Cuphead: Review In-Progress

Written by Andrew Busch //  Edited by Drew Beyer // Images courtesy of Studio MDHR

Studio MDHR’s Cuphead is a run-and-gun side-scroller that follows closely in the footsteps of 2D action titans like Megaman and Super Mario. Like these predecessors, the game requires precise timing, platforming skills, and pattern recognition to beat bosses and progress through the four main areas of the game. But, Cuphead is much more than an attempt to recreate the glory days of side-scrollers and platformers. It is a unique game with its own challenging twists and incredible art style that pays homage to the era of 1930’s Cel Animation.

Don’t let the cheery and nostalgic art style fool you. Cuphead is a challenging game that demands dozens of attempts to beat just a single boss or level. In fact, some of these battles are akin to encounters in Dark Souls or Bloodborne. However, Cuphead offers a different kind of challenge. You won’t need to do any extensive back-tracking in Cuphead because the frustration comes from the sheer unpredictability and difficulty of the bosses. The multi-phase combat gets even more challenging with each stage causing you to constantly change your strategies and adapt to the new moves that each enemy has up their sleeve. And with only three or four hit points (depending on player upgrades), the margin for error is extremely small.

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Cuphead’s bosses require some perfect timing and focusing on the pace of action. If you lose the rhythm of the battle things stop going your way.

This leads to my major beef with Cuphead. The game lacks consistency. In some ways, you could spin this positively. The fact that the stages for each boss aren’t always the same gives the game replay value. It also allows for the stars to align at certain moments giving you that one perfect opportunity to beat a boss. However, for the most part this randomness creates unneeded frustration and will have you bringing up the menu to hit “RETRY” when you get an undesirable stage during a boss fight.

Hilda Berg is a perfect example of how inconsistency will break you. As you battle her, she takes the form of certain astrological symbols. Once you damage her enough in her normal form she will always turn into Taurus in the second stage of the fight. However, after beating her normal form again in the third stage she can change into either Gemini or Sagittarius. This is where all you can do is hope that luck is on your side. If you get Sagittarius, you are screwed. He is a giant centaur that shoots humongous arrows in your direction surrounded in a cloud of small stars. This isn’t a normal arrow. It is a giant tracking missile with laser precision. If it doesn’t ruin your day one of the stars that hunt you down will. On the other hand, if you get the Gemini Twins you have smooth sailing ahead. They just make a portal that shoots a straight line of projectiles in a counter clockwise pattern that is pretty easy to dodge.

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This incongruent split between the difficulty of Hilda’s phases is an example of how randomness destroys your agency as a player in Cuphead. More often than not, it is up to random chance if you will beat a boss. I found that if I got the right phases I was set up for success, but if I got unlucky I would eventually just start hitting “RETRY”.

At the same time, the fact that Cuphead does not grant players immediate gratification for their efforts is a reason why I keep returning to the game. If I ever have a few spare minutes I will take a crack at a boss battle. Each time I learn just a little bit more and get even closer to success. This element is not only rewarding when you finally take down one of the Devil’s debtors, but it also keeps the game extremely addicting.

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Boss battles are tough, but the feeling of overcoming all odds is what keeps me coming back.

Cuphead’s combat is also a major highlight of this game. The screen erupts with chaotic explosions of color as you battle your way through each major encounter. And while keeping up with the pace is sometimes difficult, its frantic action will continue to keep you on the edge of your seat. Also, the upgrades and new weapons, dubbed “firing modes”, keep combat from ever getting too stale. Each ability impacts how you approach a boss, how much damage you deal, and even how close you need to stand to them. This adds an added layer of strategy to the game and will cause you to make some difficult choices. For example, you could upgrade your character to have a dash ability that makes you invulnerable for a split second or use the same slot for an extra heart. These choices might seem small, but ultimately, they will make-or-break your success as you face some of Cuphead’s toughest enemies.

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Be careful about which upgrades you purchase from the store. Coins are hard to come by.

Finally, this wouldn’t be a Cuphead review unless I talked about the beautiful art style and the creative characters that Chad and Maja Moldenhaur have dreamed up for this game. Each of their bosses and basic enemies feel and move like the characters of 1930s cartoons. Even though the game’s characters borrow from this tradition, they are all unique creations with their own personality. One of my favorite villains so far is Beppi the Clown. At the beginning of the battle he looks like a normal cartoon clown, but as the encounter escalates he becomes a monstrous, demonic, carnival-themed beast. The more that I play this game the more I realize that the creative art style that Studio MDHR delivers works as the perfect medium to deliver the frenzied action of Cuphead’s gameplay.

