Cuphead’s premise is simple: The titular character — a literal cartoon man with a cup for a head — and his brother Mugman have found themselves indebted to the Devil himself after a night at the casino goes horribly wrong. To buy back their souls, the Devil and his underling King Dice make the duo an offer they can’t refuse: If they reap enough souls from others who dealt with the devil and lost, they will earn theirs back.
Its finely honed style is so cool, you may forget that you’ll probably never reach the end.
These debtors — the game’s numerous boss fights — make up the majority of Cuphead. As you attempt to dodge their various attacks, you fire a selection of weapons such as a spread shot and a homing shot, gradually whittling down their health. These fights are moderately difficult from the word “go” – you’ll likely find yourself retrying them at least a few times — and the difficulty ramps up to near-insurmountable heights as you progress and make it ever closer to the game’s “finale.” A fairy tale dragon breathes giant balls of fire, forcing impossible dodges. A robot launches a barrage of crystals that fills the entire screen. A Tom and Jerry-esque cat swipes its massive paws as you desperately try to avoid them.
Though boss battles make up the majority of the game, there are other kinds of levels in Cuphead. Several platforming stages scattered throughout each world force you to make precise jumps while avoiding dozens of enemies. Every level, regardless of the structure, features the same fast pace and challenge. Though the platforming levels never reach the dizzying difficulty of its later when compared to the rest of the game, but as a quick diversion, they help to bring your blood pressure back down before heading into another fight.
To keep yourself alive, you have access to just a jump and dash, as well as a “parry” ability, which you can trigger on specific environmental hazards and projectiles. The environmental elements add wrinkle of precision to the game that bears a resemblance to recent remakes and retro-minded platformers, such as DuckTales or Shovel Knight. Cuphead can only take three hits before going down so, as in those games, every move matters. Completing a level is not so much a victory or your enemy, but a mastery of its complicated and deadly puzzle it thrusts your way.
Even within the context of a game that demands perfection, though, the last few bosses feel so ridiculously difficult, and will leave you more frustrated than motivated. We’d be genuinely shocked if even a tiny fraction of players complete the game.
It’s just so pretty, though…
Were it not for the game’s stunning animation, Cuphead’s frustrating finale might not be worth struggling through. Every moment feels like it was pulled directly out of a classic cartoon, complete with dust and burn marks simulating the experience of watching a cartoon on film in a theater. The colors have a slightly washed-out look, as if they were affected by years of aging. StudioMHDR clearly put its heart and soul into every aspect of this game: Characters have a level of expressiveness and detail rarely seen in animated films today. As bombs explode, small puffs of smoke go out in all directions. Characters move with just a small amount of stiffness, replicating the limitations found in classic animated films. Cuphead’s visual design is as composed and coherent as anything Disney has ever made.
While the game’s visuals are sure to grab your attention first, Cuphead’s audio is equally impressive. During loading screens, you can hear a faint crackle and hiss, its imperfection almost soothing in our digital world. When you enter both boss battles and the less-common platforming sections, you’re greeted with a bombastic jazz soundtrack. Horns, bass drums, and piano blare in your ears as you make your way through each stage, offering a slightly different take on the genre depending on the enemy you’re facing. Even the title screen had us singing along, with an old-timey a cappella number giving you a very brief summary of the story.
Cuphead is a tremendous success, both as an action game and as a tribute to the golden age of animation. Every stage offers something to make you smile, whether it be an upbeat new song or a creative enemy design, and at its best, it offers a thrilling and rewarding level of challenge. We just wish that the difficulty were balanced slightly better so that we could take some time and enjoy how gorgeous it looks.
Cuphead was reviewed on Xbox One with a retail code provided by the publisher.