There’s lots to love in Cuphead, but it’s hard to love it all.
For those of you who haven’t been hearing everyone freak out about it, Cuphead is a new indie title for Xbox One and PC that models a 1930’s cartoon with extreme accuracy. It’s being widely praised for creative, fun gameplay, an amazing art style, and lots more to boot. I can’t deny that all of this is not only present but perfectly executed, but after a little bit of playtime it starts to seem as though Cuphead is one giant identity crisis. There’s a lot of great stuff in Cuphead, but none of it seems to fit in with the other amazing parts.
The basic story behind Cuphead (almost no spoiler alert, this all happens five seconds in) is that the titular Cuphead and his friend Mugman, styled after cartoon characters from the 30’s, go into the wrong part of town and wind up on a winning streak in Satan’s casino. There, the devil himself challenges them to a bet – if they win, they get the whole casino, but if not, he gets their souls. Being the massive idiots they are, our heroes go along with it and, predictably, lose. They beg to not go to eternal torture, so Satan strikes a deal with them. They need to go out and reclaim the souls of his debtors within 24 hours to keep their souls. Of course, this means that they need to fight the debtors, quest across the lands, and generally just be video game characters.
The first thing that everyone sees in Cuphead is the part where it’s absolutely adorable and feels just like a cartoon. From hand-drawn art to characters, objects, and backgrounds that bounce passively, and even a crackling static overlay on the game, watching someone play Cuphead is like watching a 1930’s cartoon. The art is absolutely stunning, adorable, and in general there’s nothing to complain about when it comes to art. However, it immediately starts to come in stark contrast to the plot of the game. The art looks like it should be in a game aimed at all ages, but the plot itself is a little bit heavier. Satan? Soul collection? The plot, although enticing, is definitely a little bit heavy for the art style, and that contradiction deepens a lot as the game persists.
Cuphead is BRUTALLY hard. So much so, people are calling it an adorable Dark Souls, which is an exaggeration, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still very hard. At the writing of this review, I am 20% of the way through the game (according to the game’s progress marker) and I managed to beat everything on Regular mode instead of Simple mode, the game’s two modes. However, just this first bit, which should be the easiest, has taken up an hour and a half of my time, and I’ve hit a roadblock where I am. Granted, I haven’t put much time into it, but it’s pretty brutal nonetheless. Cuphead only can take three hits before he dies, and wields a finger gun against giant scary monsters. This, too, contrasts the adorable feel – cartoons are, justifiably so, associated with children and innocence, but Cuphead is almost impossible to beat for anyone who isn’t at least in their late teens and has been playing for a while, and is unlikely even otherwise. A quick Google search will immediately reveal that almost everyone has been struggling with Cuphead, which goes against the cutesy, nostalgic feel of the game. Of course, the developers have tried to remedy this by including the Simple mode for the boss fights, but it’s so unsatisfying, especially because it omits half of the battle and doesn’t *technically* count as beating the boss, although it lets you continue.
Speaking of the boss battles, there’s definitely some good in Cuphead when it comes to these. Unlike many other games, where all the fights and levels are similar or just get progressively harder, every single fight and level in Cuphead is a unique, handcrafted experience with an entire new song, original art, and, most importantly, an entire new method of play style. Cuphead more than makes up for its difficulty here by making grinding on a battle seem fun as you enjoy the unique level, even while getting repeatedly squashed to death.
Another point contradicting the cutesy feel is that some of the bosses are scary as all heck. (I’m looking at you, Cagney Carnation.) In such an adorable world, the bosses stick out like sore thumbs against the cute and fun backgrounds. Check out the picture below this paragraph to see everything you need to.
All of this weirdness can be explained away with one simple thing – Cuphead is a deconstruction of cartoons! Evangelion did it with mecha anime, Doki Doki Literature Club did it with dating sims, and Pony Island did it with arcade games. Why can’t Cuphead be one of those? The short answer is – because it’s not. The long answer is that if Cuphead is, in fact, a deconstructionist game, it would have a lot more darkness than it does. For all of the out-of-place stuff in Cuphead, the art is endearing, the NPCs are adorable, and the world really does feel like a cartoon. As far as I can tell, it isn’t supposed to be a statement on cute games – it’s just a cute game with dark elements.
Now, this isn’t to say that Cuphead is no fun at all – in fact, it’s the opposite of that. Cuphead is a beauty to look at, provides consistently entertaining and delightful gameplay, has one of the most amazing soundtracks I’ve ever heard, and is overall a masterpiece of gaming. However, there are definitely some inconsistencies in the game, which make it less of a complete cartoon experience and more of an identity crisis.
Developer: Studio MDHR
Publisher: Studio MDHR
Format: Xbox One, PC (Reviewed)
Released: September 29th, 2017
Copy Purchased By Reviewer