You know how a joke can start funny, get annoying, then become funny again through sheer attrition? That’s Cuphead’s approach to enjoyment. With a beautiful, caustic, near-unceasing stream of boss battles, Studio MDHR’s debut made me scream with joy and horror by turn, but I settled on joy by the end.
Everything you’ve heard about Cuphead is true. It is a difficult side-scrolling shooter with relentless boss battles that demand rapid-fire actions and reactions. Think for too long, and you won’t stand a chance against the game’s toughest enemies. Battles may only last three minutes at most, but they feel far longer when you know that you can only absorb three hits before you have to start from scratch. When you are navigating your way around bullets, smaller enemies, and pitfalls, while simultaneously trying to damage your primary target, toppling Cuphead’s imposing bosses is both a monumental and rewarding task.
The most obvious point to begin with is that Cuphead looks astonishing. Its 1930s animation style – all watercolour backgrounds and surreal, juddering, hand-drawn characters – pay peerless homage to Max Fleischer and his ilk, and are perfectly implemented. Somehow it manages to balance dozens of moving elements and a slight rear-projection blur without ever feeling unreadable in even the most frantic moments. There has never been a game that looks like this and there may never be again. Every scene is a masterwork – it’s a near-unbelievable achievement for an art style.
The sound work is an ideal match: a huge jumble of high-tempo ragtime, swing, big band, and jazz (the list of musicians is almost as long as the rest of the credits combined) pummels away wonderfully in the background of every fight. It makes Cuphead feel truly out of time, and its bizarre mix of ‘30s aesthetics and ‘80s design more heady than ever. I also feel duty-bound to point out that the way Porkrind the shopkeeper bellows “welcome” made me laugh every single time I heard it.
The characters and bosses that are clearly inspired by cartoon legends like Betty Boop break free from the expected to surprise you with something new. Never mind that Betty’s lookalike is a mermaid now; it’s the moment her head breaks free from her body and spews caustic skulls that gives you pause. If you can appreciate the unique animation style, you will be doubly impressed when you see what developer Studio MDHR has brought to the table. If its technical execution wasn’t enough, MDHR’s creativity puts Cuphead in a league of its own.
A world map sets the stage for your adventure. As a Cup-thing who gambled with the devil, you now must go around collecting debts from the devil’s other acquaintances–the game’s bosses. Outside of one-on-one fights, you also have a few opportunities to run and gun through less-imposing platforming stages. These help break up the action and give you a chance to collect coins that can be cashed in for “weapons” and passive buffs. Coins are in short supply and can only be collected once, so farming to gain an advantage is out of the question. These stages don’t compare to Cuphead‘s main attractions, but they add valuable substance nonetheless.
The mix of ammunition for your hand gun–character fire from their fingers–includes the likes of a spread shot, a charge blast, and a boomerang round. There are six in all, and each comes with a secondary attack that’s tied to a meter that fills when you successfully land shots on enemies. You can also earn meter by parrying pink projectiles and enemies, a task that requires you to jump towards an enemy and then tap jump again at just the right moment before impact.
Given that you are able to equip two weapons at once, the variety of loadouts you can equip before a fight allows for flexibility on your part. While you may benefit by bringing a specific set of arms into some boss battles–say, using tracer rounds to pick off minor enemies swarming overhead–you can still carry whatever you wish into battle so long as you have the confidence and knowledge meet the challenge ahead.
Learning the bosses’ attack pattern is oftentimes half the battle, and it’s typical to run through a fight multiple times until you see everything that might get thrown your way. Every boss fight consists of multiple stages or forms. Bosses will change shape, position, and behavior with each new phase. And within an individual phase, you may see as many as four different attacks, though you aren’t always guaranteed to see them all during subsequent fights.
If Cuphead‘s fights were indeed puzzles with one correct solution, this would be incredibly frustrating. As it stands, there’s only a small amount of frustration to be found while fumbling with new weapons and dying in the process. It may sound like a minor thing to praise, but the fact that boss battles reload in one or two seconds is a godsend when it comes to trial-and-error tactics. And no matter how frustrating a boss may be, you can’t escape the draw of their expressive animations.
Cuphead does support two-player local co-op as well, but it’s pretty evident that this makes life more difficult for you and your partner. Despite the intricate chaos that you face alone in any given fight, when you add another character and more projectiles on screen, playing with a friend makes it far more difficult to discern your surroundings, and much easier to slip up. You do have a small window of time to revive a fallen comrade by parrying their ghost, but it’s a mere few seconds while it floats up to the top of the screen before disappearing for the remainder of the fight.
For anyone interested in getting a taste of Cuphead without facing almost-guaranteed defeat, there are simpler versions of every boss that you can fight–but you won’t be able to access the final battle unless you beat every standard boss on the normal difficulty. And in reality, you may as well stick with the standard fights as Cuphead is relentless no matter how you play.
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Cuphead made me feel more good and more bad than any other game I’ve played in the last several years. I swore, laughed, and hollered with delight. I hated it (and my own fingers) for long stretches but, having finished, I realise that’s more or less the point – I emerged from all that pain smiling. Rather than simply offering the player what they want, Cuphead makes them earn that right – the rewards, if you can hack the tests, are absolutely worth it. Cuphead is incredible for more than just its looks. But before you dive in, make sure you actually want a game that plays like this, and not just a game that looks like this.
Cuphead has been a longtime coming, and it’s great to see that it lives up to its initial promises. It’s beautiful to look at, and with a pitch-perfect soundtrack, it flawlessly captures the era its developers so clearly revere. It’s also an intense action game that pulls no punches. It could benefit from a few tweaks, and two-player co-op doesn’t feel like the valuable addition you might imagine, but Cuphead remains a rare, unique game that truly stands out.
Video Game Cuphead Review :
User Rating :
– The Good:
+ Offers a delightfully punishing challenge
+ A catchy soundtrack completes the 1930s homage
+ Impressively revives an abandoned artform with modern sensibilities
+ Boss battles feature a wide array of scenarios and mechanics
– The Bad:
+ Revisiting previous boss battles calls for slow-paced treks across three maps
+ Busy visual style isn’t ideal for two-player co-op
Mark : 8.5