If a game has ever truly captured the look and feel of a 1930s cartoon, it is StudioMDHR’s Cuphead. Its retro aesthetic and color tone serve as an instant reminder of the very early Mickey Mouse animations. Players assume the role of Cuphead, a literal embodiment of the name, who is on a quest to repay a debt he owes the devil by fighting a series of bosses.
Cuphead is a 2D run and gun game at heart, with challenging levels that test your patience and punish you for your slightest mistake. As such, there’s plenty of trial-and-error to be found, and it’s integral to the game’s old-school design philosophy. You’re likely to fail often, and while this may be a setback for some, there’s usually a learning experience hidden in each failure. Despite its high difficulty, the game doesn’t feel particularly unfair, and getting through a level often tends to feel rewarding. Fans of couch coop can also repay the devil’s debt together, in which case Cuphead is joined by Mugman.
The story features the main characters Cuphead and Mugman accidentally making a deal with the Devil. The deal forces them to find contract souls for Devil and this is where the boss rush comes into play. Cuphead plays like a type side-scrolling platformer with a focus on shooting but it goes far deeper than that with some surprisingly challenging moments. There is a reason why the developers opted to go for the same vibe as Dark Souls when it comes to the death screen. You will see that a lot throughout the game so hopefully you are prepared for it.
By far the biggest draw of Cuphead is its aforementioned boss encounters. This comes as no surprise, however, as the game was originally designed as a boss runner. As such, several levels retain this design philosophy by putting you up against giant enemies from the get-go. One such boss fight features two gigantic toads that change appearance as well as attack patterns as you make progress. It’s an utter joy to behold these encounters, as they’re essentially a tribute to classic Disney animations. At the same time, the trial-and-error associated with figuring out these attack patterns may frustrate some. One odd design choice is the omission of a boss health bar, which results in you never knowing how much damage you’re doing to these giant enemies.
Meanwhile, the non-boss levels have you rush through a series of aggressive enemies, some of which follow their own set pattern while others push towards you. There are often several enemies occupying the screen, and some of them hurl projectiles at you. While Cuphead isn’t primarily a platformer, there is some platforming involved in the sidescrolling levels as well as some of the boss encounters. Things can get pretty difficult when a mix of these elements come into play, especially since there are no checkpoints.
Cuphead features an overhead map where you can tackle the levels in any order. You can attempt either a boss fight or a platforming section. Completing them opens up more of the map while you can also get coins from them. These coins can be used to purchase weapons or upgrades that can help during some of the tough boss fights so make sure to keep checking the shop. With respect to abilities, Cuphead has all the essential run and gun mechanics covered. You can shoot in eight different directions, run, jump, and duck. Moreover, you can also alter your own attack pattern between spray fire and horizontal fire that has greater range.
Given its old-school foundation, Cuphead just wouldn’t feel complete without a parry mechanic. In order to parry incoming projectiles, you need to time the jump button while you’re mid-air. Of course, it’s easier said than done, and mastering the mechanic will take plenty of time and effort, as this is easily the toughest maneuver to pull off.
That said, once you establish a rhythm for the parry, it’ll quickly become second nature and prove very useful for your survival, especially during later levels. It is especially useful in situations where a lot of enemies have taken up the visible screen space and you’re trying to wriggle out of tight corners. Jumping into enemy projectiles and successfully parrying through them does indeed add a satisfying twist to the core gameplay. As an added incentive, each time you successfully parry an enemy projectile, you’re rewarded with a card. Accumulating a handful of these cards will get you back one of your health points.
It would be a crime to not mention Cuphead’s excellent soundtrack, as it plays a big role in the overall audiovisual impact that comes off as instantly appealing. The catchy jazz tracks add to the adrenaline rush and blend perfectly with the 30s Disney theme.
In totality, Cuphead is likely to draw you in with its undeniable allure, but whether it will keep you hooked depends on your how tolerant you are to its trial-and-error design philosophy. There’s a cruel game hidden beneath the charming aesthetic, one that is equally rewarding upon triumph.
Cuphead Review (Xbox One)
Game Reviewed on: Xbox One
Game description: Cuphead is a run and gun platform indie video game developed and published by StudioMDHR Entertainment. As the titular character Cuphead, the player fights a series of bosses in order to repay a debt to the devil.
Cuphead will draw you in with its undeniable allure, but whether it will keep you hooked depends on your tolerance to the trial-and-error design philosophy. There's a cruel game hidden beneath the charming aesthetic, one that is equally rewarding upon triumph.