Cuphead Review — All That Jazz
The long-awaited Cuphead combines breathtaking 1930s-era visuals with tough-as-nails platforming in our review of Studio MDHR's debut title on Xbox One/PC.
Over the course of my time with Cuphead, which ranged somewhere in the realm of 7-10 hours, I was both captivated by its beauty and ready to chuck my controller into a wall at some points. Cuphead, as much as its been lauded for its astonishing visuals, has also built up a reputation as an especially difficult game over the course of numerous previews and word-of-mouth leading up to its release.
But, after coming through on the other side of it, I feel much more confident that while the inevitable “Cuphead is the Dark Souls of platformers” comparisons are bound to show up; what’s much clearer is that Cuphead is an incredibly unique and special game, and one that might just happen to make you break a controller… depending on who you ask. Cuphead is breathtaking and brutal, but absolutely worth experiencing.
Since it was first announced in 2014 (and in development for several years before that), Cuphead has had a fervent level of anticipation, largely due to its brilliant visuals and style that feel ripped from the screen of a 1930s-era cartoon. While it is an homage to hardcore shoot ’em ups like Gunstar Heroes and Contra, the game obviously is a loving tribute to Steamboat Willie, Bettie Boop, Popeye, and other cartoons from the era of early Disney and Fleischer Studios, with character designs and animations that feel like they jumped straight out of an old film projector and onto your modern television.
Oftentimes that’s the case, given that the developers went to painstaking lengths to recreate (or at least emulate) that style of animation, and for that the game deserves to be in a film festival as much as it does to be in the hands of gamers. Cuphead is absolutely beautiful in motion because of that attention to detail, and yet it also happens to be an incredibly fun (if taxing) gameplay experience that isn’t perfect but succeeds in spite of its few flaws.
Cuphead puts players into the role of the titular anthropomorphic cup alongside his brother Mugman (if you are playing with a friend in local co-op), as the brothers tangle with The Devil and lose a game of dice at his casino. As a result, they must trek through the various (and colorful) maps of Inkwell Isle and collect the contracts of those that The Devil has previously claimed to avoid meeting the same fiery fate.
When it was first announced, Cuphead was billed as a “run-n-gun” game that would be (more or less) a boss rush experience, as you fight massive enemy after massive enemy with increasing difficulty. In that time since, Cuphead has expanded to become a more “traditional” platformer that incorporates some basic levels you’d expect out of something like Contra, though it’s clear that the game is very much, at its heart, still about fighting its increasingly zany and ludicrous bosses.
The vast majority of the game is largely devoted to these boss encounters, as players explore a Super Mario Brothers 3-esque map and progress through each stage after beating them, with the game totaling up three different maps that culminate in a “Finale” section. Each map is divvied up into anywhere from 3-7 boss battles alongside one or two platforming stages, and while the game itself seems like it could be conquered quickly by someone that knows what they are doing (i.e. speedrunners), the game’s difficulty is sure to extend its length by a significant amount.
The boss encounters are where the real challenge — and honestly, the real heart — of the Cuphead experience lives, as the bosses show off both the game’s near-endless levels of creativity and its difficulty at their finest. As the game progresses, the bosses each divide up into various “phases” that the player has to endure, and with only three hit points, it becomes clear that Cuphead is a game that demands near perfection. At first, the bosses will be a literal kick in the pants to some not expecting the challenge due to the game’s old-timey, cutesy appearance.
However, Cuphead is a game that rewards caution and patience, as it gradually teaches the player to learn from their mistakes and get better. As much as I wanted to just blast through boss battles for the sake of progress at some points, the rewarding sense of satisfaction I got from finally beating a boss after nearly an hour of trail-and-error was definitely worth the effort. Cuphead is hard, but (mostly) not unfair, and with tight controls and precise actions available to the player, the game quickly teaches you both what you did wrong when you encounter death, and what you can do to avoid a similar fate on your next run.
The platforming stages serve more as a palate cleanser between the boss encounters, and while they aren’t quite as anxiety-inducing as the boss battles, they still serve up a fairly hefty challenge. However, the platforming stages clearly don’t have quite the same level of craft and polish that the boss encounters have had. They aren’t bad by any means; just a little uninspired and, at times, not balanced as finely. One stage in particular, where Cuphead has to bend gravity and switch between the floor and ceiling of the level, had me almost pulling my hair out at times due to some cheap-feeling enemy placement and the mechanic’s poor implementation.
That said, the platforming stages are few and far between, and are actually optional when it comes to progressing through the various maps. The main benefit to completing them is that they provide players with coins, which in turn can be used to purchase upgrades and equipment for Cuphead to provide him with additional perks and powers.
These power-ups add a surprisingly deep wrinkle to the gameplay of Cuphead, as they can impact the players’ hit points, attack power, abilities, and more. For example, one power-up near the beginning of the game gives Cuphead an additional hit point, at the expense of weakening the strength of his attacks. Meanwhile, one especially useful power-up improves Cuphead’s dash move so that he doesn’t take damage while doing it, which completely altered the way that I played the game in later stages.
Cuphead has its growing pains when it comes to gameplay, but the real heart of the game shines through in its visuals and soundtrack. From the watercolor-painted backgrounds to the hand-drawn animations on Cuphead and the numerous bosses that you encounter, Cuphead is a visual delight that never lets up. It’s no wonder that the game has been in such a famously-long development cycle, but I think it’s safe to say the wait was worth it — Cuphead looks unlike any other game that’s come before it, and easily stands as one of the stylish games to release in recent memory.
Studio MDHR clearly took great lengths to evoking the 1930s-era aesthetic that Cuphead lovingly pays tribute to, and it shows in every frame of the game. From fighting a fire-breathing dragon in a sky castle to facing off against a pair of boxing frog brothers, Cuphead is continuously inventive and throws so many brilliant new things at you that it’s hard not to just stop and admire its artistry. Of course, that will get you killed with its fast-paced gameplay, but Cuphead looks and plays incredibly, and really comes as close to a playable cartoon as you can get.
Likewise, the game sounds just as incredible with a big-band, jazzy score that I’ll be sure to have on repeat for quite some time. Even though the game’s visuals are constantly and wildly different within each encounter, the soundtrack matches it beat-for-beat with music that pops with style like the visuals pop with flair. Evoking the kind of music that defined the ’20s and ’30s, Cuphead‘s soundtrack blares with fiery trumpets and plonky pianos, and has infectious tracks that will make you want to hop right back into the action, even after your twentieth run at a new boss.
With the years of anticipation and delays that set back its release time and time again, it was easy to get worried about Cuphead being able to deliver on that jazzy reveal that had everyone ecstatic back in 2014. Cuphead isn’t perfect, and as a gameplay experience it definitely has some room for improvement.
But on a technical and artistic level, Cuphead is a stunning achievement in both gaming and interactive art, and unlike anything I’ve ever played before. Some of the game’s levels had me on the edge of sanity trying to best them, and I ended Cuphead with a few sore spots on my thumbs because of it. More importantly though, I had a smile on my face the whole time through it all.