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Cuphead’s agonizing difficulty, explosive combat, and impeccable art style are just a couple of my favorite elements of this game so-far. Currently, I am only about a third of the way through the game so I am looking forward to returning to the Inkwell Isles to die another thousand times. And once I finally make it through Cuphead’s grueling tests of my self-esteem and patience, you will be the first to hear about it.

BUY, BORROW, PASS

Buy this game if you want challenging, fast-paced gameplay with creative bosses and couch co-op.

Borrow this game if you are not as tenacious but are still a fan of unique art styles.

Pass on this game if you are easily frustrated and you don’t like more demanding gaming experiences.

 

 

Slither Hiss, Slither Hiss, A Serpent’s Life for Me: Reviewing Snake Pass

Written and uploaded by Drew Beyer // Edited by Andrew Busch // All images from Snake-Pass.com

I’m not very good at being a snake. I add this to the ever-growing list of strange life lessons I’ve from gleaned from video games thanks to Snake Pass, a recent indie title. I’m not entirely sure what to do with this information, but I’m glad I have it. Thanks, Sumo Digital!

On paper, Snake Pass reads like a game designed for me. It features a bright, cartoony world, deliberately evoking Rare games of the mid-nineties like my beloved Banjo-Kazooie. You control a adorable little snake named Noodle, and snakes are one of my favorite animals. Finally, the game bills itself as a platformer, a dying breed these days, which I consider a personal tragedy as a huge fan of platformers.

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Bright, colorful levels? Check. Adorable mascot? Check. Tons of hidden collectables? Check. My kind of game.

However, after slithering my way through all of 15 of Snake Pass’s levels, I think the game lied to me. I don’t consider it a platfomer so much as a puzzle game. Specifically, Snake Pass is my favorite kind of puzzle game, in which the entire game is in and of itself a puzzle. Instead of presenting you with a series of static logic puzzles in the vein of Professor Layton or similar games, Snake Pass challenges you to conquer the far more organic puzzle of figuring out how to reach all the various items in each sprawling level with the limitations of a snake. The controls remind me of Octodad, in that they’re incredible frustrating at first because they operate on snake logic instead of game or even real world logic. I applaud Sumo Digital for giving us a true puzzle game, even if the result isn’t quite as perfect as I hoped it would be.

It’s hard to explain what makes Snake Pass hard yet satisfying to play. Basically, you only control Noodle’s head and must manipulate the rest of your body through a combination of lifting and lowering your head, controlling your forward and side-to-side motion, and tightening and loosing your grip. The system takes some getting used to, but it works. Mostly. The physics can be inconsistent, which certainly complicates an already difficult game. It’s also not for everyone, because part of training your brain to think like a snake involves copious failure.

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Looks relaxing, yeah?

Make no mistake, as cutesy as the world of Haven Tor might appear at first glance, don’t be fooled. Look at Noodle. What do you see? Red on yellow. Remember your childhood snake rhymes? Kill a fellow. You’re going to die in Snake Pass, you’re going to die often, and it’s usually going to be your fault. Luckily, the game understands that you’re used to having legs, so it introduces elements slowly enough so as to not overwhelm the player. Each of the four worlds introduces a major elemental mechanic as a hazard, so there’s a tangible sense of progression as the levels get more deadly and more spiraling. The difficult of the levels meshes well with the difficulty of the controls themselves. The game rewards you for getting better at being a snake by giving you bigger, more complex playgrounds in which to flex your muscles.

In addition to a jump button, there’s another major video game trope missing from Snake Pass– enemies. All of the obstacles in Snake Pass are maneuvering challenges, which makes sense given the whole “teaching the player to think like a snake takes time” thing. The game might be relaxing if it weren’t so hard to move around as a snake. The lack of enemies does mean the game ends on a bit of an anticlimax- there’s no awesome boss waiting at the end of it all, no ultimate test of all the skills you’ve accrued, just time trials for all the stages you’ve already beaten. I don’t regret spending the $20, because it’s much longer than it looks due to how much time you’ll spend dying, but there’s not a whole lot of content here.

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Not pictured: The brutal difficulty of coiling Noodle around that pole and keeping him there.

There’s also no real story to speak of. The game offers an excuse plot about stolen stones and magical gates, but it’s not really important. It’s also never intrusive, so the narrative is neither a good or a bad thing, just a thing. The stories you remember from Snake Pass, will be your personal stories of success and failure, not what Sumo Digital presents to you.

