Cuphead is difficult. Phew. I’ve said it — we can all relax now. It’s a game that will test your patience more than your skill, though. By the time I reached the second world I’d died over 100 times. I’d had bouncing blue blobs laughing at me, potatoes revelling in my despair, and a woman-cum-blimp pointing out my inability to ground her. Developer StudioMDHR has created a Walt Disney nightmare, one where Steamboat Willie would end in the world’s most famous mouse steering the boat into an iceberg, changing the colour of the water to a deep shade of red in the process. And my God, it is beautiful.
Very few video games this year, or any other, look as incredible as Cuphead does. It aims to look like a cartoon from the 1930s, and does it so well that most onlookers would be forgiven for thinking it was a lost Looney Tunes short from the era. A menacing flower dances along to the beat, and a telepathic carrot rhythmically moves with the music, showcasing how faithful the developer has been in recreating the rubber hose limbs seen in those old animations from decades past. Every character and backdrop has been painstakingly hand-drawn, and the game is all the better for it. In action, it’s mesmerising.
The big band swing that bellows out from your speakers hammers the look home even further. Percussion and brass are so intertwined it feels like you’re listening to a newly married couple engage in something you shouldn’t be privy to on their wedding night. Blush-inducing bass licks hold everything together, before shrill cymbal crashes make your heart jump with excitement. Rest is paramount, though, so that’s where the plodding overworld music, or the piano and hi-hat heavy soundtrack to Porkrind’s shop is a nice moment of pause. It’s nigh on perfect.
And it needs to be, because it’s been a stressful time for ol’ Cuphead and his blue buddy, Mugman. After dropping into The Devil’s casino and losing their souls on a dice roll, the Prince of Darkness gives them one chance to redeem themselves: nab the souls of everyone that owes him money, and the two drinks containers will be let off the hook. In each world you have the chance to face off against a diverse cast of characters: genies, clowns, slime blobs, and other peculiar beings all stand in your way, testing your tolerance with every death.
Cuphead consists of a number of boss battles in each world, with each big bad having a number of phases that you must get through to knock them out. These bouts generally take place on a single screen with certain elements changing in each round. One such match-up sees you face off against a frog duo that start off by firing flaming boxing gloves at you, and somehow end up combining as a slot machine spitting out spiky obstacles for you to jump over. Half of the fun of Cuphead is seeing what monstrosities await you in the next section of a fight. It may take a while to see everything a boss has to offer, though, as Cuphead revolves around trial-and-error.
While it’s important to focus your efforts on offing these large beasts, there are normally other factors to take into account, as well. A nasty Woody Woodpecker-esque bird can be spitting eggs out of his gob in your direction, but tiny chicks with nails attached to their heads will also be on hand to do damage. Keep a watchful eye on the fiery projectiles that the green dragon is shooting at you, and you may miss that he’s readying to unleash hurt with his tail on the bottom of the screen at the same time. With it only taking three hits to send you back to the beginning of the battle, some runs are purely for reconnaissance. Studying the boss’ tells is the key to victory, but even at that, each phase mightn’t play out in exactly the same way every time.
While you’ll never see a boss’ final form in the early goings-on, the order in which their attacks come in specific rounds can vary. This isn’t a major issue in the earlier fights, but definitely breeds frustration as time goes on. If you fail, you’re definitely at fault as it’s clear what’s coming once the big baddie’s animation is initiated, but that doesn’t make it any less unsettling when you’re expecting a flying waffle and get a sprinting gumball machine instead.
Each stage allows you to either play in the tough Regular mode, or the slightly less tough Simple mode. It’s definitely simpler, as the name would suggest, but it’s no walk in the park. Enemy bullets will be further apart and less frequent, and certain phases will be cut out completely. While you won’t be able to complete the game entirely via the easier option, it’s definitely welcome when you’re banging your head up against a wall. The platforming levels add a nice distraction from the crockery breakages, too. Although, to be fair, they’re not exactly much easier, either. Especially that one where you go up the tree. Fuck that level.
Rather than upset the stunning look, the UI is kept quite simple by communicating things to you through small, yet effective ways. In the bottom left hand corner you have a meter that’s split up into five segments. Fill one of these and you can perform a more lethal attack than your standard bullets, but if you let it fill up to the top, you can use a super move that you pick up in special parrying stages. Parrying is an important component of your attack, because if you successfully parry something, one of the meter’s segments fills straight away. If there’s something on screen that’s pink, it’s parryable. The clean interface is in service to the presentation, but there are some areas that lack visual feedback.
You can pick up additional weaponry and special charms in the in-game shop. There are weapons with homing ammunition, three-way bullets, and more, as well as special items that give you an extra hit point, a special dash that makes you invisible for a limited time and so on. While you’re told that certain guns will do more damage than others, there’s no clear way of determining this while taking on one of the bosses. At the end of an unsuccessful run you’ll get some info on how close you were to downing your rival, but there’s no equivalent on-screen during the battle itself.
Cuphead has been a long time coming, and anyone with a pair of functioning eyes and ears should be able to see why as soon as they boot it up. As a package, it is exceptional. It captures the almost 90 year old animation style superbly, backed with a score that’s one of the finest in video games. However, it goes a little too far with bosses sometimes throwing attacks at you in a random order, and a number of later battles feeling absurdly challenging. Oh, does it feel good when you beat one of those impossible bosses, though.
Available on: Xbox One [reviewed on]. PC
Release Date: September 29 2017