Video Game Review: “Cuphead”

 The credits roll with the letters “F-I-N” sending us off and after forty-eight hours, I have, at last, had my fill (for now), dying around 3,000 times, having completed the campaign once on Single-Player and once in Multiplayer (that’s where the deaths came from – love ya, Beccah Grace), I’ve decided it’s now time to summarize my thoughts on the whole experience. That’s right, in this review, we’re talking about Cuphead!

   For those that aren’t aware, Cuphead is a run and gun indie video game developed and published by Studio MDHR, heavily inspired by the works of early animation, such as Max Fleischer and Walt Disney, the video-game was released as a console exclusive for the Xbox One and on Microsoft Windows on September 29, 2017, and I was very excited to experience it for myself.

   As said, it was released September 29th, and considering this was a first-day purchase for me and I didn’t write this review until November (brought now onto Die Die Retry much later) that should tell you how much time I’ve spent with it. And I am not the only one that has experienced Cuphead, as it has received universal acclaim and sold over one million copies two weeks after release.

   The video-game consists mostly of a series of elaborate, convoluted boss-battles, with additional Run-In-Gun style levels integrated as well, with the game-play itself playing out in a similar way to Contra and other run and gun experiences. Personally, I really enjoy these, especially when they are done right. For instance, I really enjoyed Contra, and with the art-style itself, while, at launch, I didn’t really know much about it, I was very, very interested in it.

   Something that made me leery about writing a review of Cuphead has to do with it having a very niche audience appeal, similar in a way to Dark Souls, not simply because both are known for their difficulty, but also known for how criticism is responded to in-regard to that difficulty. I love the Souls games, having played through every game in the series (including Bloodborne and Demon’s Souls).

   My favorite aspect of Souls has to do with the scenery, the exploration, the music, and the minimalist approach to the storytelling that allows my imagination to run wild. However, sometimes I feel as though certain aspects are situated in such a way that it’s more punishingly inconvenient than what I would refer to as a challenge.

   However, in that series, I found that any time I would try and voice any complaints, I would find a spewing barrage of condescending disregard, blanketed statements that suggest any criticism that’s in-regards to the difficulty is because a lack of skill. As for Cuphead, if you were to see me as I played it with my fiancée the first time, you’d wonder whether or not either of us enjoyed it.

   This is because Cuphead isn’t difficult in a straightforward manner but is difficult in what I found myself constantly overlooking, and then, at times, it’s difficult in how it throws so much out at you and requests that you make very little mistakes. It’s difficult because the way the foreground constantly gets in the way and obscures your view. It’s difficult because the way that parrying requires such a precise, specific action. It’s difficult because at some moments during boss-battles, the boss will drop down, without warning, and take a hit from you, and the only way to completely avoid it is to have hindsight that it’s about to happen, which is only more frustrating when you consider that it’s usually at the end of said boss-battle.

   The reason the game is frustrating isn’t necessarily just simply because it’s difficult, but, in-fact, the way that it is difficult is a way that makes it harder to enjoy yourself. Where you have a Casino boss that threatens to have you restart the whole section simply for not parrying a dice on the correct number.

   Some like to always make the argument that something may be hard, but it’s “fair,” when, in-retrospect, that doesn’t really matter at all, what matters entirely is whether it feels fair, and more often than not, Cuphead, to me, didn’t feel fair. But, is Cuphead itself so good that it can outweigh any of the legitimate criticisms one may have of it? Honestly, yeah, kind-of.

   I mean, yes, I do legitimately think it would have been better off if Cuphead provided a choice in-terms of difficulty, because I think, to certain gamers, that might provide a better experience, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I know some will disagree, but that’s my opinion. It is also important to mention that I found most of the difficulty came from multiplayer, and that single-player was more manageable.

   All in all though, Cuphead’s fantastic, throwing hurdle after hurdle at you, forcing you to make educative decisions about your tactics, requiring A LOT of trial-and-error, and, even if I said at times I wasn’t enjoying myself, I must have been, at least, a little bit, considering I kept playing it over and over again until I finally mastered it.

   The feeling of defeating a boss that was once deemed unbeatable is terrific, and what’s even more curious is that I found myself able to go back to previous bosses that had once been so difficult and beat them with ease, getting the “A” rank for most of them. It makes you feel fantastic being able to go back and fight those bosses again without taking a single-hit, and it isn’t because you’ve got some special-weapon, but because you have a certain skill or know-how that you didn’t have before, and I think that’s pretty cool.

   The game-play is top-notch, propelled by aesthetically appeasing visuals that were clearly crafted with a lot of inspiration, effort, and time put into them, as well as terrific sound and music that really puts you into the mood of their world. Cuphead takes inspiration from a lot of different things and is able to still come away feeling like something its own. If, at all possible, I would recommend you play Cuphead both on Single-Player and Multiplayer. Because, with Multiplayer, I found it more difficult but also, perhaps more fun, but I think they both add their own unique dimension to it.

   Multiplayer requires that both you and your partner bring your “A” game and bring it at the same time, and that requirement of unison and how you’ll always have one-eye on your partner, is like a new experience entirely. On Single-Player, while it retains much of the challenge, I feel as though I had a much easier time with progression, but I wasn’t nearly as wired in and invested.

   Cuphead is, perhaps, the best video-game experience I have had this year, second only to my recent co-op play-through of Borderlands 2, and I can’t wait to experience more from Studio MDHR.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0