Back when I bought my Xbox One, I had two main reasons for doing so: so I could play Rare Replay, and in anticipation of the game Cuphead. While Cuphead would end up getting a PC release as well, I can at least say I don’t regret getting an Xbox One for a myriad of reasons now instead of hinging it on two games.
Cuphead immediately captured my interest with its distinct art style, the entire game presented in hand-drawn animation that mimics the classics cartoons of the early 20th century. I’m a sucker for the style of pretty much that exact period of history, and seeing a game that was reviving the lost aesthetic of old Fleischer cartoons like Popeye, Betty Boop, and Bimbo immediately won my heart. I waited for the day this game would come out, but as I watched the development of it, I was afraid when I heard the game would primarily focus on difficulty boss battles. Games focused all around boss battles can be wonderful experiences, look no further than Furi or Shadow of the Colossus for examples, but I wasn’t sure it was a recipe for success when coupled with this classic art style. When the game finally came out, I was wary, and I was worried. Would this game deliver on the hopes I had placed in it?
…Yes. Yes it did. And then some.
Cuphead is a glorious mix of gameplay and visual design to create an experience without many peers. The game takes the form of a series of boss battles with absurd and stylistically amazing bosses that all challenge the player to master the game’s rather simple core mechanics. Your abilities in this game are rather straightforward. Cuphead, and if you’re playing co-op his buddy Mugman, can fire constant streams of bullets from their fingers to damage enemies, can jump to avoid damage, can dash to get out of a tight scrape, can unleash powerful specials or super moves, and can parry pink objects to invalidate them and build up your special meter a bit. The game does provide a few power-ups along the way to augment these abilities such as different attack types or augmentations to your ability to parry or build up supers, but you’ll never really have to learn more than the basic demands of these skills during battles that do not hold back.
Every boss is a unique challenge, maximizing the potential of the art style to squash and stretch the characters in ways no other video game could get away with without looking absolutely ridiculous. The bosses all test your ability to deal with all the action on screen, with quick reflexes a necessity to stay ahead as you have very little health to spare. You can buy a bit more at the cost of attack power, and almost every power-up has a balance of its upsides and downsides in order to still present the same level of challenge no matter what you bring into the battles. Thankfully, to alleviate the difficulty a bit, the game’s battles are quick and snappy, and death just as easy to recover from. The battle does restart entirely after death, but once you fall off that horse, its easy to get right back on and ride again. Just like Super Meat Boy, the game balances its difficulty with the ability to quickly get back into the thick of things, taking what you learned from your loss to gradually help you overcome whatever challenge lies ahead, and once you do beat the boss, you’ll see how short a winning run on a boss really is. This does lead to some bosses that are a bit easier being less enjoyable because of your ability to roll over them, but ultimately, that problem will only be present depending on your skill level. Almost every obstacle in the game is fair, and I only put that “almost” in there based on other people’s accounts. When I died or got hit, I almost always realized I could have avoided it or should have taken the game’s cues on what was about to happen next. Sometimes I’d fall for an attack I’ve never seen before due to inexperience with the boss’s design on the first run, but everything can be gradually acclimated to or adjusted for in order to come out on top.
Cuphead does do a bit to avoid being just a simple boss rush. The game has a simple story to it, but it does not distract from that core focus. Cuphead and Mugman are gambling at the Devil’s Casino and lose a big bet, their souls now claimed by the devil and the boys pleading with him to keep them. The Devil sends them off to go collect the souls of others who are indebted to him, and the boys head off to do the devil’s dirty work while wondering if that’s the only way they can get out of this mess. It’s not exactly an angle to get invested in, but it matches the strange tones and set-ups of the cartoons it came from where moral ambiguity was almost never acknowledged and the characters just did their things because that’s what the cartoon happens to be about. Cuphead never gets in your face about it and it does a few things to alleviate your concerns about helping out the Devil being something people generally don’t want to do, but like I said, it doesn’t spend to much time on the story at all. To break up the constant boss rush though, the game does put in a few “run and gun” levels, as well as little mausoleums with small parrying challenges in them. Both of these levels are few and far between compared to the bosses and they’re certainly more interesting for their scarcity. The run and guns are all about running to the end, shooting down any enemies you see and navigating through whatever unique obstacles get in your path. Cuphead’s boss fights have a lot of focus on careful dodging, navigation of available platforms, and parrying, and the run and gun levels are a bit of a microcosm of these elements to help you develop your skills in a less punishing environment. That’s not to say the run and guns are easy, some of them even end up harder than certain boss levels, but they present a different kind of challenge that I found rather inviting, helped along by the fact they broke up the gameplay to prevent it from getting samey. The mausoleums are even rarer, and they’re pretty much the best place for the game to beat over your head the importance of parrying. I found a few times during boss fights that parrying was a risk with little reward, as it put me in danger’s way and I often had more special meter than I felt I needed to use. The mausoleums helped me to be ready when parrying became a necessity as I had been made to master them in a place that was designed just for that.
