Cuphead (Xbox One) Review

By Albert Lichi 09.10.2017

Review for Cuphead on Xbox One

Tired of how most indie games lean heavily on the old-school pixelated aesthetics? Studio MDHR decided to redefine what "old-school" means and take things back to the 1930s and 40s. This was a time before video games, and Cuphead can be best described if Fleischer Studios cartoons decided to make Contra III or Alien Soldier. It can be easy to be taken in by the authentic style and high quality animation seen here, but is its style a crutch, or is it also a worthy game to match its artistic splendour?

Cuphead will always be remembered for two things: its uncompromising devotion to surreal 1930s Ub Iwerks-esque cartoons and its palm sweat-inducing difficulty. After several hours of dying, the latter will likely be what Cuphead is most known for. After the initial wow-factor of the art and animation wears off, the lasting impression will be the heart palpitations this game will cause from the high tension of the many boss battles. This is the sadistic nature of Cuphead; it lures people in with its charming style and authentic audio... only to get shiv'd over and over again right in the face with a rusty ice-pick. However, this is also the appeal.

Cuphead and Mugman are prototypical old-timey cartoon characters who tend to get into trouble. This was a time where characters tended to be a bit more mischievous and would get involved with some unsavoury behaviour. In Cuphead's case, the heroes end up gambling and losing to the Devil, and now have to collect soul contracts from other cartoons living on the islands.

Screenshot for Cuphead on Xbox One

The style of cartoons that this game is based on are that of a stream of consciousness and imagination. They were often nonsensical and surreal, with some nightmarish qualities and frequently were deranged. Characters would twist, morph and generally do all kinds of crazy things that would defy the laws of reality - and it was the norm, not the exception. This age of animation was very much a Wild West, where anything could happen and animators were always pushing to see how far they could take it. It was an experimental age, where the craft of animation was truly being explored, and artists put a lot of themselves into these cartoons. There were no standards then, and Cuphead very much thrives in this mentality of absurd creativity, with its audio and visuals. Even the grain filter, complete with scratches and colour bleed, means the presentation really does add to the authenticity of it all.

Cuphead is a pretty hard game, but for the most part it is fair. The only times when things feel like Studio MDHR went too far is some of the randomized aspects in boss fights/stages, which can lead to some cheap deaths, and that the parry-jump once in while won't work. The parry-jump in itself is a really great idea and could have gotten more use, but is mostly restricted, since it can only be used on pink obstacles/bullets, which don't appear as often they should.

Screenshot for Cuphead on Xbox One

The world map is a neat innovation to a game that is mostly boss battles, and operates in a similar way to the robot master selection screen in old Mega Man games, offering a non-linear approach. This helps in situations when it feels like hitting a wall with a boss, giving the option to try something else to mix things up. On the world map, Cuphead and Mugman can also converse with NPCs, or even go shopping for some weapons or perks that alter the mechanics just ever so slightly. There are a few simple mini stages that offer minor bonuses, but the main attraction is the boss battles.

Cuphead is like Alien Soldier in that it is a game where a bulk of the gameplay is basically a boss rush. Every boss character will have several phases and may transform. The challenge ramps up so fast it may cause whiplash because some of the new moves bosses get are very sudden. They telegraph their assaults appropriately to indicate something really bad is about to happen, but sometimes it can be a little tricky to understand what they're about to do given the surreal visuals on screen.

The best way to describe this kind of situation is to compare the nonsensical puzzles from 90s-era LucasArts point-and-click games that required a ridiculous leap of logic... but instead of a puzzle, it's avoiding a massive attack in an action game. This is to be expected given that the cartoons that Cuphead emulates tended to be completely unpredictable. It wouldn't be a Mega Man homage if there wasn't a final stage that makes the hero fight previous bosses again. Cuphead relishes this, and - weirdly enough - turns out to be one of the easier moments because of all the practice one gets from retrying from before.

Screenshot for Cuphead on Xbox One

With a bit of perseverance, this game can be beaten. Is it hard? Yes, but with unlimited lives, Cuphead is still much easier than the games it is inspired by, such as Contra III and the original Mega Man. It must be mentioned that the difficulty is a bit odd because it seems that the designers mixed the easier bosses throughout the game, which was likely done to give some people a breather instead of having each battle get progressively harder.

It is disappointing that there are only six "run and gun" stages when there really should have been 12. Having a big boss at the end of a stage just makes more sense instead of having the bosses exist in a single node off of a map. It has been mentioned by the developers that Cuphead was originally meant to be only boss battles and the run and gun stages were implemented much later due to people demanding it. It is too bad there are so few of them because, as they stand, they offer the most gameplay variety in the overall experience.

If it weren't for the hundred (possibly thousands) of retries, this game could be completed in maybe three to four hours. It's a weird sensation when finally beating a boss that took over an hour and the run that it finally gets completed shows the time at about two-and-a-half minutes. That's the core of Cuphead's challenge: to master the battle and memorize patterns.

Screenshot for Cuphead on Xbox One

Cubed3 Rating

8/10
Rated 8 out of 10

Great - Silver Award

Rated 8 out of 10

Aesthetics aside, there really aren't any games like Cuphead being made anymore. This kind of running and shooting platforming action game has nigh vanished from the gaming landscape. The closest modern example that casual observers may be aware of is maybe Metal Slug or the Mega Man games, because nobody has seen Contra since 2007. This used to be a popular genre, with such amazing titles as Turrican, Gunstar Heroes and Dynamite Headdy, which used to tap into a very primal part of our brain that is addicted to adrenaline. Thankfully, Cuphead is not style over substance. Controls are tight and responsive, and retries load up nice and fast, so time is never wasted. This is every great boss battle gaming has seen before and more, thanks to Studio MDHR's dazzling creativity and focus on creating a palpable sensation of accomplishment. There may not be many console exclusives on Xbox One these days, but Cuphead is a real standout, and is a must-own for everyone who loves fast action and crushing challenge. Come for the cool art and animation, but stay for the gameplay.

Developer

Studio MDHR

Publisher

Studio MDHR

Genre

2D Platformer

Players

1

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  8/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date None   Australian release date Out now   

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