Cuphead was originally revealed in 2014 to the gaming audience with much pique and interest. Since then, however, the game was plagued by release delays as the developers wanted to ship the best quality product. Three years later Cuphead has finally been released to the general public. Will Cuphead live up to the hype it has generated over the past three years? Read on to find out.
Cuphead starts with the protagonist duo Cuphead and Mugman gambling at the Devil’s casino. After a string of wins, they make a bet against the devil, with their souls as the price for losing. Unfortunately for our heroes, they lose the bet against the Devil and thus their souls are forfeit. But the Devil has other plans: Go out and collect the soul contracts for the Devil’s other debtors and Cuphead and Mugman will be allowed to walk free. Cuphead and Mugman must now navigate through four distinct worlds battling giant bosses and shooting their way through hordes of enemies to prevail.
Animation and Art: The most unique feature of Cuphead is no doubt the animation and artistic style employed in the game. Cuphead’s animation is inspired by 1930’s cartoons. As a result, the game takes a grainy look akin to the highly popular Mickey Mouse’s Steamboat Willie and other cartoons of that time. Despite impersonating cartoons from the 1930s the animation is fluid and the art is extremely clean. Enemies retain the over-exaggerated expressions expected of cartoons of this era which reinforces game immersion. When enemies get hurt you can visibly see that you’re doing damage as the enemies scream and contort in pain. There is an essence of whimsical charm to the game that automatically makes it appealing.The filter which overlays the game can be swapped with unlockable filters that are obtained by completing quests given to you by NPCs in the world map which adds a nice touch.
Weapons and Customization: Cuphead is a Run and Gun platformer which revolves around shooting enemies whilst navigating over various platforms to dodge enemy projectiles and environmental hazards. As your progress through the game the enemy types and amount of enemies you face increase, this is notable on the Run and Gun levels which require you to move from point A to point B. Due to this there are many scenarios in which certain weapons or super skills are more advantageous to use over others.
For example, when you start the game you have access to the “Peashooter” which is your typical weapon: high attack range and average damage. Whilst this is sufficient initially in the horizontal based Run and Gun levels, you’re quick to come across a vertical based Run and gun level, due to this enemies are in close quarters requiring the player to get up close and personal. Luckily there’s another weapon which can be purchased which will do the job nicely: “The Spread”. The Spread acts as a shotgun, high damage in a close proximity to the player but it has extremely short range. This weapon alone allows you to navigate through this vertical section with relative ease. Cuphead is littered with these sorts of challenges, in which the player has to choose the correct combination of starting weapons, equipable supers, and charms which provide a passive bonus to the player. The combination of these 3 factors enhance the game-play experience as certain combinations allow bosses to be defeated with relative ease with one load-out. Cuphead’s customization is definitely a good thing as it adds replayability and encourages experimentation of the weapons and utilities provided. Furthermore, it allows for a more personalized gaming experience as you don’t have to adhere to one play-style.
Signposting & Choreography of Bosses: Cuphead is a game which does not hold the player’s hand. After the introductory tutorial, the player is free to venture to the numerous areas initially available. A majority of the levels available are boss battles. Whilst a normal game would usually involve memorization to identify the bosses patterns and weak points, Cuphead excellently demonstrates how to execute a boss fight in a fair and just manner despite never fighting the boss before. The bosses in the game make very distinct noises and often have exaggerated expressions when they are about to attack, dropping a hint to new time players to brace themselves for what is to come. Many bosses which contain environmental hazards are also foreshadowed greatly. A good example is in the second isle, where you a face a clown boss at a carnival. During the second phase of the boss fight a roller coaster will speed on screen from the right-hand side. Whilst the appearance of this hazard does come on-screen slow enough to give the player the opportunity to react, if the player was paying attention you would be able to see the roller coaster in the background a few seconds earlier as it travels off-screen and reappears in the foreground. These slight touches elevate Cuphead’s game-play by removing artificial difficulty and gives the more astute players an upper-hand for noticing small details.
