STAFF REVIEW of Cuphead (Xbox One)


Monday, October 2, 2017.
by Adam Dileva

Cuphead Box art I grew up watching classic cartoons every Saturday morning. I not only loved what was new at the time in the 80’s, but I also enjoyed the classics that my grandma had which were on stacks of VHS tapes. Thanks to my grandma, I have very fond memories of old cartoons from around the 30’s era, such as Felix the Cat, original Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, Betty Boop and more. If you’re wondering why I’m referencing cartoons from nearly a century ago, it’s because the developers at Studio MDHR have essentially recreated the unique and distinct artwork and style from those classic cartoons.

Simply looking at Cuphead, I’m whisked back away to my childhood, waking up early to watch classic cartoons, popping in those VHS tapes I’d watched a million times. With that being said, there is no way around it, Cuphead will draw you in with its gorgeous visuals and art style. There is more here too, aside from pretty hand drawn graphics, as Cuphead has been a very long time coming for those of us anticipating it. There’s been a buzz for a few years about Cuphead, so I was cautiously optimistic, as I really didn’t want to be let down with something that I’ve been eagerly waiting to play this since I first saw it in 2014.

I’m happy to report that not only does Cuphead exceed expectations, but surpasses them in almost every way. A run and gun title at its core, with a boss rush mode, the graphics may look very friendly and inviting, but the gameplay is one of the most challenging, and rewarding, I’ve played in years. Cuphead isn’t just challenging though, it can be downright infuriating, yet I never wanted to completely give up, always coming back for more.

You’re going to have to have serious reflexes and think very quickly if you want to be able to progress through the numerous and wonderfully created stages and bosses. Prepare to have your patience tested though, as even the normal level of difficulty is sure to test your restraint in regards to wanting to throw your controller out the window. Even though this may sound like I didn’t enjoy my time with Cuphead, it was quite the opposite, and I encourage everyone to experience it simply for its creativity and beauty, even if the genre isn’t normally for you. It’s been a long wait, but it was certainly worth it.


Cuphead, along with his brother Mugman, live on Inkwell Isle. One fateful day they find themselves within the Devil’s Casino. Turns out they like to gamble, and they were on an insane streak. The Devil himself appears and makes them an offer that they can’t say no to: Win this next roll and double or winnings, lose and he gets their souls. Of course the brothers take the deal, and of course they lose the next roll. Now, they’re about to lose their souls to the Devil, but they manage to cut a deal with him, as they become essentially debt collectors for him. It’s a surprisingly dark premise given that the presentation is so light and welcoming. Few games have the charm that Cuphead possesses, and even less that can be simultaneously frustrating yet completely rewarding once you’ve put in the time to become proficient.

Not only is Cuphead, and all the game's characters, drawn wonderfully, but the world as a whole with its water colored and hand drawn backgrounds are too, and they all make for a complete package that’s easy on the eyes. Each world has its own theme, yet completely fits within Cuphead’s visual style regardless of the backdrop. Across all the levels, enemies aren’t recycled, so it’s obvious that a serious amount of time has been taken to make the exact game Studio MDHR wanted to create with crazy attention to the smallest details.

All of these beautiful visuals are capped off with an equally impressive soundtrack that also feels as if it was taken straight from the 1930’s as well. Not only does it have a vintage Jazz orchestral vibe to it, but it comes complete with the recognizable white noise of a record and scratches of the pin to further enhance the experience.

Cuphead is all about learning and memorizing attack patterns. Being able to recognize a slight visual clue as to what attack is coming next, then being able to react swiftly to avoid being hit, that’s Cuphead in a sense. Just like other challenging games, you’re going to have to learn from your many mistakes before you can become good enough to push onward. There’s no quick way around it, it’s simple trial and error, and Cuphead holds no punches with its difficulty. If you manage to complete Cuphead on Regular mode (there is a Simple mode for those wanting a slightly easier time, though this won’t unlock certain boss fights near the end) you’ll gain access to the Expert mode, which I can’t even fathom.

Level selection is done via an overworld map where you have some slight branching pathways allowing you to choose which level to attempt or what boss to challenge next. There’s the odd character littered throughout, usually offering a line or two of dialogue with some hints of how to progress.


