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Cuphead Xbox One review: A work of art — and an acquired taste

Cuphead
Cuphead (Image credit: Microsoft)

Cuphead is a true work of art. Hand-painted backdrops, frame-by-frame hand-drawn sprites, with some of the most imaginative, whimsical, and wacky boss battles ever seen in gaming.

Cuphead is a side-scrolling shooter which pays homage to several classic design principles, across both art and gaming. Contra-style directional shooting, schmup bullet-hell levels, and vaudevillian art coalesces to create a game that assaults your eyes and your brain, with its sheer beauty and diabolical difficulty.

As a game, Cuphead certainly won't appeal to everyone, but it's a shining beacon of creativity in its purest form that ought to be celebrated by gamers everywhere. Here's our Cuphead review.

Art, setting, and story

You can't write a review of this game without talking about Cuphead's artwork; it's simply breathtaking throughout.

Studio MDHR hand-animated every backdrop, every sprite, and every special effect in tribute to classic cartoons of the early 1900s. The animation of that era was capricious and frankly, slightly unhinged, becoming unwittingly creepy in the process. Studio MDHR took this sentiment to another level, basing their entire visual structure on it to great effect.

In Cuphead, you play as either Cuphead or Mugman (in 2-player local co-op), who have unfortunately fallen afoul of the Devil. While gambling, the pair managed to lose their souls on a bet, but the Devil offered to put them to work instead. Cuphead and Mugman effectively become debt collectors for Satan throughout the game, traveling around to face off against various deranged bosses who owe their souls to the Devil.

Cuphead is comprised of three main overworlds sporting different visual themes. Without going into too much detail, the first takes place in countryside lands, with forests and farms, while the second takes place in an amusement park, with rides and other attractions.

The creatures you'll encounter are vaguely thematic for each world, but the endless surrealism makes almost every aspect of the game a constant surprise. A lady zeppelin riding a flying bike, transforming into a giant bull, then into a giant moon, spraying projectiles all over the place. A princess with a severed head, riding a living birthday cake, assaulting you with an army of living jelly beans, candy corn, and cupcakes. A battle a-top a roller coaster, against a clown that can transform into a giant balloon and a carousel, who spits baseball-throwing penguins.

Every single frame of Cuphead oozes ingenuity.

This really is the tip of an iceberg of absurd designs that will enthrall as much as they disturb, owing to that 1920s oddness. Less odd, however, is the game's musical score, which features an incredible 56 tracks of original jazz and ragtime songs composed by Kristofer Maddigan and performed by live musicians. The authenticity elevates the experience as a whole and really typifies the attention to detail Studio MDHR have strived for when recreating the sights and sounds of the period.

Every single frame of Cuphead oozes ingenuity. I've died simply because I was distracted by the stunning displays on offer. Cuphead's visuals are arresting, and they will ensnare your attention and soften the blow while you suffer through its aggressively punishing gameplay.

Gameplay – it's as hard as you heard

Cuphead revives schmup and classic side-scrolling shooter sensibilities, evoking memories of Contra and Gunstar Heroes with its gunplay and phase-changing boss battles. Cuphead was originally going to be a boss rush game, but after receiving additional funding from Microsoft, the game expanded to include platforming levels and other events and features.

Quite a few deaths on this zeppelin lady. #Cuphead pic.twitter.com/wYKfFR2X3H— Jez ☕ (@JezCorden) September 28, 2017

Supporting 2-player local co-op, Cuphead places up to two players in an overworld, hand-painted and full of peril. As you move from one boss to the next, the game's island worlds open up to new areas, providing more activities.

You can play each event on a "simple" mode, which removes some of the trickier mechanics, dumbing the fights down and allowing you to progress. But if you want to truly complete the game, you'll have to git gud and stick it out on regular mode – this is the only way to claim each boss's soul for your fiendish benefactor.

Each boss battle comes with multiple phases that must be learned via trial and error (or… using a guide on the internet, but seriously, it'll be far more rewarding if you tough it out yourself). If you survive each phase, you'll win, receive the soul, and also be graded on your performance. There are achievements attached to the grades and even 200g for completing the game without dying. That's one achievement I'm pretty certain I won't ever get.

