Cuphead + Enter the Gungeon

Review

Developer: StudioMDHR, Dodgeroll
Publisher: StudioMDHR, Devolver Digital
Available On: PC (Reviewed), Xbox One, PS4 (Enter the Gungeon), Nintendo Switch (Enter the Gungeon)
Released: September 29, 2017, April 5, 2016

“Bullet Heaven”

If there’s one thing I love about the games of 2018 so far, it’s that waiting for the ones I care about to come out has given me plenty of time to go back and review several games that I personally want to write about. What with this being a new-ish website and one that largely focuses on games that can be played locally with friends (the clue is in the name), there are a lot of games I’d like to go back and write reviews for. Since I also like to stay relatively current though, don’t always have time for that.

So, in these final days before the games industry deigns to release something worth discussing this year, allow me to cross a few names off my list and talk about a pair of 2D shooters from year’s past that you should probably be aware of if you somehow aren’t already.

First up is Cuphead and, I just have to say right off the bat, Millennials, am I right?

Leading up to its release, pretty much the only thing I heard about Cuphead is about is how hard it is, but today’s kids have no idea. You want a hard game? Try Ikaruga. Try hundred-percenting Donkey Kong Country 2. After those games, you’ll be playing Cuphead to unwind.
Now, I am of course being facetious, but it is true that before Cuphead came out, all anyone seemed interested in discussing was its difficulty when there’s really a great deal more to talk about.

Cuphead is the very definition of a passion project, with brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer developing it over the course of nearly seven years. The game features visuals and animation techniques similar to those of 1930’s cartoons, with hand-drawn animations and backgrounds painted in watercolor. The brothers even went so far as to animate Cuphead’s characters at twenty-four frames per second, the film standard, though the game itself runs at a framerate of sixty.

Eschewing the usual “Rescue the damsel” or “Find the thing” stories of most old-school run and gun games, Cuphead finds it’s titular character mainly concerned with saving himself. Having made and subsequently lost a bet with the devil for his soul, Cuphead and his brother Mugman must travel across the Inkwell Isles and do battle with its various residents so the devil can take their souls instead. Once the story is set up, it mostly stays out of your way and just lets you enjoy the old-school shooting and platforming that Cuphead has to offer, and Cuphead’s gameplay is almost universally excellent. Though the gameplay is most reminiscent of side-scrolling shoot ’em up games like Metal Slug, Cuphead focuses almost entirely on boss fights, with only a handful of side-scrolling levels in the whole game.

The bosses themselves are a thing to behold. All of them, even the ones whose visual design I don’t personally care for are beautifully animated in a way that would have surely landed the Moldenhauer brothers jobs at Disney back in the day. The brothers managed to give every boss a unique gameplay hook as well, with a different arrangement of attacks for each one and even the odd set of platforming challenges. Cuphead also mixes up the gameplay by occasionally having you fight bosses in a plane rather than on foot, though to my mind it might be a little too occasional. In a plane, the game temporarily becomes more of a bullet-hell, shoot ’em up game in the vein of Sky Force or Sine Mora.

Though I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Cuphead had a troubled development in the traditional sense, I will say that I was worried about it before its release. Not least because the lead developers quit their jobs and mortgaged their house to get it made.
Cuphead was originally showcased as a boss rush game, the Moldenhauer brothers made the decision to delay the game from its initial 2016 release date to add the side-scrolling “Run & Gun” levels to the game. While I doubt I would have given it much thought if they weren’t there, the Run & Gun sections do serve to mix up the gameplay in the same way that the boss fights in the plane do.

While some of Cupheads bosses can be brutally difficult, I never found myself getting unduly frustrated with them and I think a lot of that has to do with how fast the game moves. Like Hotline Miami and Super Meat Boy, you can be back in a fight mere seconds after each death and once you get into that groove you’ll be hammering that retry button without even thinking about it, each death washing over you as you process each mistake and move on.

This is usually where I would mention Cuphead’s local multiplayer and recommend that you get a friend around if the game is giving you trouble, but that isn’t quite the case with Cuphead.
When the second player joins in as Mugman, enemies and bosses get twice as much health, meaning that both player need to bring their A-game in order to beat a boss in co-op. Players can revive each other by performing a parry on their partners ghost before it leaves the screen, but since bosses frequently use attacks that can take up large sections of the screen, it’s entirely possible for both of you to get wiped out in a single move. Co-op in Cuphead is really just a way for two players to share the experience rather than lessening it.

