Cuphead - Xbox One Review

Cuphead is a throwback in almost every sense of the word. Visually it hearkens back to an old art style that remains fascinating today. Beyond its incredible visuals however, Cuphead is a tough-as-nails action platformer that reminded me of my classic platforming days where memorizing boss patterns and learning the lay of the land were essential for victory.

The fascinating jazzy score with its scratchy visual filter and watercolor water design gripped me as soon as I started the game. Of course, everyone has known about the unique visual style Cuphead has been teasing for some time now. The hand drawn visuals are complimented by gorgeous backgrounds and the music - well, the music may be my favorite this year in gaming. Artistically the presentation just evokes a different time, where cartoons of the 30's were simple - yet often just a little dark around the corners if you give them much thought.

Here, the darkness is a bit more front and center as Cuphead and Mugman make a deal with the devil while gambling - and they lose. The premise is that our hero (or heroes if you decide to make use of the local cooperative play) need to harvest some specific souls for the devil himself. These would be the boss battles that occur with quite a bit of regularity along the way. If the brothers succeed, the devil may spare their souls.

However, this is a game that absolutely requires patience, because you will experience a great deal of trial and error along the way. However, and maybe this is just me being a gamer more than forty years old, but the challenges found in Cuphead never felt unfair. I was not running out of lives and starting over from scratch - I got to keep trying. Compared to the classic shooters of my Atari, arcade and 8-bit childhood, Cuphead is actually pretty forgiving. Now, that is not to say the game did not challenge me. I'm older, my reflexes are probably a bit slower than they were 25 years ago, but in the end there was still that same fantastic sense of satisfaction when I knocked off a boss or a tough level.

Of course, I did die and die often. One kind of nifty bit of feedback from the game is the simple start and finish line illustration that comes up on the screen. It gives you a good idea how far along you were through the zone or how close you came to besting a boss. It was a nice motivator (if at times a little frustrating when I could swear my little Cuphead was juuuuust about touching that finish line after I died) to see how close I was. It is a simple thing, but it gave me some perspective on how my latest strategy worked.

The gameplay mechanics are somewhat simple, but I cannot bemoan them as being too simple. I've read some reviews and comments from gamers who thought that the controls really should have had more depth, but jump dashes and angled shooting were the kinds of things I'd have killed for in the original Mega Man. Granted, the game mechanics don't really grow and progress a whole lot - what you learn in the very simple opening tutorial is enough to teach you what you need to know to complete the game. However, I think the devs deserve some credit for tight, responsive controls and a control scheme that is easy to pick up. It was never that the game let me down - I let me down when I died.

When you are not running, jumping and shooting to stay alive, you are in an overworld that serves as a hub that connects different levels. Like the rest of the game, it is hand drawn and complimented by beautiful music. In terms of how it works, it rather reminds me of moving around the map in the middle aged Mario games where you meander about picking what scrap you want to be in next. There are some platforming levels along the way, but Cuphead is heavily focused on the boss fights. They all start off with what seems like a relatively simple pattern to identify, but they come in stages (this is not my final form!) that grow progressively more challenging. They are in their own way puzzles - puzzles that require fast reflexes much of the time.

The co-op is a nice touch, but it was not as great as I thought it would be. It does help to beat on some of the bosses with some additional firepower, and along the way you can access shops that will give you some perks to further help slant things to your favor. They help - but in the end it is going to come down to patience and practice.

Look, I understand that Cuphead is not going to be for everyone. I thought the visual style was absolutely beautiful, but that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The scratchy filter or color bleeding might be a nuisance to some people. Sure, you can choose simple or normal boss battles, but the game is meant to be beaten in normal and really - if you are looking for a challenge, that is what you should be doing here. I will say that I had almost as much fun watching my son play as I did playing the game myself, which is a testament to the game's aesthetics. There is a lot going on and I actually noticed things passively watching that I missed while I was playing and fighting for my life. Cuphead has a great deal of charm and despite a handful of small bugs and a somewhat brutal difficulty, it is a winner in my book.

Game Information

Xbox One
StudioMDHR Entertainment Inc.
StudioMDHR Entertainment Inc.
Single Player
Local Co-op
Other Platform(s):

Provided by Publisher

Article by Nick


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