Over the last few years, some games have become staples at E3 showings from the big three. It feels like we’ve seen the same games multiple times in many cases like with Cuphead from Studio MDHR. This game was originally in a short super cut video for upcoming Xbox One games in 2014. It went on to generate quite a bit of hype with each showing but also had fans concerned for its final release. As of last week, Cuphead has finally released for players on Xbox One and PC and the wait has most definitely been worth it.
Cuphead is a run and gun boss rush game. It has elements of shoot em ups and a few platforming sections but is mostly a boss rush experience. A damn fine one at that. The tale begins as Cuphead and Mugman who spend a bit too much time in a casino only to get greedy and roll for glory but end up losing it all. The Devil shows up and after both Cuphead and Mugman beg, he asks them to collect the contracts of the previous people who lost their souls. Thus begins your hellish experience that may result in a controller or two being destroyed with rage quits. In a lot of ways, Cuphead reminds me of Super Meat Boy which is another game that launched on Xbox first. It has that one more chance hook to it that makes you coming back for a quick attempt at a boss or level.
Gameplay has you studying patterns of enemies in the run and gun sections but mostly just learning how each boss and the various phases play out. You have one core attack and a special in addition to a jump and dash ability. The Jump doubles as a parry and literally anything in the game that glows pink can be parried granting you a special attack. The special attacks fill up as you shoot enemies or bosses. The boss designs are not only aesthetically amazing but each phase is well thought out and frustratingly brilliant. There’s a massive feeling of accomplishment when you not just defeat a boss for the first time but eventually get an A+ grade on said boss.
While you can play the full game with the basic core abilities, you unlock more through a store where you spend your gold coins earned. This lets you customize abilities to allow for say an invincible mod to your dashing or quicker special ability generation to even more health or different bullet patterns. There’s a lot to play around with and some abilities and tweaks work better in specific levels. Some like the extra health are even useful to survive so you can study a boss’ phases and learn hit patterns. There’s a lot of trial and error and expect to replay stages multiple times. I just wish the loading was a bit quicker on the Xbox because when you’re in the moment and just want to quickly restart or retry, a long load time tarnishes the experience.
Visuals are most definitely the highlight and what made everyone pay attention to Cuphead in the first place. If you’ve ever watched the really old 1930’s style cartoons or even have nostalgia from watching the super early Tom and Jerry episodes, you will adore the art here. There’s insipiration and references to a ton of stuff like what feels like Final Fantasy VII in the title screen to Popeye in a specific level. The developers have created something that plays great but still looks and feels like a super old school cartoon. The animations and art are stunning. The bosses and enemies have been meticulously designed to match the character style from that era as well through exaggerated facial animations and features.
Trumpets are aplenty in Cuphead’s score. There’s loads of jazz and big band like music throughout the boss battles and everywhere in between. It still feels surreal how well Studio MDHR have pulled this off across the visuals, sound effects, and music all intertwining to feel perfect. Kristofer Maddigan’s music here is easily soundtrack of the year material.
The only flaw here is how difficult things get. While I get the design and the philosophy behind Cuphead’s difficulty, there’s a simple mode as an option that removes a phase from each boss fight making it easier but you can’t actually get the ending unless you’ve beaten all the bosses on normal mode. What is the point of adding an easier mode if you don’t let people finish the game through that?
If you enjoy getting the sense of accomplishment from super hard boss battles, this is definitely the game for you. There’s a ton of polish and charm here but it comes at the cost of a lot of effort being put into learning patterns and more. Cuphead has skyrocketed from something I thought would’nt live up to the hype to a release that is a game of the year contender. It is well worth your time and patience.