Cuphead Xbox One review: A work of art — and an acquired taste

Cuphead is a true work of art. Hand-painted backdrops, frame-by-frame hand-drawn sprites, with some of the most imaginative, whimsical, and wacky boss battles ever seen in gaming.

Cuphead is a side-scrolling shooter which pays homage to several classic design principles, across both art and gaming. Contra-style directional shooting, schmup bullet-hell levels, and vaudevillian art coalesces to create a game that assaults your eyes and your brain, with its sheer beauty and diabolical difficulty.

As a game, Cuphead certainly won’t appeal to everyone, but it’s a shining beacon of creativity in its purest form that ought to be celebrated by gamers everywhere. Here’s our Cuphead review.

Art, setting, and story

You can’t write a review of this game without talking about Cuphead’s artwork; it’s simply breathtaking throughout.

Studio MDHR hand-animated every backdrop, every sprite, and every special effect in tribute to classic cartoons of the early 1900s. The animation of that era was capricious and frankly, slightly unhinged, becoming unwittingly creepy in the process. Studio MDHR took this sentiment to another level, basing their entire visual structure on it to great effect.

In Cuphead, you play as either Cuphead or Mugman (in 2-player local co-op), who have unfortunately fallen afoul of the Devil. While gambling, the pair managed to lose their souls on a bet, but the Devil offered to put them to work instead. Cuphead and Mugman effectively become debt collectors for Satan throughout the game, traveling around to face off against various deranged bosses who owe their souls to the Devil.

 

Cuphead is comprised of three main overworlds sporting different visual themes. Without going into too much detail, the first takes place in countryside lands, with forests and farms, while the second takes place in an amusement park, with rides and other attractions.

The creatures you’ll encounter are vaguely thematic for each world, but the endless surrealism makes almost every aspect of the game a constant surprise. A lady zeppelin riding a flying bike, transforming into a giant bull, then into a giant moon, spraying projectiles all over the place. A princess with a severed head, riding a living birthday cake, assaulting you with an army of living jelly beans, candy corn, and cupcakes. A battle a-top a roller coaster, against a clown that can transform into a giant balloon and a carousel, who spits baseball-throwing penguins.

 

Every single frame of Cuphead oozes ingenuity.

This really is the tip of an iceberg of absurd designs that will enthrall as much as they disturb, owing to that 1920s oddness. Less odd, however, is the game’s musical score, which features an incredible 56 tracks of original jazz and ragtime songs composed by Kristofer Maddigan and performed by live musicians. The authenticity elevates the experience as a whole and really typifies the attention to detail Studio MDHR have strived for when recreating the sights and sounds of the period.

Every single frame of Cuphead oozes ingenuity. I’ve died simply because I was distracted by the stunning displays on offer. Cuphead’s visuals are arresting, and they will ensnare your attention and soften the blow while you suffer through its aggressively punishing gameplay.

Gameplay – it’s as hard as you heard

Cuphead revives schmup and classic side-scrolling shooter sensibilities, evoking memories of Contra and Gunstar Heroes with its gunplay and phase-changing boss battles. Cuphead was originally going to be a boss rush game, but after receiving additional funding from Microsoft, the game expanded to include platforming levels and other events and features.

Supporting 2-player local co-op, Cuphead places up to two players in an overworld, hand-painted and full of peril. As you move from one boss to the next, the game’s island worlds open up to new areas, providing more activities.

You can play each event on a “simple” mode, which removes some of the trickier mechanics, dumbing the fights down and allowing you to progress. But if you want to truly complete the game, you’ll have to git gud and stick it out on regular mode – this is the only way to claim each boss’s soul for your fiendish benefactor.

Each boss battle comes with multiple phases that must be learned via trial and error (or… using a guide on the internet, but seriously, it’ll be far more rewarding if you tough it out yourself). If you survive each phase, you’ll win, receive the soul, and also be graded on your performance. There are achievements attached to the grades and even 200g for completing the game without dying. That’s one achievement I’m pretty certain I won’t ever get.

You will die in Cuphead, a lot, complete with a Dark Souls-like “YOU DIED” message after each failure. There’s even a fountain in the second world that will tell you exactly how many times you died. One of the bosses there single-handedly doubled my death count due to its difficulty, but it’s easy to jump right back into the action – thankfully you don’t have to reload each level after death.

