Cuphead is literally a cartoon that you get to play and control. Everything is hand-animated to near perfection, and it is by default the prettiest video game that has ever been made. I have been hyped for this game since it was first announced at E3 2014, strictly on the strength of its groundbreaking visuals. And now that I’ve finally gotten my hands on it, I can say that the gameplay is almost as strong as the visuals. So thank you, StudioMDHR Entertainment, for finally giving me a reason to plug in my Xbox One again (for a few days, at least).
No Chips in This Cup
Atmosphere is everything in Cuphead, but the platforming gameplay is so hectic and extreme that I seldom had a chance to breathe it all in. An embarrassing amount of time had passed before I realized I was even listening to a full jazz band perform the soundtrack. Nonetheless, the music captures the frenetic tone perfectly–and combined with a screen filter that introduces a purposeful blurriness to the art, the game truly captures the essence of 1930s cartoons. Cuphead is one of the great technical triumphs in video game history. And its extremely rudimentary story–Cuphead and his brother Mugman gambled away their souls to the devil, and now the only way to save their souls is to collect all the souls of other people whom the devil also owns–fits nicely into the game’s aesthetic.
As for how it actually plays, Cuphead consists mostly of isolated boss fights connected via an overworld, albeit punctuated with rare run-and-gun levels. The myriad bosses are outstandingly imaginative and distinct in their designs, each one of them typically undergoing several surprising transformations over the course of battle. And all of these fights are challenging. This game channels the likes of Contra and the hardest moments in the Mega Man games for just about every second of its gameplay. There are constantly projectiles coming at you–from the boss, from lackeys, or just from random other things that want to kill you. In fact, since the bosses themselves often have such huge hit boxes to target, the game is more about not getting hit yourself than it is about landing hits on the boss. It even feels like a bullet hell game on occasion, especially during the handful of boss fights where Cuphead actually takes to the sky in a plane and engages in shooter levels. But it all works! You play, you die, you learn, and eventually–you realize you’ve developed coping strategies for all of the boss’s attacks. And it makes ultimate victory that much sweeter.
To help you along, there are multiple different weapons and other equippable power-ups that can be bought via coins collected from run-and-gun levels and the overworld map. These options enable you to strategize (beyond the mandatory strategy of, “Don’t get hit!”) and make levels much less agonizingly difficult than they would be otherwise. Another distinct gameplay element supporting you is that everything in the game that is pink can be struck by Cuphead with a special jump. In most cases, this jump will absorb and destroy the pink object, and it gives Cuphead energy for a “special” meter that can spent on stronger attacks. It offers a very clever risk/reward mechanism, in that almost all pink objects can and will hurt you if you don’t activate the jump attack with the right timing. Unluckily for me, there were probably a couple hundred instances where my timing was off.
However, one of my favorite things about Cuphead is that levels always reload very quickly after you have died, which is extremely important considering that the player will likely die very often. And it was particularly important to me because, honestly, I have a violent temper when I play video games, but the levels in Cuphead loaded back so quickly that I literally didn’t have a chance to get too angry (most of the time). Although, it is worth mentioning that transitions between levels and the overworld actually have strangely awful load times, the kind of bad load times that I thought we had left behind after the PlayStation 2 days. It’s only a minor offense though.
There are a couple other little grievances I had as well. One of them is the run-and-gun levels. Particularly, I found the inherent randomness of enemy spawn points in those levels to be frustrating sometimes. Because unlike in the boss fights–where progress is proportionate to learning and countering enemy patterns–there would be times that I’d fully understand a run-and-gun level and still have to restart a dozen times, because I would keep getting hit by enemies that spawned on screen at inconvenient moments. Of course, I acknowledge that it’s a cop-out for me to blame the game for my getting hit, but I still feel like luck played a bigger part in my success in those levels than it should have.
My last grievance is that the game sometimes invites you to shoot down underneath yourself. But many times, when I was doing that, some projectile would come at me that would require me to jump. In such cases, I would often forget that I was still holding “down,” and so hitting jump would actually cause me to descend from whatever platform I was standing on–the exact opposite of what I’d intended to do. Again, it’s not entirely fair of me to blame the game for my messing up the controls, but it is an issue I hope that the developer might think about in the future.
I loved Cuphead, and I didn’t even have the opportunity to try its two-player mode, which I hear is even harder just as a result of the visual pandemonium it creates. I’m already excited for the speed runs of this game, because it practically begs to become a permanent staple of AGDQ. There really isn’t even much for me to say in conclusion, so I’ll just restate the obvious:
The game is incomparably beautiful. The gameplay is punishing and supremely satisfying. Everyone with an Xbox One or a capable PC should buy Cuphead. It is an experience not to be missed, especially at its budget price point.
Final Score: 9/10
And for Those Who Are Wondering: I died 222 times in my playthrough of Cuphead on the Regular difficulty, not including the likely hundreds of times that I manually restarted levels. 🙂