Cuphead builds an experience that manages to be fun in spite of its unbridled brutality; inspiring, through the sheer joy that is playing it, gamers to come back for more even after they have been shot down for the hundredth time
At heart, Cuphead is a very old-school game. So much, in fact, that as far as visuals and music go, the effort looks back to the 1930s for inspiration. During that decade, both Walt Disney Productions and Fleischer Studios battled it out to get a firm grip on what was then the emerging market of animated cartoons, with the former opting for an approach that was lighter and polished, while the latter took on a road that was rougher, grittier, and more surrealistic.
When it comes to its forms and lines, the style of Cuphead can be equally traced back to the two companies, for the rubber-hose nature of its characters – which lack articulations in their arms and legs – as well as the squash and stretch technique that gives a springy edge to the drawings’ motion and mass were widely employed by both houses. However, in regards to its theme, the game leans much more heavily to the grounds explored by Fleischer Studios, because although Cuphead packs all the charm, colors, and whimsical spirit found in the loveliest of cartoons, the game carries an undercurrent that is mean, vicious, and violent, fearlessly trading whatever potential cuteness was on the table for animation that is as rugged as it is devilish.
Such a choice was, surely, in no way accidental. Firstly, it happened because, as they grew up, the Moldenhauer brothers – the game’s creators – developed a strong affection for the output of Fleischer Studios. More importantly, though, there is the fact that the content of Cuphead would be terribly out of place if represented by characters, scenarios, and objects that oozed pure unadulterated charm. And that is because the old-school nature of the title goes far beyond the visual and musical cues it presents, for whilst it gazes at the past of animation to build its worlds and soundtrack, it simultaneously glances at the yesteryears of the gaming industry to put together the challenges it holds.
As a consequence, Cuphead is very straightforward in gameplay, quite demanding in difficulty, and considerably irresistible in sheer fun, meaning that its unforgiving ways are a perfect match to the quietly evil aura of its art style; a mixture that, in turn, creates a synergy that not just defines the experience as a whole, but that makes the game feel like the result of what would happen if one of those old twisted cartoons came to life with a special desire to attack its viewers.
The wicked quest, taking place on Inkwell Isles, begins when Cuphead and his brother, Mugman, two young fellows who happen to have a teacup for a head, disobey the orders of Elder Kettle, the father figure responsible to watch over them. Aware that the two boys like to have fun and tend to get a little reckless, the old man warns them to be careful and not to wander towards the other side of the train tracks. As it is to be expected, though, the duo does exactly the opposite of that and soon they find themselves inside a lush building that works as a casino owned by none other than the Devil himself.
To make matters worse, the two go to the Craps table, and in the midst of a lucky streak, they begin placing wild bets in succession until the proprietor of the establishment makes his way to where they are and decides to bet his casino against their souls. Cuphead and Mugman take the challenge; unfortunately, they lose. They are, however, spared from a dark fate when the Devil, upon seeing their despair, decides to make a bargain with them: all around Inkwell Isles, he has a bunch of runaway debtors, and he claims the boys will be let go if they succeed in tracking those down and collecting their souls in his stead. With no other option, the heroes head out to make good on the deal.
From the very moment they lay eyes on the opening screen and start getting in touch with the telling of that story, players will be immediately aware that they are in for a very unique game. Because more than merely recreating an animation style that was in vogue many decades ago, developers and artists involved in the title’s creation made sure that besides being an emulation of the animated entertainment available in that era, Cuphead would actually feel like a product from those days.
Its gorgeous graphics are processed through a filter that gives them the marginal imperfections one would expect from old film or from watching a program on a very old television. Meanwhile, its soundtrack, made up of incredibly catchy and remarkable original jazz and ragtime pieces, replicates to a tee the instrumentation and the production standards of that time, with the inclusion of plenty of frantic brass parts, a barbershop quartet for the numbers with vocal segments, and the slightly noisy luster recordings of the era displayed.
With those technical distinctions in place, which make Cuphead artistically stand in a universe of its own, the game pulls the curtain covering what is its second defining characteristic: its gameplay. From a superficial standpoint, Cuphead has very blatant old-school influences from which it drinks without shame. It plays like a run and gun title because, while they take on the quest’s content, gamers will invariably have their fingers firmly pressing the shooting button as they go through heart-pounding action sequences that are extremely fast-paced.
At the same time, it borrows heavily from bullet hell efforts because it is constantly challenging the amount of projectiles and foes that can appear on the screen simultaneously whilst leaving the starring characters with just enough room so they can have a chance to get out of trouble unscathed. Finally, it lightly rips a page out of the platforming book because, occasionally, dodging hazards and shooting bad guys down is as important as executing precise jumps to avoid gaps and land on the desired surface. In spite of those obvious inspirations, though, Cuphead finds a way to drive them to entirely original grounds.
