Reviewed on Xbox One, copy supplied by publisher.
Radiating charm, Cuphead is an ode to early 1930s animation and good old fashioned boss battles. Grabbing your attention with its distinct hand drawn aesthetic, the game is hard not to be impressed by. Static crackles across the screen as you play, and the big band jazz soundtrack pops for authenticity. Through and through, this is a passion project from Studio MDHR – which comprises of brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer – and fortunately it’s a passion project that deserve the hype.
The gameplay could best be described as a boss rush with a few platforming run and gun levels thrown into the mix. The main bread and butter involves taking down extremely challenging bosses that are distinct due to their awesome designs. Of course there is a narrative behind the constant battles.
Turns out the main characters (Cuphead and his brother Mugman) are degenerate gamblers. They lose to the devil in a game of dice and agree to collect souls for him to save themselves. Yeah, you’re totally the bad guy here, and the savage looking bosses are just down on their luck dudes and dudettes who you will be sending to hell for eternity, because just like you, they made poor life choices but decided not to become glorified soul repo men.
Weird ethics aside, collecting the souls is a fucking daunting task. Each boss battle is intricate and requires total focus to complete. This is not a game for the faint of heart. There are no easy levels, every single encounter is a marathon of shooting, platforming and reflexes. As a run and gun style game, your main attack takes the form of a weak clicking action that fires a stream of bullets at your enemy. Whittling down bosses takes time and numerous stages of combat, usually taking around three minutes in total to complete a successful run.
Of course completing a successful run takes a lot longer than three minutes, as Cuphead is rarely forgiving. For two minutes of victory I was often putting in an hour of time. With your base loadout you have three HP, which means you can only cop three hits before game over. This requires a level of perfection, especially since most bosses fill the screen with projectiles. For those who want to ace the game, you score bonus points for parrying pink objects and completing fights without taking damage. It would be foolish to go into this game expecting to win levels quickly, let alone ace them, if anything, each death is just you scouting out what to expect from the enemy, learning attack patterns and tweaking your loadout to take them on efficiently.
Changing your weapons, bonuses and supers can be done by earning coins in the aptly titled “run and gun” levels, which are optional extras taking the form of more traditional platformer games. But still, they are just as challenging as the bosses you face, and finding every coin in a level takes time and patience.
Once you’ve collected enough coins you can purchase new items, such as a homing projectile, a dodge that makes you avoid damage, and an extra heart that grants you more defense, but lowers your overall attack. Picking and choosing how to kit yourself out is a nice touch, but overall none of it makes a drastic difference, as the bosses themselves remain gargantuan tasks regardless of your equipment, if anything the purchasable items just reduce a small amount of stress and allow you to customise your play style.
In between levels you can stroll around the worlds and find shortcuts, although to access the final levels you still need to collect every soul, so this is more of an Easter egg than a key feature. Mixing up the gameplay even more is the occasional aeroplane level, where you zip around in the air, strafing and bombing the enemy. These were some of the hardest fights, with reflex time being all the more essential, but the variation in play is a welcome touch.
Inevitably it’s time for me to complain about difficulty in games, which… yeah, here we go again. Look, Cuphead is tough. It being tough makes it feel all the better when you win, however this is not a game that’s ideal for those who aren’t okay with plugging away at a title for hours on end to come away with nothing to show for it. The difficulty curve is unforgiving, and the amount of times you die within a millimeter of the success flag is scream into a pillow worthy. Even on the “simple” difficulty, which makes it easier to run through, the game is still tough. I like challenging games, but at times I found Cuphead took away from my enjoyment as slugging away became too frustrating.
Another gripe with the difficulty is that the easier mode doesn’t allow you to collect boss’ souls, so you can’t actually complete the game if you struggle on the regular old setting. I get that the game is supposed to be hard, but it shouldn’t lock you out of content if you prefer an easier path to the end.
Putting frustration aside, the game does a great job at making you a perfectionist. I found myself restarting battles if I took an early hit, as a valuable health point would be essential later in the fight when things escelate. For people like me – who aren’t great at these sort of games – Cuphead, is a slow burn and a harsh mistress, but I still can’t put it down. The soundtrack, aesthetics and simple gameplay make it endearing in the face of rage.
When played co-op, the game is at its best, two cup pals make the tasks at hand seem less daunting, and the shared pain is always good fun with friends. However a current lack of online partnering leaves those without buddies close by in the dark.
As an Xbox Play Anywhere title, I also gave Cuphead a whirl on PC with a keyboard set up, which I strongly discourage. The game is tough enough with a controller, and the strange bindings on keyboard – with directional layout rather than WASD – doesn’t do it any favours (although you could rebind if you’re so inclined). I’m sad to say that I did encounter a glitch where my save progress didn’t sync correctly, making me have to start the game over again when I went back to Xbox. It was pretty damn annoying, but at the time I was only a few bosses deep, so starting again wasn’t the absolute worst thing that happened to me.