The High Score: ‘Cuphead’ Video Game ReviewBailey RahnOctober 3, 2017
Available On: Xbox One, Windows, Nintendo Switch
Product Pairing: Oleum Chem Taffy Select Sugar Wax, a terpene-heavy hybrid hash oil
Summary: Released September of 2017, Cuphead is a challenging run-and-gun indie platformer with a unique animation style inspired by 1930s cartoons. Play solo or co-op as Cuphead and Mugman, two brothers who must win back their souls after losing a deal with the devil. Navigate stages within different worlds and prepare for boss battle after boss battle. No level is easy in Cuphead, and getting through to the end will require the perseverance of a Spartan.
You’ll want need cannabis on tap for this game; not only will it tame inevitable frustration and rage, its focusing, pace-altering attributes can pull victory closer within arm’s reach. (Hopefully.)
When Cuphead was announced at this year’s E3 convention, it was nowhere near the top of my must-play list. But since I’m constantly looking for ways to validate my purchase of the Xbox One, I figured it’d be worth a try for $19.99. Little did I know I’d spend at least half of my weekend playing it–and all of Monday wishing I was playing it.
Striking a nostalgic chord for anyone who grew up with Super Mario World and Donkey Kong Country, Cuphead draws direct inspiration from both. Its parry of boss battles conjures memories of Mushroom Kingdom castles and scuffles with King K. Rool, giving the occasional nod to either Nintendo staple through familiar remixed soundtracks and borrowed bosses (you’ll recognize a reincarnated Necky and Gnawty in the first half of the game).
In spite of these most welcome overlaps, Cuphead carves out its own original world reserved for only the most dedicated platform gamers.
Animation and Atmosphere
In an era where realism is often considered the high watermark for game designers, Cuphead creates a league of its own, traveling back in time to champion the grainy, vintage look of a 1930s Fleischer-esque cartoon. Using traditional, old school animation techniques and original jazz/ragtime/big band scores, this game’s loyalty to the era makes it easy to sink deeply in historical immersion.
Cuphead is composed of flat cel illustration animated atop stunning watercolor backgrounds, making this game as much a work of art as it is entertainment. Coercing louder “wow”s and “whoa”s with every new stage and character, it’s plain to see the game was derived from the pure passion of brothers/creators Chad and Jared Moldenhauer and their small team.
The masterfully crafted hard-lined animations are truly a visual delicacy, but they don’t always lend well to Cuphead’s chaotic, fast-paced gameplay, particularly when playing co-op. It can be difficult to discern Cuphead from Mugman, and the watercolor backgrounds are sometimes as bright and colorful as characters and deadly projectiles, causing objects in the foreground to chameleon.
The game would have been easier if colored with a less random, more contrastive palette, but then again, I suspect that Cuphead’s sadistic developers never intended to make this game anything but agonizing.
Cuphead is hard. So hard that the only negative one-star reviews I’ve read are from gamers who physically lacked the ability to complete a level. It took me about 10 hours to make it halfway through the game, and I have no idea if I’m making good time or terrible time, but I don’t care–I’m enjoying myself despite the stream of profanities ever flowing from my mouth.
Each stage takes about 2 to 5 minutes to successfully complete–but how many attempts will it take? My partner and I have collectively died 700 times, and I expect that number to triple in the second half of the game. There are no checkpoints, no opportunities to regain HP, and no damage meter on your enemies. The difficulty of this game demands careful strategy, flawless collaboration, and impeccable technical precision, testing you in new ways every level.
To my surprise, cannabis paired magnificently with this game and I found myself taking a dab of the Oleum wax whenever I got stuck or overly frustrated. Time seemed to slow ever so slightly, and I felt more reactive to the dance of projectiles and strikes coming at me. Being high helped me see the rhythmic patterns and flow of every enemy as well as new creative solutions whenever I hit a rut.
As frustrating as this game can be, Cuphead is massively addicting. There are unlockable guns and perks that incentivize you to keep pushing forward. When you fail a level, a progress bar appears, showing you how close you were to victory and you think, “So close. Better try once more.” Then an hour passes. Maybe two. You finally beat the level and celebrate as if you’ve just won the Superbowl. Confetti falls, you shower your partner with Gatorade, etc., and then you ride that high into the next level once again.
Characters and Plot
The plot of Cuphead is simple; as simple as Mario and Luigi rescuing a princess, and as simple as Donkey Kong rescuing his banana hoard. There’s a brief cinematic cut at the beginning that establishes the plot: the devil won your soul in a bet and you have to go recover it. You’re barely immersed in any additional plot development until the end, but Cuphead still manages to build a rich, vibrant, and interesting world without taking the gamer out of the action.
Where this game truly shines is in its character designs. You’ll encounter brilliantly designed, emotive enemies like an angry slot machine that spits out obstacles based on your spin, a vulture with cuckoo clock armor, a shapeshifting genie, and many more bosses oozing with creativity (which you can watch in this mind-blowing no-damage speed run). Anticipation is something no battle is without as the bosses grow and evolve in phases over the course of a level, blooming into newly impressive forms that will punch the “whoaaaaaa” utterances straight out of you.
Cuphead is an instant classic in my book, sending its players back in time not only to a pre-war era we never lived, but also to childhood where basic platformers were virtually all we ever played. As technology steers us straight toward immersive virtual reality consoles, Cuphead reminds us of simpler days preserved by memorable characters and unforgettable 2D worlds.