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Review: Cuphead

At a Glance

ESRB Rating: E10 - Everyone (Ages 10 and up)
My Rating: Ages 6 and up
Genre: Platform Shooter / Shoot 'em Up
License: Commercial
Release Year: 2017
Review Published On: May 21st, 2018
Played on: Thaddeus

Available from:

Humble Store, Steam, Microsoft Store

Save System:

Your progress is saved automatically when you return to the world map.

Pausing during a fight isn't recommended, as you'll have thrown off your rhythm and probably lose shortly after resuming. But if you do need to pause, press ESC.

Summary of
Major Issues:

The primary antagonist is the Devil, and the titular characters have been roped into traveling around their world collecting what the Devil is due from various people and magical creatures. This is typically done by force, as nobody wants to pay up.

Although this sounds bad, it's roughly on par with the cartoons that inspired Cuphead's art style, and thus it's fairly tame.


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Fighting the gorgeous gorgon

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The Devil and King Dice share a few words

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Scary spooky skeletons

Game Overview

Cuphead hit the ground running when it was released in the fall of 2017, making it one of the most successful games in recent years. It's not really that surprising either, as it stands out thanks to its solid gameplay, nostalgic art design, and colorful cast of characters.

The story opens with our titular duo, Cuphead and his brother Mugman, hanging out on the wrong side of the tracks. Here, they are spending their time gambling at King Dice's Casino, and they're on a winning streak. As they play, the Devil is watching, and when he feels the time is right, he steps forward to make a bet with the pair. The bet is simple: if they win the dice game, he'll double their winnings. If not, he'll take their souls.

Mugman sees the danger and tries to talk his brother out of it, but Cuphead is too excited to listen to reason. Thus, he takes the bet and predictably loses. The brothers beg the Devil to accept some other form of payment, and surprisingly, he agrees. It turns out that a lot of folks on Inkwell Isles owe him debts, and haven't given the Devil his due. In return for letting the duo keep their souls, they'll need to go out and collect the Soul Contracts from the debtors. With this settled, the game begins.

And it's a fairly unique game at that. Unlike other Platform Shooters, the majority of the levels begin and end with the boss fight. With only a few exceptions, you don't fight your way through a stage full of enemies and traps. One advantage of the levels consisting of just the boss fight is that the battles can be very elaborate and detailed, and should you fail to defeat the boss, you can try again without having to fight your way back to them.

Unfortunately, the old cartoons that inspired the art style are also the source of the game's controversial elements. Society has changed rather greatly since the 1920s, and many of our values have changed along with it. One of the biggest examples is that nowadays, we tend to shy away from depicting Satan in media aimed at children. Back then, this was pretty common, to the point where characters often took on a vaguely demonic appearance when contemplating something especially evil. Because of this, most of the problems people have with Cuphead can be attributed to culture shock -- we're caught off guard by what used to be our own culture.

Lastly, this game features an usually high learning curve, as it requires more skill than just standing around holding down the fire button. If you're willing to accept the challenge, then I'd suggest giving this game a try.

Points of Interest

Unique and captivating art style
Cuphead is drawn like old cartoons, right down to the gloved hands and film grain. This is probably what attracted people to the game in the first place, as many games today are designed with more realistic or anime-inspired styles. For those of us who grew up with reruns of classic cartoons, this title will be a nostalgia trip. That's not just because the game looks like an old cartoon: many of the animations are explicitly based on segments from cartoons by Fleischer Studios (the studio behind cartoons like Betty Boop and Popeye).

