Animation from the 1930s
Ever since its announcement in 2014, Cuphead has been one of the most talked about Xbox One games. Its stunning watercolour art design inspired by cartoons from the 1930s is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before in gaming. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind video game that pays homage to classic run ‘n’ gun games like Contra or Gunstar Heroes. Having played through the entire game on Xbox One, it’s time to discuss my thoughts on this innovative title.
Platform(s): Xbox One
“Don’t Deal with the Devil”
Cuphead takes place in a fictional land called Inkwell Isle, home of Cuphead and his brother Mugman. One day the pair enter the local casino (against the Elder Kettle’s advice) and get extremely lucky playing craps. The casino owner, who happens to be the Devil, then offers the pair a gamble they can’t refuse. Win and they get unimaginable riches, but lose and the Devil will own their souls. It’s pretty obvious to guess how this scenario then plays out.
After the brothers beg for mercy, the Devil comes up with a devious way for them to repay their debt. They must travel around three island and collect the contracts from other poor saps who have also lost their souls. Sounds simple enough on paper but it turns out these individuals are the meanest, toughest folks in town.
Three types of stages
Cuphead has three different types of levels on tap: side-scrolling run ‘n’ gun, airplane shooter, and platforming boss battles. By far the most common are the boss battles and they just so happen to be the most fun, too. Each one is beautifully hand-drawn and animated to perfection. Visually, the game is easily on par with early animated films from the likes of Walt Disney or Max Fleischer. They’re really that good.
The flying levels are equally fun, though I found them a bit more difficult given how much action is onscreen. Most of these stages involve light dodging segments mixed with enormous boss fights à la R-Type or Gradius. To help make life a bit easier, you have the choice of switching between two types of planes. One is highly maneuverable with weak gunfire, while the other is slower with stronger bullets. This lets you focus on speed or strength, depending on what’s needed the most at any given time.
The last level type are side-scrolling run ‘n’ gun segments, and they’re by far the worst of the bunch. They mostly involve easy platforming and enemy pattern memorization, which is much less exciting than the eye-popping boss battles. These stages feel like reprieves after maddeningly hard bosses, but end up artificially extending the game (and not the fun.) There is one stand out anti-gravity stage however that mixes things up and provides some thrills along the way.
Much has been said about Cuphead‘s stiff difficulty, and yes that part is definitely true. The game’s hard, borderline punishing at times, and bosses require you to memorize patterns while dying numerous times learning them. Personally I didn’t mind the challenge, but then again I grew up playing games like Mega Man, Battletoads, and Contra. Most modern games are much easier by comparison so I can see the difficulty being a shock to newer gamers.
Even gameplay elements like life bars, something many of us take as a given, are completely removed in Cuphead. You’ll have no way of knowing how much health bosses have left, aside from an ambiguous progress line after dying. And don’t even think about half-way checkpoints, this game doesn’t have those either. When you die it’s always back to the beginning to have another attempt from scratch.
You can make the game easier
Given how difficult Cuphead is, it’s great to see the developers did add in an easier mode. I used the word “easier” on purpose though, as this mode is isn’t “Easy” by any means. It’s just easier than the absurdly challenging normal hard.
Essentially, the easier mode removes one phase of every boss fight, meaning they have less health and get knocked-out faster. I have mixed feelings about this because while it reduces the difficulty, you also miss out on beautiful boss animations. For a game this gorgeous, missing out on key pieces of animation is a definite drawback.
Also, by beating bosses on the easier difficulty you don’t acquire their contract and miss out on some endgame content. Basically what this boils down to is you need to play on the regular difficulty if you want to see everything the game has to offer. And trust me when I say this—the hand drawn animations are too visually stunning to miss out on.
Power-ups can help
To help alleviate some of the game’s difficulty, power-ups exist that can be purchased from Porkrind’s Shop. These include your primary and secondary weapons, and Charms that act like passive abilities. Available weapons include Chaser, which is weak but heat-seeking, the shotgun-like Spread, and heave-damage Lobber. A few more shot types exist as well giving you plenty of options to choose from pre-battle.
Charms, on the other hand, are equipped and provide Cuphead with a range of passive abilities. These range from a Smoke Bomb, which makes you invincible during dashes, to Coffee that continuously fills your Super meter. You can also buy hearts to extend Cuphead’s life, but at the penalty of reducing his weapon power.
With all these different shot types and passive power-ups, it adds a great deal of strategy to the boss battles. Certain weapons may be more effective depending on the boss’ attack pattern, and the same goes for passive Charms. Often times when you’re stuck on a particular boss, simply changing up your loadout is enough to secure you victory.
Cuphead is nothing short of a work of art. It’s a punishing game all right, but learning boss patterns and defeating them is immensely satisfying. Plus whenever you die it feels like your own mistake and not the game’s fault. Graphically Cuphead is unrivaled in its category, and 1930s jazzy big band tunes are a perfect compliment. For those who grew up playing on the NES, SNES or Genesis, you’ll find a game reminiscent of that era albeit with modern-day polish.
+ Impeccable controls
+ Stunning hand-drawn art style
+ Jazz music that’s integral to the experience
+ Two levels of difficulty
+ Memorable boss fights
– Extremely challenging
– Load times are a bit long between levels
Lasting Appeal/Replayability: 4/5