You will die in Cuphead, a lot, complete with a Dark Souls-like "YOU DIED" message after each failure. There's even a fountain in the second world that will tell you exactly how many times you died. One of the bosses there single-handedly doubled my death count due to its difficulty, but it's easy to jump right back into the action – thankfully you don't have to reload each level after death.

The vast majority of Cuphead deaths will be due to trial and error. Sometimes it's not clear whether something is a projectile or a safe platform, and the only way to find out is to risk a hitpoint on it. You get three hits per level, then it's game over and time to restart the mission.

There's also an element of randomness in most boss battles, which serve to make repeat attempts feel fresh, but at the same time, on some of the more chaotic bosses, the RNG stars can align to place you in inescapable situations, which can be frustrating.

The game gives you options to limit the impact of chance, however. There's a special store on each world that gives you access to power-ups and additional weapons. One of the weapons gives you the option of switching to a shotgun-like bullet spread, trading range for additional damage. This extra option gives you the ability to speed through certain boss phases a little faster, reducing the risk of something going horribly wrong.

There are various other powerups and weapons to choose from, purchasable using coins discovered in the game's "Run 'n Gun" side-scrolling platformer missions, hidden throughout the level. There are also mausoleum challenges that give you access to powerful "super" ability, such as temporary invincibility and a large horizontal beam. The supers charge up over time, represented as playing cards in the bottom left-hand corner of the HUD. You can spend single cards on a mini-attack, or build them all up for a super, which does far more damage. Managing these abilities and powerups forms part of the game's difficulty – knowing how and when to use those abilities without getting yourself killed in the process is an important skill.

You may occasionally find yourself stuck to the point where you'll go backtracking to find missing coins, to purchase weapons and items that might give you an edge in any given fight. Sometimes, even the slightest advantage can be the difference between victory and a smashed-up controller.

That said, while randomness can get you killed, Cuphead never feels truly unfair. There's always something you could've done, something you could've pre-empted or prepared for to avoid losing a crucial hit point.

The end of every difficult fight is such a rewarding, satisfying feeling.

And even if you do end up dying 10 or 20 times on a single fight, most bosses are designed to utilize different tactics or abilities when you start over, which keeps you on your toes and eliminates the sense of grind. It shows great foresight on the part of Studio MDHR.

Playing Cuphead's missions on regular difficulty requires near-constant concentration, and some will find that exhausting – I know I did. Taking breaks and coming back with a fresh mind often helped me power through the difficulty and panic of those increasingly chaotic phases. I found that even after dozens of failed attempts, I kept coming back for more because the rewarding Knockout! exclamation at the end of every difficult fight is such a gratifying, satisfying feeling – and each time you die, you get a little better. The final levels will make even the most hardened gamers rage.

Loved this boss. So many mechanics to watch out for. #Cuphead pic.twitter.com/SoWjquxeU5— Jez ☕ (@JezCorden) September 29, 2017

Final thoughts

Cuphead is a tremendous achievement that will probably go down as one of this year's most beautiful and creative titles. Each level, each song, and each boss character is a meticulously crafted work of art in its own right, that you won't soon forget.

The gunplay mechanics might feel a little dated, paying homage to 8-bit shooters of yesteryear, but they're well executed overall, and come with some modern flair in the form of super attacks and other powerups.

The randomness on some boss fights will frustrate some, but patient, methodical gamers will relish the challenge, and enjoy the sense of accomplishment at the end of each huge battle.

Pros:

  • Stunning creativity and art.
  • Challenging, rewarding gameplay.
  • Low price.

Cons:

  • No online co-op.
  • Some will find the difficulty unwelcoming.

It's an incredible oversight that Studio MDHR and Microsoft couldn't get online co-operative play into the game ready for launch (if at all), but at least the local co-op is well thought out. Cuphead has some solid longevity across its three main worlds and dozens of levels (and more if you go for its more challenging achievements).

Cuphead is an instant classic that will build a solid fanbase across Xbox One and Windows PCs, and hopefully, spawn bigger and bolder sequels in the years to come. Amazing job, Studio MDHR.

