Everyone remembers the cartoons they loved to watch as a child. With characters like Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop, and Felix the Cat, anything was possible. Realism was never the aim when it came to talking plants, dancing buildings, and the sun appearing over the horizon wearing sunglasses. Studio MDHR has worked to capture what made those cartoons appealing to the eyes and the ears with Cuphead. Anyone who looks at it will immediately recognize the style, what people won't expect is the difficulty that comes with it.
After disobeying Elder Kettle by going to the casino, Cuphead has luck on his side as he keeps winning more and more money. Floor manager King Dice introduces them to the owner, the Devil. The Devil offers him all the casino's riches if he'd wager his soul on a single roll of the dice. Cuphead took the bet but lost it all, pleading for a way to get out of their deal, and the Devil proposes a workaround. Since the prince of darkness has a long list of those who haven't paid up their souls, he tasks Cuphead with the job of collecting them.
The plot takes inspiration from classic platformers like Contra and Mega Man by being relatively bare-bones. You only get enough context for who you are, what the world is like, and what your goal is before setting off on your adventure. While this may have worked well for retro games, Cuphead's world is filled with interesting characters I wish I knew more about like Ribby and Croaks the boxing frogs and Hilda Berg the Betty Boop-like airplane. It almost seems like there is some missing context. You already know that each of these bosses had some run in with the devil, but all you ever know then as is the next larger than life villain. In fact, since Cuphead is working for the Devil, it might even be seen that you're the villain in the situation.
Cuphead is primarily a Boss Rush experience as you travel around reclaiming souls. Each of the boss encounters will fit in with the theme of the overworld, with locations including a coastal town and a forest inhabited with hostile flowers and a blue slime. As you launch into each of these fights, you must attempt to survive while also paying careful attention to your opponents to learn each of their tells. You will die over and over, but each death will teach you more about your opponent. Every boss fight has built in phases that progress as you damage the enemy, but there's no health bar, so the best indication you have for your own progression is whether you reached the next stage of the fight. Upon death, you're able to see a progress bar showing how many stages there are in a fight, as well as how close you were. There's nothing worse than getting killed by a stray bullet only to have it revealed to you that you were only a few shots away from finally defeating them.
If you're sick and tired of getting bested over and over again by a boss, you can also try your hand at one of the platforming stages. While there aren't many of these, they offer a refreshing change to the repetition of grinding a difficult fight. Your goal is to get to the flag at the end of the level, collect five optional coins, and take out enemies as you go. It isn't just about standard platforming, as new concepts are continually added such as trampolines that walk under you or the need to reverse gravity to avoid obstacles. As a Boss Rush title, it's understandable that there are so few of these stages but it also works in Cuphead's favor. It allows each level to really focus on their individually introduced mechanics. Even if you get extremely good at swapping gravity at the right time, don't expect to ever see it used again. The coins that you collect from these stages can be used to purchase a variety of weapons and skills that might just come in handy when you go back to the boss gauntlet.
At the beginning of Cuphead, your character only has a basic peashooter style projectile, a dodge, a parry, and three health points. Upon opening your equipment screen, you'll see room for two weapons types at a time, different super attacks, and a charm. It's easy to look at each weapon's description and pick the one with the best range or damage, but what really counts in a game like this is knowing where you'll be able to capitalize on these abilities. If you find you're having a difficult time fighting a boss that you need to be constantly moving away from, using homing bullets or bullets that spin behind you might be what the doctor ordered. Taking a strategic mind to your charms is also extremely important. Some of the abilities granted, like a fourth health point, might seem like an offer too good to be true but there are other abilities that could allow you to resist damage completely. Through boss fights and the platforming stages, you'll notice a variety of pink enemies, objects, and projectiles. Parrying these will allow you to gain some extra height while also charging your super meter faster. Of course, these opportunities can be dangerous, so you'll need to use your quick wit to decide in the moment whether you should even bother making an attempt for them.
Cuphead's challenging gameplay will keep you hooked over time, but what will immediately draw you in is the incredible art style based off early 1930's and 1940's cartoons. You're never sure what to expect as you move around the overworld, seeing all kinds of interesting sights from the NPC's to the obviously interactable elements. While the world looks flat, you'll be able to easily recognize where your next fight is in the same way that you can tell which book was about to be moved while watching classic Scooby-Doo. While Cuphead would still be a fun game without this retro aesthetic, its inclusion adds familiarity for the players and works to remove any expectation on reality. It would only be in a world like this that a fight between you and two frogs could conclude with them combining into a giant slot machine. You never know what to expect next and it's always a surprise to see how wrong your guesses were. To cap it off, there is even a film grain effect on the entire game. It's barely noticeable while playing, but pausing the gameplay shows how well that cartoon aesthetic is captured.
Last and certainly not least, the incredible soundtrack continues to fit into Studio MDHR's 1930's theme for Cuphead. Each piece not only sounds like something right out of the Silly Symphonies but has a snappy tempo to ensure you're moving. Some of the truly spectacular pieces are on the opening title screen and when you decide to quit the game as a barbershop quartet explains the story or recommends you take a break and maybe go read a book. It's not just the soundtrack that retains a 30s appeal, as character voices have a distorted effect as if they were recorded on extremely old equipment. Every shot fired, landed attack, and thrown punch has their own distinct audio. It's not just enough to be paying attention to where you are and where you're shooting, you also need to be listening to know what to expect from your opponent.
While Cuphead looks like it shouldn't be too difficult of a game on the surface, don't let its looks deceive you. Cuphead will have you tearing out your hair while leaving you smiling and tapping your toes to the beat. After putting in all the effort and learn each fight like the back of your hand, the rush of defeating a boss in palpable. For those who enjoy a good shoot-em-up that forces you to pay attention to all of your surroundings while also dealing damage to larger than life foes, Cuphead may be just what you're looking for. If you want to give it a try for the presentation alone, it's still worth a shot, even if the easier difficulty may be more your speed.
Our Cuphead review was conducted on Xbox One with a code provided by the publisher. It is also available on PC via Steam and GOG, and Windows 10 via Xbox Play Anywhere.
Cuphead combines challenging and unforgiving gameplay with the over the top animations of the 1930's in this fun adventure. While difficult at times, the sense of reward that you'll get after each fight will have you continually coming back for more.(Review Policy)
- Addictive Gameplay
- Beautiful Art Style
- Jazz Beats
- Story Depth