When I first saw the trailer reveal for Cuphead, it instantly connected with me. Seeing the old 1930s cartoon art design mixed with classic platforming mechanics was something I didn’t know I wanted, but desperately needed.
Weeks before Cuphead released, I began reading previews that said Studio MDHR’s indie was difficult. Like Dark Souls, but more friendly-looking. Having never played Dark Souls, but briefly experienced those types of games with my few hours of Bloodborne, I was a bit hesitant to get on board. However, the memorizing art style was too much to resist, as well as wanting to blow off the dust from my Xbox.
If you’ve never experienced what a true love-hate relationship is, then you need to play Cuphead. Right from the beginning, I suffered at least a dozen deaths trying to fight the first boss. As you make your way through the islands collecting souls for the Devil, (yes, things get dark very fast) the contracts you must fulfill become more difficult and more complex. One fight you’re taking on two boxing toads, and the next you’re flying an airplane battling a Medusa-esque sea monster. Not only are each encounters different, but the enemies rarely do the same routine during each brawl. Every boss fight and run-n’-gun level presents their own unique challenge, and Cuphead must be properly equipped to take them on.
Cuphead, also the name of the title character, is able to unlock various attacks and special abilities. While that type of customization is welcomed, it’s an unfortunate inconvenience not being able to restructure your layout during a level. In order to do so, you must head back to the actual map of the island to switch things up.
The default button layout was a rather interesting decision by Studio MDHR, to say the least. For some unknown reason, someone over there thought it was a good idea to have the shoot button as X. After having played through about 200 deaths and not knowing you could rearrange the buttons, I got used to having the shoot button kitty-corner to the jump button. It might be beneficial to switch shooting to the right trigger to get a more familiar feel to it, but using X has been relatively fine with me.
Cuphead’s biggest challenge comes in the way of not knowing where you are in a fight until you die and see the progress made, and most of the upgrades. During every encounter thus far, and I’m halfway through the third isle, you never know when the boss is close to dying. Not having that precious piece of information makes every attempt that much more intense and when you fail, which you will, and see that you were an inch from victory is a feeling you won’t shake until you do succeed.
Certain upgrades are obtained after completing the various mausoleum levels found throughout the isles, while others are bought at Porkrind’s Shop. Porkrind has clearly seen better days with his eye patch (pun intended), and most of his upgrades have too. The only absolute must-have upgrades are the Spread (weapon) and Smoke Bomb (invisible dash). The Spread is essentially the standard Peashooter you start with, but in a triple spread with increased damage. Only downside is the Spread option is the lack of distance, so it’s best suited for close combat. The Smoke Bomb should be one of, if not, the first purchase you make. Initially, Cuphead can perform a slight dash in order to evade enemies. This skill allows him to briefly turn invisible in a puff of smoke and reappear a few feet in the given direction to 100 percent avoid damage. Other upgrades that I’ve used for more situational battles were the Lobber (slowly lobs balls) and Roundabout (boomerang projectiles that’ll fly backwards if they don’t make contact at first).
For a game that costs only $20, Cuphead might be one of the best values this year. Yes, the insane level of difficulty could turn the average gamer off, but the sheer satisfaction of finally defeating a boss after countless attempts has never tasted sweeter. The art design in of itself is a good enough reason to purchase this game. Studio MDHR could’ve done a better job with the default button layout, but did give the player maximum customization with being able to rearrange the buttons to their play style. And although the majority of the upgrades aren’t necessary (don’t get the extra heart life, because it’ll lower your overall attack power), there are still a few that will make your time in Cuphead a little more forgiving. In terms of exclusivity, 2017 hasn’t been kind to Xbox gamers, but luckily, Cuphead reigns supreme for loyal Microsoft supporters.
Final Score: 9/10
*Disclaimer: This review is based off roughly 80% completion of the game. I hope to one day make it to 100% without breaking any of my controllers.