Hello, everyone! Once again, I apologize for being away for so long. I’m a bit late on this review, but I’m so in love with this game, I just have to rant about it to you!
Therefore, I bring to you. . . my Cuphead review!!
Released at the end of September 2017, Cuphead is created by StudioMDHR and is available on XBOX one, Steam, and Microsoft Windows. Cuphead has received extremely positive reviews from pretty much everywhere, ranking 10/10 on Steam, 88 on Metacritic, and 4.5/5 on Microsoft.
When Cuphead (left) and his friend Mugman (right) lose a gambling bet with the Devil, they are presented with two options: either give up their souls, or collect the souls of runaway debtors. By game default, you go with the second option. . . otherwise there would be no game! Thus begins an incredibly difficult journey around Inkwell Isle.
You play as Cuphead, and can have a buddy co-op play as Mugman. It’s a run n’ gun styled game, in which you shoot glowing bullets from your fingers. Most stages are boss battles (the bosses being the runaway debtors), though there are a few platformer levels where you collect coins to spend on weapon/ability upgrades. As with all games, these upgrades are crucial to your success – having the right bullets for a particular boss can really make or break your battle.
DID I MENTION THIS GAME IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT??
Sure, the controls are really simple, but the stages are ridiculously tricky! For starters, you only have 3 HP (certain abilities can boost this, if you choose to purchase them), making each life extremely valuable, especially with so much stuff falling and launching toward you. While the difficulty can be frustrating, I find myself laughing more than anything when I die. It’s challenging, but in a good way. It’s all fair, a very possible to beat with patience and skill. Timing is everything. Don’t expect to beat a level on the first try. Especially since each boss undergoes multiple transformations, it’s hard to know what to expect until it literally hits you. Luckily, the game is pretty fast-paced, so it doesn’t take much motivation to keep trying, and it’s SO satisfying to finally win!
If you are doing co-op, your buddy can revive each other by parrying your ghost before you float away, but that’s easier said than done. Risking your own lives to save your friend can bring more harm than good – plus they only come back with 1 HP. It’s difficult to say whether co-op makes the game easier or harder, at least from my experiences. Having double the bullets makes it harder to focus and see what’s going on, but it’s nice to have an extra hand on deck. It’s also nice to have someone to suffer along with you.
This video sums up my Cuphead experience quite accurately: https://www.facebook.com/JustMeBeingACircle/videos/1491688894249876/
The game’s 1930s cartoon aesthetic is what initially drew me to the game trailers. Drawn in the “rubber hose” style used by Walt Disney and Fleischer Studios, and heavily inspired by their themes, Cuphead feels like it’s right out of their era. Complete with a fitting jazz soundtrack and beautiful hand drawn art, Cuphead’s style alone earns the game an A+. The fact that the artists and animators used the same techniques as the artists back in the 30s shows serious dedication to vintage authenticity. Many of the character designs are inspired by popular cartoon and pop culture icons of the decade, including jazz singer Cab Calloway inspired King Dice.
At a glance, Cuphead looks like a lighthearted, upbeat game. In a sense, this is true, but the surreal themes of hell, soul stealing, devil, gambling, etc. are fairly dark – though not surprising. StudioMDHR noted the Fleischer brothers as a big inspiration, especially their short “Swing, you Sinners!” To summarize: When Bimbo the dog is caught stealing a chicken by the police, he escapes into a nearby cemetery. There, things get freaky when the tombstones and ghosts sing an eerie (yet catchy) tune, punishing him for his crimes. Every second gets progressively creepier, leading up to the ghouls basically chasing him into Hell. It seems a bit overkill, torturing a dog for chasing women and stealing chickens, but what do I know? That being said, the Fleischer brothers have created some dark, creepy toons in general throughout their career.
While on the topic of 1930s cartoons, I feel it’s necessary I do bring up the controversial elements this style brought to Cuphead. Yup, you guessed it:
Racism in 1930s cartoons, and how it applies today
I won’t dive too deep into this, since I believe this topic alone is worthy of its own post, but I feel it’d be wrong to completely brush it off. The creators of Cuphead are Canadian, and when asked about the racist connotations, claimed to be unaware of them. It’s not like they are literally or intentionally spewing racist dialogue. I believe they didn’t mean any harm, especially since people outside of the United States are sometimes less aware of our racist history.
For starters, cartoons in the 1920s/30s came about when vaudeville shows were popular and were heavily inspired by them – including the minstrel aspect. The black body/white glove style donned by Cuphead – and Mickey Mouse – is based off the stereotypical minstrel costume. Characters drawn like this, such as Bimbo, are often portrayed as little troublemakers, who endure endless slapstick punishment with seemingly no physical consequences, mimicking the dehumanizing violent “humor” toward minstrels. Themes such as gambling and punishment were common (like in “Swing, you Sinners!”). Though I appreciate old cartoons for what they’re worth, watching a cartoon character get basically tortured makes me a little uneasy, I’m pretty sure this was seen as comedic back in the day. It kind of has this, “Ha, serves them right!” attitude about it. Since StudioMDHR wanted to be true to the 1930s cartoons, it’s no surprise they chose a theme and plot similar to something the Fleischer brothers might’ve created – and it’s a great story nonetheless – but I believe it’s important to know why these themes were so popular back then.
While most people stand by their positive reviews of Cuphead, many people were disturbed by the imagery and themes and refused to support the game. With characters like Mickey Mouse still prominent, I think it’s difficult to completely remove the old styles from current media. That’s why it’s so important to discuss these tropes, recognize our history, and find ways to rise above it. For example, rapper Jay-Z does an excellent job using 1930s cartoons to depict America’s racism in his music video for his song “The Story of OJ.” Just like the lead character in the video does, it’s important to look back in time and comment on the issues rather than ignore them, no matter how disturbing they may be.
Cuphead is truly a well-made game in every aspect. While I do recommend it, I do stress the importance of remembering the past.
Thank you for reading my review! 🙂 I hope to stay more consistent with my postings.
Have you ever played Cuphead? What are your thoughts on the game? Feel free to drop a comment!