Cuphead Review – Distilled to Perfection

From the moment I saw Cuphead, I fell in love with its premise, its visuals, and its promise. A love letter to both traditional 2D animation and more traditional gameplay mechanics, the game seemed to be the lovechild of everything from my early childhood. If it seems like I’m using the word love a lot, it’s because there is clearly a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and love put into this game – the question is how does it hold up as a finished product?

Cuphead
Publisher: Studio MDHR
Developer:Studio MDHR
Platform: PC (Reviewed), Xbox One
Release Date: September 29th, 2017
Players: Single or Two-Player
Price: $19.99

The biggest draw for Cuphead for the majority of people is its hand-drawn, 1930s-inspired cartoonish visuals, and dear God are they mesmerizing. The game simply pops off your computer screen or television, and the development team had a lot of fun cramming in tons of characters and worlds.

For a game as visually overwhelming in its sharp fidelity and its completely non-conforming style, you’d assume it probably takes a decent rig to run properly or maybe there’s performance issues when the screen is literally filled with enemies, bullets, and explosions? The answer is no and no.

Cuphead not only runs like a dream but it even runs with a locked framerate despite how completely bonkers and completely saturated the screen can get, and that happens quite a lot in this game. A game this polished and as far as I can tell bug-free is sadly a rarity in this day and age, however the game is an expertly well made product from start to finish.

Studio MDHR must be commended for their accomplishment, a pinnacle of traditional animation and visual design that are both simply breathtaking and honestly mind-boggling. They tap into a part of my childhood that I hold so dear, and I couldn’t be happier with the end result. The game is so visually different from so many other games it kind of makes you wonder if it’s even real.

Cuphead is the kind of game that will completely divide the gaming industry when it comes to mechanics, level design, and enemy placement – all with regards to overall difficulty. The game taps into those primal, old school gameplay mechanics that have you learning by repeatedly dying.

For more thin-skinned gamers or game journalists that are looking for a stress-free or a low-risk gaming experience, this is the complete opposite of that. You will die hundreds, thousands of times in Cuphead trying to not only beat the game, but also to get 100% as well. The game rewards you for learning through inference and it’s just a beautiful thing to not only feel but discover.

One of the main differences with this game and other titles many plebeians will compare it to is that Cuphead completely and masterfully puts the player into that very thin line between “just challenging enough” and “genital destruction jamboree.” I screamed at the game until I beat it. I am so, so thankful for this experience I will build a shrine to house my worship of Cuphead.

I really can’t describe the feeling of euphoria following an hour or so memorizing a boss’ patterns and attacks, only to finally overcome the boss in the end and hear that wonderful “KNOCKOUT” soundbite. The game legitimately pushes you to your limits and encourages you to think more critically, adapt, and eventually overcome whatever obstacle you’re presented with.

Cuphead also taps into that wonderful “in the zone” mindset, where you just stop thinking and start doing instead. The game demands total hand-eye coordination, otherwise you will fail and fail repeatedly until you either get good or go complain about it on the internet. The feeling of supremacy of returning to old levels or bosses and winning easily is fantastic as well.

I want to put a direct spotlight on how good the platforming in the game feels. If you keep dying, it’s your fault, not the game. An inhuman amount of attention to detail has been put into the game when it comes to hitboxes and overall feel of player movement and platforming. I never truly felt legitimately cheated due to faulty controls, bad level design, or unfair enemy placement.

The game rewards player experimentation not only in direct gameplay but also in what upgrades you purchase and equip your hero(es) with. Do you want to stick with the vanilla pea shooter, or do you want homing bullets that do slightly less damage? Is more HP a good idea, or possibly a dash that gives you a few frames of invulnerability? There’s so many possibilities.

Another major piece of Cuphead that you will immediately notice is the fantastic and amazingly well done soundtrack, which is an eclectic mix of big band jazz, acapela vocals, charming piano pieces, and more. There is so much love and passion fueled into this soundtrack that it perfectly captures the early 20th century style it so dearly envisions.

There are some people who simply don’t care for jazz music, despite this every piece in this game’s soundtrack is unique and matches the scene, level, or boss they’re matched with. This is an stylistic feat that I wish more games would strive for, instead of approaching music as an afterthought to gameplay and story. So much of this soundtrack shines and is just fun to listen to.

Audio cues are a huge thing in this game that so magically captures that old school gameplay mindset, which moreso feels like a direct injection into your carnal processes. Unless you’re a glutton for punishment, you will have to fully take in every tidbit of a level or boss to overcome its challenges, even something as small as a little fire demon bastard that squeals prior to jumping at you.

The music, sound effects, and small bits of voicework smattered throughout the game all make this glorious cacophony that hits you like a whirlwind of the past. Everything in the audio soundscape is so well done literally nothing feels out of place and everything feels like it has a purpose. I cannot recommend this soundtrack enough, even just for pure listening pleasure.

The game’s story is pretty simple and yet so reminiscent of the kind of stuff you only now see in old time cartoons or stories: Cuphead and his comrade Mugman go to gamble with the Devil, for some reason, and lose – thus forfeiting their souls. They naturally panic and plead with the Devil to be forgiven, instead he offers you the job of repoman to collect the souls of his debtors.

As with lots of older gameplay-focused titles, the vast majority of the game is pure gameplay with almost no story moments, save for the introduction and the ending. You’re progressing through wild and fantastical locales and fighting bosses that range from maniacal bird supervillains, giant Medusa seamonsters, to Germanic rats that have an affinity for machinery.

It’s all nonsense and the game completely revels in it. The game immediately thrusts you into a level where you’re fighting angry anthropomorphized flowers, and things just get crazier from there. Everything in the game has a human-like face, and almost everything is trying to kill you. However, it’s all filtered through an adorable lens so you’re not being bombarded with blood and gore.

Cuphead is so much of what made me get into video games in the first place and why I still love them dearly as not only a hobby, but a way of life. Cuphead is pure and total gaming passion, finely distilled through decades of experience from games past and presented in a glorious and wonderful visual spectrum that will have you coming back for more.

The game is a masterpiece of style, presentation, gameplay, and ultimately overall design – all of it comes together in an absolutely brilliant package that I haven’t experienced often at all in my entire lifetime. Cuphead is the kind of game that only comes once in a very, very long time so do yourself a favor in buying it and playing it until you’ve finally beat the Devil at his game.

Cuphead was reviewed on Windows PC using a review copy purchased by Niche Gamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.

The Verdict: 10

The Good:

  • Amazingly well done visuals, style, and presentation
  • Fantastic, catchy, expertly made soundtrack
  • Spot on sound cues and effects
  • Intensely satisfying gameplay, platforming, and combat
  • Challenging levels and bosses that teeter in that sweet spot of difficulty

The Bad:

  • The tutorial is like way too hard