On the aesthetic front, as I said the game unfolds across four main worlds, which are pleasantly realized through Unreal Engine 4, although there’s not a tremendous amount of variety on display. While the game looks great and runs well, the graphics are pretty same-y throughout. All fifteen levels basically play out across a series of floating islands with different color palettes and a variety of specific hazards. Those islands have a vaguely tribal theme, but there’s mostly verdant grassland. There’s definitely room to branch out, especially sticking to the snake conceit- snakes have adapted to glide between treetops, slither through dunes, all sorts of things. I hope that Snake Pass 2 brings some new biomes to slither around in, like deserts, swamps, or rainforests.

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“Underwater” is sadly about as diverse as the level design gets.

Noodle, on the other hand, needs no improvement. The little guy is absolutely bursting with personality, from the grunts he makes as you guide him through obstacles to the faces he makes as he’s falling off the world or collecting an item. He’s too adorable. It makes me feel bad for throwing him off so many cliffs, impaling him on so many spikes, and dropping him into so many pits of lava. Sorry, little guy. You deserve better than me.

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Look at that mug. Shame he’s going to die so often at your hands.

So in conclusion, Snake Pass oozes charm and challenge while channeling the early Rare aesthetic just as the Yooka-Laylee hype train reaches terminal velocity. I definitely think it’s worth your time, even if it’s just to experience what it’s like to be a snake. Sumo Digital builds a great foundation here, and I’ll definitely be keeping my eye out for the sequel.

Buy, Borrow, Pass:

Buy this game if: You want to know what it’s like to be a snake, you’re interested in puzzle games in which the game is the puzzle, you really want something else to play on the Switch.

Borrow this game if: You’re not sold on the idea of inherently difficult controls, you’re not sure one good game idea can sustain an entire game.

Pass on this game if: You’re easily frustrated or obviously if you have a crippling phobia of snakes.

My Mom is Better than You at Banjo-Kazooie (Yooka-Laylee Demo)

Written by Drew Beyer // Edited and Uploaded by Andrew Busch

My mom is better than me at Banjo-Kazooie. She’s probably better than you at it, too, considering her most recent play through clocks in at seven hours and nineteen minutes, which ranks her in the top two hundred in the world according to speedrun.com. When she texted me to celebrate her new fastest time, I was hanging out with my friends and obviously I had to share. There was much rejoicing. I mention this because I finally got around to playing the Yooka-Laylee Toybox demo, and I’m ready to hop all aboard the nostalgia hype train because it feels, looks, and sounds so much like my mom’s favorite game. I realize I’m a little late to the Toybox party, but better late than never, right?

I’ve been following Yooka-Laylee closely because my mom’s skill at Banjo-Kazooie is one of the major reasons I got into gaming in the first place—some of my favorite memories of childhood revolve around watching her play Rare’s 1998 platformer. I probably have fond memories of playing the game myself, but when I think of Banjo-Kazooie I always remember my mom playing it. I even bought her the vinyl soundtrack this past christmas. We take Banjo-Kazooie very seriously in my family, if you couldn’t tell.

So while I’ve been reading every article and watching every video about Yooka-Laylee, I’ve always done so with a calculated apprehension. Don’t get me wrong, everything looks amazing: the worlds are vivid and gorgeous, the characters drip with old-school Rare charm, and I’d recognize Grant Kirkhope’s xylophone anywhere. I have nothing but faith in Playtonic, but Banjo-Kazooie is one of the foundations of my gaming DNA, and I’ve put it so high on a pedestal nothing can ever surpass it, much less come close to matching it. I don’t even consider Banjo-Tooie a worthy heir to the Banjo-Kazooie throne, because while most people would argue it’s a technically better game, it never captured me and my mom the way its predecessor did.

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(Image courtesy of Platonic Games)

Having played the Toybox demo, I think Yooka-Laylee might have a fighting chance.

The first thing that strikes me about the demo is how unabashedly incomplete it is. Your guide, a cute little robot named Inept, constantly references how the demo doesn’t have repeat lines and that the artists ought to be fired because of frame dropping. It’s all very tongue in cheek, and very much in line with old school Rare’s sense of humor. I found myself laughing out loud in my empty apartment, which doesn’t usually happen with games. I willingly searched out Inept just to hear his next snarky line as I leapt from polygon to polygon in search of quills.

Speaking of quills, I find it serendipitous that Yooka-Laylee seems based heavily around writing. Instead of jinjos, we have ghostwriters; instead of notes, we have quills; instead of jiggies, we have pagies. I know it’s very self-centered and utterly irrational, but a small part of me feels very grateful to Playtonic for including so much of my favorite hobby in what I sincerely hope becomes one of my favorite games. It’s like they’re tailoring the game to me and my mom, despite knowing nothing about us!

