Cuphead is finally here, and it’s been a long time coming. After first being revealed back at E3 2014, Studio MDHR and the Moldenhauer brothers dream has been envisioned on Xbox One. Cuphead is definitely one of a kind, and there is nothing to really compare it to. That being said, what exactly is Cuphead then? Well, let’s take a look.
Cuphead is a run and gun style game with constant shooting draped in a 1930’s style cartoon world. As the title states, your character quite literally has a cup for a head. He and his partner in crime, Mugman, make a deal with the devil for their souls that quickly goes south in a game of dice. They now have a day to defeat the game’s bosses in order to retrieve their souls for the devil in exchange for their own.
That’s the extent of the story. Pretty simple. The levels in Cuphead aren’t exactly levels, but instead extended boss battles. Each fight involves a boss that gets weirder and weirder as you go on, and is comprised of four sections. Each of these sections involve a boss taking a different form along with different weapons and attack patterns. There is a lot of strategy involved, which I really enjoyed. Cuphead definitely makes you think, I’ll give it that. What I didn’t appreciate is that sometimes even perfect skill gives way to luck, and you die even after executing a perfect move and memorizing the pattern. An example of this was in the tree Follies Run and Gun level. It’s one of the platforming levels in the game which allows you to collect coins in order to use on upgrades for Cuphead. Check it out here.
The final boss shoots at you, forcing you to jump from leaf to leaf. The leaves disappear if they are hit, leaving you with nothing to stand on. The only issue is that several times I would reach this part without taking any damage, and the projectile would take out all the leaves. So, even though I cleared the jump, I had nowhere to land and died as a result. His shots are random, so I had to replay several times until he took a shot that was beneficial.
Cuphead is Nintendo hard. The upgrades, in every sense of the word, are completely necessary. Cuphead starts out firing a simple, straight gun out of his finger. Remember, this is based in 30’s cartoon, after all. Hitting enemies builds up your meter for a power move, or you can get an instant hit by parrying. This helped, but it didn’t make too much sense. You see, you can only parry certain enemies or projectiles that were pink in color, even if other enemies were doing the exact same thing. Earning coins in the Run and Gun levels let you equip guns like scattershot, or even opt for extra health. The health earns you an extra hit point (yes, an as in singular) at the expense of damage output. There is even a smoke bomb to help Cuphead and Mugman get an extra second to escape damage. I mentioned health for good reason. Although you have infinite lives (which you most definitely need), you only have three (3) hit points in each level. You can not regain health in the level, and it’s back to jump street once you are hit three times. You learn quickly that if you take a hit early on, you’re better off hitting pause - retry than continuing on. The beginning of the levels are easier and the boss forms require less damage to defeat. If you can’t get out of the first two forms without getting hit, just start over. There’s no chance for you.
The gameplay relied a little too much on a hope and prayer rather than skill for me. This made it too frustrating for me, as it’s hard enough to beat on skill alone rather than needing luck along with it. The best part about Cuphead was the audio, to be honest. The 30’s jazz type music kept it upbeat and offered a bit of liveliness. It helped soothe the rage after countless deaths in battle, and seemed like an old Charlie Chaplin film in the overworld map with only the soundtrack accompanying your movements. It was unfortunate that this was the best part, because I was really looking forward to Cuphead.
The animation didn’t really do anything for me. Yeah, it’s unusual to see this type in a video game, but it isn’t anything ground breaking. We’ve seen this before in many places. The most unconventional thing about it is that his head is a cup, and even that ranks on the low end of crazy compared to what we’ve seen in other games. I appreciated the change of pace and the animation is well done. It’s nothing revolutionary, however, and is simply a rehash of what we’ve seen in other places before.
I’m a sucker for making people suffer in video games - to a point. Cuphead has an interesting setup contained in its three worlds and finale. After all your boss battles, you’ll end up with an added bonus. This will only be triggered if you have beaten each boss on the regular difficulty level. If a couple of bosses get too frustrating along the way and you opt for simple mode, that’s fine. In order to beat the game, however, you are going to have to sack up and put that puppy on regular in order to get to the final level. There’s no rest for the weary in Cuphead. While this was an added benefit to the game, it was a bit overshadowed by the amount of luck in each level as I mentioned.
This game was announced at E3 2014 - That is 39 months ago. Over that time the hype for Cuphead has grown exponentially, especially considering its delays in development. This past E3 Phil Spencer noted that he could have announced many more games, but didn’t want to speak about those so far out in development. It seems he may have realized a bit of what was happening with their first party games, especially after Scalebound was cancelled and Crackdown 3 was delayed for the second time until 2018 leaving the Xbox One X essentially without an exclusive launch game.
After playing Cuphead, it’s evident that something like this is exactly what he was talking about when mentioned announcing games too early. After three years of waiting, no game could live up to hype unless you’re a Red Dead Redemption or Grand Theft Auto. That being said, Cuphead is admittedly just an ok game - but it’s just ok, nothing more. The unique design and throwback soundtrack aren’t too revolutionary at all to be honest, but it does just enough to come in slightly above average.
If you’re into checking out new and unusual takes on games, then Cuphead is for you. I’d temper your enthusiasm, however, as that’s where the uniqueness ends. It’s an average, 2D hand-drawn game that it seems people are expecting way too much of. Overall, Cuphead came in like a paper tiger - It looked great on the surface, but lacked a lot of substance when you get down to the nitty gritty.
It’s available now on the Xbox store for $19.99