Cuphead is finally here. After being announced three years ago, and after countless delays and even rumors of a silent cancellation, Studio MDHR’s title is finally here, and it doesn’t disappoint. In fact, this game might be even better than I had anticipated. This is definitely not just a pretty nostalgia bomb, this is one of the best 2D titles in years.
Let me start off by praising the obvious: yes, the visuals are phenomenal, magnificent; a work of art. Cuphead is one of the very few games I can think of that should be played for its fantastic visuals alone. This truly feels like a Max Fleischer cartoon from the 1930’s. Not only does it look like one, but its animations are on point just like one. I had the pleasure of showcasing the game to my much older parents, with them saying one of the most adorable things I’ve heard from them in ages, “Oh, I didn’t know those old Betty Boop cartoons are now on Netflix! This will bring back memories!” If this game was already nostalgic and magical for a twenty-something year-old like myself, I can only imagine the level of excitement those flawless visuals can bring to an older audience.
Besides the visuals, another aspect of Cuphead that deserves absolute praise is its sound department. From the moment the game starts, and from the moment that deliciously nostalgic sound of a needle being put on top of a vinyl record starts, you’re in for a musical treat. Cuphead features a fantastic jazz soundtrack, coupled with some additional samba tunes, Merry Melodies-esque tracks, and even a barbershop quartet tune in the title screen, a song so good it always takes me one or two minutes to press the Start button.
But if you think Cuphead is just a pretty face, you’re wrong. Behind the adorably friendly visual aesthetics lies one hell of a challenging game.
The best way I can describe Cuphead‘s gameplay is by using six letters: C-O-N-T-R-A. If you ever played a Contra game or something similar, you know what you’re in for: a brutally challenging 2D shooter, with trillions of deadly shots being thrown at you from all directions, and a huge emphasis on precise jump timing and pattern recognition. The game is essentially a collection of very unique boss battles, each one of them being comprised of four to five different phases. It might sound like there’s not that much, but that’s wrong: each battle is carefully well-crafted in a way that, initially, makes you think it’s pretty much impossible to stand victorious. That’s the beauty of Cuphead: it forges you into a gaming expert. After a couple of hours of playtime (and what I can only assume were dozens upon dozens of deaths), you’ll start recognizing attack patterns, you’ll start being extremely cautious of your (very scarce) health, you’ll plan your moves like a master. It’s a brutal game, but it’s also a fair game and a rewarding experience.
But even with a game this good it comes time to face reality and point out the (few) flaws present in Cuphead.
For starters, I’ve had a few issues with the controls and gameplay. One of these is regarding a very useless function assigned to the RB button: the aiming command. To put it simply, pressing the RB button makes Cuphead stand still, while freely allowing you to aim at any direction. Emphasis on “stand still.” Cuphead is a game that severely punishes you if you don’t move at all times, therefore having a command that hinders your movement is, at the very least, a very unnecessary addition. The game also suffers from long loading times.
Finally, there’s the issue regarding the other type of level Cuphead has to offer besides the core boss battles: run & gun levels. While the boss battles are extremely fun, thought-provoking and replayable, the same can’t be said about those scarce levels, which are as hard as the other battles, but not in a way that makes them fun. It reminded me of a typical level of Contra, but without any of the fun. While boss battles are all about memorizing attack patterns and planning strategies, those run & gun levels are all about running as fast as possible to the end of the screen with the X button pressed as if there was no tomorrow, praying to the gods that you won’t lose health due to a cheap shot caused by an enemy strategically placed near the edge of a platform. To add insult to injury, those levels are the only means for you to get currency in order to buy powerups for your character. Oh joy…
Cuphead might have been delayed way too many times, but I’m equally glad and relieved that the game turned out to be even better than what I was expecting, which was already a lot. It’s gorgeous, unbelievably charming, challenging, and above all, fun to play. It might not exactly be the easiest game around, nor a very compelling title for casual audiences, but this is, without a shadow of a doubt, a mandatory title for any Xbox One owner. It’s just that good.
Also available on: PC