Cuphead Review: Merry Melody

Is Cuphead as good as its animation suggests? Our review.

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Cuphead is a throwback in more ways than one. There's the graphic style that flashes back to the old-school cartoon shorts of the 1930s, the hand-drawn style made famous by the earliest days of Disney, Warner Bros., and MGM Studios. The classic tracking effects from vintage films and the familiar opening scratch from the monaural sound of a vinyl record.

Then there's the throwback in the other way, also flashing back to the earliest days of video games, in the sense of pure unforgiving difficulty. There's no other way to say this. Cuphead is hard. It is "throw your controller in anger" hard. But what makes Studio MDHR's platforming boss rush game such a treat is that it modernizes the formula just enough to make it worth trying again endlessly.

Devil in the Details

It's almost impossible not to marvel at what Studio MDHR has been able to pull off with Cuphead from a presentation standpoint. The opening of this review touched upon it briefly, but there's such a strong devotion to the 1930s theme that permeates throughout the entire game. The grainy vintage film effect starts from the opening credits and never goes away for anything. The loading screen is a grainy black screen with an old hourglass that flips around. Even the main menu keeps the grainy effect over the player's profile picture.

It extends through the game, with a hand-drawn overworld, enemies that are capably hand-drawn to look like something out of an old Merrie Melodies short. Bosses aren't "killed" but rather get knocked out and left seeing stars, with old-school "dizzy" lines. On top of that, every level is preceded with an old-timey title card, as if it's setting up a cartoon short. It's thematically brilliant and both the art and audio teams should be commended for Cuphead's presentation.

The story fits in with that old aesthetic, as well. Cuphead and Mugman sneak into the Devil's casino and get a little too cocky and wind up losing their souls in a game of craps. To appease the lord of darkness and his blockheaded lackey, King Dice, Cuphead and Mugman must battle bosses across the land, all of whom are delinquent in their debts to the Devil. The cutscenes in-between worlds are delightful and the only complaint here is that they're all-too-brief. Scenes with the Devil and King Dice are a delight and it would have been nice to see more of them.

A Warm Cup of Agony

Did I mention that Cuphead is hard? Because Cuphead is hard. Cuphead is really hard!

Bosses are spread out across the overworld, each of whom have their own distinct attack patterns and multiple phases. The idea is to defeat them all, though Cuphead only gets three hits. Trying to beat a boss in three hits sounds easy, but none of these boss fights have checkpoints. Dying means having to start the whole thing from scratch. Add in the fact that many of the boss attacks are inspired by bullet hell elements and Cuphead becomes a masochistic endeavor.

Run-and-gun stages are similarly difficult, thanks to precision platforming and distinct gimmicks that span each stage. These platforming stages are a must for reasons I'll touch on shortly. They're skippable, but it's not recommended. These stages have their own sources of aggravation, whether it's tough-to-avoid enemy patterns or a surprise enemy that pops in out of nowhere. There's no way to recover health, either, so once Cuphead gets hit, it's one strike. Three strikes and he's out!

After a few dozen bouts of throwing my controller at the wall, Cuphead's best element started to become clear. Cuphead is brutally challenging, but none of that challenge is unfair. Bosses and run-and-gun stages are entirely doable and within the realm of Cuphaed's mechanics. The game doesn't ask for complicated button inputs or special items. It's a matter of reflexes and using those natural reflexes to complete a level is genuinely satisfying. It's also helpful (though sometimes exacerbating) that whenever Cuphead dies, the Game Over screen will indicate just how close the end of the level was. That's an understated mechanic and one that offers motivation to keep trying.

Friends can also play co-op and it feels like an absolute must. Co-op players have the ability to resurrect one another by using the game's parry system. Parrying on a fallen partner's floating spirit before it leaves the screen will bring them back for one more hit. This is an essential mechanic, because teamwork can carry players a lot farther. For solo players, dead is dead and there's no hope of any kind of second chance. Granted, the resurrection mechanic is hard to pull off, especially if the screen is covered in hazards, but at least the idea is there.

Sippy Cup

Cuphead does have a difficulty setting and it has a more practical use than simply turning down the pain. Advancing in the world is an essential aspect of the game, mainly because of the coins that Cuphead collects in the run-and-gun levels. Upgrading Cuphead's inventory with purchases from Porkrind's Emporium is the best way to even the odds against the bosses and the best way to access the later levels is to face those bosses on the "Simple" difficulty.

