Review - Cuphead (Xbox One/PC)
Who would have thought a little game from a first time developer would rival the biggest AAA titles of the year and exceed even the wildest expectations of gamers and critics? First introduced in a sizzle reel for the Xbox One years back, the quirky 30s animation style mixed with 2d shooting and platforming of Cuphead from developer StudioMDHR caught everyone by surprise and quickly became the game people looked forward to with each Xbox conference. After years of waiting, the game has come out and taken the world by storm with its rich environment and character design, but caught everyone off guard by its difficulty, including me.
On the outside, Cuphead resembles the Disney cartoons of old, namely those of the 1930s, without all the racist subtext. After losing to the Devil at craps, Cuphead and his brother Mugman enter into a contract to collect the souls of those indebted to the Devil at the cost of their own. Cuphead looks beautiful and the animations are too good to believe. After turning the game on once and looking at the screen and character movement, you have to convince yourself that this is a video game. While a game like Horizon Zero Dawn is a beautiful game in its own right, there’s something magical and impossible happening on screen with Cuphead. Even the idle animations where Cuphead and Mugman are just dancing in place are a joy.
And the sound. Oh my god, the sound. Once the jazz acapella kicks in with that old vinyl scratch sound included, there’s an instant rush of excitement and glee to be had. The announcer before every battle has great bits of dialogue that I began chanting along with and even the pops and drops of Cuphead's weapons sound great. Nobody has made a game that looks or sounds like this before and it’s absolutely incredible how well they were able to pull this off.
On the inside however, Cuphead is an entirely different beast that will try to devour you. While the cute animations and soundtrack are nonmenancing, the enemies are very hard but also very fun. Cuphead is more or less a boss rush game utilizing shooting mechanics and platforming with a few platforming levels sprinkled inbetween. The added platform levels don’t really add anything to the overall experience and felt added out of pressure since they originally weren’t part of the game. Cuphead starts with three lives at the beginning of every match and each hit takes one life so it's a game all about jumping, shooting, and dashing. Each match should only take a minute or two to complete but you could play a single boss for up to an hour due to constant death.
The bosses of Cuphead are incredible and the creativitiy and passion put into each one really stands out. Players will either remember bosses based on their designs and animations or strictly on their difficulty level. One difficult boss that sticks in my mind since finishing the game is a queen bee in the level Rumor Honeybottoms. While not the most uniquely designed character, the level itself is a chaotic carnival of dripping honey and falling platforms where the player must constantly jump to evade falling to their death below while at the same time shooting enemies and evading projecticles. It can be a little too much for the eye to follow at first, but over time I got better at assessing the level and understanding its clockwork with every death or retry. Cuphead does a great job of teaching you how to experiment with different tactics and how even some of the most ridiculous ideas can be the most fruitful.
If the main weapon isn't to your liking, there are multiple weapons and even supers that Cuphead can purchase from a local vendor. Each weapon usually carries a positive and a negative. I primarily used the Spread and Charge shot. The Spread shot acts like a shotgun so it's only useful up close to an enemy but the damage is high. The Charge shot requires a one or two second delay but it has a long range and the damage is also pretty high if it lands on an enemy. The way you play is up to you. The regular Peashooter is actually a pretty good weapon and there are some other interesting ones like the Roundabout that does more damage to enemies you're facing away from in a boomerang-like manner. I only used the Roundabout once but others I've met use it regularly.
There are a few Super moves that come in quite handy and are obtained by completing Colloseum challenges found in each of the three Acts. These Supers vary from a high damage water attack to momentary invincibility. Of course, you can't use these Supers at the beginning of a match and require some work. Represented as five playing cards in the bottom right corner of the screen, Cuphead can either save up all five to use a Super or one for a mini-super that's unique to each weapon in the game. The Supers deal high damage but there's a risk reward in using them as you'll be immediately vulnerable after using them.
Cuphead is an incredible experience worth sharing and luckily there's a 2-player option for Cuphead's brother, Mugman, to join in on the fight but be warned, there will be a lot of chaos happening on screen.
If you were to tell me before release that Cuphead would even make it on to a top ten list of the best games of 2017 I would have laughed, but Cuphead is easily one of my favorite games of the year and even beats out some of the bigger triple A titles. I could understand that the difficulty of the game might put some people off from playing it but I implore anyone and everyone to give Cuphead a shot as it deserves your attention.