I grew up in a particularly odd family. Massive in members and diversity, there was little I was not exposed to from a very young age. On top of that, I had both sets of Grandparents and Great Grandparents well into my late teens. Because of this, my upbringing was that of an uncanny collision of generations from the 1930’s, 60’s, and 80’s, all mixing in with my own generation of the mid 90’s/early 2000’s. This collision has caused me to become nostalgic for a lot of things that were beyond my time, and often as a child I would be watching vintage Universal and Warner Bros cartoons while playing nes games like Mega Man and Contra. This combination was odd to every friend of mine, but it was an everyday occurrence for me. Little did I know that one day, my childhood would be thrown into a blender for the rest of the world to enjoy, the end result being Cuphead in Don’t Deal With The Devil.
Upon its reveal at Microsoft’s E3 Conference back in 2015, I was instantly smitten with the concept, but the 2 year wait made me increasing nervous for the game’s fate behind the scenes. However, now that it’s out, I can safely say that it was worth the wait.
Reviewed on Xbox One, also available on Windows 10.
The story is initially told through the charm and magic of an storybook opening ala vintage disney films like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Cuphead and Mug Man are two naive brothers who live under the care of the wise Elder Kettle. One day, against Elder Kettle’s warnings, they duo ends up in the devil’s casino where they quickly become high rollers at the craps table. But upon losing a high stakes bet against the Devil himself, the two are given an ultimatum. Collect the souls of all the runaway debtors before midnight of the following day, or lose their own souls. With no time to lose, the brother’s take off on a dangerous adventure to save themselves before it’s too late.
It should be noted that the intro breaks the immersion and the facade of this being an old cartoon for two reasons. The animation style of Cuphead emulate the type of cartoon you would see before the main feature in a theatre. However, the storybook opening makes the game appear to be the feature film itself, which often had much more realistic characters and less cartoony occurrences. This is a minor, superficial grip, but as a diehard fan of golden era cartoons, it’s a disappointment nonetheless.
Secondly, the song on the main menu. While feature films did have their own theme songs, the cartoons before the movie had a different purpose. Often times, the cartoon would serve as a music video for the main song in the movie you were about to watch. This was especially true of the Merrie Melodies by Warner Bros. And although the actual in-game music fits this mold greatly, the title song is out of place in both tone and effect. Though again I should stress that this won’t be a problem for most people.
Gameplay in Cuphead is fast, paced, hectic, and unforgiving. The game takes the shooting of Contra and beautifully mixes it with the movement of Mega Man X. The controls are tight and responsive, I never felt like an incorrect movement was at any fault but my own and I always felt in control of my jump distance. You can hold down a button to aim in place, but I never used it much as I was constantly on the move.
Landing enough hits on a particular enemy builds up a meter for your super attack, which can greatly change the tide of battle in your favor.
You are given three hits and no checkpoints to successfully defeat a boss with numerous forms. You are able to jump, dash, duck, and aim in 8 directions. Pressing the jump button a second time when you see a pink item allows you to do a parry, which is required in some instances, and allows you to revive a fallen comrade in coop. The game gets creative with what items, and enemies can be parried and it is often easy to forget that pink is the sole indicator that it can be parried.
There are standard platforming levels in the game called “Run and Gun” but they feel like more of an afterthought than a fully realized implementation of Cuphead’s mechanics in an adventure. The main focus and appeal is definitely in the various creative boss fights. Each boss is wholly unique from others, and you are never quite sure of what will come next.It’s the complexity and difficulty of these bosses that will likely have many players stumbled, though I personally do not find them all that challenging.
Each enemy and attack is just slow enough for you to dodge properly and you ever see a completely random attack. On top of that, the three hit points seems generous to Contra’s one. I never really felt like the game was overly difficult, instead it feels like a puzzle, and once you learn the solution, it becomes a breeze. I often found myself intentionally restarting bosses not because of difficulty, but because I missed a parry and I wanted a better end score. In fact, I firmly believe that anyone who attempts the game should be able to complete it on the regular difficulty without getting overly stressed out.
If you are stuck though, Cuphead has the ingenious inclusion of a progress meter. This shows you how close you were to finishing the fight, which is the perfect fuel for the “just one more try and I’ll get it!” mentality. The meter makes completing a boss or level feel extremely satisfying, more so than any other game I have played this year and I hope to see it included in several more games in the future.
When not in battle, you can explore a top down overworld map with a shop and several characters to interact with. Here you can get fun little tidbits that help grow the world you’re in, as well as earn extra money to buy on new weapons. The weapons and badges themselves work on a double edged sword system. The spread shot is strong but has a low range, the heart badge gives you an extra hit but lowers your attack, the risk reward nature of these items makes it so you never feel over powered and it allows players to customize their experience nicely. Though ultimately I prefered playing the game with the default weapon and no badges.
The game also features drop-in drop-out local coop throughout the entire experience, however, this does increase the difficulty substantially. On top of that, you are both graded for each other’s performance. So not getting any game can still result in a lower score if your team mate gets hit. That said, coop is extremely fun and I highly recommend getting on the couch with a buddy. You won’t regret it.
The whole game is presented with beautiful hand drawn sprites that perfectly emulate the look and feel of a vintage cartoon. It then goes one step further by adding a filter that emulates old film. There’s a color bleed bluring effect that can make the game look more fuzzy, but it can be toned down, up, or completely off depending on the player’s preference. If color isn’t your style, worry not because there is a variety of unlockable filters included a retro black and white, making Cuphead one of those rare games that is just as entertaining to watch as it is to play.
The sound design is spot on in Cuphead. You notice little pops and cracks of an old movie projector as soon as the game starts to load, and they are present throughout the entire game. The music is all old timey jazz and it is very hard to not fall in love with the soundtrack. King Dice’s theme in particular is one that I can see a lot of people getting down to.
The sound effects all have a satisfying echo to it, and the announcer has a great old fashioned sound to him.
In my family, it is a right of passage for a boy to gamble in Las Vegas as soon as he turns 21. When I did this, I won $400 in a slot machine, and then lost all of it plus $700 of my own money at a craps table. Cuphead is a game that managed to capture the wonder of being a kid while playing games and watching cartoons and the adult anxiety of gambling debt. I don’t think there was a universe where I wouldn’t like Cuphead, as even the few bad spots I have seem petty in comparison.
If you’re a fan of retro games with no hand holding, Cuphead is for you. Just remember that the game isn’t the most difficult in the world, especially if you’re a seasoned gamer.