 

The vast majority of Cuphead deaths will be due to trial and error. Sometimes it’s not clear whether something is a projectile or a safe platform, and the only way to find out is to risk a hitpoint on it. You get three hits per level, then it’s game over and time to restart the mission.

There’s also an element of randomness in most boss battles, which serve to make repeat attempts feel fresh, but at the same time, on some of the more chaotic bosses, the RNG stars can align to place you in inescapable situations, which can be frustrating.

The game gives you options to limit the impact of chance, however. There’s a special store on each world that gives you access to power-ups and additional weapons. One of the weapons gives you the option of switching to a shotgun-like bullet spread, trading range for additional damage. This extra option gives you the ability to speed through certain boss phases a little faster, reducing the risk of something going horribly wrong.

 

There are various other powerups and weapons to choose from, purchasable using coins discovered in the game’s “Run ‘n Gun” side-scrolling platformer missions, hidden throughout the level. There are also mausoleum challenges that give you access to powerful “super” ability, such as temporary invincibility and a large horizontal beam. The supers charge up over time, represented as playing cards in the bottom left-hand corner of the HUD. You can spend single cards on a mini-attack, or build them all up for a super, which does far more damage. Managing these abilities and powerups forms part of the game’s difficulty – knowing how and when to use those abilities without getting yourself killed in the process is an important skill.

You may occasionally find yourself stuck to the point where you’ll go backtracking to find missing coins, to purchase weapons and items that might give you an edge in any given fight. Sometimes, even the slightest advantage can be the difference between victory and a smashed-up controller.

 

That said, while randomness can get you killed, Cuphead never feels truly unfair. There’s always something you could’ve done, something you could’ve pre-empted or prepared for to avoid losing a crucial hit point.

The end of every difficult fight is such a rewarding, satisfying feeling.

And even if you do end up dying 10 or 20 times on a single fight, most bosses are designed to utilize different tactics or abilities when you start over, which keeps you on your toes and eliminates the sense of grind. It shows great foresight on the part of Studio MDHR.

Playing Cuphead’s missions on regular difficulty requires near-constant concentration, and some will find that exhausting – I know I did. Taking breaks and coming back with a fresh mind often helped me power through the difficulty and panic of those increasingly chaotic phases. I found that even after dozens of failed attempts, I kept coming back for more because the rewarding Knockout! exclamation at the end of every difficult fight is such a gratifying, satisfying feeling – and each time you die, you get a little better. The final levels will make even the most hardened gamers rage.

Final thoughts

Cuphead is a tremendous achievement that will probably go down as one of this year’s most beautiful and creative titles. Each level, each song, and each boss character is a meticulously crafted work of art in its own right, that you won’t soon forget.

The gunplay mechanics might feel a little dated, paying homage to 8-bit shooters of yesteryear, but they’re well executed overall, and come with some modern flair in the form of super attacks and other powerups.

 

The randomness on some boss fights will frustrate some, but patient, methodical gamers will relish the challenge, and enjoy the sense of accomplishment at the end of each huge battle.

Pros:

  • Stunning creativity and art.
  • Challenging, rewarding gameplay.
  • Low price.

Cons:

  • No online co-op.
  • Some will find the difficulty unwelcoming.

 

4.5 out of 5    

It’s an incredible oversight that Studio MDHR and Microsoft couldn’t get online co-operative play into the game ready for launch (if at all), but at least the local co-op is well thought out. Cuphead has some solid longevity across its three main worlds and dozens of levels (and more if you go for its more challenging achievements).

Cuphead is an instant classic that will build a solid fanbase across Xbox One and Windows PCs, and hopefully, spawn bigger and bolder sequels in the years to come. Amazing job, Studio MDHR.

Cuphead arrives on September 29, 2017, on Xbox One and Windows 10 as part of Xbox Play Anywhere for $19.99.

See at Xbox Store

40 thoughts on “Cuphead Xbox One review: A work of art — and an acquired taste

  1. Hello there I am so glad I found your site, I really found you by error, while I was researching
    on Bing for something else, Regardless I am here now and would just like
    to say thanks a lot for a incredible post and a all round
    exciting blog (I also love the theme/design), I don’t have time to go through
    it all at the minute but I have book-marked it and also
    included your RSS feeds, so when I have time I will be back to read a great deal more,
    Please do keep up the superb job.

