We first played Cuphead at GDC in the beginning of 2015, where brothers and developers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer were offering a cash prize for the first person of the day to beat one of the three boss levels on display. We had seen Cuphead announced at E3 the year before and were struck by its visuals, and couldn't wait to get our hands on it, but at conferences, we're always pressed for time and usually are limited to maybe 30 minutes of hands-on time per game. As fate would have it, though, we ended our day at the ID@Xbox event and managed to get about two hours with the game, running to the back of the queue after each attempt. At the end of the day we left defeated and with empty pockets, but still very excited for the release of the game.
In the following two and a half years we've encountered Cuphead at several conferences, battling a few of its many bosses all the while hoping for a release date. Well, the day has finally come, we've played it through, and oh what a joyous/hateful time it has been.
So what is Cuphead? Well it's a beautiful game inspired by 1930s cartoons and features a return to the old school gameplay of yore, with run-and-gun, side-scrolling bullet hell gameplay punctuated by multi-stage boss battles. In the game you take control of Cuphead with the option of a friend joining in local co-op as his brother Mugman, and the two brothers forfeit their souls at the Devil's Casino, being left with few options but to do his bidding in collecting the souls of several of his debtors through intricate boss battles. On that note, one can't help but be thankful for the one-time purchase price, because if this was coin operated we'd be broke by now.
Cuphead's aesthetics are pulled straight out of 1930s cartoons. Think Steamboat Willie, Betty Boop, and Swing you Sinners, with hand-drawn cell animated characters and painted backgrounds, here given the technicolour treatment and running at a stable 60 frames-per-second.
So well crafted and vivid is the world and character design of Cuphead that one could be fooled into thinking this was, in fact, a licensed revitalisation of a well-established cartoon.
Every single boss battle and stage is utterly unique and immediately interesting. The imagination, detail, and slight imperfections in the art on display give the game soul and provide a welcome change from the endless onslaught of pixel art in the current indie market. The mood of the game is then tied together with an excellent big band jazz soundtrack and an old-timey announcer urging you on upon each retry, of which there will be many.
Sometimes after a particularly unsuccessful run at a boss, you might be tempted to call in reinforcements in the form of a friend joining proceedings as Mugman. While certainly fun, this generally does little to help. Even though the difficulty doesn't scale it adds another moving element into an already tight and crowded screen, which is basically a new element of confusion that may mess with the ever-important timing of parries and attacks. Like we say, though, it is a laugh, and with the developers looking to add online play too, there are definitely those who will enjoy it.
Cuphead's gameplay evokes the likes of Contra, Megaman and at times Super R-Type. The main meat of the game is the boss battles which, although all of them are decidedly unique, come in two distinct flavours; run-and-gun and shoot 'em up, where Cuphead must dodge various alternating attack patterns and projectiles while consistently dealing damage to his foe in order to progress to the boss through its various stages and ever intensifying attacks.
We thought there was too many shoot 'em up bosses where Cuphead flies around in a little plane with set weaponry, unaffected by upgrades. In our opinion, these levels generally fell short of true bullet hell glory, and the run-and-gun bosses were simply more interesting.
Also scattered around the world map are bespoke run-and-gun levels with gaggles of minions coming your way. These levels, while entertaining, in the end are merely a way to gather coins in order to buy upgrades for Cuphead (although an NPC on the world map gave a cryptic message insinuating that approaching these levels with a more pacifistic approach may lead to an interesting unlock). Speaking of upgrades, these become increasingly important as the game progresses. They range from different artillery for Cuphead, supers which are unlocked in special mausoleum missions, and charms which give Cuphead various passive abilities.
Two fire patterns can be equipped and switched between on the fly, while the other upgrades have a single slot that should be filled before entering a level. Different boss battles benefit from different loadouts, so you shouldn't be afraid to quit a level after several frustrating defeats in a row, letting you adjust Cuphead's arsenal before jumping back in. For example, loading up Cuphead's finger gun with a powerful charge shot and a weaker enemy-seeking shot, along with an invincibility super and an automatic jump parry can be the difference between agonising defeat and triumphant victory.
While at first a bit jarring, after a short adjustment period we found that the way these two disparate core elements - the gameplay and the aesthetics - blend together is near magic. But be warned, the game is hard, but at least it features two difficulty levels per stage: Simple and Normal. Simple does just what the name implies and removes elements of the boss battles, be that the last enemy stage, fewer attack patterns, or slower level scrolling. Normal, however, is the way the game is meant to be played, and if you want to give the Devil his due you will have to clear all his debtors and collect their souls.
Even though the plethora of unique bosses all feature a set of evolving attack patterns that test the player's pattern recognition, memory, and timing, the order in which the enemies deploy them varies. This stops the game from being a simple exercise in memorising repetitive attacks and infuses tension into every run.
The lovely audio design and character animations also telegraph each assault, meaning that nearly every life lost is met with a feeling of frustrated inadequacy. We say "nearly" because some of the levels have partially random environmental hazards that when coupled with certain attacks leave no out for the player, adding a whiff of unfairness.
One might fear that a game with hand-drawn protagonists and enemies would have issues with hitboxes and a lack of animation cancelling, two issues that would sink an otherwise respectable run-and-gun shooter with platforming elements regardless of how good it looks, but Cuphead has issues with neither and actually excels at both.
Although it's definitely a hard game, Cuphead's difficulty scaled naturally as we traversed the four worlds, with a couple of difficulty spikes thrown in for good measure, culminating in a fantastic tussle with the Devil that (as expected) turned out to be the most intricate and enjoyable battle of the game, combining all the various attack types encountered throughout the campaign. There's also a choice of a slightly different outcome at the end, but of course, we won't spoil that.
Finally, the attractive world map has a couple of tricks up its sleeve with hidden shortcuts and NPCs with banter, extra coins, cryptic messages, and a barbershop quartet that serenades the player into taking a short break before coming back for more, all of which combines to make it more interesting than just a bog standard hub world.
We played the game both on PC and Xbox One S through Microsoft's "Play Anywhere" initiative and it ran smoothly and mostly without issues on both platforms, transferring our save game seamlessly. On Xbox the loading screens hitched a bit (without affecting gameplay at all) and on PC we tried playing with the keyboard but a controller is the vastly superior input method. We also encountered a rather annoying save bug where alt + tabbing out of the game prevented the game from saving all of our progress, but the developers have confirmed that a patch for this issue is on the way.
Cuphead invokes that rare but sought after feeling of infuriated joy, and instils the mantra of "just one more try", however, if you're not interested in difficult yet repetitive gameplay, don't be fooled by the striking art style. After 23 hours and 653 deaths we can safely say that we thoroughly enjoyed our time with Cuphead, and after this review is posted we will start it up again in the newly unlocked expert mode and tear out what little hair we have left.
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