Release Date: September 29th, 2017
Platforms: Xbox One (Reviewed,) PC
When it was first announced to the public in 2014, Cuphead quickly became a frequently anticipated release in the gaming community for its captivating 1930’s cartoon aesthetic and promise of challenging retro-style gameplay. The game was subject to long delays and announcements of further work being done until early 2017, when an official release date was confirmed for September 2017.
Many who had followed the game for so long were skeptical if it would ever be released, and if it was, many questioned if would hold up to the massive amount of attention and hype it received in the multiple years between announcement and release. The time is finally here where we can assess Cuphead for its merits and see if it was worth the wait.
First of all, as all the internet memes suggest, Cuphead is hard-as-nails, retro-style “run & gun” gaming at its finest, with its biggest influences coming from the likes of Contra, Megaman, Gunstar Heroes, and Super Meat Boy, among many others. Though its exterior is cute and fun, the game will confront most players in ways that will frustrate, challenge, and reward equally, just like most of its influences, and this must be something you prepare yourself for before heading into the game.
The main gameplay style featured in Cuphead is that of the games previously mentioned, with a heavy leaning on platforming stages and epic boss fights, featuring dozens of patterns to memorize and master, including multiple transformations on all 28 of the bosses. This style focuses on quick reaction, skillful concentration, and clever strategy to overcome the odds and conquer the foes ahead of you.
The other main style of gameplay is a horizontal shooter or “bullet hell” type gameplay, along the lines of the R-Type or Gradius series. This style pits you against a giant, transforming boss to fight from your flying aeroplane while constantly dodging and strategizing against their attacks and those of their multiple fiends to find the best maneuvers to reach your goal of taking them down.
Both of these styles of gameplay melded together into one seamless experience is already like a retro gamer’s dream come true, and it’s all wrapped up in an attractive, intriguing, and wonderful aesthetic package that is equal parts Fleischer Studios, early Disney, and Looney Tunes.
The game also features full co-op for the campaign, where another local player can join in at any time to help you best any obstacle you’ve gotten stuck on, or just to have some fun interacting with each other, sharing the misery of defeat and the triumph of victory when you finally tackle a tough encounter.
Just like the cartoons that were so popular in this era, the game succeeds in mixing the adorable, scary, unsettling, joyous, and clever imagery of the animation with the iconic sound elements from the same era, complete with an original jazz, swing, ragtime, and big band music score accompanying every stage and encounter in the game.
With each stage having its own title and “cast roll,” it mimics the episodic nature of the cartoon short films from where it draws its inspiration, making every encounter feel like its own unique experience, with the sound and visual elements coming together to tell the story of the character and the world they inhabit as you fight.
Everything contained in the game is wrapped up in such a tightly-knit and clever package that it’s very easy to get immersed in this world and not want to leave, just as all the best games of this type have been able to do in the past, but using even more of the modern visual technology available to push the limits of how the world can immerse you.
Once I started playing the game, it was hard to put it down or take any breaks, and I was sucked into an entire weekend of trying and retrying the stages over and over to get the best results and see what kind of art or animation I might have missed the first times I fought a certain boss or played a certain stage.
The attention to detail put in by the small team who created Cuphead is absolutely astounding and will surely be a trip down memory lane for anyone who grew up seeing these kinds of cartoons on TV, and to make those memories “playable” via the medium of video games is a genius idea that has been realized to the fullest by this team.
As a bit of condolence, the developers did include an “easy mode” in the game, but with one major caveat; you cannot actually complete the game if you’ve only played all the stages on easy. Once you try to reach the final world of the game on easy, it tells you to go back and finish all the stages on the normal difficulty if you want to fight the last 11 bosses and finish the game.
This is a great idea that we used to see in many retro games and one that I feel pushes many players to hone their skills and keep improving to reach higher with their skills in the game, though some may see it as the opposite, as if it’s “locking out” players who can’t play at a certain skill level from experiencing part of the game.
In conclusion, I can very confidently say that if you’re a person who enjoys the challenge and reward of the types of games mentioned previously in this review, Cuphead will likely be the modern equivalent of all those classics in their respective genres for you, and you’d be doing yourself a favor to check it out, especially at only $20.
Cuphead is easily one of the most focused and charming games released in 2017, even with as divisive as its style and difficulty level will be for many gamers, it’s impossible to deny the effort, meticulous detail, and passion that was poured into the development of the game, as it oozes through every pore and every frame of animation. The vision and direction for the game is strikingly clear and uncompromised in the best way possible.
I can also say that if you simply love the aesthetic of the game as much as many other people do, it may still be worthwhile for you, as long as you can brace yourself to meet failure and overcome the odds with persistence and determination.
Make the decision yourself by checking out some videos or other media online and hopefully you’ll get as much enjoyment out of Cuphead as I did, if you decide to check it out, but personally, I can’t recommend it enough. Cuphead is the type of indie game I’ve been waiting for years to surface and it stands firmly among the best 2D run & gun games of all time.