  2. It’s perfect time to make some plans for the future and it’s time to
    be happy. I’ve read this post and if I could I desire to suggest
    you some interesting things or advice. Perhaps you could write next
    articles referring to this article. I desire to read even more things about
    it!

  3. Have you ever considered about including a little bit more
    than just your articles? I mean, what you say is important and all.
    Nevertheless think about if you added some great visuals or video clips to give your posts more,
    “pop”! Your content is excellent but with pics and videos, this blog could certainly
    be one of the very best in its niche. Amazing blog!

  4. Whats up are using WordPress for your blog platform?
    I’m new to the blog world but I’m trying to get started and create my own. Do you require any html coding knowledge to make
    your own blog? Any help would be greatly appreciated!

  5. Have you ever thought about writing an e-book or guest authoring on other websites?
    I have a blog centered on the same information you discuss and would
    love to have you share some stories/information. I know my subscribers would appreciate your work.
    If you’re even remotely interested, feel free to shoot me an e mail.

  6. Thank you, I have just been looking for info about this topic for ages and yours is the best I have came upon so far.
    But, what about the conclusion? Are you positive concerning the supply?

  7. Hey! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before but after reading through some of the post I realized it’s new to me.

    Anyways, I’m definitely happy I found it and I’ll be bookmarking and checking back frequently!

  8. What i do not understood is in fact how you are now not really much more well-favored than you might be now.
    You are very intelligent. You realize therefore considerably on the
    subject of this topic, made me in my view consider it from
    numerous numerous angles. Its like men and women don’t seem to be fascinated until it is something to accomplish
    with Lady gaga! Your own stuffs great. Always deal with it up!

  9. Thanks , I have recently been looking for information approximately this subject for ages
    and yours is the greatest I have discovered till now.
    But, what about the bottom line? Are you positive in regards to the source?

  10. Hello would you mind letting me know which web host you’re
    working with? I’ve loaded your blog in 3 completely different
    browsers and I must say this blog loads a lot faster then most.

    Can you recommend a good internet hosting provider at a fair price?

    Thank you, I appreciate it!

  11. Howdy! I know this is kind of off-topic however I needed to ask.
    Does operating a well-established blog like yours require a lot of work?
    I am completely new to blogging however I do write in my diary every day.
    I’d like to start a blog so I can easily share
    my personal experience and views online. Please let me know if you have any suggestions or tips for new
    aspiring bloggers. Thankyou!

  12. Does your site have a contact page? I’m having a tough time locating
    it but, I’d like to send you an e-mail. I’ve got some recommendations for your
    blog you might be interested in hearing. Either way, great blog and I
    look forward to seeing it expand over time.

  13. This is really interesting, You are a very skilled blogger.
    I have joined your feed and look forward to seeking more of your fantastic post.
    Also, I’ve shared your web site in my social networks!

  14. Hi I am so glad I found your weblog, I really found you by
    mistake, while I was searching on Digg for something else,
    Nonetheless I am here now and would just like to say cheers for a fantastic post and a all round enjoyable blog (I also love the theme/design), I don’t
    have time to read it all at the moment but I have saved it and also added in your
    RSS feeds, so when I have time I will be back to read much more,
    Please do keep up the great b.

  15. Nice post. I learn something new and challenging on sites I
    stumbleupon every day. It’s always helpful to read through articles from other authors and use something from their websites.

  16. It is appropriate time to make some plans for the longer term and it’s time to
    be happy. I’ve learn this put up and if I may I wish to
    suggest you some interesting issues or advice. Perhaps you can write subsequent articles referring to this article.
    I desire to learn even more issues approximately it!

  17. Have you ever thought about adding a little bit more than just your articles?
    I mean, what you say is valuable and all. But think of if you added some great
    images or videos to give your posts more, “pop”! Your content
    is excellent but with pics and videos, this website could definitely be one of the
    most beneficial in its field. Good blog!

  18. I have read some just right stuff here. Definitely price bookmarking
    for revisiting. I wonder how much attempt you put to create any such fantastic informative web
    site.

  19. Thanks for ones marvelous posting! I certainly enjoyed reading it, you may
    be a great author. I will make sure to bookmark your blog and will come back someday.

    I want to encourage yourself to continue your great job, have a
    nice weekend!

  20. Greetings! I’ve been reading your website for a while now and finally got
    the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from Dallas Tx!
    Just wanted to say keep up the fantastic work!

    Take a look at my blog index

Leave a Comment