Cuphead Review -- Old-School Cool
Cuphead may have suffered a few delays over the years, but 2017 was the right year to let it out into the wild. This is a year that will be remembered within the gaming community for its plethora of fantastic platformers -- and Cuphead itself will sit right there among them, as it deserves.
There are two things that make this entry to the genre notable and will inevitably be its shining chariot into cult classic status: the signature '30s-era animation style, and its almost-total focus on challenging boss fights that are generally (not always) just as fair as they are busy.
Cuphead's focus on boss fights is one of its biggest draws, but for some, it may be its biggest detriment. Despite its mostly cute (and sometimes unsettling) visuals, the game is almost like a boss gauntlet. There's a world map, NPCs to talk to, run-and-gun stages, and a shop -- but the vast majority of anyone's time playing the game will be spent taking on the game's many bosses. If you're not up for a bunch of projectile-spewing bosses, the game very well may not be to your tastes even when lowering the difficulty.
The game boasts a fair amount of weapons, special attacks, and charms. These can be bought outside of stages and equipped to your liking. But if you were hoping you could buff yourself to make the game easier, you've got another thing coming. Despite the array of options, none of them stand head and shoulders above the rest in terms of strength, but there are just enough to suit most playstyles. Weapons with wide spreads -- or the one that automatically targets enemies -- have weaker shots, while the one with the highest single-hit damage potential has to be charged.
Cuphead is balanced from top to bottom. But that doesn't mean it's easy. You've surely seen from, well.. just about anyone talking about it, that the game is hard. That's true: it is very hard. Those in the average-to-slightly-above-average skill brackets will have far more trouble with the game than hardcore platformer players -- what could be an 8-hour game for some may be a 3-hour one for others, even on their first playthrough. I can only imagine for some others it will take a few hours longer longer.
Ultimately, Cuphead is actually quite short but considering the animation techniques used, this is one of the few times I'll toss my ideal $1 = 10 hours of playtime equation to the side. It's short, sure. Nothing's perfect. This review didn't have a glowing "10" at the top, did it?
I have experienced two bugs in particular (so far) while playing Cuphead on PC. One with a less-than-ideal infinite mid-air twirl in the first run-and-gun stage, and the other simply a softlock when paused. The rest of my playtime has been bug-free. Bugs happen, and while these did stall (read: stop) my playing when they occurred, they certainly haven't put a damper on my enjoyment of the rest of the game.
Most who have been anticipating Cuphead have been looking forward to seeing the classic animation in action, and it does look fantastic and often incredibly surreal. The folks over at StudioMDHR got the look and feel of the Popeye and Betty Boop animators, Fleischer Studios, down just right for the modern audience. All of it fits the style, but some of what's portrayed may be far past what would have flown back then. That's A-OK, since the 1930s are long gone.
If I could point out all of the details in the background art, I would. The combination of the game's charming drawings and perfectly-fitting soundtrack does an amazing job of pulling the player into Cuphead and Mugman's self-made plight. Each boss stage is as unique as the last and a big part of the fun in Cuphead is actually seeing what the bosses themselves look like and do through each phase, not to mention all that snazzy music that is really hard to not want to listen to after you're done with the game.
So why a 9? Despite its great just-about-everything, Cuphead just isn't a game I can see many people outside of the hardcore gaming community coming back to. It's just too much like classic run and guns for most of the modern audience, and I'd be willing to bet the vast majority of players don't even make it halfway through the game. Hell, a sizable portion won't even be able to make it through the first world.
Compounded on the above is the fact I can't see anyone but the aforementioned hardcore community bothering to come back to the game once finished -- despite its short length. Pushing through Cuphead is a delightfully painful process, but most people do not have the stomach or time for that type of effort. In a way, its difficulty and short length may doom it to be one of many of this year's platformer lineup that will be consumed and forgotten in a matter of weeks.
Cuphead deserves a 9 out of 10 because it is probably the best example of the genre released in the past 15 years, and everything about it is oozing the love and time of its developers. The actual speedruns that will come out of this beast are going to be a sight to behold, but chances are this game is the opposite of most people's cup of tea -- despite what it looks like.
(Note: The developer provider a copy of Cuphead for the purposes of this review.)