Cuphead Review – An Explosive Callback in More Ways Than One
Cuphead could at its core be described as a Run and Gun game like Contra or Gunstar Heroes but in the form of a Boss rush with an extremely unique art style. Your main objective is to attempt to collect the soul contracts of a wide arrange of bosses on a series of islands and deliver them to the devil to pay off your debt to him.
During the boss fights, you need to dodge and shoot your way through their phases and defeat them to acquire their contract. After having defeated all the bosses on an island, you deliver the contracts to the Devils’ right-hand man and the cycle begins anew on the next island. Before I get into this cycle, let’s discuss some other parts of the game first.
Cuphead has a very very very very very VERY basic story. Cuphead and Mugman live with elder kettle in peace. They go and play dice in the devils’ casino. The devil makes them bet their souls on a throw, of the dice which they subsequently lose. They make a plea with the devil; he makes them gather the souls of those who refused to give theirs to him after they lost. There are a few extremely minor story bits after that inbetween the islands but they consist of a few slides at most and add very little. The story in Cuphead serves the same purpose as it does in Mario. It’s just used as a reason for you to get from point X to Y and little else and that is absolutely fine. If you are expecting a story that will bring you to tears like no other, you should look for something else. If you do however want a game that will mesmerize you with how amazingly it’s presented, then you have come to the right place.
If you have seen any footage of the game online, you will almost without doubt be taken aback by the gorgeous art inspired by old Max Fleischer and Walt Disney cartoons. The way the game starts with a live action shot of a book opening up to reveal the first cutscene sets the standard for how visually appealing it all gets. Every boss looks and animates so differently from the last in ways I never thought possible. At points I was just in shock at the creativity on display and how this continues all the way till the end. The watercolor backgrounds are also exceptional to look at and the atmosphere they lend to the scenery makes it feel like you could be playing one of those ancient cartoons being played in the early morning on the TV.
The games music composed by Kristoff Madigan is exceptional and further sounds like something one would expect to hear in the older cartoons. The jazzy, sometimes bombastic sounds make your battles feel like a true fight and are exceptionally memorable. This is definitely a game I would consider buying the soundtrack for. The sound design is also exceptional with the announcer at the beginning of every fight having a voice that makes it feel like a true battle and the sound effects that play during combat are just as memorable as the visuals in their originality and design. The only issue within the visuals I can see is that at points the game gets a bit visually busy and some attacks can blend in a bit with backgrounds, but these are minor complaints in what is otherwise an exceptional art direction. There are very few games out there which I would play solely for the visuals and music alone yet even if Cuphead had mediocre gameplay I would probably play just for those 2 factors. Thankfully, Cuphead also delivers one of the most satisfying experiences of 2017.
As previously sated, Cuphead is a classic run and gun game, but with a large emphasis on just fighting bosses. The goal of every fight is a simple one, you have to defeat the boss by shooting it enough times and to dodge attacks so to avoid damage. Now if only beating it was so simple. In my run i died 469 times before finally making due with the devil. So yes, it is true Cuphead is very hard. The bosses will offer a proper challenge for most players and if the game did not have such polish, dying again and again would probably feel exceptionally frustrating. Loading screens are almost non-existent after dying to a boss and most bosses last less then 2 minutes so one will rarely have to repeat much when dealing with the bosses.
Each boss has a series of phases that become gradually more difficult and it gains more complex attacks phase by phase. The best example of this would be the first boss many will experience with Goopy Le Grande. His first phase has him bouncing around doing a punch now and then. In the second phase he continues this trend put with a much larger hitbox and varying his bounces a bit more adding a new level of complexity to the fight. This escalating intensity allows the player to learn the earlier phases whilst dying repeatedly and learning exactly how the boss will react and move. This will allow you to get through the phases faster and faster and master your skills, and if you want to beat this game you will absolutely need to master them. You only have 3 hit points until you die and although it can in a sense be increased to 5, you will do dramatically less damage if you chose to go this route. You also have no means of regaining health during a battle so if you are going to be hit, you better make sure it was important.
The player has 3 different attacks to go after the enemy. The standard attack, a special move and a super move and to use the latter 2 one must fill up a bar of cards. I will get to how those other 2 factors into the gameplay later on. You can fill this bar up by just dealing damage to the enemy or parrying. Any and I mean any pink object in the game can be parried by the player; you accomplish this by pressing the jump button and proceeding to press it again right before hitting the object. This may be the most unconventional parrying I have ever seen in a game and, yet it is probably the most satisfying. This mechanic serves 2 purposes. First, it allows you to dodge some projectiles easier as you acquire some nice airtime and it gives you a full card on you super bar. This serves as an exceptionally great risk VS reward mechanic that incentives the player to go on the aggressive against the enemy. The player also has another tool to help them in their battles, which is a dash mechanic that is exceptionally fun to use. It forces the player to focus on knowing where they are going to land whilst using it or they will be doomed to take damage. I do however find that binding dash to the Y button on the controller to be a strange choice and I highly recommend moving it to an alternate input.
