Cuphead Review

By Mark Delaney, 23 days ago
It's been close to impossible to have been cognizant of the gaming landscape over the past few years and not have heard of StudioMDHR's Cuphead. The indie game turned Xbox showpiece has been in the public eye since its reveal in 2014 and has consistently impressed people with its unique audiovisual design. Simply delivering a game that looks pretty is no feat anymore, though. Cuphead would need to be more than that. Fortunately, it's safe to say the indie studio's debut is much more than that, but you'll want to bring a friend if you plan on seeing much of it.

title

Cuphead is a 2D platforming run and gun game with an emphasis on boss battles and one-of-a-kind art design. The visuals take center stage in the game because they're so unlike anything that's ever been released in video games. As titular character Cuphead, or in offline co-op with his pal Mugman, players are given the morally dubious task of collecting debts across Inkwell Isle on behalf of the Devil himself. Old-fashioned music and stills introduce the story befitting of the game's deliberate inspirations. Rarely does the game break its immersive presentation. Levels unfold with no HUD and outside of the tutorial or pause menu, you'll rarely if ever be reminded that you're playing a game.

Few games have ever gone to the lengths Cuphead does to pull players into its world. Others have given us memorable atmosphere, of course, but the way in which Cuphead accomplishes this task is the first of its kind. It blends its gameplay with the truest replication of a specific style ever achieved in the medium. You're not so much playing a game as you are directing a cartoon. After what felt like endless hype for more than three years, it's now certain that Cuphead is as glorious to look at as many have long suspected. Even after seeing it summer after summer, gaming show after gaming show, the aesthetic is unremittingly stunning.

While the music and visuals will often leave you in awe, the gameplay will frequently frustrate you, but usually in a healthy way. Cuphead's isometric hub is filled with characters, levels, and sights to see. Typically more than one level is open at a time, so there are options regarding the order in which they're completed. No matter which level you choose first, you'll quickly discover just how trying your time on Inkwell Isle can be. All levels demand a quick grasp of the control scheme. The default control layout feels a bit troubling at times but if you do find yourself not getting used to it, the game allows players to fully remap the scheme themselves.

Beneath Cuphead's stunning aesthetic lies an unflinchingly hard game.Beneath Cuphead's stunning aesthetic lies an unflinchingly hard game.

Timing your shots, ducking, jumping, and dashing fast becomes a demanding dance. Nailing the choreography of each level is key. Despite the fact that most can be completed in roughly two minutes or fewer, it's more likely beating any given level may take upwards of 15 or 20 minutes. The number of enemy types seems to grow with each level, with little repetition on display. Each of them will have unique move sets or patterns to follow, not unlike platformers of yesteryear. Navigating safely through so many moving parts is the game's greatest challenge and not for the faint of heart.

Boss battles are often just as trying, although given their familiar structure they sometimes feel less so. Presented on a single screen and not requiring you to move ahead, they can be quite stifling, but after a few attempts you'll learn the patterns; at that point, like with the run and gun levels, it's simply a matter of execution. That execution doesn't need to be flawless but it will have to come close. Fortunately, the game offers a shop system featuring very advantageous abilities.

With each run and gun level offering a few coins to pick up, you can take those hard-earned coins to the shop and unlock different special moves and bonuses for your character. Secondary firing modes like an ammo type that doesn't require aiming and homes in on enemies, or a short range spread shot with higher damage, can allow players to mix up their approach. No power-up comes without caveats but neither do any feel useless. Usually it'll be a tough decision when choosing how to spend your coins.

Run and gun levels demand players master Cuphead's chaotic choreography.Run and gun levels demand players master Cuphead's chaotic choreography.

Along with the aesthetics, Cuphead's other greatest strength is its co-op play. A second player can drop in at any time to take on the role of Mugman, who acts as the Luigi to Cuphead's Mario. As daunting as the game is, it feels much more approachable in co-op. Having an ally with whom you can take on the game's constant stream of foes supplements the gameplay loop of short levels demanding near perfect runs to give Cuphead an irresistible "one more try" attribute. Failure will come early and often, level after level, but the quick loading screens invite you to stick with it. The feeling of perseverance you get when each of the many mountains are climbed is on par with gaming's greatest triumphs. Cuphead does feel next to impossible in solo play, so if you don't have a co-op buddy to play with, consider carefully just how humbled you'd like to feel at the hands of StudioMDHR's sadistic cartoon.

We were thrilled to exclusively reveal the game's achievement list recently and it's now safe to say it'll be a tough completion for anyone seeking that. Many achievements require normal or expert difficulty playing time when even the easiest of difficulties is far from its moniker of "simple." You'll also need to buy up everything in the shop, which means chasing down some of the harder coins, as well as achieve an S rank, which demands a perfect run, and complete a level without getting hit. These are some of the toughest the game has to offer. Overall, there aren't many that will come with ease anyway.

Summary

Cuphead is likely to reveal its deliberate frustrations too late for some people. It's hard not to become infatuated with the game's visuals, leaving uninformed buyers lured in by those blatant strengths to discover only then that it revels in its own relentlessness. This, in turn, could leave some wanting a refund and needing a new controller or two. However, for those that go into it with a co-op partner and with the knowledge that its design is as unforgiving as it is beautiful, it will be a unique and rewarding game. Always unabating but never unfair, Cuphead is tough to overcome but even tougher to put down.
4 / 5
Positives
  • One-of-a-kind presentation
  • Addictive "one more try" level design
  • Excellent in co-op
  • Smart power-up system
Negatives
  • Despite scaling, feels nearly impossible in solo play
  • Likely too frustrating for some
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent ten hours on Inkwell Isle, shooting, dodging, ducking, dashing, and usually dying. An Xbox One review copy was provided by the studio for the purposes of this review.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is one of three voices on the TA Playlist podcast. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his fiancée and son. He almost never writes in the third person.