It seems like forever since development on Studio MDHR's Cuphead started. In actuality, it's only been about seven years, but given all of the delays the game has been through, it's not hard to see why it feels like an eternity. But alas, the big day is finally here. So come with me on a journey through the world of 1930s animation as we make a deal with the devil in Cuphead.
Our story begins as Cuphead and his pal Mugman sneak away from home and head into the Devil's casino. After a hot winning streak, the Devil himself comes down to engage the duo in one final, winner-take-all bet. Of course, the Devil wins and claims the souls of our heroes instead. Pleading for their lives, Cuphead and Mugman try to find some way out of the bet, when the Devil has an idea. It turns out he has a list of debtors, and if Cuphead can get them to pay their debts by midnight of the next day, then he can keep his soul.
While this is pretty much the extent of the game's story, that's really all it needs. Cuphead is primarily a boss rush-style game, so the story provides enough motivation to justify this design without being too overbearing. This design also influenced the layout of Cuphead. The world is split into three islands and the casino itself, each with a number of bosses you must defeat before you can move on to the next.
The islands also have a few extra levels to change things up a little. These are entirely optional, but they provide you with benefits that are beneficial in the long run. First, there are the platforming levels. These stages are reminiscent of the run-and-gun games of the past, such as Contra or Metal Slug. Scattered throughout these areas are five gold coins which allow you to buy upgrades when collected. Second, each island houses a mausoleum level. These stages have Cuphead protecting a vase from ghosts by parrying them. Successfully completing each mausoleum grants Cuphead one of three super abilities, which are usable when your super meter fills up.
Every good boss rush game needs, well...bosses, and this is where Cuphead truly shines. Each boss in the game feels completely unique in design and mechanic, despite the only thing you're really having to do is dodge attacks and shoot them. A clean boss run only takes around two minutes per boss, but counting in the time it takes to learn each boss' mechanic, it was closer to 15-20 for me. This resulted in a playtime of only a few hours across the first world. Bosses are significantly easier on easy as many mechanics and phases are cut out. However, to get access to the last world, you'll have to master regular difficulty first—Cuphead will actively prevent you from playing the last two stages unless you've beaten every boss on normal and gotten their soul contract.
For those of you who might think the game isn't challenging enough, however, beating the game on normal unlocks an expert difficulty. I played one of the earliest bosses on expert, and though I triumphed, I almost collapsed in defeat due to the sheer speed at which the attacks came at me. As a reference, as each boss gets damaged, their attacks come at you faster and harder. The slowest attacks on expert were even faster than the quickest were on normal, so you'll really have your work cut out for you if you try to tackle it. I can't even imagine what the later bosses are like, but I'm certainly anxious to find out.
All in all, my playthrough probably took around 10 hours, but thanks to the phenomenal art style and soundtrack, it didn't feel like it at all. The biggest thing people know Cuphead for is its unique art style, and it's not hard to see why. Harkening back to the golden age of cartoons, Studio MDHR lovingly drew every animation frame by hand, only opting for digitization when it came to coloring. Even the sprawling backgrounds are watercolor paintings!
This art style is matched perfectly by one of the best game soundtracks I've ever heard. Inspired by jazz and ragtime, Cuphead's music is unlike anything I've heard in a video game for quite a long time. It doesn't even feel like a game soundtrack—if you played these tunes for me out of context, I wouldn't associate them with video games at all. Do yourself a favor and listen to any of the songs ("Floral Fury" is one of my favorites) and you'll see what I mean.
In my playthrough, I found just a few flaws that, while don't particularly lessen the experience, are worth mentioning. First, I did notice a bit of variation in loading times. Sometimes levels loaded quickly, but other times they took a bit longer. My only other real complaint is with the platforming stages. Though they play just a small part in the grand scheme of things, I would've liked for them to have been a bit longer. There were some really cool and fun mechanics that the platforming stages introduced that only got used the one time. I would've liked to have seen them be incorporated a bit more through either longer platforming levels or implementing some of them in the boss fights.
Cuphead bills itself as "challenging but fair," and I think that description fits perfectly. The biggest challenge to the bosses is figuring out their attack patterns and how to beat them. Once you do that, it's just a matter of execution. You may get a little frustrated at times, but that quickly washes over as you soak in all the intricate details of the game's setting. At least five times through my playthrough, I had to stop and remind myself that this was in fact a game and not a cartoon in and of itself. If that isn't magic, I don't know what is. What I do know, however, is that Cuphead is easily a strong contender for my personal Game of the Year and, as such, will be something I'm playing for years to come.
Cuphead is available on Xbox One, Windows 10, and Steam as of today.
A copy of Cuphead was provided by StudioMDHR for purposes of this review.