Yooka-Laylee also offers a return to the collect-a-thon style of gameplay that I’ve been sadly missing from my life since around 2005. There’s something deeply nostalgic to me about scouring a level in search of a variety of things like a colorful truffle hunting pig. I don’t quite understand why the style ever fell out of favor, since it’s always been one of my favorites. Even Mario, arguably the original king of the collect-a-thon, abdicated his throne in favor of levels in Mario Galaxy and the other more recent 3d titles. While elements of collect-a-thons have entered into some more modern games with bonus coins and such, there’s something magical about a honest to god mcguffin hunt. You don’t need to explain why I need to collect quills— just tell me there are one hundred of them hidden around the level and I’ve got all I need. Maybe it’s a relic of a bygone era, and I admit it can be frustrating to get stuck at 98 out of 100, but who cares? The internet is a thing so collect-a-thons aren’t even that frustrating— game walkthroughs and collectable maps are ubiquitous online. Yooka-Laylee unabashedly harkens back to the N64 era of gaming, and that makes the child in me extremely happy.

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The collect-a-thon experience you’ve been missing from your life is something Yooka-Laylee delivers with a wonderful feeling of nostalgia. (Image courtesy of TechnoBuffalo)

Another thing that marks Yooka-Laylee as a willful anachronism is the amount of charm and color Playtonic packed into every movement of demo. I found myself hurling my little bat and chameleon off high ledges just to watch the frankly disgustingly adorable animation of Laylee picking Yooka up off the ground. The characters also speak in charming gibberish, making little grunts of exertion as they run, jump and roll, just like Banjo and Kazooie. Despite the number of times I heard the same identical soundbites, they never got grating because of how well they fit the characters and the tone of the game. Yooka-Laylee takes itself as seriously as a game about a bat and a chameleon collecting writing utensils should, and the grunts help to communicate that. I almost hate how much I love the little noises they make, the keyword there being almost. We’ll see if they manage to remain cute instead of annoying throughout an entire game, but like everything else I have faith.

I’m not sure how I’ve gone on this long without delving into the music, but oh man the music is amazing too. It’s vintage Grant Kirkhope- in fact, the xylophone run reminded me so strongly of Mumbo’s Mountain I had to youtube the Banjo-Kazooie soundtrack to check the two tracks against one another. They’re very different, upon comparison. They just touched the same place in my weird little brain. Considering I occasionally find myself wandering the streets of Chicago whistling the tunes from Click Clock Wood or Rusty Bucket Bay, this is very high praise indeed.

Finally, I’m struck by how much personality the game has, which is a weird sentence to type. In an industry where a good idea gets immediately ripped off and repurposed for every game, it’s refreshing to demo a game that feels so self-assured. Yooka-Laylee feels like Banjo-Kazooie but improved, rather than an amalgamation of the hot ideas wearing the skin of Banjo-Kazooie like an Ed Gein coat. It’s a game that’s confident enough in what it is to not pretend to be anything else, which feels great to me as a player. It’s nice to play something that opts to refine one particular type of gameplay instead of taking the jack of all trades, master of none route that much of the industry insists on.

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Yooka-Laylee is brimming with personality and attempts to master a fresh take on classic platforming experiences. (Image courtesy of Platonic Games)

Between this and Breath of the Wild, nostalgia is threatening to overwhelm my brain in the best possible way. I’ll admit, my interest in gaming had been eroding lately- I hadn’t really found a game to lose myself in since Dark Souls III, which is a long time to languish between game releases. But now I’m going to spend the next two months in a state of pure excitement, because of Zelda and Mass Effect and Yooka-Laylee oh my! I don’t feel like my nostalgia is being abused at all, either, because from what I’ve seen the people making these games care as much if not more about them than I do. They’re not just making these games to make money, although capitalism definitely plays a significant part— they’re making these games because they want to make them and people want to play them, and that’s how things should be.

I think what really made me fall in love with the Yooka-Laylee demo was the absolute joy and glee I felt while playing it. It was like going back in time—I was able to forget about all the chaos of my life and just lose myself in a colorful world, searching for quills. It was a lovely experience, and I certainly think we could all use a little joy in our lives right now.

Oh, and if you’re wondering- yes, I’m going to get my mom to play Yooka-Laylee. And she’ll probably be better than me at it, even if I beat it first or faster. I want to watch her play it, just like I watched her play Banjo-Kazooie all those years ago. It’s something we can share, and I’m very thankful to Playtonic for giving us the chance to go back to a world like the one from 1998. Consider yourself warned, mom.