Starting the game, you will only have a pea shooter to deal with your foes but through the acquisition of coins you can buy new items to help you fight these cretinous crooks. Coins are acquired by coming in contact with them in platforming levels which serve as a nice break from the standard gameplay of the bosses. The shop gives you a decent amount of weaponry with a classical loadout one would find in run and gun games of old. Spreadshot, seeker, charge, oh my. This loadout is nothing special in terms of run and guns games but each weapon changes your playstyle quite a bit and is helpful for players who want to find a playstyle that is suited for them. The spreadshot for example is very helpful for those looking for a more aggressive upfront playstyle whilst the seeker is helpful for those who might struggle with keeping consistent damage on a boss whilst dodging attacks.
Each weapon has its own super attack that uses up a single card on the bar. These super attacks are all quite varied with the peashooter shooting out a strong long-range burst, the spreadshot shoots projectiles in all 8 directions, and the seekers being a defensive tool that protects against projectiles. This leads to another factor to consider when selecting your weaponry and adds another layer of depth to the mechanics of the game.
If you have a full bar of cards and use the special button, you will unleash a super move that uses up all your cards. I am however a bit mixed on them. None of the supers feel like they have a sizeable effect enough on the combat to justify equipping them when you could just spam out a set of standard specials and have much better results. The fact that you are unable select whether to use a special or a super when you have a full set of cards is also quite frustrating. The acquirement of the specials however is very fun, with you having to truly put your parrying abilities to the test in one of the mausoleum challenges. These give a nice break to the standard action in between the bosses.
One of the best things in the game are the 2d classic bullet hell bosses. These bosses force you to play in a way that is different even from the 2d platforming stages or the mausoleum levels. The levels even have their very own special and super moves and the dash has been replaced in form of a speed boost and a smaller hitbox when you press the input. As one says, variety is the spice of life, but one would wish that the spice was of good quality and here it is nothing if not exceptional.
The game also supports local co-op and one would think that this would make the game easier since you have the additional firepower of an ally and also the ability of revive them. However, the HP for bosses is doubled and with a partner you now have another layer of firepower on screen which can make it even harder to keep track of what is going on at any given time. The addition is still appreciated however, as playing with a partner can always make those harder moments more enjoyable.
Now I have been praising this game nonstop, but it has a few issues preventing me from calling it the masterpiece of this generation sadly. My first major issue is the randomness in some fights. Some attacks in the game are random in where they target and position themselves. Although this can lead to more interesting duels, it can also lead to frustration especially in scrolling where the attacks feel very disconnected from their environment. These attacks can be very frustrating to dodge as the lack of connection means that you can end up in a position with little to no way out. Some boss fights also have very poor telegraphing on their attacks which can be extremely frustrating, but since the game is almost built around trial and error it can be understandable as a design choice. Yet when you are at the end of a fight you have spent hours on and the boss uses an attack you were unable to prepare for or know of, being frustrated can be understandable. Other than that, there is little to complain about, but the question remains, is Cuphead worth 20$?
At Red Value Gaming, our review scores work a bit differently than elsewhere. Here we assign a game a value at which we think the game becomes worth buying in addition to a standard review score, which are both evaluated seperately from another. The traditional review score is pretty standard, but anything to do with the game’s business like microtransactions or the game being short is moved into the value rating itself. This allows our score to be a direct reflection on how good the game is, while the value rating will still be able to warn you if the game has any sort of sketchy business surrounding it just from the review score alone.
When trying to find out how much Cuphead was worth, I was struggling because the amount of value you are getting for your money is heavily reliant on your skill level as a player. You could say that in most games the better the player is at a game, the faster they will able to complete it but in Cuphead this is especially true. With a game like dark souls you will be able to progress further if you play the game better than most. The same is true for Cuphead, but you can expect to have your playtime become much shorter. The short length of the bosses makes it so that if you can complete them in one go the boss will only be 2 minutes where as in darks souls even if you complete it in a fast manor, you still have the in-between levels for the bosses to prolong the game. When purchasing the game, you should probably consider your own skill level as that will have a large impact on the number of hours you will get out of the game. I see myself of an average skill level and got about 9 hours of playtime. Much of this content is repeated content in a sense so I don’t value it as much as if it were a game of 9 hours with little to no repetition. However, it is in a sense built around this sense of reputation of trial and error so although I would value it more than I would something like a boss rush in a game that consists of nothing but old bosses. Overall, I would value Cuphead at about 18 dollars. The superb art style and atmosphere combined with extremely fun gameplay make it feel like a complete package. I cannot however recommend it for the full price of 20$ in my honest opinion because of the previously stated repetition you experience in boss fights and if you are of a higher skill level. I can also see the overall value being lower because of the previously stated lesser amount of content you will be experiencing. However, if all I have said earlier sound appealing to you and you enjoy going after top ranks along with completing harder difficulty modes, I would recommend the game for the full price since you will be getting a sizeable amount of content for your money.
Cuphead is a fantastic call back to both shooters and cartoons of old and gives an experience that can almost only be describes as magical with a few minor hiccups along the way. I would give the game 95/100 points and a value of 18$. The value can however go up if you enjoy harder difficulty modes and going after higher ranks, but It can also diminish if you are of a higher skill level since the number of hours you will be getting will be decreased by quite a lot.
(out of 100)
If you want a hard as nails 2D shooter that will remind you of both the glorious years of run and gun games of the 90s and 80s and the glory years of 30s and 40s cartoons, then cuphead is the perfect game for you
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