After 7 years in development, Cuphead is finally out. After a multitude of delays, my excitement had since shifted from enthusiastic to cautious. Yet after completing the game, I am ridiculously happy to say that Cuphead is a fantastic 2D shooter, made all the better by its unmatched 1930s cartoon-inspired art style, jazzy soundtrack, and incredibly difficult but ridiculously satisfying boss fights. This is a game every Xbox One owner should own.
Cuphead sets up its story very quickly, letting you to get right into the action. Cuphead and his pal Mugman walk into the Devil’s casino one day, offer your souls up, and lose the bet. You beg for your lives, and the Devil says he’ll consider it if you can go around and reclaim the souls of his runaway debtors. So off you go, to kick some cartoon ass and save your own.
The game quickly gets to the heart of the gameplay. You’re dropped onto a navigational map that you’re allowed to explore, filled with access points you interact with to enter fights with the devil’s debtors, or platforming stages that encourage you to practice the complex patterns that the game forces you to exercise. These platforming levels are just as difficult as the boss battles are, but while they’re entirely optional, playing through them allows you to obtain coins. These coins can be exchanged at a shop for weapons, special attacks, and charms. A charm is essentially a perk, one that might provide you with an ability like becoming invisible when you dash, or adding an additional hit point to your life while slightly decreasing your attack power. Balance is the name of the game in Cuphead, where each boss encounter encourages you to rethink your plan of action. I thought I’d never need to change up the default primary weapon (a simple pea-shooter that shoots out of Cuphead’s fingers), but I was wrong. While I made it through the entire game with the default special attack, I soon found out that changing your primary and secondary weapons allowed for far easier handling of boss battles as the game went on. It’s important to review your abilities and weapons before each battle. You’re supposed to lose. A lot. And Cuphead wants you to become a better player for it.
Boss battles are broken into phases, and they never last longer than 5 minutes. Right off the bat, I’ll say that these are some of the toughest boss fights I’ve ever played through. The game has become infamous for its difficulty. While it might not be as difficult as Studio MHDR suggested it would be throughout its development, it’s still very much a hard game. I’ve had to prevent myself from chucking my controller countless times. But while the fights are difficult, they never feel unfair. The attack patterns and animations are orchestrated in such a way that every win feels incredibly well-earned, while every loss feels devastatingly well-deserved. Also, because of the short length of the fights, they never go on so long as to discourage you from trying again. I’ve often spent upwards of an hour on one battle, and I constantly felt myself get better and smarter with each attempt, despite how gradual my progress was. Every victory is followed with a scorecard, scoring your encounter. But honestly, I would’ve preferred the game without it. It feels more like an addition to further enhance the game’s retro aesthetic, and not much else. When a game is this difficult, I don’t care how well I did. All I care about is that I won.
It’s easy to tell that this game was crafted with the utmost care. Every single frame and animation looks like it is straight out of a 1930s cartoon, and the art style translates perfectly to the diverse depictions of characters and bosses. Whether it’s a genie, a bird, or a Betty Boop-style mermaid, the animations feel genuine to the memory of the classic cartoons that this game is inspired by. The watercolor backdrops are absolutely stunning, and you’ll smile as you navigate the world and take on new, imaginative boss fights. My only significant complaint is that because of the nature of the game, a lot can happen on-screen at once. Because of this, the background sometimes seems to peek into the foreground, making it difficult to distinguish what’s happening on-screen. But after a couple playthroughs, you’ll learn to train your eyes to what they should be focused on.
The fights are relatively simple in structure, but not so much in execution. As fast-paced as the action is, the game still encourages you to take your time and dissect enemy fight patterns. Chaos often ensues on-screen as projectiles are tossed at you relentlessly, but there is still a very clear method to the madness. Cuphead wants you to lose… a lot. And while it might take a long time to complete what is ultimately a 2-minute boss battle, it feels all the more rewarding as you practice your pattern recognition and hone your reflexes. Cuphead is also insanely addicting. I constantly caught myself whispering “once more” as I mashed that A button, unaware that I’d be spending another 40 minutes on the same battle I keep losing. What makes it all the more challenging is that Cuphead is only allowed to get hit 3 times in battle before dying, forcing you to both be careful and act quickly.
As I said before, balance is the key word here. The different phases of the boss fights call for different techniques, and you’ll soon get into a rhythm after playing through them over and over. You’ll have to decide what weapons you want to use for what phases, and when platforming eventually gets incorporated into the battles, they’ll become even more cumbersome. You have to figure out what areas of the screen to focus on, and learn when to use your special attacks. The game makes you a perfectionist, and often led to me constantly restarting the match because of one dumb, early mistake. When you’re only allowed 3 hit points, every move matters.
Parrying is also a huge part of gameplay. Throughout the game, there will be pink neon objects. They can be projectiles that bosses throw out, or obstacles in the platforming stages. If you jump into them and hit the jump button at the right time, you gain a full card (essentially, a point) for using your super moves. As you hit your enemies with regular attacks, the special move meter also goes up. When you obtain five cards, you’re able to use a significantly more powerful special attack. It would’ve been nice to be able to choose when to use a regular special attack and the huge 5-card one though. Not all situations necessarily call for it, and it’s unfortunate that you’re forced to use your most powerful special attack when it’s available, even when you might prefer to save it for the final phase of the boss battle.
After every loss, you’re presented with a progress bar that shows you how far along you were to eventual victory. While I tried to find reasons to be angry that there is no health meter displayed during the actual boss fights, I think I prefer it this way. It makes the screen less cluttered, allowing you to focus on nothing but Cuphead and the bright, vibrant artwork on screen. This game isn’t just an intense challenge, it’s an absolute work of art. Studio MDHR has spent 7 years perfecting this game, and it shows with every frame, every movement, every loss, and every victory.
Cuphead is a triumph. It’s a throwback to not just the art style, but an era where games were unforgiving, and winning meant something more. I threw my hands up at every victory, even did a little dance after some. This game is humbling, and I feel like completing it will make me a far better gamer, and more appreciative in every game I play from now on. This isn’t a system seller, but if you have an Xbox One, there is no reason to not purchase this game at the realtively low price of $20. Support the team that remortgaged their houses and quit their jobs to make this game, because it became far more than just a passion project. The heart and soul poured into this game shows, and it should be played by any fan of 2D shooters or old-timey cartoons.