Anyone that knows me knows that I have been all about Cuphead since its debut in 2014. I grew up watching Disney, Max Fleischer, Ub Iwerks, and more. If some of those names don’t ring a bell, that is okay. You don’t have to recognize those names to understand that Cuphead’s aesthetic borrows heavily from those creative geniuses and the cartoons of the 1930s.
From StudioMDHR, Cuphead is a game that combines run-and-gun gameplay and boss battles. You run around in classic RPG overworld maps, and defeating levels and bosses open more areas for you to explore.
*The following review contains some spoilers for Cuphead. Read on at your own risk.*
Boss levels are straightforward. Enter the levels, figure out the bosses patters, shoot, don’t die. I won’t go into details for each boss, but I will say this: you will die. A lot! Each boss has distinctive patterns which means no two bosses are the same. In classic platformer fashion, each boss has multiple stages to them. One example is the boss battle featuring Ribby & Croaks. They start off on one side of the screen, and then in the next stage of the battle they are on opposite sides of you, then in a final stage they come together at the very end. I’m being purposely vague because part of the fun of Cuphead is the discovery of how to deal with the bosses.
The run-and-gun levels will test your platforming skills. Each level is carefully designed and hand-crafted to encompass the world it’s in. Enemies will attack you from all angles as you try to make your way to the end. The nice thing about Cuphead is, for the most part, that gameplay is the same across all levels: jump, dodge, shoot, parry. The parry mechanic is one of the best in the game. Throughout the course of every level there will be a different colored enemy or bullet. It’s your job to jump and hit jump again at the right time to parry. Each successful parry helps build a super meter of sorts. You can store up to 5 EX shots or 1 Super Art.
It seems strange to have these two level designs separate from one another, but StudioMDHR makes it work with Cuphead. Combining a run-and-gun and boss battle would only take away from this design choice. If the bosses prove to be too difficult, you can take them on in a “simple” gameplay. What I found most interesting about “simple” mode was that the bosses didn’t take less damage, but some of them had fewer stages or didn’t have as many extra on-screen enemies. Some bosses completely bypassed their final form. Simple mode gives you a taste of Cuphead, but won’t give you the whole meal.
The controls are precise and on point. As mentioned before, you run, jump, shoot, parry, and dash. While you use most of the game mechanics, I did find that I often forgot about the dash. Once I remembered it, it came in handy in quite a lot of levels. Also, in addition to playing as Cuphead (or Cuphead and Mugman with local co-op) normally, there are times where you can play Cuphead in a plane. You zoom around the screen in a simplified bullet-hell, attacking bosses. These levels are few and far between, but they provide an excellent break from the bosses and run-and-guns.
Let’s get down to where this game really shines: its look and sound. Amazing jazz fills your ears as you play through the game. An old-timey choir sings the tale of Cuphead as the game starts, and there might be some more bonuses throughout the game. One thing that really stood out to me was the few times characters spoke. It’s very clear the the audio team at StudioMDHR studied the cartoons of the 1930s. The voices and recording sound tinny and softened, almost as if they were recorded on original recording equipment of the era.
The animation in Cuphead is top-notch. The characters are hand drawn and animated as if they were classic cartoons. Much like old Popeye or Felix the Cat cartoons, the backgrounds are all hand painted and make you feel like you are playing a cartoon. At the end of each level players are scored on a variety of gameplay aspects and you are given a final grade to let you know how you did. Why? So you can try again, of course. Can you get through a level without taking any damage? Only one way to find out. If you’re just playing Cuphead for the story, then you won’t get much replayability out that feature.
At only $20, this game is an absolute gem. We have seen some new platformers come out that attempt to capture the retro feel using 8-bit graphics, but StudioMDHR take it to a whole new level with Cuphead. Cuphead is out now for PC and Xbox One. It’s also a Xbox Play Anywhere title so you can save your progress and play on your Xbox One or Win10 machine.
The reviewer was given an Xbox One code for review purposes.