Simple difficulty boss fights make Cuphead feel much more accessible for the casual player, while also acting as vital practice sessions. They give players a sense of what to expect when taking on the "real" battles and they offer a sufficient challenge in themselves. "Simple" boss fights are not easy by any means, despite the fact that the bosses do hold back. Entire phases are skipped in Simple mode, with the boss offering those nasty surprises up for anyone that dares to tackle them on Regular difficulty.

What's unfortunate about the Simple difficulty is that there's no real sense of finality for those users that want to just stop there. Attempting to access the final part of the game will simply trigger a short cutscene and turn the player back. Those hoping for, at the very least, a simplified final boss fight that offers a taste of what the true final bosses have to offer will be left wanting.

That's All Folks

Cuphead is a joyful flashback to a bygone era, both in terms of animation and in terms of crushing video game difficulty. It's easy to get lost in this gorgeous cartoon world and get overtaken by the sheer beauty and whimsy of the game's characters. Then the intensity picks up and it becomes one of the most challenging video game experiences of the year.

But the best part about Cuphead is that the challenge feels attainable. It's the right kind of frustration, the kind that makes a person feel like they can prevail if they just try one more time. It's easy for this type of game to feel cheap, but it never feels impossible. It's a gorgeous piece of work and a cup that feels better on repeated sips.


This review is based on an Xbox One download code provided by the publisher. Cuphead is available on Xbox One and PC on Friday, September 29 for $19.99. The game is rated E.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

Review for
Cuphead

8

Pros

  • Gorgeous animation
  • Solid shooting mechanics
  • Toe-tapping music
  • Challenging, but not unfairly so
  • Creative run-and-gun level design
  • Imaginative characters
  • Simple difficulty offers greater accessibility

Cons

  • No real (or even fake) ending for Simple difficulty
  • Parry mechanic feels imprecise at times
  • Long load times

From The Chatty

  • reply
    September 29, 2017 12:01 AM

    Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Cuphead Review: Merry Melody

    • reply
      September 29, 2017 3:22 AM

      Finally, video game graphics have reached the fidelity of 85 year old cartoons!

      • reply
        September 29, 2017 4:52 AM

        Better than that: 85-year-old cartoons on scratchy old film transferred to VHS back in the 80’s.

    • reply
      September 29, 2017 3:59 AM

      Does it 0wn?

      • reply
        September 29, 2017 10:10 AM

        I did a double take cause I thought I posted that query at first.

    • reply
      September 29, 2017 5:49 AM

      Good review. I want to get it but i also don't want to torture myself.

    • reply
      September 29, 2017 7:08 AM

      Is there an easy mode?

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        September 29, 2017 10:16 AM

        From what I saw in the previews, yes. At least "easier"

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        September 29, 2017 10:23 AM

        I saw on the GB quicklook, that most of the levels had a "Simple" or "Regular" option.

        Not sure how dialed back simple is, and would love to get some feedback on that.

      • reply
        September 29, 2017 12:46 PM

        Read the article!

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      September 29, 2017 8:21 AM

      So the article mentions multiple times about how hard the game is,but in the Pros/Cons section,it says it's challenging,but not unfair. How do those two things coincide? If a game is so hard that I want to throw and break my controller,I would say that it could qualify as unfair.

      If anyone has played games like VVVVVV or Risk Of Rain,you'll know where the line is between challenging and unfair.

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        September 29, 2017 8:47 AM

        uhhh, difficulty and fairness, while related, are different concepts, and being extremely diffucult yet still fair shouldn't be difficult to understand.

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        September 29, 2017 8:51 AM

        Challenging but fair means games like Super Meat Boy, Dark Souls, Contra, etc.

        Where the game is difficult, there may be a steep learning curve, but it isn't difficult due to cheap tricks. The game's rules are consistent, the game rewards effort and creativity, the penalties are fair and in line with your mistakes.

        A tough but fair game means when you die or lose, you feel like it was because of something you did (or didn't do), not something the game did to you.

        Old bullet hell shmups were a mix, some were super unfair and cheap, others were very fair.

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          September 29, 2017 10:10 AM

          SUPER MEAT BOY sucked arse, though.