Much of that, of course, has to do with the nature of the Devil’s runaway debtors: a cast of beings that includes bizarre humans, sentient objects, living vegetables, anthropomorphic animals, mythological creatures, and more. And all of the skirmishes against them take on the form of multi-phased boss battles. Cuphead, therefore, is one massive boss rush.
The nineteen encounters that it consists of are spread around the four different portions of the Inkwell Isles, and each area only becomes accessible once all big bad guys from the previous zone are defeated and sign the contract that hands out their soul to Satan, with players having some degree of freedom to determine the order in which they will take down the enemies. And it is mainly through these duels that Cuphead’s fantastic blend of run and gun, bullet hell, and platforming materializes.
Many are the reasons why every single one of the bosses present in Cuphead immediately goes down in gaming history as one of the best battles ever created. There is quality in their variety, because only supported by an animation style that relies so much on the surrealistic could such a discrepant group of characters come together under the same umbrella. There is greatness in their flexibility, for as they transit between phases, they can widely change in appearance as well as behavior, and all of the debtors have at least three distinct forms.
There is an endless source of surprise in their attack patterns, since in each one of their phases, the bosses will have a pleasantly wide array of attacks to choose from, leaving gamers constantly on the edge of their seats in wait for what is to come next. And there is brutality in the way they deploy their arsenal, because rarely will a boss be satisfied with unleashing a single offensive move, as Cuphead – and Mugman, if gamers play alongside someone else – will almost always have to use their vision to keep track of two or three sources of danger and employ their reflexes to squeeze through safety widows that can be as tiny as the characters’ hitboxes themselves.
By taking it all into consideration, it becomes blatant that Cuphead is creative in a way that not many games are; after all, while some titles struggle to come up with a notable boss battle, it nonchalantly boasts nineteen of them. It also becomes equally obvious that Cuphead is difficult, because since the heroes only have three units of HP, which can be at best extended to five via some upgrades, the balance between the barrage of attacks that needs to be handled and the room for error seems to tip heavily to the first side. However, although getting to the end of Cuphead will necessarily entail moments of frustration and anger, the game counters its old-school level of challenge with the quality of life awareness of modern gaming, doing its very best to diminish the presence of bitter feelings by keeping its battles relatively brief: with most of them lasting up to two minutes and the longest ones extending to the three-minute mark.
Consequently, even though coming out on top of the duels tends to take more than twenty attempts, the fact that the loss of progress is so minimal and that the struggles are so fun will keep gamers coming back to try again, as they slowly master the patterns of the bosses, diminish the rate in which they make mistakes, and progressively advance to new phases. Cuphead is definitely a grind, but one that becomes engaging and hard to let go off because victory seems to always be just around the corner thanks to a learning process that feels constant, fun, and rewarding.
As a side dish of sorts to go along with those battles, Cuphead also presents six platforming stages. In these, following a standard left-to-right progression, the character must make his way through physical obstacles, enemies, gaps, and even a few inventive mini-bosses to get to the finish line. Even if they are not a highlight of the same grandeur as the bosses, these levels – which are as brief as the duels – are generally interesting and varied, with the hardest of them requiring the same persistence and grind that the big bad guys demand. Although clearing these courses opens up paths in the overworld, getting to the end of all of them is not mandatory for beating the game.
Nevertheless, most players will find that doing so can go a long way towards helping them deal with the bosses, because each course holds five collectible golden coins which – with a handful of exceptions in the later stages – are not too hard to grab; and these, in turn, can be exchanged at the shops of Inkwell Isles for all sorts of extra skills. With the loot in hand, Cuphead can purchase different weapons, including a short-ranged projectile that deals greater damage and a weaker green laser that chases the closest target; and special abilities, such as one that lets the character get an additional hit point in exchange for a slight downgrade in attack. Due to that, the coins and stages gain value, because before all battles the main characters can equip two weapons and one skill, and sometimes having a good amount of available options can give one access to a strategy that is better suited to down a specific boss.
Despite its immense qualities, Cuphead does hold a few very clear issues. The first, which turns out to be relatively minor since the control scheme can be entirely customized, is that the standard configuration of the character’s actions is slightly cumbersome. Given Cuphead can jump, perform an evasive dash, shoot, and unleash a special attack once a specific meter is full, the fact all these actions are mapped to the A-B-X-Y buttons can make the activation of many of them in a slice of a second, a maneuver that is at times necessary, be overly complicated.
