Review: Cuphead

Posted by: 10/31/2017

When you first see Cuphead in action, you feel like you’re being transported back to the early days of film animation. While many of us did not grow up with animation from the 1930s, we have all seen footage, and Cuphead perfectly executes the look from the era. But a big fear going into the game was that all the work would go into the art and animation, and the actual game would not play well, and at the end of the day it would be a mediocre side scrolling shooter. I’m happy to report that is not the case. Studio MDHR has crafted an incredible game that should be played by everyone, if you have the patience.

While the animation and music will be what people focus on the most (and they should), I was surprised to learn that the game has a very satisfying premise. I’m starting to appreciate games that have a very focused narrative, and Cuphead does not disappoint. You play as Cuphead, and along with his brother Mugman, the pair end up in the Devil’s casino one evening. The brothers are having a great evening playing craps, so the Devil brings out special die for the two. Cuphead rolls the die, and enters into a contract with the Devil. The two brothers must bring the soul of every person that is indebted to the Devil.

I like this premise because it isn’t overly complicated. In an age of games where stories are becoming more and more complex, it is nice to play something so concise.

With this premise, the game is essentially a bunch of boss battles. Outside of the handful of run and gun levels (which I will discuss later), each level has you fighting a different boss. The game is broken up into three different islands plus a finale, and each island has 5-7 bosses. It’s incredible the work that has gone into each boss. Each has their own move set, unique animation, and each boss has a few different phases that you must get through to beat them. On top of the unique look of each boss, the stages that the bosses occupy are incredibly detailed. Sometimes it is hard to pay attention to the background because of all the action going on in the foreground, but take one or two tries of a boss to appreciate the backgrounds. It won’t be an issue to waste a life to appreciate the art, because you will die quite a bit.

The appeal of Cuphead is a mix of the gorgeous art and animation, and the challenging bosses. While some may argue that the game isn’t hard because it is just memorizing the different move sets of the bosses, that doesn’t discount the fact that learning these patterns require precision movement and button presses. If you miss a jump by half a millisecond, it can be the difference between beating a boss in their final phase, and starting over from the beginning.

At times it does feel like Cuphead can be unfair, and with bosses having a little bit of randomization when it comes to their attacks, it can feel like it is cheating a bit. But each boss can be beat in just a few minutes, so starting over never feels like a chore; you’re just perfecting your run. There is also zero load time when you restart a fight, so it is easy to just hit the retry option if you get hit during the early parts of the fight.

One thing that I really appreciated about Cuphead is that it reminded me it is okay to fail in video games. As the average gamer gets older, and they have adult obligations (work, family, travel), it is easy to understand that we want to make progress during the few hours we have to play a video game each week. But Cuphead reminded me that it is okay to fail and learn from your mistakes. It’s okay to take time to learn how to get through a level. It took me a few weeks to get through Cuphead, with a total playtime of 15.5 hours. You’ll read stories from folks already finishing the game a day or two after it is on the market, and it discourages you a bit. But we all get through games differently, and finding your own pace that works with your life is okay, and Cuphead reminded me of that.

Okay, now the preaching is out of the way, I want to talk about the art, animation, and music in the game, because it is absolutely brilliant.

Just look at it.

Look at it.

Now listen to the best song in the game.

And more music from the game.

The look and sounds of the game are easily the strongest aspects, but the game is not without faults. Luckily there is only one issue I had with the game, and it is the run-and-gun levels.

Each isle has two run-and-gun levels that has you, well running and gunning. These are platforming levels where you collect coins, and you use those coins to buy new weapons and abilities. These levels are not fun though, and I don’t think they fit with the tone of the game. The platforming sections are tedious, and the difficult nature of the game makes it where you’re playing these run-and-gun levels over and over to finish them. They would be better if the platforming was more enjoyable with interesting level design, and some unique mechanics tied to the levels.

The other issue I have is you must complete these run-and-gun levels to acquire coins to upgrade your Cuphead. I wish the developers would have tied the upgrades to the letter grade you get for every boss you beat. If you get a C rating, maybe you get one coin. If you get an A rating, three coins. They could balance the economy in the game to where beating two bosses would bring in enough coins to purchase a new weapon.

That being said, the poor run-and-gun levels do not distract from the game as a whole. It is a fantastic game that should be played by all, if you can put up with the difficulty. Once I figured out what the game expected from the player, I had a blast playing through Cuphead.

Score: 9.5/10

Strafe was developed and published by Studio MDHR for PC and Xbox One on September 29th, 2017. A retail copy of the PC version was purchased by the reviewer. 

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