Late to the Game: Cuphead Reviewed

To say Cuphead was a long time coming would be a gross understatement. The split-second reveal of Cuphead was almost an afterthought in a footage roll of upcoming games at Microsoft’s E3 press conference in 2014, and it had me floored and rewinding the stream to catch another glimpse. Since then, it had been mostly rumors and delays for years, but the final product was worth the wait, and exactly what I had been hoping for. Run and gun action and extreme challenge, and throwback game references, all on the back of an impressive 1930s style hand-drawn aesthetic.

In true old-timey fashion, Cuphead and his brother Mugman manage to find themselves high on their winnings at The Devil's Casino during a night of debaucherous gambling. After taking a tempting offer, they find themselves having to do the dirty work of the devil or be forced to give up their immortal souls. Fortunately for us, this dirty devil business comes in the form of a series of multi-state boss fights and platforming levels with run-and-gun gameplay akin to Contra or Metal Slug. They had me at Contra, but the amazing style is what kept me going.

I cannot talk enough about how amazing the visuals are. Cuphead manages to capture the charm and style of cartoons of the Steamboat Willy days, without being completely beholden to an era with a penchant for overt racism. These may not have been the cartoons of my generation, but I have fond childhood memories of Saturday mornings with reruns of Merrie Melodies, Looney Tunes, and the like. I feel like experiencing Cuphead years later has given me a greater appreciation for the craft that went into the animation and music, especially considering these cartoons made their debut over 80 years ago.

A friend can take control of Mugman on the co-op mode

There has been a popular opinion amongst some other reviewers regarding the disconnect between the visuals and the challenge in
Cuphead. Some assumed a level of approachability due to the charming cartoon aesthetic and were disappointed to find such challenge in the gameplay. While I understand this struggle, I enjoyed the difficulty and what I found to be irksome was only somewhat related. I loved the challenge and mastery aspects of it, but where the disconnect happened had to do with focus and repetition. Since beating many of the bosses, especially in the late game, required such a laser focus, I often found myself completely ignoring the beauty of the animation in the tunnel vision of the dozens of things to manage on screen at a time. This had an effect on playing the game wherein I would often go into the early attempts at a boss or level strictly just trying to live for a while and watch and all the ‘pretty pictures.’ This even lead to watching streams of areas of the game I had already completed just to catch more on the subtle references and animations, something I rarely do.

While I think the game is quite difficult, I think the difficulty has been overblown by reviewers and gamers on social media alike. I think of the difficulty as something akin to Super Meat Boy, a difficulty level I have personally started referring to as ‘learnable and solvable difficulty’. The game is still as it stands: You have 3 hits to do the whole boss with no way to gain them back, and there is a lot on the screen to manage, and that is far from easy. But, with practice, a level-headed attitude, and a scientific approach to what you did wrong and how to improve, all it takes it time. Now, that style and investment in itself may not interest you. We aren’t all the kids we once were with time aplenty and emptied wallets. If this time and practice investment is not your style, Cuphead is not the game for you. I think that was a big part of the disappointment in others, but until nearly the end of the game, I just could not get enough. For every ounce of challenge, there was a pound of satisfying reward. Up until the very end, at least.

A Porky-adjacent pig runs the in-game shop and sells you gun and ability upgrades

I played for well over a dozen hours, even spending several hours on individual bosses throughout the game, but I never truly got frustrated. There was always a reason I died, always something to learn from every death, and when I died close to the end I knew that means I could finish it. The only time that this attitude changed was at the end of the game. There is a boss nearing the end of the game that gave me nightmarish flashbacks of childhood struggles with Mega Man boss rushes. Between it and the last boss, I had a lot of trouble finishing up the game, one of the (many) reasons why this review is as late as it is.  The boss rush was beautiful but brutal, and even with some helpful buffs between bosses I still struggled for quite the lengthy period

The boss rush itself did seem especially fitting considering the devs talked at length in a recent interview about their love of Mega Man X and Contra III. A deep-seated love of older games is apparent from the beginning, and the influence shows on Cuphead’s sleeve.  If you look closely, there are references to other games throughout Cuphead's three islands. It’s all a nice touch and it’s difficulty and gameplay harkens back to a bygone era of games; something I hope more developers decide to steer into.

For risk of gushing, I will leave you with this: Play Cuphead. There is so much more to the game that is not simple to convey in words and screenshots. The game moves so perfectly, it feels like the tight controls of a 1990s platformer, but with an animation style that’s grainy and low frame-rate enough to make it look like it's of its era and not modern production. The soundtrack is perfectly executed, with individual tracks for each boss taking influences from swing, bebop, klezmer, and all forms of jazz, and was so well-received it even made a mark on the Billboard Jazz charts. Cuphead was a challenging treat, and in a time where the Xbox One is grasping at straws for good content, pick this up. It’s cheap and its easily one of the best games of 2017.


-Justin Wicker