A challenging and satisfying series of battles with a unique look
The craftsman-like expertise of Cuphead’s gameplay is truly impressive. I’ve played my fair share of 2D side-scrolling action games and this is about as good as it gets when it comes to the second-to-second action. The dodging, platforming, jumping, and running are truly exceptional. Yet, for how impressive Cuphead is in terms of gameplay, I had trouble finding sections of the game that stood out to me. The term “craftsman-like” is particularly apt, because in terms of art, Cuphead feels like an incredible piece of furniture. You can marvel at the ornate designs in the inlay and the incredible deftness that is required to build an amazing chair, but at the same time it’s just a chair. Cuphead lacks an emotional anchor, but that's OK, as the final product is a solid effort from Studio MDHR.
By now, you’ve likely heard about the difficulty of Cuphead. The game certainly is challenging, but I never found it overwhelming. It is true that this is the kind of experience that requires investment from the player and punishes any lapse in focus, but the game is quick to push you back into the action - constantly begging for one more try. You’ll fail a lot, but the reaction to that failure is welcoming and encouraging. Every time you die, the game shows you how close you were to beating the boss/level and with each try, it’s likely you’ll see your progress improve consistently.
The game is spent traversing the three separate sections of Inkwell Island, finding the multiple boss battles, and defeating said bosses. The boss battles either take place with the titular Cuphead shooting the enemies while platforming to dodge their attacks on the ground, or in a bi-plane shooting it out and zipping around the skies. There are a couple of other challenges like the platforming levels and the mausoleum challenges where you try to save a soul by chasing away ghosts, but those are merely distractions from the boss rush design of the game. Some of these battles consist of multiple mini-bosses and others are a single boss who transforms through multiple stages, though the design can change whether you’re playing in “Simple” or “Regular” mode.
The Simple mode is designed to tone down the challenge, allowing players a chance to progress through the campaign when stuck on a particular boss. You’ll still have to come back and beat the boss on Regular difficulty to collect their soul and face the end-boss, but Simple mode can help you get over the mental block of trying to take down a particularly tricky enemy. It usually does this by removing a section or two, and eschewing some of the more pesky challenges in a fight.
While each boss has multiple stages, the phases of the fight aren’t as well-defined as you might think. If you’ve done a significant amount of damage, this might cause the boss to skip a phase of their process or go through a phase a little faster than normal. That brings me to one of my qualms with the boss fights. While the action itself is exact and precise and the actions during each phase of the bosses are usually predictable, meaning you just have to monitor the patterns of certain phases to learn the weaknesses, how long those phases last and their order is randomized. This chips away at the design work because it means that if a particular section of a boss is difficult, you will end up throwing away fights based on random events. The boss named Baroness Von Bon Bon is a good example of this. The Baroness has four different candy monsters that she will summon, but you only have to fight three before getting to her final phase. Since these four monsters vary in difficulty, beating the Baroness is less about you mastering the level and more about you grinding it out until you get the easiest set of monsters. For a game that is ostensibly about skill, it’s this element of randomness that occasionally makes it feel more about luck.
That being said, the ebb and flow of the boss battles is spectacular. Each encounter is addictive in its own right as you’ll likely get crushed the first few times and slowly learn the patterns of the bosses, master their phases, and get closer and closer to victory. Each little bit of progress constantly eggs you on to keep playing and give each level one more try. What is equally addictive is the rush you feel after each win. The difficulty, the measure of progress and well-tuned controls are a smart concoction of mechanics that work well together.
The game handles very well, the feel of the action is nuanced and satisfying. I never felt like the controls of the game betrayed me. It’s very impressive how you can measure the distance of Cuphead’s jumps by how long you hold the jump button, and the perfect amount of float that the game gives so you can maneuver through tight spaces. With intentionally clunky hitboxes you’ll have to learn how to make the most out of your space and anticipate enemy actions - which is why it’s so important to learn the behaviors of the bosses.
You defeat bosses by shooting them with Cuphead’s finger guns (he can do this after given a potion from Elder Kettle... just go with it). You can shoot regular shots and build up special attacks after dealing enough damage. The shooting isn’t all that remarkable as you mostly just hold the button, only taking a break to fire your special attack, and the weapon upgrades you can buy at shops in the overworld aren’t especially creative.
The shooting makes a little more sense when you’re in the airplane levels. Obviously, there’s no jumping when you’re flying through the air, but weaving through obstacles and switching your weapons is smooth. When in the plane you can also use the dodge button to shrink, making your hitbox a little smaller and allowing you to slip through waves of bullets. It really speaks to the level of skill in the design that the game loses none of its potency when using this different boss-fight format. It serves to change up the action, but still has the same level of polish as the rest of the game.
As you master Cuphead, you truly feel like a champion. Each fight pushes back, testing your skill, and it can be a struggle to get to that victory screen, but as you perfect your ability to control the little animated protagonist, the reward is a delight. Cuphead demands perfection, but gives you the tools to actually perform flawlessly. This kind of well-crafted challenge is difficult and it’s astounding to see Studio MDHR execute it with an almost nonchalant attitude. And what makes it more impressive is how they craft his experience time and again with each boss.