The last big level mix-up comes in the fact the boss fights can come in land or sky forms. In the air, your skills are changed up quite a bit as your are made to pilot a plane that can’t jump or dash, so it has to shrink instead to zip around attacks. Just like the run and gun levels, the occasional appearance of a plane level helped to break up what might have been too much of the same thing, although despite saying this, I feel like the core boss fights are so strong that you probably wouldn’t get tired of them without the extra stuff around them! No two bosses feel the same, each one coming with a variety of attacks and phases to keep the fight varied and distinct. There is a difficulty curve as well as a difficulty barrier to the game as a whole, but the challenge in taking down the bosses make them all the more rewarding to finally beat. If anything, I sometimes wish the fights went on longer! The bosses keep throwing new and interesting twists at me that I want to see each concept taken further and further, and even though I know that would probably make them almost too long and too hard for their own good. The game makes you keep wanting more because of the impressive and creative stuff it keeps throwing at you, and that’s never a bad sign. Much like how the artstyle makes the bosses able to pull off the crazy brand of weirdness they throw at you, they also make each encounter immediately appealing and helps to combat the fatigue some people feel when they lose in a game. You don’t want to give up because if you beat this phase, you get to see the boss do something new and wild, or if you beat that boss, you get to move onto the next one! The game even sets out a few levels all at once to help alleviate the stonewalling featured in other difficult games. If one boss feels like an insurmountable challenge, you usually have a few other levels around you can go visit to fight something else and then come back to that hard one later.
The short and snappy nature of the game’s areas also makes it perfect for coming back to later. I don’t often speak of replayability in games since its not a necessary feature and its one that certain games aren’t banking on as part of their experience, but even after beating Cuphead, I felt drawn to come back. Beating the game unlocks Expert mode, and while it sadly doesn’t give the bosses any new tricks, it does reinvigorate old fights a bit, and the game’s rating system after levels gives you a reason to get better and better at each battle. They also seem surprisingly generous at times, although by the time of your winning run I suppose you might already be good enough at that level to earn Bs and As. The game also has a few hidden tasks for you, all of them hinted at by overworld NPCs. I’m not sure I’ll ever do everything there is to do in Cuphead, but I am drawn to want to do it by a world that is so aesthetically enticing and challenging in all the right ways to make it rewarding to try and do so.
THE VERDICT: I find it difficult to identify things I didn’t like about Cuphead. Sure, some bosses weren’t quite as inspired or enjoyable as others, but they were still good fights despite that. Some people have issue with the run and gun segments, but even though they weren’t on the quality level of the bosses, I found them their own unique challenge and can’t bring myself to gripe at what almost feels like critic bait. I do wish they had been fleshed out more, but beyond that they feel like a decent addition to the game. I wondered if perhaps I had just been dazzled by the art style, blinded to any faults by the game’s unique presentation and appeal… but at the same time, that is an important ingredient to making this game so great. I mentioned earlier Furi, a game with a similar boss rush focus and challenging gameplay. However, despite how much I love that game, its futuristic neon world doesn’t appeal to me inherently like the classic cartoon style in Cuphead. Still, I definitely love Furi, and just like Cuphead, the style helps justify a lot of the challenges you face and the gameplay going on in that world. It helps that the mechanics are sound, but I feel most any game would be hurt immensely by stripping away its visual style. Cuphead is a marriage of both visual design and gameplay quality to make a marvelous whole.
And so, I give Cuphead for the Xbox One…
A FANTASTIC rating. I made sure to let this game sit for a bit before I was sure of this, but even now I’m turning Cuphead on again to go after those high ranks and find the coins I missed. A person’s enjoyment of Cuphead and the length of the experience will certainly be dependent on their skill level with such a game. Combining platforms, situational awareness, and reflexes makes for a challenge not seen much outside of series like Contra. However, the difficulty is fair. Attacks are telegraphed ahead of time, and while you may fall for a trick once, it will be your skill that determines how you handle it next time, not some gameplay fault. No matter how you find the gameplay though, it is hard to deny the charm of the game’s design. Boss battles are the perfect platform for having characters perform insane feats of animation like the wiggling, constantly dancing, and sometimes random black and white cartoons of the old days. Cuphead masters exactly what it’s going visually and gameplaywise, making a solid experience that is a joy right up until the end.
Even though it wasn’t necessary to play it in the end, Cuphead definitely would have made the Xbox One worthy of the purchase.