Developer: StudioMDHR Entertainment
Platforms: Xbox One, Windows 10
A review by Ryan M. Holt
Cuphead has been one of my most anticipated titles for a couple years now, following its brief announcement at E3 2014. I wrote about it for our Most Anticipated Games of 2017 feature, and I am pleased that the final product soared passed my expectations.
I will be blunt: Cuphead is not for everyone. The retro aesthetic doesn’t just extend to the 1930s cartoon style visuals, but also to its gameplay. While many gamers have been disappointed in Cuphead thanks to its sharp ‘difficulty’ curve, I personally loved the challenge. I think part of this also has to do with players’s expectations of the game. More people wanted Cuphead to be Super Mario and what they got was a mix of Mega Man and Contra.
Cuphead is difficult for sure, but not insurmountable. I highly recommend changing the control settings once you boot up the game, as the later levels require an amount of control and mastery that the default settings seem to fight against. Each time you load up a level you get 3 HP, and there are no checkpoints, so it is all or nothing. Luckily, most run-and-gun levels are pretty short, and the bosses are quick to fall once you figure them out.
Unfortunately, a difficult to master parry mechanic slows things down in the later stages of the game if you don’t have your timing right, but once you master parrying pink objects it becomes second nature. Pattern recognition is the key to success in Cuphead, and thankfully there isn’t an arbitrary life system holding you back from just jamming “Retry” on the menu once you dissect the bosses’ moves. Then you take that knowledge and destroy the boss, and it feels great.
Get used to bosses, as this entire game is based around giant boss battles. There are a few run-and-gun levels thrown in to mix things up, and some side scrolling bi-plane levels reminiscent of R-Type, but most of the levels are filled with energetic, animated wonders. These levels are a nice break from the standard platforming based bosses, but the power ups and abilities of this mode feel mismatched with the rest of the game.
The story is pretty bare bones and simple. Cuphead and Mugman lose a bet against the devil and are forced to recover the souls of other devil dealers. After defeating each boss on regular difficulty, it checks them off your list and you move on to the next boss. There is a small currency system to buy new weapons and upgrades, but it is treated as an afterthought compared to everything else. You can beat the entire game without spending a single coin, although some of the other attack types are very useful.
As an added bonus, there is a co-op mode where a second player can play as Mugman. The best part about this mode is that you have a revive if your partner can reach your floating spirit and parry it, with each subsequent death speeding up the spirits retreat. The parry mechanic works really well for reviving your fallen team mate, but it is a bit distracting to add it all together with some of the more complex bullet-hell levels.
Play it! The endorphin release from besting a foe that has knocked you down time and time again is where Cuphead solidifies itself as a great game. All of this is wrapped in a gorgeous hand-animated style akin to Steamboat Willie. It makes for a nostalgia soaked adventure on which you can cut your teeth as a gamer, while bringing a smile to your face. Cuphead is a digital title that activates on both Xbox One and PC, and both versions run smoothly with minute differences in the gameplay. Your progress even bounces between the two platforms, so you can play one level PC and pick up right where you left off on your Xbox. If you do try Cuphead and feel it is too hard: just breath, reload the level, and memorize those patterns! You got this!