‘Cuphead’ Review

Cuphead' is the best-looking game of 2017, and may also be the hardest

From the moment it was announced in 2014, run-and-gun platformer Cuphead blew us away with its gorgeous hand-drawn animation and StudioMDHR’s remarkable eye for detail, which creatively replicated the art style of 1930s animated shorts. The Xbox One and Windows 10 game’s unique and engrossing art is a glossy veneer over a downright dirty playing game, with some of the most difficult shooting and platforming in recent memory. Still, Cuphead may well be the best-looking game of 2017, and as you’ll read in our review, its finely honed style is so cool, you may forget that you’ll probably never reach the end.

Cuphead’s premise is simple: The titular character — a literal cartoon man with a cup for a head — and his brother Mugman have found themselves indebted to the Devil himself after a night at the casino goes horribly wrong. To buy back their souls, the Devil and his underling King Dice make the duo an offer they can’t refuse: If they reap enough souls from others who dealt with the devil and lost, they will earn theirs back.

Its finely honed style is so cool, you may forget that you’ll probably never reach the end.

These debtors — the game’s numerous boss fights — make up the majority of Cuphead. As you attempt to dodge their various attacks, you fire a selection of weapons such as a spread shot and a homing shot, gradually whittling down their health. These fights are moderately difficult from the word “go” – you’ll likely find yourself retrying them at least a few times — and the difficulty ramps up to near-insurmountable heights as you progress and make it ever closer to the game’s “finale.” A fairy tale dragon breathes giant balls of fire, forcing impossible dodges. A robot launches a barrage of crystals that fills the entire screen. A Tom and Jerry-esque cat swipes its massive paws as you desperately try to avoid them.

Though boss battles make up the majority of the game, there are other kinds of levels in Cuphead. Several platforming stages scattered throughout each world force you to make precise jumps while avoiding dozens of enemies. Every level, regardless of the structure, features the same fast pace and challenge. Though the platforming levels never reach the dizzying difficulty of its later when compared to the rest of the game, but as a quick diversion, they help to bring your blood pressure back down before heading into another fight.

Cuphead review Cigar

To keep yourself alive, you have access to just a jump and dash, as well as a “parry” ability, which you can trigger on specific environmental hazards and projectiles. The environmental elements add wrinkle of precision to the game that bears a resemblance to recent remakes and retro-minded platformers, such as DuckTales or Shovel Knight. Cuphead can only take three hits before going down so, as in those games, every move matters. Completing a level is not so much a victory or your enemy, but a mastery of its complicated and deadly puzzle it thrusts your way.

Even within the context of a game that demands perfection, though, the last few bosses feel so ridiculously difficult, and will leave you more frustrated than motivated. We’d be genuinely shocked if even a tiny fraction of players complete the game.

It’s just so pretty, though…

Were it not for the game’s stunning animation, Cuphead’s frustrating finale might not be worth struggling through. Every moment feels like it was pulled directly out of a classic cartoon, complete with dust and burn marks simulating the experience of watching a cartoon on film in a theater. The colors have a slightly washed-out look, as if they were affected by years of aging. StudioMHDR clearly put its heart and soul into every aspect of this game: Characters have a level of expressiveness and detail rarely seen in animated films today. As bombs explode, small puffs of smoke go out in all directions. Characters move with just a small amount of stiffness, replicating the limitations found in classic animated films. Cuphead’s visual design is as composed and coherent as anything Disney has ever made.

While the game’s visuals are sure to grab your attention first, Cuphead’s audio is equally impressive. During loading screens, you can hear a faint crackle and hiss, its imperfection almost soothing in our digital world. When you enter both boss battles and the less-common platforming sections, you’re greeted with a bombastic jazz soundtrack. Horns, bass drums, and piano blare in your ears as you make your way through each stage, offering a slightly different take on the genre depending on the enemy you’re facing. Even the title screen had us singing along, with an old-timey a cappella number giving you a very brief summary of the story.

Cuphead is a tremendous success, both as an action game and as a tribute to the golden age of animation. Every stage offers something to make you smile, whether it be an upbeat new song or a creative enemy design, and at its best, it offers a thrilling and rewarding level of challenge. We just wish that the difficulty were balanced slightly better so that we could take some time and enjoy how gorgeous it looks.

Cuphead was reviewed on Xbox One with a retail code provided by the publisher.

Product Review

'New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe' is 2D platforming wizardry

New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe is the latest Wii U game to come back from the dead on Switch. And wow, it’s much better than we remembered.
Gaming

Here are all the awesome games you can play without a fancy graphics card

Just because you don't have a dedicated graphics card, it doesn't mean you can't enjoy some of the best games out there right now. This is our list of the best games you can play on Intel integrated graphics.
Gaming

Among hundreds of choices, these are the best 25 SNES games of all time

The Super Nintendo Entertainment System might be the greatest game console ever made, but what are the best titles for the system? Here are our picks for the best SNES games.
Gaming

Who needs a Switch? These 25 games prove there's fun to be found on 3DS

The 3DS is home to a large library, including some of the greatest games Nintendo has ever published. We've compiled this list of some of the best Nintendo 3DS games currently available.
Virtual Reality

Think virtual reality is just for games? These awesome apps will change your mind

Virtual reality isn't all about gaming. Swim with turtles, paint in 3D, and immerse yourself in some unique experiences the platform has to offer with our curated list of the best VR apps.
Gaming

Latest ‘Fortnite’ update channels Halo with a scoped revolver

The latest update for Fortnite, update 7.20, is now available, and it brings a new Scoped Revolver weapon to the game alongside the returning Glider item and a limited-time Snipers-only mode.
Gaming

‘Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’ will make Blackout mode free to play this week

Treyarch and Activision are offering Call of Duty: Black Ops 4's Blackout mode as a free trial download for a limited time. The mode will be available from January 17 through January 24.
Gaming

Break out the Wii: ‘Just Dance’ movie reportedly in the works

Sony's Screen Gems has reportedly acquired the film rights to the Just Dance video game series from Ubisoft, which previously helped bring the game Assassin's Creed to the big screen in 2016.
Gaming

‘Fortnite’ security flaw let hackers spy on players through microphones

A security vulnerability found in Fortnite allowed hackers to gain access to other players' accounts, potentially letting them spy on conversations using the in-game microphone. It has been addressed.
Gaming

Microsoft CEO says Project xCloud is the ‘Netflix for games’

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella referred to the company's Project xCloud game streaming service as "Netflix for games." The service will let users play Xbox and PC games on a variety of devices.
Gaming

‘The Division 2’ private beta kicks off February 7 on consoles and PC

The private beta for Tom Clancy's The Division 2 starts on February 7 and runs until February 10, Ubisoft announced in a new story trailer. To guarantee access to the beta, you have to pre-order the game on PS4, Xbox One, or PC.
Gaming

Immerse yourself in a new universe with these incredible PSVR games

The PSVR has surpassed expectations and along with it comes an incredible catalog of games. There's plenty of amazing experiences to be had so we've put together a list of the best PSVR games available today.
Gaming

Console wars are so last-gen. Check out all the games that support crossplay

Crossplay is still in its infancy, but a growing number of games support online multiplayer between competing platforms. Here's a list of all games that support console crossplay.
Gaming

Want to trick out your PlayStation 4? These themes will get you started

Personalize your gaming experience with some of our favorite themes for the PlayStation 4, including free, paid, static, and dynamic options.