Where shall I begin? Cuphead marries early Disney animation styles with “Nintendo Hard” gameplay in the vein of Contra, Ninja Gaiden, and other classic games from the 8 and 16-bit eras of gaming. This review is of both of the Xbox One version and the PC version via the “Xbox Play Anywhere” feature which allows you to buy once and have a copy on both the PC (via the Windows Store) and the Xbox One itself. I figured that this would give me the flexibility I needed to review this properly. Unless I specifically state that something is platform specific, assume that I’m refer to both versions. That being said, here we go …
Cuphead is probably one of the toughest side scrolling shooters I’ve played in a long time. I’m personally a fan of games like Contra, Sunset Riders, Metal Slug, and this game I would gladly say should be right up there with the rest of them. The bullet hell gameplay is fantastic and the game can run on pretty much any computer made in the last five years, which makes this great for the person who like pulling their hair out in frustration either alone or with a friend (as Mugman) in co-op.
The design of the game puts it in a class by itself. All the backgrounds, all the sprites, all the effects, everything is animated by hand. It’s all in the style of classic 1930’s animation, like what you see in Max Fleischer cartoons. This is a massive achievement, and while all hand-drawn artwork is common in adventure games, it’s the first time anybody’s done full animation like this in an arcade action game.
The basic premise for the game is that Cuphead and his brother Mugman are two fun-loving kids who live under the watchful eye of Elder Kettle. Against the elder’s warnings, the brothers wander into the Devil’s Casino and play craps. When the brothers go on a winning streak, the casino’s manager King Dice calls upon the Devil, who raises the stakes. If Cuphead and Mugman can win another time, they will own the entire casino; if not, the Devil will have their souls. Cuphead rolls snake eyes and he and Mugman must give up their souls. The brothers beg for mercy, so the Devil makes a deal with them: collect the contracts of other inhabitants of Inkwell Isle who have lost their souls by midnight the next day, and he might let them off the hook. They visit Elder Kettle, who gives them a potion that allows them to fire blasts from their fingers to aid in their quest.
The game offers some unique options in the way of how to play the game with powerups/potions such as rebound shot, homing shot, spread shot, and more. On top of that, you can power up your shots by consistently hitting the boss or parrying the pink shots which will fill your power gauge which you can use to fire a EX shot which is way stronger then the normal shot itself.
Bosses in Cuphead all have multiple phases and you’ll have to learn how to handle them through trial and error as well as sheer tenacity if you wish to progress through the game itself. The game will always keep you on your toes and make you regret your actions when you die, but not because the game is unfair. It ‘s just because you have to “git gud” as the kids say. 🙂
The game draws plenty of parallels to Contra in the way it play and controls. You’ll find yourself ducking, jumping, and strafing to avoid shots and what not in mid-air while struggling to focus your attack on the boss as the same time. It’s one hell of a juggling act. However, Unlike in Contra, you do not pick up powerups in mid-stage. You buy them from the shop and can switch between two shot types at will. This allows for some unique combinations as well as strategies in both single player and in co-op play.
The game features numerous levels with unique gameplay, from aerial sidescrolling as planes, to run and gun levels where you have to make it to the end of the level to move on. The game also houses several secrets to be unlocked by the player in special ways (for example: not firing a single shot or killing a single thing in Run-and-Gun stages but still completing it.) Also, each level has multiple difficulties from Novice to Expert, which allows for players of all skill types and levels to give it a go.
Cuphead is easily one of the most unique games I’ve ever played and I cannot recommend it enough to anyone if they can grab it on sale. You can currently buy it on Steam, GOG, Xbox Live, and other online retailers. Unfortunately, it’s not available on the Playstation 4 or Vita. Still, go pick it up. It’s well worth it.