Is Cuphead hard? Yes. Are its hardest levels harder than the hardest levels in say, the Donkey Kong Country or Metal Slug games? I don’t think so. The key to victory in games like this is learning the layout of its levels and the attack patterns of its enemies, and in that regard Cuphead is exactly the same as those old-school games.

Cuphead also suffers from a few strange design decisions that surround its otherwise excellent gameplay, mostly to do with the fact that the game can’t really be made easier for less skilled players. It’s possible to find a passive item that boosts your health, but wearing it decreases your damage slightly; which might not be a big deal, except that no other passive item come with any kind of drawback. There is an easy mode that makes bosses easier to beat, which sounds like I’ve just contradicted myself, until I tell you that if you play on this mode, you can’t fight the final boss, meaning that Cuphead is literally unbeatable on easy mode.

Also, I would have expected Mugman to have a more cylindrical head, being a mug. I mean come on developers, when I’m fighting a giant balloon man who’s attacking me with roller coasters and feral balloon animals, that lack of realism just takes me out of the experience.

For those who like their shooters more of the twin-stick variety, or if you’re still searching for a roguelike as good as Spelunky (though you won’t find it here, sorry), there’s Enter the Gungeon, a game that’s even harder than Cuphead. Yeah, you read that right. Cuphead might be brutally hard in places, but I finished Cuphead. Enter the Gungeon is really only fun if you’re content with the knowledge that you’re probably never going to beat it.

The visuals of the Gungeon are themed entirely around guns and bullets. Spent casings are the primary currency, the basic enemy types are different kinds of bullets that correspond to the weapons they use, the hearts that make up your health are two overlapping bullets, even the elevator that takes you through the gungeon is a giant bullet that blasts down into the earth, tunneling to new floors. Despite the game’s cartoony aesthetic, Enter the Gungeon has a fairly serious tone about its story and characters, granting the game a mildly surreal air that I quite like.

Every session of Enter the Gungeon starts in the Breach, your hub area that contains the entrance to the Gungeon as well as several NPCs and shopkeepers that you can interact with once you rescue them from the Gungeon. The four playable characters are all generally well-balanced with their own special traits, though in the first of Enter the Gungeon’s many missteps, if you choose to play in co-op, the second player has to play as the tertiary Cultist character armed only with a basic pistol and no abilities. Once you’ve chosen your character, it’s time to enter the Gungeo…ooh, I see what you did there, Dodge Roll.

The gameplay of Enter the Gungeon combines the exploration of a dungeon crawler and the combat of a bullet hell shooter into a roguelike that feels unique and familiar at the same time. The moment-to-moment gameplay of making your way through the Gungeon, clearing out rooms of enemies and finding new weapons and items to use is excellent. Enter the Gungeon boasts over two-hundred guns, ranging from real world shotguns and assault rifles to more fantastical weaponry like the Unicorn Horn that fires devastating, enemy-seeking beams of friendship.

Each floor ends in a fight with a boss that’s usually as creative as it is ridiculous, pitting you against gun-themed versions of mythical creatures or characters inspired by classic games and other nerd ephemera. Defeating a boss usually earns you a gun or an item and a few consumable items like health or keys, but more important are Hegemony Credits, which can be used primarily to buy weapons from shops. Though some bosses are obviously harder than others, none of them are easy and most will really push your skills to the limit.
But Enter the Gungeon’s difficulty doesn’t generally come from how hard it’s gunfights are, but rather from the fact the way that the game handles it’s progression system winds up utterly kneecapping this otherwise fantastic game.

There’s an art to doing progression in roguelikes properly. Sometimes it means building up a character that persists across multiple playthroughs like Infinity Blade, and sometimes means unlocking new ways to play in subsequent games as seen in FTL. Enter the Gungeon tries for the latter method but bungles it so spectacularly that it damages the entire experience in several major areas.

What’s the point in using my Hegemony Credits to buy guns if there’s no way of getting them beyond find them in a chest? I’ve purchased guns in 2016 that I still haven’t come across in the game. It seems like that money could be better spent making tangible, incremental upgrades to your character, allowing you to push a little deeper into the Gungeon each time. It seems there’s simple solution to this problem and one that could be implemented at any time, give us a stash. We already get the option to return to the Breach at the end of each floor, just let us store guns and items we don’t want for later runs. Instead, Enter the Gungeon tries to give us a sense of progression with a character called the Tinker and…yeah, there’s no way around it, the Tinker sucks.

