• Developer/publisher: Studio MDHR
• Played on: Xbox One
Robbie’s note: “Cuphead” has co-op gameplay, but I played through the game solo. My review is based on the single-player experience.
It’s hard to fathom how Cuphead is a video game. The hand-drawn, gorgeous aesthetics inspired by 1930s cartoons carry a bizarre charm from the moment the menu boots up to the final fray. Everything on screen from the water-colored backdrops to the character designs and animations look as if they were brilliantly extracted from original cartoon reels in which weird characters nonchalantly gambled and smoked cigars — a time where that sort of influence on children was an afterthought.
Even the story finds title character Cuphead and his friend Mugman getting into mischief after losing a bet in which they must forfeit their souls to the devil himself. To cut the deal short, Cuphead and Mugman must collect contracts from others who also sold themselves to the devil.
The journey to collect the contracts really is devilishly devised. Mirroring the difficulty of older run-and-gun titles such as Contra and Mega Man, a majority of Cuphead’s levels are spent fighting wonderfully designed bosses. There are also two platforming segments in each world, which mostly serve as a way to get coins to spend on power-ups.
Whether it’s fighting a boss or traversing a level, Cuphead is flat-out brutal. By the time the story closed curtains in the 13 hours it took me to beat it, I died 434 times, and that doesn’t count the numerous times I reset a level. The game has no problem kicking your ass with mandatory precise timing, but it owes no apologies. Though I fumed a couple of times from dying so much, I was simultaneously given a well-learned lesson on how to conquer my foes, and the payoff of a boss’ defeat — whether I swapped upgrades or a pulled off a well-timed maneuver — is just as enthralling as the last.
The only combat quandary is the height at which Cuphead jumps. The lowest jump is about half the length of a full leap, and since precision is everything I had some frustrating deaths that were out of my control.
Further enhancing Cuphead’s action is the original 56-track jazz score. Each section of the game is accompanied with its own track, ranging from mellow to frantic, I could listen to for hours on end.
Combat aside, Cuphead’s hub world is a delight to look at, but there’s not much to do within it. There are hidden coins, and NPCs can be interacted with, some of which even have hidden challenges, but it’s pretty barren with extra content.
Newcomer dev Studio MDHR has truly crafted what I believe to be among one of the most vivid, stellar-looking games ever made. Its bright, cartoonish visuals that could easily be mistaken for a short 1930s feature help further make the unapologetic combat, even on the easier difficulty, a blast. Studying bosses and levels to master them is a rush unlike any other. Combine that with a wonderful, fast-paced jazz soundtrack, and Xbox One and PC owners have one of the best games I’ve played this year.
Robbie Key is the chief warden of robbiekeyv.wordpress.com. He dreams of one day being a video game journalist — or have superpowers … or be a super-powered video game journalist. If you happen to stumble upon this page and are looking for new media members/writers, check out my LinkedIn profile or my professional works on this blog.