Cuphead ($20, Xbox One and PC) has the pressure of enormous expectations. It’s not only been showing off gorgeous trailers for years, it’s promised an absolute dedication to a unique aesthetic — that of the surreal cartoons of the ’20s and ’30s, with gorgeous hand-drawn art. That’s a lot of pressure, but it delivers, graphically. So how does it play as a game?
Cuphead follows the titular character and his brother Mugman as they hunt down souls for the devil. That’s pretty much the whole story. Fortunately, Cuphead can fire bullets from his finger, and with that, his handy dash, and a bunch of other powers, he collects coins, guns down a huge range of brilliantly imaginative enemies, and saves the day. Eventually, because he dies. A lot.
Cuphead‘s conceit, of a playable cartoon, works. Studio MDHR has spared no detail, from the period-accurate music to the painted backgrounds to the not-entirely-kid-friendly references. It’s fairly clear they love the riot of imagination that was animation in the ’20s and ’30s, and it’s delightful. The game itself is retro too, but throws back to the 1980s: Cuphead is what the Fleischer Brothers would make if you tried to explain the concept of Mega Man to them.
While the game pulls mechanics from other sources, like a Zelda-esque overworld where you wander from point to point and hunt up secrets, primarily it’s all about big, multi-stage boss fights, broken up by the occasional run ‘n gun level or flying area. It starts tough and gets harder, sticking to the old-school technique of memorizing the boss’ patterns and having to run that gauntlet near-perfectly. Thankfully, they’ve smoothed over the parts that suck; if Cuphead falls down a pit, he loses a hit point instead of dying instantly, and whenever you die, you get a handy chart telling you just how much further you have to go. You can tackle bosses in whatever order you want. And none of the patterns are completely unmanageable, although nimble fingers are required. But much like the cartoons it’s based on, Cuphead only looks cuddly.
If there’s a flaw here, it’s that the game is often so frantic you can’t really appreciate the design. There’s a lot of wit and detail packed into this game, but it moves so quickly it’s difficult to take it all in. That’s a shame, because what you can catch as you play is delightful. Cuphead could stand, occasionally to stop and take a breath. It would also help break up the gameplay, which can get a little exhausting. Still, as an old-school platformer, and as proof that lush design doesn’t have to involve polygons and ray scatter, it’s a welcome change of pace.
Verdict: Clear Your Calendar
This review was conducted on Xbox One review code provided by the publisher.