Cuphead arrives on September 29, 2017, on Xbox One and Windows 10 as part of Xbox Play Anywhere for $19.99.

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This review was conducted on Xbox One using a copy provided by Microsoft.

Jez Corden is a Senior Editor for Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!

27 Comments
  • Thanks for the good review Jez! This one's a true instant classic and I'd even say a tribute and service to the history and culture of animation. A genuine labor of love!
    I'm so excited to play it this weekend :-)
  • You're gonna love it dude!
  • Can two players coop on PC if first player has gamepad and the second is using keyboard?
  • I'm not sure, no gaming PC here atm. I'll ask around.
  • I dont see 2 player online co-op a real requirement for this, especially the price its out at, maybe ok to add at a later time, but I wouldnt call it a CON. Definatelty the score needs to be closer to 4 due to the difficulty. I do not like games that become that hard they cannot be played. What is annoying that my duaghter (8) would love to play this, but the difficulty is way to tough, after watching the videos of people playing, it would be really nice to have a kids level of dificulty added, so younger kids can play this, as the graphics really appeal to the younger audience.
  • It's okay for games to be hard, not all games have to be accessible for everyone. This is for people who like hard games, GTA is for 18+, racing games are for racing game fans, etc. Your daughter will love Super Lucky's Tale launching a little later! I thought it was odd that 2-player online co-op wasn't in considering the game has Microsoft's backing.
  • Agree with the comments, but having something like this kids friendly would be awesome, my kids have seen it and would like to play it, but there is no way they would be able to actually play it and get anywhere.  With it unique artwork it definately gathers attention quickly.
  • Maybe something you can play together? Has 2-player local co-op :)
  • I'm up for the Challenge and need this game.
  • Can't wait for 9am!
  • WTF, New releases are normally at midnight.  I got up this morning and tried it at 6am....so disapointed I could not try it before work...
  • I stayed up till midnight.  Went to play and got the "You're too early, check back later."  Now, I'm @ work and for some reason the download won't even start on my SP4.  #SadTrombone
  • The artwork looks great, but the extreme difficulty is definitely a design mistake in my opinion. I want to enjoy my gaming time, not be stressed into a rage. I'll wait for a patch to adjust the difficulty level (and insulting achievements) before buying. Such a wasted potential.
  • You re going to love the difficulty trust me 😉
  • Very tempted to get this for my PC.
  • I grabbed it in the Windows store (pre-ordered), It's play anywhere.... PC and Xbox... so enjoy it on both.
  • About CONS: - I reard somewhere thar online coop would be added soon. - If you think it's hard.... GIT GUD SCRUB!
  • The game looks awesome, but I think it was a mistake for them not to include more difficulty options. The aesthetics of the game make it unique, and surely it will catch the eye of a range of gamers--from hardcore folk that'll love the challenge to casual folk or even younger kids who would've enjoyed a more breezy playthrough just to soak in the ambiance. If you spend all these years and dollars making such a neat game, why artificially limit your audience (and, thus, your sales) by scaring potential customers away? A lot of the chatter online already is people saying they're intrigued by the game but are going to skip the purchase because they heard how difficult it is. Those are lost sales. And the fix is so simple: just add easier difficulty levels with more hitpoints.
  • So your going to die a billion times (Super Meat boy anyone ?) Can you just keep going ? What I mean is do you get 5 guys and your done type of thing (then restart), or is unlimited lifes and keep going till you beat the "boss: ?
  • Never mind....D'oh !
  • Even if this game becomes one of those legendary "too hard to finish" from the NES era I will still get it due to the art direction and unique design choices.
  • Awesome game Jez true classic perfectly made to resemble the 1930 style I love the artwork for the game as well awesome review jez congrats 👏
  • its a fun game got it today. played it first thing. it isn't easy will take some time to get use too. 
  • Play it with my son..love every moment of the game!
  • damn,  I need to get my xbox one.   The visuals in this game are truly amazing.  Awesome!
  • I bought the game because of how awesome it looks. Will I ever beat it or play much probably not due to how difficult it is. I mainly bought it to support the company...
  • When played in co-op, does the second player earn achievements on their profile or is it a single profile game?