Press Start: 'Cuphead' delivers challenge, charm in spades
Throughout my several hours lost in the world of "Cuphead," the side-scrolling shooter oozed charm, personality and style pulled straight from a 1930s cartoon.
Even if you hate the tight, addicting gameplay and challenging yet rewarding gauntlet of boss battles, "Cuphead" is an absolute treat. Every hand-drawn frame of meticulous, faithful animation and watercolor painting of delightful backgrounds dripped with the love Studio MDHR pumped into "Cuphead."
It's a game so beautiful I wish I had the time to fully appreciate its sights and sounds while fighting the chaotic bouts into which it tosses you. The aesthetic alone grabs your attention and doesn't let go.
Fortunately, the game itself is as fun as the background decoration.
Despite its surface appearance as a delightfully lighthearted adventure, "Cuphead" at its core is anything but casual. With only three hit points and no checkpoints during minutes-long boss fights, of which you'll face plenty, every move counts. "Cuphead" requires you to learn, die, make it a bit farther the second time around to learn some more and die again before you can conquer its many challenging foes—each of whom have several phases that change the mechanics of fights on the fly.
I found the pattern addictive. With each new boss, it was joy to spend several minutes just appreciating their design, animations, backgrounds and accompanying jazz score. As the fights went on and my death tally went up, I eventually learned the timing and harnessed the skill necessary to beat them, and each triumph felt more satisfying and well deserved than the last.
It can get difficult to see everything going on in some battles, especially in cooperative mode. More than a few times I started looking at my friend's character instead of my own because of how easy it is to get lost among the projectiles and other effects during fights. More than once, the chaos got to be so much that the game froze, requiring a restart. On a related note, it's a shame there's no online co-op, though that feature will be added later.
Another minor gripe is the super system. After shooting enough enemies, you get a disposable EX charge you can fire off to do more damage. If you rack up five EX charges at once, you can spend that all at once and activate your super, which is even more devastating. However, sometimes I wanted to shoot a charge or two and not use my super, but that's unfortunately not an option once you've racked up five charges.
The occasional run-and-gun stage breaks up the endless onslaught of boss battles. These side-scrolling strolls through more expertly crafted environments gave me a break, but they also allowed me to earn coins I could use to buy new powers with which to experiment. Half the fun of "Cuphead" is finding out which guns, powers, charms and other goodies work best for each boss fight. I only wish it was possible to switch them out after a death instead of having to go back to the overworld, which requires waiting through a long loading screen.
Different guns in the game do different things, but it's difficult to tell how much they're actually helping you. Is a super more powerful than the five individual EX charges required to fire it off? How much less damage does the chaser gun do than the peashooter? Does the charge gun make up in damage what it loses in number of shots?
These are questions I'm not sure I'll ever have the answer to.
"Cuphead" combines brilliant art and fluid animation reminiscent of 20th-century cartoons with equally brilliant and fluid gameplay that challenges and rewards those dedicated enough to take on its many bosses. A few quality-of-life qualms are only minor distractions from what makes "Cuphead" such a delightful experience.
Final score: 9/10
"Cuphead" was reviewed on the Xbox One with a digital copy provided by the developer's PR company, Assembly.
Video game columnist Jake Magee has been with GazetteXtra since 2014. His opinion is not necessarily that of Gazette management. Let him know what you think by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, leaving a comment below, or following @jakemmagee on Twitter.