Fortunately, that pain can be avoided by merely reassigning one of the four to a shoulder key. Still in the matter of controls, the game could have used some polishing in its parrying mechanic, which allows the hero to destroy pink hazards and fill up the special meter by a unit in return. In air battles, when Cuphead is aboard an airplane, performing the move is simple enough; in ground skirmishes, though, the same does not apply, as the parrying – which, in this case, requires the character to jump and press the jump button again as he touches the colored object – demands timing and positioning that are so perfect that it seems to land with inconsistency, especially with projectiles that come from the top of the screen, making going for the maneuver in ground battles a risk that will be too great to many.
Furthermore, the special attacks also present a problem of their own. Like the abilities and weapons, they come in different varieties and one can be equipped before going into battle; unlike them, they are actually acquired through fun and relatively easy challenges that involve parrying and take place inside mausoleums scattered around the overworld. Special attacks become available in battles once a meter, which is filled up either by simply shooting foes or executing parries, reaches a certain threshold of units, and – for the most part – they can be used to great effect, with a special attack that is delivered in the right situations often being the difference between glorious victory and sad defeat.
However, they do present the problem of not giving Cuphead a tiny period of invincibility once the animation they trigger is complete. What that means is that given players lose control of the hero for a little while when he pulls of the move, there is always a certain risk that he will finish it when being in direct physical contact with the boss, leading to a loss of health that can be quite unfair and costly.
The final issue that Cuphead presents is, ironically, also one of its best features: the random element that lies within each encounter with a boss. In every one of their phases, the Devil’s debtors have multiple forms of attack; additionally, these are often delivered either together or alongside secondary minions that are out to get the heroes as well. Yet, the timing with which they are triggered and the order in which they are pulled off is completely arbitrary. On one positive hand, such trait means that simply memorizing patterns is not an option to knockout the bosses, and that gamers have to actually learn how to react in accordance to what comes their way; moreover, it makes every battle slightly different from the ones before it.
Sadly, that aleatory nature also causes some trouble, because if players get really unlucky with the roll of the virtual unseen dice they may either have to deal with a more complicated attack pattern or even find themselves in situations that are borderline impossible to escape from without taking damage. The first scenario, which is somewhat frequent, is a perfectly acceptable ramification of the bosses’ unpredictable behavior, even if getting a good pattern can indeed help quite a bit in achieving a good result. However, the second situation, which is very much rare but that will nonetheless surface, is not tolerable, and in some cases it could have been avoided with some more polish.
Regardless of how they cannot be neglected in terms of sheer numbers, these shortcomings do not harm the experience to a significant degree: the toughness in landing the parrying on ground battles makes it be reserved to the most skilled players; meanwhile, the instances of damage being done either by the lack of an invincibility frame at the end of the special moves’ animations or by situations that are almost impossible to escape from are just too rare to truly matter. What is important is that the nineteen boss battles and the six stages of Cuphead deliver in difficulty, creativity, and fun what just a few other games are capable of, and the content they represent has legs.
Firstly because getting to the end of the adventure is at least a ten-hour uphill climb; and secondly because the heroes are given a rank for every challenge they beat that takes into consideration stats such as remaining health, parries performed, and time, meaning that players looking to get perfect scores will have a lot of practicing to do. In addition, to those who want to tackle the game in different difficulties, Cuphead boasts not just an expert mode that is unlocked upon defeating the final boss, but also an easy mode that albeit being a great option for younger or more inexperienced players, does have the caveat of cutting some phases from many bosses and not allowing gamers to face off against the final two bad guys – a trait that may bother some.
The bottom line, though, is that Cuphead is absolutely magnificent. It is old-school not only in visual and musical presentation, but also in gameplay; however, it uses its blatant and ancient influences not as a way to coast towards success, but as a source of inspiration to build character. In the old gritty cartoons from which it borrows its animation, its calculated artistic imperfections, and its vicious tone, it finds cues that are sufficient to allow it to exist inside a realm that is absolutely its own.
Meanwhile, in the action run and gun games that were so dearly beloved by its creators, the title locates basic premises in pacing, challenge, and controls that it employs in the assembling of a sidescroller whose focus lies on struggling to take down mighty multi-phased bosses that are as inventive as they are capable of filling up the screen with an obscene amount of hazards. And in the combination of those two veins, Cuphead builds an experience that, more importantly than being unique, manages to be fun in spite of its unbridled brutality; inspiring, through the sheer joy that is playing it, gamers to come back for more even after they have been shot down for the hundredth time.