Well blow me down — more than three years and multiple delays after it was announced, the Xbox One/PC exclusive title Cuphead has finally arrived. Many who saw the original trailer back in 2014 were instantly captivated by the 1930s art style that was reminiscent of old Fleischer Studio cartoons — a style which had never been seen in video games before. I was one of those people, and Cuphead’s exclusivity was one of the main reasons I got an Xbox One. And although the PS4 has stronger system specs, a larger user base and a larger-and-arguably-better library of exclusive games, the Xbox One has Cuphead — so there. Was Cuphead ultimately worth getting a system that alienates me from my friends and a majority of the gaming community as a whole? Answer: Kind of.
Cuphead was the first game created by Studio MDHR, an independent Canadian video game company founded by brothers Jared and Chad Moldenhauer. The story of Cuphead is simple: After the lead character, Cuphead, and his brother, Mugman, gamble their souls to the Devil in a game of craps, the brothers find themselves having to collect the souls of other debtors to save their own.
Before we get into the gameplay, we have to talk about the most striking thing about Cuphead: its art direction. I can’t stress enough how stunning this game looks — it perfectly replicates the style of cartoons from the early twentieth century down to the scratches on the screen. The Moldenhauer brothers were clearly inspired by the '30s cartoons that they grew up watching, such as Silly Symphonies and Betty Boop. I also grew up watching these cartoons, which is why I was so drawn to Cuphead from the jump. It also explains why I still refer to liquor as “hooch” and large oafs as “big palookas.” How they got the game to look this good was through using the same animation techniques that animators used back then, including drawing and inking every frame of animation by hand on paper, as well as hand painting the watercolor backgrounds before putting them into the game. The attention to detail in the animation really helped capture the bizarre charm of these cartoons, which is equal parts whimsical and unsettling. Besides the incredible art, Cuphead’s sound design is also nothing to sneeze at. The original soundtrack perfectly complements the art style, encompassing music genres from that era, including ragtime, barbershop quartet and big-band jazz.
As far as gameplay, this is where some criticisms begin to arise. Cuphead is a 2D, run-and-gun, action platformer, which essentially means that the main thing you’re going to be doing is running, jumping and shooting. This is an older video game genre that was mainly prominent in arcades and systems from the late '80s to mid '90s. Examples include games such as Contra for the NES, Gunstar Heroes for the Sega Genesis and Metal Slug for the arcade. The good thing about this genre is that it’s very easy and quick to pick up the controls and play. The bad thing, though, is that these games tend to be extremely hard to master, and Cuphead is absolutely no exception. In fact, Cuphead’s levels are primarily composed of the hardest aspects of those games, which are the boss battles. It’s pretty hard from the beginning, and the difficulty just continues to spike as you progress through the levels.
Cuphead unyieldingly sticks to the run-and-gun conventions of yesteryear, and you will die and have to start over a countless number of times. Even simple mode is pretty challenging, and although there are power-ups that you can get, they’ll only help you so much. Although the difficulty is usually fair and the controls are fairly tight, the game still has frustrating sections that result in cheap deaths that’ll make you want to throw your controller at the ole boob tube. You can play co-op with a friend, which, depending on your skill level, might make the fights easier but can also prove more challenging, especially with two players on the screen at the same time. This is a game of repetition, where you’ll keep dying until you begin recognizing boss patterns and your reflexes sharpen. That’s all good, and this style is what’s generally preferred among run-and-gun purists, but it’s kind of a drag for those who aren’t. I would’ve preferred a more gradual ramp up in difficulty, as I found myself feeling more discouraged than I would’ve liked to. Don’t get me wrong, the levels are still novel and fun to play, and the difficulty is generally not enough to make me not want to keep playing. But it does feel a little unbalanced, and some parts err on the side of unfair.
Overall, Cuphead lived up to its hype and delivered what it promised. It’s an old-school shooter with an even older art style that looks like no other video game out there. If you’re a fan of run-and-gunners and own an Xbox One/PC, you should get this game. If you’re only a fan of the art design, I recommend demoing it first to see if the gameplay is to your liking. And if you’re a fan of run-and-gunners and the art design but own a PS4, you can cry me a river.