Cuphead is the first game from indie developer StudioMDHR and exclusive to Xbox One and PC. It’s been a long development history, with my earliest memory of seeing the game being E3 2014. It’s finally here, however, and I’m happy to report the game is actually really solid, achieving a good balance of difficulty to where it’s still more fun than frustrating to fight the same boss 20 times in a row.
The story of Cuphead begins with Cuphead and his brother Mugman deciding to head to the Devil’s Casino to win big. They do good at first, but Cuphead ends up landing the dreaded snake-eyes on his dice, forfeiting their souls to the Devil himself. Cuphead and Mugman manage to make a deal with the Devil though: Collecting the soul contacts of other inhabitants of Inkwell Isle in exchange for their souls back. And so the duo return home to their guardian, who grants them a potion that will allow them to fight back against the enemies they are about to deal with.
The game is divided up into three isles of Inkwell, each typically having about 5-7 boss encounters and two run-and-gun segments, before you’re allowed to make it to Inkwell Hell where the Devil and his right-hand man King Dice reside. You can tackle the bosses of each isle in any order as you traverse through an overworld screen to any encounter you desire, though some areas are locked off until you beat the respective boss/run-and-gun segment nearby. Each isle also contains a shop, in which you can purchase new shooting styles and abilities that may be better suited for certain boss fights than your standard loadout. The isles also contain mausoleums that, when completed, grant you super moves that you can utilize when your super meter is fully charged in battle.
The main draw of the game is the boss battles and the difficulty that comes with them. While there are games that still have hard boss battles in today’s time, things don’t typically come close to those of the 80s era. Cuphead brings it back old-school, where you’ll spend much of your first attempts with bosses learning all their move sets and where/when they do them. Each boss also has multiple phases that come with new attacks to mix things up further. A cool addition to the game is that whenever you die, you are given a bar that depicts the boss’ health, what part of their health bar starts a new phase, and how far you actually got to killing the boss. Definitely led to plenty of “Damn it, I ALMOST got him!” moments.
The mechanics of each boss fight can also rapidly change, making each new encounter fresh. The first few bosses are relatively easy and have easily telegraphed moves, but throughout the rest of the first world, you find more complex settings that further incorporate your parry move, platforms, and even flying boss battles where Cuphead hops into a plane and gets a completely different move set. Some of the flying boss battles, in my opinion, are the hardest of the bunch as they tend to delve into bullet hell mechanics, but there was only ever one that I began to get somewhat angry with.
When Cuphead was originally announced, it was meant as a boss rush game through and through. Gamers interested in the title started to desire more from it, so part of StudioMDHR’s long delay of the game was to add the six run-and-gun segments to have more variety. These levels play similar to something you’d expect out of a old-school side-scroller like Mega Man, but I actually kinda wish there were more of them. There could’ve been a world where Cuphead actually did have the standard style of a side-scroller segment that led to each boss battle, but the game instead only has the six that are divided by twos across each of the three main isles. You are encouraged to go back through them, however, in order to collect the 5 upgrade coins in each and also to attempt pacifist runs, which unlocks a black-and-white filter if you manage all six.
The big point you’ve probably noticed about Cuphead is the animation and style behind it. StudioMDHR were very vocal during development how much the style of 1930s animation, specifically that of Fleischer Studios, were to how Cuphead would look and play. The rubber hose animation is in full effect as characters have no joints, display exaggerated features on their bodies, and tend to dance in their idle animations. The sound design matches the aesthetic too, opting for low-fi effects and classic old-timey music (some of which you’ll surely have heard before, but struggle to place). If you manage to A-rank all bosses in the game, you’re also treated to a even lower-fi sound quality, which I actually much prefer and wish wasn’t locked behind a task that many probably won’t attempt.
I sadly can’t say much on the couch co-op aspect of the game as I play it straight through solo, but I could see it definitely coming in handy during several parts of this game. The tutorial for the game even showed that you can revive your co-op partner if they die, rather than them just staying dead until you beat the boss or die yourself. Granted, getting higher rankings in co-op might be a harder task if one person keeps getting hit or dying, but you should be more concerned about just having fun.
To put it shortly, Cuphead is a great time capsule that sought out to capture the feeling of the 1930s in its animation and the 1980s in its difficulty. I’m happy to say that it accomplishes both very well and I was desperately wishing the title was longer once I got to the closing credits. I’ve heard that there are preliminary plans for DLC bosses should the game do well, so that’s something to look forward to. If you have the ability to play Cuphead, I highly recommend it.
Cuphead – 4.5 out of 5
- The game oozes style in both animation and sound.
- Great boss fights that teeter the line of fun/hard.
- Plenty of combos to be made between shooting styles, abilities, and supers.
- Run-and-gun segments could be longer/more involved.