A game starring a sentient coffee cup that looks like a 1930s cartoon, plays like Contra or Mega Man, and has a reputation for being incredibly challenging.
If I had read that sentence about ten years ago, I might have laughed at it. However, in the year 2017, Cuphead has dropped onto Xbox One and fits that entire description. It’s nostalgia spans multiple decades, from its Steamboat Willie graphic style and music that sounds like it’s from the pre-Depression era to its 1980s’ gameplay and difficulty. Amazingly, with all of its roots firmly planted in the past, Cuphead raises the bar for indie games and platformers alike.
The game stars the titular Cuphead and his pal Mugman, who get wrapped up in a bit of a bad deal with the single worst being a deal made with the Devil himself. The heroic mugs are given a choice; resign themselves to eternal servitude to the big bad guy or, go out and collect the souls of other sad sacks who made a deal and haven’t paid up yet. This takes Cup and Mug on a wild adventure across three islands, encountering some pretty insane enemies in the process.
“Amazingly, with all of its roots firmly planted in the past, Cuphead raises the bar for indie games and platformers alike.”
First things first, everything about Cuphead’s aesthetic is gorgeous. These hand-drawn cartoony graphics fill the screen with color, taking me back to a more innocent time of eating cereal on a Saturday morning. This is an interactive cartoon, each animation flowing beautifully and smoothly on the screen. The soundtrack drives the on-screen action with its swing and big band roots, making me tap my foot just as much as I tap the buttons on the controller. It’s hard to adequately describe how aesthetically pleasing Cuphead is in action, and while graphics and music can only go so far they give this game a major head start.
Cuphead features two main challenges; single-serve boss fights against bad guys of all shapes and sizes and “Run N’ Gun” platforming stages with an onslaught of smaller enemies blocking the path. Leading Cuphead through these travails is wonderful thanks to the easy and tight controls: running, shooting, dashing, and ducking is all this hero needs to succeed and each is mapped onto the controller in a way that feels natural.
It’s a good thing those controls are so comfortable because Cuphead is plenty challenging on its own without having to worry about confusing button layouts. I’ve killed the little guy more times than I’m comfortable with, racking up a mortality rate I’ve not seen since Ori and the Blind Forest. A lot of the challenge involves learning an enemy’s patterns and reacting to them, sometimes even predicting them, but at any moment one false jump could turn a perfect run into a restart.
On paper that sounds frustrating, but in practice, I’m happy to say it’s not so much rage-inducing as it is inspiring. Here’s the thing; the beauty of Cuphead comes from being challenging in a way that makes me want to keep trying as opposed to making me feel helpless. When I die I think “OK, here’s what I did wrong, let’s try that again” more than “OK, this game is *expletive*ing bull*expletive*, who thought this was a good idea?” That’s not to say I haven’t been frustrated, as the 50+ deaths before reaching World 2 will definitely attest, but it’s never driven me to ragequit and walk away. There’s a fine line in video games between challenge and frustration, and while Cuphead flirts with that threshold it stays on the right side of the line more than it crosses it.
Cuphead impressed me in every facet, from its beautiful art style to its challenging gameplay. Studio MDHR clearly put a ton of love and time into every little detail in this game, and the entire package pays off that effort in a fantastic and challenging experience. Cuphead is an indie darling that pulls you in with its cartoony graphics and keeps you there with its engaging gameplay, a blast from multiple pasts that’s worth the trip to yesteryear.
*** Xbox One code provided by the publisher ***
- Beautiful art direction
- Swinging soundtrack
- Simple, yet interesting story
- Challenging without being unfair
- A bit short, especially as skills improve
- Some may not like the challenge