We’re big fans of indie games AND all things retro here at Breaker Japan, so naturally Cuphead has been one of our most eagerly anticipated titles. Now that we’ve had a chance to get our hands on it, does the gameplay reach the same lofty heights as its hand-drawn art? Or is any chance of enjoyment crushed under the weight of its punishing difficulty?

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Title: Cuphead
Developer: Studio MDHR
Release: September 29, 2017
Platform(s): PC (reviewed)/XboxOne

Cuphead‘s appeal is immediately apparent. Everything about the presentation, from its early-Disney/Fleischer Studios inspired hand-drawn animation to its jazzy soundtrack creates a cohesive experience that immediately pulls you in. The attention to detail that Studio MDHR put into the game is staggering. Nothing looks like this in the gaming landscape, indie or otherwise.

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Gameplay-wise, Cuphead is more traditional in its approach, taking cues from old school run and gun platformers like Gunstar Heroes and Metal Slug. Stages come in three varieties: Run and Guns are left-to-right levels filled with enemies to shoot and platforms to jump. Boss levels pit you against oversized, multi-stage monsters that will test your memorization and reflexes. Shooter stages play much like classic sidescrolling shoot ’em ups like Gradius or R-Type.

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Cuphead has an arsenal of weapons that can be purchased and equipped. Two can be swapped between at the press of a button within stages, and lot of fun can be had experimenting with different weapon combinations and finding out what works best for what situation.

A variety of charms can augment Cuphead’s movement and survivability, and screen clearing special attacks will put the hurt on anything in your way. Enemies and projectiles that appear pink can also be parried with the right timing. You’ll need to master all of these tools to survive.

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A lot has been said and written about the difficulty of Cuphead. It’s definitely challenging, but it hits that sweet spot that makes you want to play better and overcome the obstacles it throws at you.

It’s Contra hard, Megaman hard, but it’s never unfair. The controls are flawless (after you customize them to your liking–default is not ideal). If you die, it’s your fault. I never encountered anything that could be called “cheap.” A way not to get hit always exists, even if it seems impossible at first.

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Cuphead is very good at putting you in situations that feel hopeless. But then you hit “Retry.” And maybe next time–or maybe the 10th time–you’ll see the way through. Everything about it is impeccably designed.

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After every death, you’re presented with a meter that shows your progress in the stage you were just playing. This little detail helps keep you motivated. Knowing how close you were to victory is the perfect impetus for the “just one more try” mentality. The feeling of accomplishment that comes when you finally topple that previously invincible foe is exhilarating and will push you on to the next challenge.

It helps that the game is technically flawless, running at a steady 60 frames per second. No slowdown or dropped frames here, no matter how much stuff is flying around on screen trying to kill you.

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Like the very best games, Cuphead pulls you into its world and doesn’t let go. I wanted to study each stage and take in every detail of every boss fight. It’s the perfect balance of challenge and reward. There are frustrating parts, and certain boss fights will require near perfect reflexes and memorization to overcome. Those frustrating moments do nothing to take away from the brilliance constantly on display. Cuphead sits easily among the best games ever made.