There are also a few hidden surprises that can be unlocked to make the game even more nostalgic, such as a 2-strip Technicolor filter.
Genre-shifting gameplay
Most of the time, Cuphead plays like your typical platform shooter, and this is usually what people file the game under. However, some levels are shoot 'em ups instead. This can make these levels much more difficult than expected (as the enemies have broader attacks to compensate for your greater maneuverability), but it also helps keep things fresh by providing unique ways to battle.
Strategy is king
While it's possible to beat the game using only the basic peashooter, it's certainly not recommended. There are a handful of weapons you can acquire, and each one attacks in a different way. This is important, as vulnerabilities don't work quite like they usually do in games. Normally, if a boss is weak to a weapon, it means that they take extra damage when you use it on them. Here however, weaknesses are based on how the boss moves and attacks. Each boss has their own movement patterns, and this means that some weapons are more likely to connect than others. Thus, the weapons you take into a fight have a big impact on the outcome.
Two endings
Once you've collected everyone's Soul Contracts and beaten King Dice, you're left to confront the Devil himself. What you do next determines how the story ends. Getting the good ending means fighting and beating the Devil, but if you've managed to make it this far, then you're likely prepared to earn that happy ending.
Legacy mode
On Steam, there's an option to revert the game to the way it was at launch. This means all of the bugfixes and quality of life patches that have been added to the game since its debut will be removed, allowing you to play the original, unadulterated version again. There aren't many games that let you do something like this, so it warrants a mention here.
Adjustable difficulty
The difficulty can be adjusted up to a point. All levels feature the option of playing on "simple" or "regular" mode. Simple mode ends the fight early and prevents the enemies from using their more complicated attacks, allowing you to practice a level. Unfortunately, that's the most you can do: in order to earn the Soul Contract, you'll need to beat the level on Regular. Of course, if you're interested in something more challenging, an option to play on Expert becomes available after beating the game.
Two player co-op
You don't need to explore Inkwell Isles alone. A second player can join in as Cuphead's brother, Mugman. Both characters have the same abilities and they fight together, so doing things this way can double your odds of earning those Contracts.
Steam community features
What would a hard game be without a way to show off just how skilled you are? There are 28 achievements to earn, and since many of them require beating the game's regular battles (ie, the hard ones) only a few players are able to earn them. Some of the achievements have you perform some unusual tricks instead, but you're probably going to be too busy dodging attacks to pull them off.

If you're interested in Steam trading cards, then you're in luck, as there's a set available for Cuphead.
High difficulty curve
Cuphead may look like a cutesy game, but it's really one of the harder ones out there right now. This is largely because each level requires the player to learn a new pattern of dodging and attacking, effectively forcing you to change how you play every stage. Another thing that can make it difficult is the default control layout; in my opinion, the default option for dashing isn't the best, as it's in an awkward spot on my controller.

On the plus side, when you are defeated, it isn't much of a setback as you aren't penalized for losing a match. Just take a breath, stretch for a moment, and try again.

Concerns and Issues

This game is literally about a deal with the Devil
Today, with slot machine simulators and other casino games clogging App stores, one might conclude that there's nothing wrong with a few rolls of the dice. In reality, this relaxed attitude towards gambling is a fairly new thing. As mentioned above, this game is based on old cartoons, and if you were to travel back in time to when those cartoons originally aired, you're discover that gambling wasn't well respected. In fact, cartoons made before the fifties often depicted characters getting into trouble with dangerous criminals (or worse, bankers) because of their gambling habits.

The latter scenario is the driving point of the story, and in the bad ending, the brothers become the Devil's minions, making their effort to avoid losing their souls completely moot.
Old vices on display
Just like how views on gambling have changed over the years, views on other activities shown in this game have changed as well. For example, a century ago, people had no issue with drinking or smoking in public. Seeing stuff like this today can make this game seem much worse than it was meant to be, as we don't consider this stuff "kid friendly" anymore.

Fortunately, some of the really offensive stuff that was commonplace back then -- like the blatant racism shown in many cartoons -- was left in the past. So for all of the bad habits on display, this game is still viewing history through a sanitized lens.
Magical creatures and ghosts
The Devil himself is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the strange menagerie of creatures found on Inkwell Isles. You'll also find a dragon, good and evil ghosts, a genie, skeletons, and a mermaid who can turn into a gorgon. These and many more fantasy themed characters are found throughout the game.
References to Magic and the Zodiac
Many of the characters in the game, including Cuphead and Mugman, use magical weapons of some sort. Perhaps the most elaborate of these are Djimmi the Great and Hilda-berg. The former warps reality, while the latter transforms herself into various forms based on the Zodiac. Possible forms include a bull (Taurus), twin spellcasters (Gemini), or a centaur (Sagittarius).
Cartoonish violence
Cuphead's attacks don't do anything more than make a small splat when they hit enemies, and when he is hit by an attack, he always responds with the same surprised animation. When either brother is defeated, their ghosts ascend off screen. It's possible for the other brother to revive their partner by parrying their ghostly form, but when playing alone this is always the end of a fight. Thus, most of the actual fighting is tame and not really that concerning.

The problems typically come in when the battle is almost over, as that's when enemies start displaying bruises, bandages, and other injuries. For example, Goopy Le Grande ends his battle by turning into a tombstone, while Wally Warbles is shown featherless on a stretcher.
Mildly suggestive outfits
Several of the characters in this game are designed after leading ladies in older cartoons. Much like the way cartoons could get away with depicting things we'd find questionable today, many of these ladies were very flirtatious. On the whole, it's not a serious problem as the developers kept things reasonably tame. The most sexualized character in the entire cast is probably Cala Maria, a giant mermaid. She's showing a lot of skin, but her design is still very tasteful compared to some games out there.