The Tinker can be found at the beginning of each new floor of the Gungeon after the first and will unlock shortcuts to those floors directly from the Breach in exchange for money, keys and various other materials, and it’s right here that Enter the Gungeon makes one tiny, innocuous design decision that very nearly ruins the entire experience, because the things the Tinker asks for are completely unreasonable.

The first time you see the Tinker, on the second floor, isn’t too bad. He’ll ask you for things that you will eventually be able to give him after a few runs, mostly because those items aren’t integral to your survival. On the very next floor however, the first thing he’ll ask you for is three Armor Plates. Armor Plates are fairly rare items and as the name implies, function as armor, breaking when you get hit and clearing the screen of bullets; so what this means is that to unlock the second floor of the Gungeon onwards, you have to find or have the money to buy three Armor Plates, then go through dozens of enemies and two bosses without taking a single hit. The Tinker’s demands don’t get any less ridiculous from there, eventually asking you to show up with six hearts worth of health, which not only means you’ll need to have found three uncommon health-boosting items, but also that you show up there with full health after tackling the majority of the Gungeon.
I’ve been playing games for most of my life and not to brag, but if I’m not good enough to get that far, most other people aren’t going to be that good either, and it makes me think that Enter the Gungeon could have used a little more time in the Q&A phase. 

Looking back at Enter the Gungeon, I would mentally put it in the same camp as Destiny; a game with brilliant design and top-tier gameplay that was utterly hobbled by numerous block-headed decisions throughout its development until what should have been an instant classic becomes something that you can only stand to play in bursts because it really does seem at times like the game doesn’t want you to beat it.

Enter the Gungeon is far from being a bad game, I’ve had countless hours of fun with it, but generally only as something to do while I’m binging a Netflix show or doing something else that might not hold my attention on its own; a fun-supplement, if you will.

Despite the disparity in scores, I find it quite difficult to recommend either of today’s two games over the other. Cuphead is undeniably a better overall package, but I found the moment-to-moment gameplay of Enter the Gungeon to be much more fun. Neither game is more fun than the other in co-op and even the disparate art styles are equally ambitious and impressively realized.

In the end, which game you’ll prefer probably comes down to whether you’d rather have a linear, focused game that you’ll finish in a handful of hours and move on, or a popcorn game that you’ll play to kill time in between larger releases. Or you can just play Spelunky again and save yourself some money.

Cuphead
8.5/10
Time To Complete: 10 Hours
Challenge: Hard
Best Advice: Rebind Dash to The Left Trigger, Just Do It
Also Try: Metal Slug Anthology, Mercenary Kings, Broforce
Enter the Gungeon
6/10
Time To Complete: Between 2 Hours and Forever
Challenge: Ludicrous
Best Advice: Remember to Use Blanks
Also Try: Spelunky, Tower of Guns, Helldivers, Rogue Legacy

1 Comment Posted

  1. I don’t really agree with the opinion on ETG, the progression isn’t with the character you play, it’s with your skill when playing. Also, the game isn’t supposed to be played for X amount of hours. I have 300 hours in the game and I am still thrilled with the game and everything it contains. I know people with over 1000 hours logged, and they still have trouble sometimes. When starting, dodge roll made it so that you always start from zero, and grow throughout the floors, however, with the gungeons and dragons update, a new option, named rainbow mode came out, which gives you a small amount of high tier items instead of a bunch of low tier items. With all my time logged into the game, I have just now started trying to clear the shortcuts, and even when I have the shortcuts, I will probably never use them. Throughout playing the game, you learn the enemies attack patterns, and you learn how to dodge it, so, at first, the first floor enemies will be hard, then they become easy, then you get to the second floor, and you die, but since you practiced so much on the first floor you can get through it to the second, so you can practice on the second, and that repeats. Until finally, you beat (spoiler alert) the lich in Bullet Hell. And lastly, the cultist does have abilities, just like the others, the starting gun is equivalent of the other four’s, he gets a spacebar item that allows him to revive the other person, and if the other person is dead, he gets a boost to damage (and maybe more.)

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