          • reply
            September 29, 2017 10:22 AM

            now why you gotta ruin that sweet moneymaker of yours by saying dumb things like that, baby

          • reply
            September 29, 2017 11:59 AM

            You are fucking dead to me

        • reply
          September 29, 2017 12:29 PM

          Honest question: what are game titles that are difficult due to cheap tricks? Like Turok with its jumping puzzles?

      • reply
        September 29, 2017 10:20 AM

        By your comparison, I would put his assessment at that point just before you feel compelled to throw your controller across the room

      • reply
        September 29, 2017 12:24 PM

        Your reaction to difficulty has absolutely no relation to the fairness of said difficulty.

    • reply
      September 29, 2017 8:52 AM

      Been looking forward to this one, but I'm not really into "git gud" games.

      • reply
        September 29, 2017 8:54 AM

        Yeah, I bought it just to support the art style but I almost don't even want to play it.

        • reply
          September 29, 2017 8:57 AM

          You're like the kid that buys that really awesome toy but never takes it out of the package!

          • reply
            September 29, 2017 8:58 AM

            I'm really bad at games like this. My fragile ego can't take the shame :(

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              September 29, 2017 9:00 AM

              I'm curious how I'll do. I haven't played a bullet hell game like this in I don't know how long.

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                September 29, 2017 9:02 AM

                I played undertale and hated it so I’m pretty sure this won’t be a good time. Hopefully they can add an ez mode.

          • reply
            September 29, 2017 10:27 AM

            No kid does that; only grown-ups

      • reply
        September 29, 2017 9:48 AM

        Which is unfortunate, because this is the ultimate "git gud" game.

    • reply
      September 29, 2017 10:26 AM

      Bought after seeing TruTalent play it. looks fantastic.

    • reply
      September 29, 2017 10:47 AM

      Can't wait to buy this for $5 on Steam sale.

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        September 29, 2017 11:30 AM

        I don't know if I'll be able to go that long, but I am in no rush to play it this sort of game with all the other stuff out there right now. It does look incredible, but it can wait.

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          September 29, 2017 12:59 PM

          That too. I am already playing Ruiner, which was an impulse purchase. It is also quite fucking hard, so I only need 1 hard game at a time.

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      September 29, 2017 11:36 AM

      GB made it sound really short (I like short games). Is it actually short?

      • reply
        September 29, 2017 11:41 AM

        Good question!

        I hope it can be beaten in a single session. These kinds of arcade shooters are taxing, and if they drag on too long I lose interest. I know some folks be dumb these days and demand longer and longer games for their money no matter what's best for the experience, but I'd see this one being shorter and replayable for better score, or just mastery, as a huge benefit.

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          September 29, 2017 11:56 AM

          From the little I saw in the GB quicklook, Ben said he had played a couple hours and was 44% through. At the level select, it looked like he was a good way into World 2 with World 3 and the Finale yet to be unlocked.

          I'd guess about 5 hours depending on easily you work through the levels.

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            September 29, 2017 12:13 PM

            Oh, dang. I was hoping more like 2-3 hours in total, haha.

            I suppose I really just wanted to play their original version, when it was simply a boss rush game. That would have probably been about 30m - 2h depending on the length and amount of them. But I realize most people would not have been into that for the $20 or even $15 price tag, they had to build it out and make it more of a traditional run and gun platformer.

      • reply
        September 29, 2017 12:00 PM

        It is short. I ran through it in a few days, maybe about 10-20 hours. Perfectly fine for a $20 game.

    • reply
      September 29, 2017 11:41 AM

      So in that header image, did you just catch Mugman sipping on his own brains? I DRINK IT UP!

    • reply
      September 29, 2017 1:30 PM

      I'm so sad this isn't coming to PS4. It looks right up my alley.

      Oh well.

    • reply
      September 29, 2017 9:46 PM

      Been playing on PC. I've played a lot of platformers and my feeling on this one are a bit mixed. If you strip away the beautiful graphics is this just a fairly mediocre Mega Man? It's been a tough feeling for me to shake through the first world. It's also a huge cop out to make the story segments be a series of stills instead of animated movies, considering the whole style of the game is aping animated movies. The graphics are really great, of course. I understand there isn't usually a huge budget for 2D platformers, but it makes this game in particular feel incomplete. The difficulty is fine.