(StudioMDHR for Xbox One)
By Mike Delano
Let’s be clear: The most amazing aspect of Cuphead is its incredible look. It’s a cartoon from the 1930s come to life in game form with lively animation, great character designs and tons of personality. Visually, it’s like nothing ever seen before in games. The way it plays, though, is almost as rare. It’s an old-school 2D run ’n’ gun action game in the vein of Contra or Gunstar Heroes, and to make it even more niche, it’s essentially a boss rush (a gauntlet of bosses is the majority of the game), putting it amongst just a handful of similar games, most notably Alien Soldier on the Mega Drive and, more recently, indie games Titan Souls and Furi. To see a game of this type with this much polish and a console-exclusive push from Microsoft is heartwarming. Sometimes, if you’re a platform holder, you’ve gotta have some games that give you some soul rather than just sales numbers. I’m sure Nintendo wasn’t planning on tallying Wii Sports-style sales numbers when it published a Sin & Punishment sequel in 2009, but it earned a tip of the hat from gamers everywhere, and Microsoft should as well for putting its weight behind this one.
It’s a risky move, too, given how vocal some gamers are about the perceived “value” of games and how that’s often (wrongly) determined by how many hours a game takes to complete or the number of activities available. But a good boss rush game is just pure, no filler entertainment, especially when it’s as fine-tuned as Cuphead. Each boss is a puzzle at first as you try to figure out its patterns, but even when you’ve mastered everything it can throw at you (no easy task considering each of these bosses go through multiple transformations, each phase of which can have random attack elements mixed in) it becomes increasingly necessary as the game progresses to have the right weapons on hand to exploit the weaknesses of each of the bosses’ forms. A handful of platforming stages are nice palate cleansers, and exploring each of the three small hub worlds and meeting the characters within is a nice addition, but the real Cuphead lies in the action of the boss battles, and they’re universally great. Killer genies, killer plants, killer robots and killer clowns all seem to make sense together since the game is so committed to absurdity (did I mention killer glassware?), but the outrageousness is grounded by the rock solid controls of your character. You’ll die constantly, but you’ll know it was your fault and remain eager to retry, save for a couple of late game battles that demand too much of the player (in an already demanding game).
There are some fun old-school references sprinkled throughout, not only to the aforementioned run ’n’ gun classics but to legends like Gradius and Mega Man as well, and they do their source material proud. The amount of detail and charm in Cuphead means it was made with a lot of love, but all of that would just be window dressing if it wasn’t built on the structure of a solid action game. It is, and because it gets everything right it enters the pantheon of great 2D action games.