Cuphead originally gained gamers’ attention when it was briefly shown at a Microsoft E3 keynote. Designed to look and feel like a 1930’s cartoon, Cuphead is visually delightful. Beneath the colorful and joyous cartoon exterior lies a challenging platformer that demands consistency. After several delays and an almost insurmountable level of hype, Cuphead has become one of the highest anticipated games of the year. Can this quirky indie match the expectations of the masses?
Cuphead’s environments, enemies, and art design is so varied, that I imagine it was hard to contain it all in one cohesive narrative. Thankfully, Cuphead keeps its story light, letting characters take on a life of their own. Taking place inside a book, we’re introduced to Cuphead and Mugman, our protagonists. After a long night of gambling at the Devil’s Casino, Cuphead and Mugman are down and nearly out.
In a last ditch effort, Cuphead gambles their very souls in a deal with the devil, which works out how you’d expect. As a way to get out of the deal, the Devil offers them an alternative. If Cuphead and Mugman go collect the souls of others who are indebted to the Devil, he’ll forget the entire bet. With their souls hanging in the balance, Cuphead and Mugman (well, just Cuphead if you’re playing solo) adventure into Inkwell Isle to defeat some debtors.
Adventures in Inkwell Isle
Although Cuphead is first and foremost a game about defeating bosses, there’s more than just boss fights to play. The game plays out across a Mario-esque overworld, with icons identifying levels. The majority of gameplay is classic “from left to right” run-and-gun, similar to Mega Man. Besides the multi-phase boss fights, there’s standard platforming stages simply titled “Run n’ Gun” levels, where you attempt to collect all the coins and reach the finish line safely. In addition to ground-based combat, there’s a few shoot ’em up style plane levels. Air combat eventually expands into a handful of boss fights, but the majority of the game will see boots on the ground.
Every level has a ranking associated with it, as well as a difficulty mode. While the ranking you achieve is completely optional, you do have to complete bosses on the “Regular” difficulty to gain their souls and progress. Your ranking is judged by reaching a predetermined number of parries and hyper moves, and completing the encounters with health and time remaining. There’s an additional “skill” ranking based on a 2 star system (3 stars when playing on Expert difficulty), but I was unable to determine exactly how this was ranked.
Seeing the Pattern
As you obtain the limited amount of coins from Run ‘n Gun levels and hidden within the overworld, you can spend them at a wonderfully animated shop. Coins are in short supply, and with the ability to purchase passive abilities and new weapon types, your choices are important. The selection of upgrades in Cuphead are intended to encourage multiple play styles, although I found three power ups incredibly overpowered. Early on in the game, I found the combination of the Charge shot and the “automatic parry” item an almost unfair duo. In fact, I rarely experimented with the rest of the guns and abilities, as the Charge shot was simply too powerful to leave behind, and the standard peashooter provided consistent damage.
However, Cuphead is less about the weapons you choose and more about your ability to learn. Sure, choosing a certain load out of gear may give you an advantage over particular bosses, but clearing those bosses is tough if you don’t learn their patterns. Like many classic games, most bosses have a “tell” before an attack. Each boss is split up into multiple phases, with each phase having its own optimal approach. As you perish countless times, you’ll slowly learn and find the quickest way to deal out damage. By the end of the game, you’ll feel like an absolute master of the game’s mechanics, and that’s totally intentional. Cuphead isn’t a particularly unfair or brutally difficult game, it just demands you to learn the pattern and perform consistently. Things can get very hectic though, so this is often easier said than done.
A Feast for the Eyes
The original reason that Cuphead gained so much notice is the same reason its so unique; the art style. To say Cuphead “looks like a cartoon” is a complete and total understatement. The aesthetic of Cuphead leaks from every seam, not to imply that there are any. Each level is completely unique, and although they may occasionally borrow similar aspects (multiple levels take place in a forest, for example), each encounter is memorable in its own way. Not only is the game animated with absolute perfection, but its full of personality and character. Each boss feels handcrafted, not just in design but in practice. There isn’t a singular piece of game play that feels like filler or padding, and this goes doubly for the visuals.
Everything about Cuphead emits an almost tangible level of imagination. One minute you’ll be fighting a giant onion on a farm, then two levels later you’ll be taking on a woman who transforms into a literal moon. Every single design feels inspired and fresh, even when the inspiration borders on copy. You won’t be hopping on any Goombas, per say, but Cuphead has a few instances where the homage crosses dangerously close to more than borrowing an idea. These instances don’t really harm the game overall, but earned appropriately raised eyebrows. A specific level song in the second world is almost note-for-note pulled from Super Mario World, which struck me as more lazy than inventive. Otherwise, the entire package of Cuphead (including the big band score) feels realized and passionately made.
The Bottom Line on Cuphead
Cuphead is not a game that everyone will complete, but it is a game that everyone should play. Much like the classic games that it draws inspiration from, Cuphead has a broad appeal regardless of your gaming history. It’s colorful, imaginative, fully realized, and rewarding. Nothing about Cuphead feels cheap or small; in fact, quality-wise it rivals some of the biggest names in gaming. For a $20 independently developed platformer in the year 2017, that’s a huge accomplishment. It’s not a perfect game; I ran into a couple noticeable glitches, including a soft lock of the game and a major boss malfunction. Coupled with the unfortunate realization that cooperative play is less enjoyable than solo, and Cuphead just slightly falls short of perfection.
Cuphead exceeds not only its masterful visuals, but its ability to empower the player through learning and experimentation. Even though a good chunk of the arsenal is arguably weaker than my beloved Charge shot, it still feels fun to play with new load outs and approach things differently. The game will take you anywhere from 3 hours to 30 hours, depending on how difficult you find the game. While some people struggled with the final boss, I bested him in under 10 minutes. However, I found myself struggling on a boss in the third world more than other players. Realistically, you’ll probably wrap up Cuphead in roughly 10 hours. If you’re like me, you’ll immediately head to the beginning of the map and try out the harder difficulty, always trying to gain the coveted “S” rank. Honestly, this one’s a no-brainer. Buy Cuphead, because it’s a game that deserves to be recognized for its imagination.