its campaign. For all its charm and uniqueness, the campaign only contains three over worlds with about five-eight bosses and/or levels each. Once you’ve beaten the levels and bosses in one area, you can move to the next Isle. After completing the third Isle, you are able to go to Hell, or at least the giant casino run by King Dice. There, you have two final boss battles, one with King Dice, and then one with the Devil himself. Honestly, from a level perspective, the game just feels a little short for my taste.
One curious choice on Studio MDHR’s part was the decision to effectively be the reverse of what you might expect. Rather than facing one boss per world and numerous levels, you essentially face one or two levels (one of which is a run and gun level) and several bosses. As you might imagine from such a decision, the gameplay itself, even on “Regular” difficulty, is quite hard. In total, my playtime was just under 23 hours as I sought 100% completion, and even the secondary “Pacifist” challenges. Off the top of my head, I can’t honestly recall my death total, which a friendly man in the fountain can tell you in game, but I do know it was likely in the 350-400 range. No joke. Each boss, with few exceptions, typically take about 12-20 attempts as you learn their patterns and master various strategies for beating them.
It doesn’t make things any easier that you’re given only three hits (or 4 if you’re using the additional hit charm you can buy at one of the shops in game). Furthermore, unlike Mario games, coins don’t ultimately add up to free lives. You get three hits for each level and nothing more. Unless, that is, you’re facing King Dice, where you could face close to ten mini bosses along the way with non-replenishing health unless you can quite literally roll the dice and land on a mini boss square that includes a heart. And what’s your reward for clearing all of those mini bosses? Being thrown straight into battle with King Dice, himself, of course! Again, no checkpoints. You die, you start all the way over. You land on the square “Star Over,” your marker rolls all the way back to the start, although the previously beaten bosses stay “Cleared.”
So yeah, Cuphead’s difficulty can be downright brutal at times, even with its level count being somewhat on the low end to some. But considering how addicting the game is -I tore through it in about four days only because I had to take breaks for work- the difficulty is actually a great thing most of the time. If it hadn’t been so difficult, that four days of game play might have been one or two. So for me, because I’m indecisive, this is both a Plus and a Minus.