Diversity of Levels: There are two main types of stages in Cuphead. First is the boss battles which makes up 80% of the game while the other 20% consists of Run and Gun levels. These levels, with their purpose made obvious by their name, simply require the player to make it from point A to B without dying. Along the path there will be many enemies and mini-bosses to prevent the player from progressing. In these levels the player will be able to collect coins which can be used in the shop to buy charms and weapons. These levels serve as the introductory level which initially equip the players with the necessary skills to take on the bosses efficiently by giving them enough experience and resources to buy more equipment.
In addition to completing these Run and Gun levels for the coins, you can also choose to complete the levels without killing any enemies. Doing so will give the player an opportunity to unlock the best possible grade for them and access new filters to change the visual style of the overall game. While games in the Run & Gun genre require players to quickly execute enemies fast and efficiently, Cuphead takes a different approach. It grants players multiple ways to complete a stage and rewards them for playing in the opposite way that the game was intended: Sparing all the enemies instead of killing them.
All boss stages have their own theme which creates a sense of identity for the bosses you fight against. The game implements a multitude of different mechanics to change up the game-play. Several boss fights have Cuphead fly a plane instead of running around on foot. In these cases, he has a unique load-out and special abilities which are not normally available to the player. The normal boss fights also freshen up the game-play by introducing auto-scrolling boss fights, including multiple bosses at once or by fighting swarms of enemies and the boss at the same time.
Music: The music in Cuphead consists mainly of jazz. This is to be expected due to the prevalence of jazz music in the 1920s and 1930s which is the same period on which the animation and art styles of Cuphead is inspired by. Due to this many of the tracks in Cuphead utilize instruments such as the saxophone, trumpets and the jazz piano. Most boss fights have a specific theme and the music will be complimentary to the type of boss you are up against. A good example is during a Genie boss fight. The level takes places in a dessert and resembles the Arabian Peninsula. As a result, the instruments used during this boss fight will be predominantly instruments which are based in that region of the world such as the flute. The flute incorporates the jazz theme but also encompasses the region of the world that the boss fight is based on. In addition to the utilization of jazz music, many of the songs such as the title screen theme or King dice’s theme contain lyrics. So not only does the player get to listen to various “Big Band” jazz instrumental pieces but they can also experience lyrical based pieces. The soundtrack is phenomenal and definitely warrants a purchase.
Weak Story: Unfortunately, Cuphead does have a few downsides with the first being the notably weak story. While the story is used to set up the characters and the premise, very little is done to actively engage the player into really caring about what is happening. As your progress from world to world, the player will receive 3-4 sentences of exposition to flesh out the story. Regrettably, a few sentences of text barely expands the world of Cuphead and fails to synergize with the other brilliant aspects of the game. One way Cuphead could have potentially solved this was by giving the characters some form of dialogue after defeating each boss. Not only would this enhance each of the boss’ personality, it would have also lucubrated the world, especially considering that the bosses the player fights and beats will offer up their soul contract which allows the devil to take their soul for eternity. This was an opportunity which could have allowed for some interesting conversations between the protagonists and the defeated bosses.
Not enough Run and Gun Levels: In the whole game there are only six Run and Gun levels available to the player. Whilst these levels are bigger and more expansive than boss battles, the sheer low number of stages present is disappointing. These levels focused more on platforming and collecting coins to further enhance the player capabilities by obtaining weapons. Not only would more levels give the player more chances to earn coins, but more levels would also allow the player to have more varied game-play considering each world has five bosses to two Run and Gun levels.
Cuphead is an indie game done right as the game oozes quality and brilliance. Not only have the developers created a game with a unique visual style, they enhanced it with superb music and extremely responsive controls. It is the amalgamation of “Big Band” jazz tunes, intuitive boss designs and core game-play mechanics established on the principles that are intrinsic to classic platformers and 2-D, side-scrolling shooters. Cuphead is definitely a game that all Xbox One or PC owners should play due to not having any big faults which detract from the gaming experience. Whilst the story is one of the weakest factors, everything else in the game makes up for this downside.
Cuphead was developed and published by Studio MDHR. It was released for Xbox One [reviewed] and Microsoft Windows as part of the ID@Xbox program on September 29th 2017. A press review copy was provided for The Hidden Levels. Many studios submit copies for site review but this is in no way factored into our review scores. Games are scored on their individual merits and our rating system is explained here.
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