While the platforming sections feel a little tacked-on, it’s clear that painstaking attention was paid to these levels as well. It makes me wish that Cuphead actually was a more rounded out platformer instead of a boss rush game; there are only a few of these levels and the only purpose they serve is to gain coins to purchase upgrades. The platforming levels do a good job of throwing enemies at you, pushing you to constantly run forward and ensuring that you’re mastering the timing of the levels instead of just taking things slow enough that you can’t mess it up. It gives these levels a rhythm that you have to learn. It’s the most rewarding platforming experience I’ve had since Ori and the Blind Forest.
The mausoleum challenges are a little different. They also have a tacked-on feel and seem like a overly-long tutorial for using the parry, a move where Cuphead slaps a floating enemy to deflect damage. This mode feels token and isn’t very interesting, but it’s easy to skip and the game doesn’t punish you much for doing so.
The game also has a co-op mode which is great fun. The co-op is restricted to couch-only and that makes sense. Part of the fun of playing with someone else is the sharing of information and sense of camaraderie. Also, the experience is so taxing, it would be awful if bad internet connections got in the way. I spent a few hours with my friend taking down a boss and the shared experience was a throwback to old days of playing co-op Contra. I do think the game is a little more difficult in co-op. The addition of Cuphead’s friend, Mugman, means there’s one more thing to track on the screen, making the fights a little more chaotic. There is benefit of having twice as much health, and you can use the parry ability to resurrect your co-op friend with one life (of the three you normally get), but trying to do this will often cost you at least one on your own lives. It’s fun, but it does make a difficult game more difficult.
The chaos of Cuphead also takes away from the art and sound design. It’s easy to look at the game and drool over the hand-drawn animations, and each boss battle has its own unique setting. Also, for the amount of effort that went into Cuphead’s animations, there’s a lot of restraint, as the color palette is washed out and understated. Yet, because each level is so packed to the gills with action, it’s hard to find a moment to appreciate much of it. There are many moments where the bullet-hell nature of Cuphead means you’ll be so focused on maneuvering the character and looking for safe space, you’ll hardly have time to appreciate the art of the game. It almost makes you wish that you were watching someone else play Cuphead so you could actually enjoy the game’s art-style, instead of playing it yourself.
The same is true of jazzy soundtrack. The music is fun and true to the time period of the 1930’s animation, but it’s hard to recall any specific tracks since there is so little time to appreciate any of it. Since Cuphead continually throws you into high-intensity boss fights, your focus is constantly being tested along with your skill. There’s so much action and excitement, the game never gives you a moment to just drink it all in.
I usually talk about the narrative upfront, but it’s so dispensable in Cuphead that there’s hardly much to say. Thus, I’ve relegated it to the back of the review. The story, such as it is, begins with brothers Cuphead and Mugman riding a hot streak at a casino run by the nefarious King Dice. King Dice summons the Devil who approaches the brothers and asks them to bet their souls in a game of dice. Of course the brothers lose and the Devil agrees to let them be free as long as they collect the souls of angry residents of Inkwell Island.
The narrative of the game (or lack thereof) doesn’t bother me much. Games don’t need a deep story to be good, but the pacing of the game is the real issue. With each boss battle being the same level of intensity and complexity, there isn’t a sense of scale in Cuphead. The game turns itself up to 11 and continues at that pace throughout. The only break is the overworld which is little more than just a hub connecting the boss battles. Here the game hints at showing a little more depth to its design by adding in some extra characters and a shop where you can purchase upgrades for Cuphead and Mugman. But it’s a halfhearted attempt and the game’s progression still feels shallow, making it hard to be memorable.
The aesthetic and overarching level design share the same issues. The whole package fails to evolve, change, or engage beyond the initial acknowledgement that the setup is cool and the gameplay is good. Cuphead never subverts or explores either its aesthetic or themes. The devil, the hand-drawn animations, and much of the larger elements of the game seem to have been chosen for their cool-factor rather than to be used for a purpose within the game. And that’s okay, not every game needs to have a point or explore larger ideas, but it reinforces the notion that I admired Cuphead far more than I loved it.
For those who are obsessed with being challenged by great mechanics, Cuphead is a must-own. It’s so hyper-focused on the minutia of its controls, those who are looking for a satisfying gameplay experience are bound to love it. When you pull back from Cuphead and look at it as a whole, it’s a well-crafted effort that just fails to evolve many of its ideas. It hits hard with a cool look and great gameplay, provides a fierce intensity that demands your attention, then comes to an appropriate if somewhat unimaginative end. As far as games go, that’s not a bad pitch, but I also never felt fully engaged. There aren’t any characters (including that bosses) I find all that memorable, or any encounters that I could call out as highlights of the game. In spite of never falling head over heels for it, I think that Cuphead is a great game and is bound to provide a satisfying challenge to many players.