Cuphead has the ability to parry certain attacks and projectiles coming at him, the catch is that they have to be specifically colored pink to do so. Parrying an attack not only allows you to avoid it from hitting your low health/point pool, but it will also give a small boost to your 'special' meter. There’s not many projectiles to parry during these fights, but doing so successfully can mean the difference between a death and restart as opposed to winning.

During certain levels, the run and gun stages to be exact, you’ll be able to earn a handful of coins if you’re able to collect them as you make your way to the end of the level. These coins become invaluable later on once you visit a shop, allowing you to purchase new weapons (fire modes) and other charm bonuses, such as an extra health for your health bar. There’s only a handful of different weapons, but each certainly has their time and place versus specific bosses. I’m partial to the homing shots that are weak but accurate, but there’s always a good time to use your spread shot as well. There’s no ‘right’ loadout, as you can complete the game with the standard shooter, though the different weapons allow you to cater to your playstyle.

There are essentially 3 types of levels you’ll play throughout your time with Cuphead, as you try and work your debt off. First are the run and gun levels. These are your standard platforming type of stages where you need to run left to right to reach the finish line. This is Cuphead though, and doing so isn't as simple as it sounds. There are no checkpoints, so when you ultimately die, you’ll need to replay the whole stage from the beginning. These stages are more for breaking up the monotony of boss fights and to collect precious coins for upgrades. While it’s good to have the regular boss battle combat broken up once and a while, these levels aren’t nearly as memorable, and they somewhat feel more like filler than anything else when compared to the amazingly crafted boss stages.

A handful of the boss fights will have Cuphead flying his trusty plane, allowing you to shoot forward and lob bombs. You can parry the pink projectiles in your plane as well, so make sure you keep an eye out. These stages, again, are not quite as good as the standard boss fights, but they are still enjoyable and incredibly challenging. In these stages, your powered up 'special' turns you into a bomb, allowing you to fly into any enemy you want for massive damage.

And finally, we have what Cuphead does best: Boss battles. The majority of Cupheads gameplay revolves around these boss fights. These are incredibly well designed and laid out that and it’s hard not to admire the artwork and thought that’s gone into every single one. These boss fights only last around 2 minutes or so, but that’s when you beat it, as the time I mention does not including the previous 20 minutes to an hour you’ve already spent repeatedly dying.


These boss fights are incredibly intricate and will go through certain phases once the boss is damaged enough. While you won’t see a health bar for the boss anywhere on the screen, you will see how far you progressed until its' demise, complete with phase markers. There are times where certain phases are chosen randomly, so there is some randomness to certain fights, which is both good and bad. Every time you manage to beat one of these huge bosses, you feel a huge sense of accomplishment, encouraging you to tackle the next one. I’m averaged about 2-3 bosses a night before calling it quits for the evening, though there’s no harm in playing for a prolonged amount of time either.

Cuphead has a brother, Mugman, so naturally this means that you can play local co-op with a friend on the couch (apparently online co-op is in the works, so here’s to hoping). You would assume that having twice the firepower would trivialize these fights, but honestly I found it even more chaotic and confusing with more happening on the screen at once. Should you or your friend die, you can bring them back to life by parrying their ghost before it floats off to the top of the screen.

I came away more than impressed with Cuphead, as it actually exceeded my expectations. Sure, there are a few things I could nitpick if I had to, like the lack of leaderboards, downloadable ghosts, or online play, but as a whole package, Cuphead more than delivers a unique experience, even if it is frustrating at times (by design).

There’s no doubt about it that Cuphead’s greatest strength is in its visual aesthetic. I simply want to smile whenever I see those retro 1930’s hand drawn graphics. Many times when I died I found it was because I was admiring something specific in the background, or the animations of the bosses. Cuphead looks, sounds and plays unique, and in the best ways possible. There’s nothing quite like it and I highly suggest you check it out, even if you’re normally not into very challenging games like myself.

Cuphead is going to be one of those games that many people recognize, even if they don't know its name or if they had played it or not, simply for its amazing artistic style; it’s that unique and should be applauded. It is one of those games that you can tell has been a labor of love, and by a very small team none the less, which makes it even more impressive. Stick with it and you’ll experience one of the most enjoyable titles in years, constantly challenging you but always a delight to play. I’m really hoping it does well, as I want a sequel one day, and hopefully by then I’ll have finally mastered Cuphead and bested every boss.




Overall: 9.7 / 10
Gameplay: 9.5 / 10
Visuals: 10.0 / 10
Sound: 9.5 / 10

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