by Nolan Leahy

This review is based on the Xbox One version of Cuphead.

A blob, an acorn-bomb machine, giant invincible woodpeckers and an evil flower with salsa hands: these are foes and obstacles to overcome within the initial world of Cuphead. This game comes from a small development team known as Studio Moldenhauer and is the first video game developed by the company who initially gave a debut trailer during E3 2015. Despite the long wait, Cuphead’s old-fashioned 1930s style arguably makes it the best game to come to Xbox One.

Oh, to be a kid again

As soon as the title screen pops up, the player is introduced to some of the most ambitious art to come to video games. All of the art is hand-drawn using the techniques of the traditional 1930s cartoon, which is one of the main selling points of the game. The protagonists, Cuphead and Mugman, both have curved legs with the upward and downward animations like that of Steamboat Willie and borrow artistic inspirations from other classic cartoons like that of Warner Brothers or Metro Goldwyn Mayer. These animations are flawless. Each enemy, NPC, and boss have their own movements that give them personality, facial expression, and characteristics that feel unique. To simply ignore this game would be an atrocity. It’s difficult not to start up the game and be giddily awestruck while looking at the drawings hidden behind the classic film grain.

Image from Cuphead

In addition, the soundtrack is a treat to listen to even outside of the game. The game features classic-style jazz that dives between swing and big band, sometimes even delving into other genres like samba and marches. The songs also feature saxophone, trumpet, clarinet, piano and trombone solos. The brass section is exceptionally fun to listen to for their sheer talent. Many of these songs aren’t just simple slow jazz either; they are fast-paced and make the levels much more fun to play. Excellent examples of this music can be heard in the Floral Fury song and the Carnival Kerfuffle song.

Dealing with your inner demons

Cuphead is incredibly difficult. The standard amount of health allotted to the player is only three hit points. During the majority of the game, there is not a way to regenerate these hit points within a level attempt. In other words, death is incredibly common in the game’s punishing levels. Each attempt is a learning experience for the player, who must learn to overcome obstacles and carefully observe attack patterns from bosses. Expect frustration from being stuck on a boss for more than an hour.

Despite the difficulty, it’s addictive, fun and easy to pick up. The controls feel great and are quickly demonstrated in the game’s starting tutorial. Not all of the Xbox One controller’s functions need to be used considering the actions are very basic. Jump, jump parry enemy attacks, shoot, dash, switch weapons, or use a super power. This is as simple as it gets, yet the game takes time to master – fans of classic run-and-gun games like Vectorman, Metal Slug, or Megaman will likely get their fill of enjoyment here.

Image from Cuphead

The boss fights are the central focus of the game. While there are levels without boss fights, they serve a different purpose than the bosses who serve as the conduit of player progression between the game’s three worlds. These bosses are challenging, but rarely are they cheap. Each boss fight is significantly different from the last and offers new threats that may be obvious, but can be surprising as a small change can affect the player’s priorities. This is especially noticeable when switching difficulty settings on each boss fight. The game treats the player as a smart individual and doesn’t hold hands.

A minor complaint with the game is that during a couple of bosses within the game, there are randomly generated platforming elements that can sour the experience as a whole. It’s frustrating to know the exact attack pattern of a boss and when he’s attacking, but not have a place to escape. This results in loss of a hit point as a consequence of bad luck rather than lack of skill.

Another minor complaint is that invincibility frames when parrying are inconsistent. There are times where parrying an enemy might succeed, but still makes the player take a hit point of damage, which discourages parrying in particular levels.

The primary complaint with this game is the lack of online cooperative. When playing local co-op, it feels as though cooperative is the ideal experience for the game because of the interaction and constant teamwork. Reviving your ally when down feels gratifying, and both players will share the intense suspense of surviving. Without online matchmaking and forced couch co-op play, some players may have difficulty finding another person to play. After all, this game is intended for the hardcore market.

Run ‘n gun for coins

Image from Cuphead

The game’s economy runs through Porkrind Emporium shops found in each world of the game. Weapons and charms can be bought here with coins. These coins are either found by talking with NPCs between levels or doing the challenging Run ‘n Gun levels. These items can affect the difficulty of each boss and allow the player to strategize in his or her attempts rather than all the experience to become mindless with potential capabilities in range. What makes purchasing these items interesting is that  not all of the items in the game are immediately present to the player. When one weapon or charm is bought, another replaces it until the stock is empty. This can change the original priority purchases when one has much to spend. It’s a small feature, but an interesting new approach that’s more engaging than traditional in-game stores.

The Run ‘n Gun levels are just as difficult as the bosses. There are roughly six of these levels within the game in comparison to the nearly 20 boss fights, but the true purpose behind the Run ‘N Gun levels is to obtain coins. This is where the majority of the platforming occurs within the game. Hordes of enemies spawn throughout each level and each level remains unique with obstacles like changing gravity or having to blast through multiple varieties of barricades. These levels are fun to an point, but they should have been a bit more fleshed out because of the potential for other level possibilities. It would also be nice if there were a couple of simpler Run ‘N Gun levels to take a break from the consistently intense difficulty.

Featured image from IGN YouTube

Cuphead

8.7 Great

'Cuphead' is truly a one-of-a-kind experience. The deep challenge doesn’t discourage continuity of play. The game’s characters, bosses and enemies have a distinguished charm that can’t be found anywhere else. Although there are some minor flaws and inconstancies, 'Cuphead' is a remarkable creative feat. The game contains music that’s difficult to not tap a foot to. The art will thrill many cartoon enthusiasts that could also bring back nostalgia from previous cartoon shows. This game could definitely be a contender for Game of the Year awards for best art direction and sound design.

  • Art and Sound 10
  • Gameplay Mechanics 8
  • Boss and Level Design 8
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