Let me get my dead horse shots in:
For a dude who grew up watching Looney Tunes, Cuphead is a glory to behold. Studio MDHR nailed the look and feel of the golden age of cel animation. Although it inevitably meant death if I stood still for more than a second, sometimes I just had to gawk at the sheer amount of style bouncing and slinking off of the enemies. Everything moves the way the 1930s said it should.
Combine that with the jazz / big band bombastics, and you have a game that serves less as a modernized tribute and more as a shot-for-shot replica of that magical style from our parents’ (or grandparents’, or great-grandparents’) youth.
I’m sorry, dead horse, but everything looks and sounds unimpeachably great. Can’t say enough great things about it.
But what is all of this beauty and aural spectacle wrapped around?
This is our review of Cuphead for the Nintendo Switch.
Let me put it this way: every unrelentingly cute and well-animated object hates you and wants you to die. They will throw parts of themselves at you to kill you. They will cry on you to kill you. They will claw their way back from the grave to kill you. THEY WILL MOCK THE VERY FABRIC OF REALITY IN ORDER TO KILL YOU.
So while it’s gorgeous to look at, it’s also playfully murderous. It’s cute and it all sounds like a big party, but it’s a party that doesn’t necessarily want or need you there. That makes thematic sense, since, for all of Cuphead’s cuteness, he’s there to kill everything and gather souls for the Devil (naturally). However, gameplay-wise, it sometimes left me feeling out of the loop.
Cuphead keeps you on the outside. The art style and music are in perfect sync, but the gameplay and progression fall short. While I can thematically appreciate the randomness of the boss’s attack patterns as a reflection of the creative madness of jazz, I cannot endorse it as well-crafted gameplay.
Yes, each boss is learnable, but only through frustration and failure. There is no learning curve or slow build of skills. Cuphead is a series of wild dream sequences which, individually, are snapshots of art. Each fight, once learned, turns into a madcap series of dashes, parries, jumps, and bullets that feels like your own little jazz solo, except played on a controller for no audience and producing no music.
Here’s my issue, though: it always feels like those snapshots don’t give much of a shit if you, the player, exist or not. It’s like a jazz quartet where every member is soloing with insane technical flourish, but all in their own key and in their own time. They are playing beautifully, but they aren’t playing together.
Let me give an example:
I was fighting the supreme asshole known as Beppi the clown for probably the 17th time. I had done my standard Soulsborne failed-boss-fight routine (walk away, take a few deep breaths, ponder the infinite abyss), and came back ready to beat the piss out of that clown. I knew his patterns, I knew each sequence, I knew each attack. Beppi was about to get his transforming ass wrecked.
I fought him down to his final sequence: a carousel with platforms that glide across the screen while kids (or something; I honestly never had a chance to look at the wretched bastards. For all I know, they were beautifully-animated cans of diarrhea with baseball gloves) throw baseballs at you. Every now and then, a speeding rollercoaster cart plows over the little baseball-gloved diarrhea cans, offering a reprieve from the onslaught. During all of this madness, Beppi stands in the background as the center of the carousel, laughing.
I wanted this guy dead so bad.
My wife was watching as I jumped from platform to platform, trying to dodge all of this madness, and said, “Oh, cool, so do the platforms sync up to the music?”
No, no they do not, and that is exactly what I mean about Cuphead not really caring if you’re there or not. Everything I said about the look and sound of the game stands: that a game like this exists is truly a testament to the expanding artistic capabilities of the medium of video games. Studio MDHR deserves every award they receive for their art.
The problem lies in the gulf between a good game with unbelievable art, and a work of art. Cuphead gets so close to being more than a cool-looking game, but the gameplay and art style don’t merge in any meaningful way. It’s still worth playing, and it’s still the best-looking exercise in humility and frustration that you can find on the market today.
It’s just so close to being more.
Note: Our copy was reviewed on Nintendo Switch with a code provided by PR.
COMPARE TO: Metal Slug; Ikaruga