Cuphead (announced sometime during the Reagen administration) appeared to be (and indeed has been described as) a Metal Slug/Contra-style sidescrolling run and gun game, which combined with a visual style inspired by Max Fleischer cartoons and elaborate, exuberant character design made it look like one to watch. As it turns out, however, it is not a Metal Slug/Contra-style sidescrolling run and gun game. There are levels of that nature, but they act as snacky interludes between Cuphead’s actual bread and butter: boss fights. Much has been made of the game’s high difficulty and gorgeous, hand-drawn animation style, as well as some depressingly inevitable comparisons to Dark Souls, but is the game any good?
The story, as it is, is summed up in song upon reaching the title screen: Cuphead and his brother Mugman like gambling, see? They like to roll the dice, but they rolled the wrong dice in the wrong joint, and now they owe their very souls to the Devil! Happens to us all. In exchange for the Devil sparing their lives they must play the role of lethal debt collectors; murdering a variety of colourful boss characters in exchange for “soul contracts”, because it’s a 30s cartoon, and they were entirely unconcerned about potentially scarring people for life. The story’s just here to frame the action, but I like the whole “Don’t gamble, kids!” angle and how it immediately moves on to homicide, which is apparently all good. The Boss design is, for the most part, solid both aesthetically and practically. Despite mostly being a series of boss rooms, it does play like the genre it claims to take inspiration from; shooting, platforming, dodging and the like, all of which you’ll have to combine with an acute sense of timing and multitasking, because as publicised this game is bastard hard. I can only assume that’s where the Dark Souls comparison comes from, but it’s not an accurate one at all, bar the fact that both games are difficult. Scoring hits is so easy you’ll mostly be doing it on auto-pilot; the hard part is avoiding all the bullet hell projectile attacks, assist enemies and stage hazards to the point where actually focusing on the actual boss is a luxury you often can’t afford. Bosses have no health bar, nor is there any indication of how much damage you’re doing besides a rough chart shown when you die, which again means you’ll be focusing almost entirely on Cuphead and the many projectiles all trying to ruin his day. Helping you out in all this is a parry mechanic, in which pink objects can be double-jumped into (again with the proper timing) to gain super meter, as well as a series of useful upgrades and different shot types of which, although there are clear best choices, all have a use. It’s really tense, but usually in a good way: it’ll often come down to you madly dodging projectiles from about fifty different sources, when during a gap in the action just big enough to allow any cognitive process more involved than dodging and shooting, you think that surely whatever you’re fighting must be close to death by now. Then the words “A KNOCKOUT” fill the screen and you breathe a sigh of relief, feeling sufficiently rewarded by the defeat of a real pain in the arse with your amassed skill and patience. This isn’t to say that the game doesn’t feel cheap at times, it’s just that it doesn’t pretend otherwise, and lets you know early on that it intends to do everything in its power to slaughter you at any and every opportunity. The run and gun levels are a whole different beast; resembling a sort of hardcore “Rayman Origins” with no checkpoints; the same dodge-shoot-parry tactics as the boss fights apply here, but spread out over a much larger area, and with a vastly different sense of timing and context. These missions feature collectable coins necessary to buy new gear, and completing them all without killing any of the enemies contained within nets you the option to play the game in black and white, and with the audio altered to sound like it’s being delivered through a 30s speaker. This isn’t particularly noteworthy but it is a nice inclusion, and I feel compelled to mention it mainly because I actually managed to unlock it, which at one point in the game felt like a pipe dream.
Faring far worse than the entirety of Cuphead and Mugman’s on-foot adventures, however, are the plane sections. Here any weapon upgrades you’ve bought are useless, and the game seems to go the extra mile in how much stuff it pelts you with, which combined with the different method of traversal makes most of the plane fights quickly become irritating. On the flip side, design wise most of these bosses are excellent, and on the whole the game’s art style and sheer level of imagination is fantastic. Bosses all have multiple stages, which often result in vast changes in design and attack patterns, a stand-out being Hilda Berg; a woman-blimp hybrid who attacks using cloud formations of various star signs that then take corporeal form, and her final form is a massive crescent moon with her face in the middle that fires out space ships. The penultimate boss; a little boss run dictated by multiple dice rolls, is stopped from being a nuisance due to each opponent being a lovingly crafted reference to casinos, the best one being a stack of poker chips called “Chips Bettigan”. Chips. Bettigan. I rest my case.
Cuphead is, for the most part, a good time. The level of invention, imagination and effort put into designing and hand-drawing each enemy, boss and location pays dividends for the experience, and no matter how hard bosses get fighting them is almost universally engaging, and the quick restarts fuel a “One more go” mindset. Not everything hits the mark, but most things do; enough to warrant a recommendation if you’ve any interest in the game at all. Yes it’s hard, but it’s a rewarding experience, one that never made me consider leaving it unfinished.
By James Lambert