Cuphead is a thrilling test of skill and reflex that plays as wonderfully as it looks. The simultaneously unsettling and charming cartoon world of Cuphead is perfectly complimented by its swinging jazz soundtrack, and the high quality of the majority of the game’s stages.
Developer: Studio MDHR
Platforms: Xbox One, PC
Alright, let’s get this out of the way. Yes I’m a games journalist, and yes I got past the tutorial immediately, and I think the boss fights are both necessary, and the best part of Cuphead. Are we good? Can we have a legitimate discussion about the game now? I hope so, because as hilarious as those jokes are for the umpteenth time, I’d like to talk about how fantastic Cuphead is, because make no mistake, it is fantastic. After a good few (understandable) delays, the boss rush, run-and-gun indie darling Cuphead has finally arrived, and good lord, was the wait worth it.
Taking place in the homage-filled world of Inkwell Isle, Cuphead revolves around the titular character and his pal Mugman after they accidentally sold their souls to the Devil. To try and keep their souls the boys agree to collect soul contracts from other island-dwellers, ranging from an anthropomorphic flower to a sea captain and his living boat. As dark as the subject matter sounds, the tone is offset by the lively and cheerful visuals and character designs. Not only that, but the somewhat creepy tone is perfectly reminiscent of the 1930’s-era Fleischer cartoons that Cuphead is deeply inspired by. Something about these old cartoons has always left me a bit unsettled, and Cuphead has kept this tradition alive.
Cuphead’s gameplay is as refined as a 2D shoot-em-up could possibly be. On the surface it’s incredibly simple, but there’s a surprising amount of customization and skill-based abilities that add depth to the system. Players assume the role of Cuphead (note: at time of publication, there is no known in-game method to play as Mugman in single-player), who can rapidly shoot little pellets from his finger. Cuphead must “wallop”, as the game so eloquently puts it, all of the game’s bosses using these bullets and special attacks. There are plenty of bullet-types to obtain, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. One type of shot hones towards the enemy, but does less damage, while another type does extra damage but has very little range. You can equip two shots, so players will typically find their own personal loadout that fits their playstyle.
Three different super attacks are also obtained throughout Cuphead, which feature advantages and disadvantages just like the customizable shots. These attacks typically do varying amounts of damage and can provide valuable invincibility frames. Deciding which super to use and when to use them adds another layer of strategy to Cuphead, and makes timing things just right feel all too satisfying. Just as satisfying is the parrying feature; a system where a mid-jump button press can bounce you off of certain enemy attacks. Not only are you graded better for pulling parries off, but these extra jumps can often save you from attacks that would have been difficult to dodge otherwise. It’s a fun way to add a bit of extra risk and reward to the game while encouraging more skillful gameplay.
Some bosses put players in their very own biplanes as the game transitions into more of a bullet-hell, where you’re dodging projectiles and enemy attacks while flying through the sky. You can shoot both bullets and bombs, and you can even shrink to better avoid boss attacks, giving you an extra bit of freedom to make the transition to these stages easier. The bullet-hell format works well with Cuphead, as it doesn’t feel even slightly foreign when compared to the regular boss levels. These stages primarily serves as a fun alternative that adds some extra variety to the game.
The difficulty of Cuphead is what I’m most excited to talk about, as it’s essentially what I consider to be the perfect example of challenging-but-fair gameplay. For the most part, each boss feels harder than the last without having too wide a difficulty gap. Rather, each boss seemingly trains the player for future bosses. Every few bosses I found myself being a bit better at Cuphead as a whole, as I was able to figure out and counter boss patterns more quickly. While this is partially a result of just getting used to the game, I still felt challenged with each new stage. Each win felt more and more satisfying as time went on, as I felt more and more as though I had earned the victory I fought tooth and nail for.
The one weak spot of Cuphead is the run-and-gun levels. These are definitely fewer and more far-between than boss stages, but they slow Cuphead down nonetheless. These stages feel less well-designed than the boss stages, as they feel like a second thought to the main levels. While the theming of these levels is as strong as the rest of the game, the rows of oncoming enemies and obstacles feel less focused than boss stages, serving more as filler than anything. They tend to run a bit long and feel a bit dry, but even as a weak point they’re still pretty decent overall.
I could almost write a thesis on the visuals of Cuphead, all inspired by the cartoons made by Fleischer and Disney in the 1930’s. The influence of Betty Boop, Popeye, and some of the weirder stuff like Swing You Sinners is evident in Cuphead’s slick and rubbery animation. The hard work and genuine passion that went into the visuals, all of which are hand-drawn, is more than evident in every frame of the game. It’s absolutely gorgeous to look at, and I guarantee cartoon fanatics will be in heaven as they play.
Every living thing in Cuphead moves and swings with the soundtrack, giving a real sense of life to the game’s weird world. Bosses transform multiple times into multiple (sometimes seemingly random) forms, but this fits perfectly with how strange and random old cartoons could be. The colors feel as muted as they would in a recolored cartoon, and the grain filter on the entire game is actually a nice addition, rather than the distraction I thought it would be.
Cuphead’s sound perfectly emulates the big band feel of the era it pays homage to. I watched some classic cartoons before playing Cuphead to really compare the game’s aesthetic to, and the soundtrack immediately reminded me of jazz master Cab Calloway, whose best-known cartoon work was likely Betty Boop. The entire soundtrack makes you subconsciously tap your feet thanks to the insatiable rhythm behind each track. The lyrical songs are especially neat, as the language and structure used is shockingly accurate to the 1930’s. The soundtrack literally makes beautiful music with the visuals, serving up an astounding atmosphere that feels out of its time in the best way.
The Final Word
Cuphead is the type of game that I can picture myself playing over and over thanks to its stellar gameplay and unbeatable aesthetic. While the run and gun levels could use some work, Cuphead looks and plays like an absolute dream that anyone who likes a good challenge absolutely needs to play.
-MonsterVine Review Score: 4.5 out of 5 – Great