Released on: September 29 2017 (PC, XBOX One), October 18th 2018 (MacOS), April 18th 2019 (Nintendo Switch)
Available Platforms: PC, MacOS, XBOX One, Nintendo Switch
Price: Steam – $21.99 CDN ($19.99 US), Xbox One, Switch – $25.99 CDN ($19.99 US)
Animation has been a big part of my life since I was a kid. From the bouncy, rubber hose era of classic Disney and Fleischer cartoons to the new stuff made in Flash, I love it all. Ever since Cuphead’s first reveal in 2013, I couldn’t wait for it. Sadly, the game was nowhere near ready at that time. Thankfully though, it did release in 2017 with unanimous applause. So is Cuphead deserving of such overwhelming praise?
Upon first starting the game, Cuphead introduces us to two brothers: Cuphead and Mugman. They stumble upon a casino run by the devil himself. Despite Mugman’s pleas Cuphead gambles and loses the rights to both of their souls. Not wanting to spend eternity in hell, Cuphead and Mugman bargain with the devil. He agrees to let them go if they get the soul contracts of all of the devil’s debtors. Thus Cuphead and Mugman set out to acquire these soul contracts to free themselves from the grasp of the devil. Are Cuphead and Mugman genuinely going to go through with condemning their friends, or do they have something up their sleeves? The story, while simple, is charming and does a fantastic job of sending the player(s) on their quest.
The graphics are as close to perfection as any game can get. The visuals are phenomenal, perfectly emulating the cartoons that inspire Cuphead. The characters are bouncy, the environments are bright and colorful, and I don’t think I ever saw so much variety in the enemies before. The bosses are a sight to behold; they are impressive and weird. As the fight progresses, the bosses change into these odd monstrosities that perfectly fit the 1930’s animation aesthetic. Even the overworld of the game oozes with charm, as the player will encounter numerous characters to help them along their quest.
Cuphead’s music is legendary. A full band wonderfully performs the tracks. There are even full-fledged songs with impeccable singers and even a barbershop quartet. There are not many games that have every song be memorable, but Cuphead knocks it out of the park.
The gameplay is simply sublime, taking inspiration from classic run-and-gun games like Contra and, most notably, Gunstar Heroes. Cuphead gives the player(s) the option to play a simple, foe-less tutorial level. The tutorial will teach the player how to move, dash, jump, parry, and save their fallen partner, should they choose to play the game with a friend. Even on subsequent playthroughs, I recommend that the player(s) go through the tutorial, as it has a coin that the player(s) can use to buy upgrades at Porkrind’s shop. Movement in Cuphead is incredibly tight and smooth. As mentioned, Cuphead and Mugman have a parry move. If an enemy or a projectile is hot pink in color, the player(s) can press the jump button while in the air to parry that object. Parrying projectiles will give the player(s) an extra charge to their super meter. Cuphead and Mugman can use the EX button to fire a more powerful version of their selected shot at the cost of one charge. When their super meter is full, pressing the EX button will unleash their devastating super special. These super special attacks range from covering the entire screen with a powerful attack, give the player invulnerability for a short time, or summon a ghost that causes massive damage. On the topic of different weapons and upgrades, these can be bought at Porkrind’s shop using coins found in the run-and-gun levels, in the overworld, and one in the tutorial. The player(s) can unlock super special attacks by beating mausoleum levels. The mausoleum levels test the player’s parrying abilities. Cuphead also gives the players the option to play with a friend. It is worth noting that when both Cuphead and Mugman are on screen, they both deal half the damage they usually would by themselves. As mentioned above, if either player dies, their partner can revive them with a parry. I love run-and-gun games, and Cuphead nails that aspect beautifully.
Cuphead has two different level types: run-and-gun and boss battles. Run-and-gun levels challenge Cuphead and Mugman to get to the end. To my readers, I’ll share a little secret. The Run-and-Gun levels are optional; the player does not need to beat them to beat Cuphead. Their importance lies in the coins within them. Players use coins at Porkrind’s shop to purchase crucial upgrades and different weapons(mentioned previously). Those upgrades and various weapons give the player(s) the best chance of beating the bosses as possible. Speaking of bosses, that is the second type of level in Cuphead. These are a head-to-head battle against a slew of wild bosses and is easily the best part of Cuphead. With how intricately animated they are, it is easy for observant players to tell when the boss will use which attack. This study of how the boss moves, what attack they will use at what time, and how well designed they are, gives the impression that the player(s) is(are) forming a relationship with the bosses. At the end of every level, the player gets a grade for how many supers they used on the boss, how many parries they got, how many times the player(s) got hit, and how fast they beat the boss. All of that made the bosses unforgettable, and I love it.
As much as I would love to call Cuphead perfect, I do have a few nitpicks.
First is the impact of the player’s weapons. No matter what weapon they choose to use, the enemies will all react the same way: with either a brief white overlay or by popping if they shoot an enemy. The sound effects on impact are weak, and it almost seems that the boss doesn’t get damaged at times.
Secondly, Cuphead is a notoriously difficult game. Despite looking bright, colorful, and cartoonish, the game does not relent. If the player wants to beat Cuphead, they will have to learn through lots of deaths and mistakes. The death screen also taunts the player with jokes dependent on how far they got into the level, which can add insult to injury. I saw many people get frustrated with Cuphead’s high level of difficulty.
My personal biggest gripe with Cuphead is with how short it truly is after one masters the game. I decided to beat Cuphead from start to finish in one sitting, and it is possible to beat it in roughly ninety minutes. There is indeed an expansion coming out later, but I was still left wanting more.
Full disclosure: I played the PC, Switch, and Xbox One versions of Cuphead. The only real difference I saw between versions is that the Switch version took maybe an extra second to load. I commend Cuphead for its fantastic optimization.
I’ll be honest; I had to think hard about what I’d improve with Cuphead. It was equally as difficult not to call Cuphead a perfect game. Fantastic visuals, an excellent soundtrack, marvelous and satisfying gameplay, and an incredibly entertaining world, Cuphead is an absolute must play.