The year 2010 was definitely a good year for gaming. Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect 2, Fallout: New Vegas (the best 3D Fallout game), and several others helped to define the year. It was also the year that Cuphead began development. Throughout the years, we’ve seen Cuphead in various stages and now, after seven years, it’s finally out. As it turns out, that seven years was well worth it.
Cuphead stars the titular Cuphead and Mugman, who find a sketchy casino. After a series of wins, the Devil offers them a major opportunity: win one roll of the dice and win everything in the casino. But if they lose, their souls belong to him. Cuphead immediately grabs the dice and, as you’d expect, he loses. The Devil offers them a deal: if they go out and collect the souls of various individuals who owe him their souls, he will consider letting them off the hook. After consulting the Elder Kettle, they gain the ability to shoot by snapping their fingers and go off on a quest to collect souls for the Devil.
The main appeal of Cuphead is its visual style. Styled after 1930’s animation, the game looks absolutely gorgeous in action. There are these beautiful backgrounds and highly animated characters throughout, and when the game is in-motion, the animation is incredibly smooth. Characters are expressive and every single thing looks like it took years to make beautiful. Combine that with a really good filter, and everything looks perfectly aged.
Right from the get-go, the sound design blows you away. There’s a fantastic soundtrack running throughout the background, and everything sounds distorted just enough to make it sound aged. While characters barely speak, when they do, it sounds like it was recorded using authentic equipment, where sound is blown out just enough to not be annoying but enough that you notice the difference. It’s one of the few games where I’d actually suggest buying the soundtrack too, particularly for the incredible track written for King Dice.
The game is highly reminiscent of games like Metal Slug, where you have your character able to shoot in eight directions. You can activate a dodge that can provide you enough space to get more comfortable and certain pink attacks can be parried, providing you an additional charge for your super attack. Purchasing various upgrades can provide you with different abilities, such as extra health with the trade-off of not dealing as much damage or making it so your dodge is invisible, leading to you not taking damage during a dodge. It feels like the game gives you a wide enough variety of tools to deal with almost every situation.
There are two primary types of levels. Boss fights take up most of the game, while there are also levels that are called “Run and Gun.” Run and Gun levels are, quite frankly, the biggest letdown of the game. These are platforming levels, which usually end with a mini-boss fight. The problem is that actually progressing through these levels can be a massive pain due to the way that the controls work. While you can hold a bumper to stop moving and shoot in any direction, it’s usually better to keep moving forward in order to avoid being overwhelmed. However, there are several enemies who will spawn ahead of you, off-screen, leading to fairly cheap deaths. This is also the only way to get coins to purchase upgrades. On the upside, there are only a couple of these levels throughout the game.
The boss fights, however, are absolute masterpieces. Each boss has multiple forms, with different attack patterns. All of these patterns can be learned and mastered. Make no mistake: you will die a lot but in dying, you learn how each boss operates. This is especially clear playing local multiplayer, which is how this game feels like it should be played.
Boss fights require precise movements and dying and talking out exactly what went wrong feels far less frustrating in this game than in many others. Bullet patterns are usually not random, and when they are, you can learn exactly how to avoid them. When you get a kill on a boss that has taken a large number of deaths to get to, there’s this “Hell yeah!” moment that occurs every single time and sharing that is an absolute blast.
Playing multiplayer has other benefits, as well. One player can use one set of upgrades while another uses a different set. One player can use the regular shot to shoot from the back of the screen, while another can use spread shot to get in close and deal extra damage, while avoiding enemies. You can, in theory, infinitely revive another player. When a player dies, their ghost floats up to the top of the screen and parrying that ghost revives them (also, this creates a booming “Thank you!” from the revived player which is funny every single time.) While the ghost will move faster and faster with subsequent deaths, it feels worth it most times to at least try.
The split screen also benefits from some smart UI decisions. Going into menus to switch out equipment requires both players to confirm that they are finished with whatever they need to do before it boots them. In fact, the only downside is in those run-and-gun levels where one player can get too far ahead of another, leading to the screen scrolling past where the other player is.
Performance on the PC, however, can have some noticeable hiccups. There were several moments when reviving another player caused the game to freeze entirely. At other points, there was stuttering which can be a killer with a game where precise movements are required. While these may not be present on the Xbox One version, they’ve not been tested so we can’t verify one way or another.
But those issues can be fixed. There’s a lot to love about Cuphead and honestly, it’s one of the most satisfying co-op experiences I’ve played in a while. Yes, there is challenge and yes there can be frustration, but I never felt like I had to stop playing. While many difficult games can be “relationship killers,” Cuphead feels like a game where you can talk through all of the issues you are having to find a solution. While the run-and-gun levels are not good, they’re few and far between to the point where they don’t deter from how good the boss fights are. Cuphead has been in development for years, but it feels well worth the wait.
SCORE: 8.5 out of 10
A code for Cuphead was provided to Pixel Related for review.