Cuphead managed to generate a fair amount of hype leading up to its release, and as one of the few Microsoft exclusives to have seen the light of day this year, it had some substantial weight on its indie shoulders. Fortunately, the title that has graced us is one of the top releases of the year, with a simply amazing old school cartoon aesthetic and tough gameplay that harkens back to the days of yore when games didn’t really care if you thought they were too hard.
This is the Heart Planeteer now. Feel old yet?
The game opens with some fairly simple exposition involving the titular Cuphead and his friend Mugface making some poor life choices at a casino run by the devil. To cut a short story even shorter, they wager their very souls on a dice roll, only to come up snake eyes. To pay their soul debt the devil gives them the option of battling all the other gambling addicts on Inkwell Isle who haven’t paid their debts. Who knew that Satan’s debt collectors would take the form of sentient crockery?
Cuphead’s story is fairly simple but does a good job of framing exactly what this game’s all about: sweet, sweet boss battles. Each of the game’s three worlds have numerous larger-than-life bosses from whom you must prise their soul contracts by defeating them in mortal combat. None of them are too keen to hand them over though, and while some fights in the beginning prove fairly straightforward, others will make you question your ability as a gamer and your worth as a human being. Each boss fight is a multiphase donnybrook where you have to pummel your powerful foe into submission while avoiding their ever-changing attack patterns. Victory in the harder battles will only come when you memorise all these phases and figure out a way of dealing the most damage while avoiding getting hit. Cups are fragile things you see, and you can only take three hits before it’s lights out and you have to restart the fight right from the beginning.
The beauty of Cuphead lies in the simplicity of its gameplay mechanics, the mastery of which is 100% essential if you want to see the credits roll without taking the shameful path of Easy mode. It’s basically a 2D side-scrolling shooter in the vein of something like Contra or Metal Slug; you can run, you can jump, you can shoot and you can dash. It sounds simple (and it is), but there are a few clever mechanics and gameplay ideas built around the base movement and combat that give it a distinctive flavour. One such mechanic is the parry, where any pink enemies or projectiles can be parried by pressing the jump button at the precise time while airborne. Learning to parry properly will always make your life easier, and in some cases is essential for progress.
Another important mechanic involves customising your arsenal both in terms of weaponry and items that modify your moveset. You can equip two different weapon types and one item, and while you perhaps won’t appreciate the importance of these straight away, the more bosses you fight the better able you will be to match your loadout to your foe. No weapon or item is unbalanced, and will certainly not win the fight for you, but there are definitely good choices and bad choices to be made. For instance, there’s an item that will increase your hit points from three to four, but at the expense of firepower. It’s tempting to rely on this one early doors, but you’ll find that if
Do that too much and you’ll go blind
Baroness Von Bon Bon took a part of my soul
you can liberate yourself from its safety net, there are items that are much more useful in a given boss battle. One of my favourites was the smoke bomb, which gives you a small window of invincibility during a dash which can be an indispensable defensive manoeuvre in many tight situations.
…while some fights in the beginning prove fairly straightforward, others will make you question your ability as a gamer and your worth as a human being
Weapons too have their own unique boons, varying in both raw power and function. You’re not going to get by on just the standard Peashooter (the starting weapon), and I made liberal use of all six depending on the situation. For instance, some boss battles will have you doing significant amounts of jumping around, and it becomes nigh impossible to aim your fire and concentrate on platforming at the same time. For these situations there’s the Chaser, which will automatically seek out the nearest enemy without precise aiming, at the expense of raw damage output. While this is an excellent weapon for when it’s just too chaotic to aim, overreliance on this comparatively weak weapon will draw out your fights considerably, and the better player will learn when and where it has to be used.
Cuphead wears its difficulty like a badge of honour, and you’ll find many who will crumble under its hefty challenge. However, while the heft of the challenge is indeed mighty, it is surmountable. You will die many, many times, but like any good game that claims difficulty as one of its features, you can learn from your mistakes and become better. Focus, patience and perseverance are key here, but I’m not ashamed to say that there were quite a few low moments where Cuphead had me beat. There were a few instances where I had to go for a long walk or take a break and write a haiku about failure lest my frustration lead to violence. But as Teddy Roosevelt used to say, nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain and difficulty, and if that’s true then victory in Cuphead is most certainly worth having. I will say that Cuphead is mostly fair in its challenge, however here were a handful of boss phases that I think teetered on the edge of being cheap, and in these times I felt having a bit of luck on a good run was a bit too important.
Of course, no review of this title would be complete without acknowledging the
What a pity it would be if you were unavoidably turned to stone..
amazing visuals. Stunning and vibrant hand-drawn environments draw heavy inspiration from the golden age of 1930s cartoons, where it feels like at any moment Popeye might jump out and smash a huge can of spinach and start shooting laser beams out of his eyes. There is an incredible amount of love poured into the visual detail, and the boss designs are some of the greatest I’ve seen. Even though Cuphead had me perfecting the art of dying and screaming internally, it’s at least a beautiful world to die in.
Cuphead is an indie triumph that most certainly won’t delight everyone given its ludicrous difficulty, but will reward the masochists out there who relish a challenge. During my playthrough, there were definitely a few moments where I thought about quitting gaming altogether or just becoming a professional Barbie Horse Adventure player, but when the curtains closed on my time with Cuphead I knew I had earnt it. Cuphead throws down the gauntlet to the hardcore gamer, pick it up at your own risk.