Studio MDHR’s long-in-development Cuphead has become known for two things in the years since its reveal: Its incredible 1930’s cartoon art style and its crushing difficulty. The game won over just about everybody who saw its reveal at E3 in 2014, with its striking, pitch-perfect and hand-drawn (but digitally colourised) animation reminiscent of Fleischer and Disney cartoons from an era long past.

cuphead_Performance

Originally intended to be a series of boss battles, Cuphead saw a change in scope to add more run-and-gun elements. Because of that and the painstaking process of drawing everything by hand amidst this new focus, Cuphad was hit by multiple delays.

They’ve all been worth it.

I have spent many, many infuriating hours lost in the world that brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer have created. Much of that time was spent dying. Repeatedly. Yes, Cuphead is brutal and death is a regular occurrence, but it packs in that old-school arcade ethos that makes you want to keep trying. If it were an arcade game, it would bankrupt me. Cuphead is equally fantastic and frustrating, enchanting and enraging, charming and challenging.

Cuphead_Clown

As a run-and-gun arcade game there’s very little focus on the narrative, but it eschews the tired damsel in distress trope. Cuphead (and his player two, Mugman) is in a world of trouble that’s of his own doing. After gambling with – and subsequently losing to – the devil, Cuphead and Mugman need to reap contracts for the devil or risk losing their heads. Those contracts come from defeating the game’s multitudinous bosses, all of whom (thus far) are as vibrant, inventive, and exciting as they are hard to beat.

There’s a top-down, RPG-like overworld that Cuphead can traverse, littered with stages to run through, and characters to meet – along with secrets to find. And of course, bosses to beat.

Cuphead_Baroness_Von_Bon_Bon

To that end, our porcelain heroes are equipped with a few basic offensive and defensive moves. Cuphead can do all of the things you’d expect a run-and-gun character to do. He can move about and crouch, as well as jump. He’s also equipped with a handy dash that lets him move forward a short distance. It’s great not just for getting to further platforms by extending your distance at the apex of a jump, but also for getting the hell out of the way of one of the many things that’ll kill you.

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When it comes to offensive capabilities, the indebted bit of crockery can shoot from his fingertips (thankfully, holding the button down gives you rapid fire so there’s no need to frantically tap away like a madman). Later on, you’ll be able to buy new weapons using the coins you collect during the run-and-gun stages, get secondary weapons, and more passive charms that can have a profound effect on gameplay.   One such charm gives your dash move a temporary invincibility, and without that, I don’t think I’d have gotten very far at all. If you buy just one thing in Cuphead, make it this. Going in to each level, Cuphead is afforded one primary weapon, a secondary one, a charm and a Special.  Changing your loadout becomes key, as with some bosses you’ll want to focus more on your footwork, so a weapon that seeks out enemies might be preferred. In other situations, you’ll want to do as much damage as possible, making the shorter range, but higher damage spread gun your weapon of choice.

Cuphead_Cigar

Parrying is one of the game’s primary mechanics, and a skill that becomes necessary to master. By jumping into a pink enemy, object or projectile,  and pressing the jump button again, you negate damage from them, giving you a bit of air time and adding a card to your super meter. When you have enough of them, you can unleash a special ability, that depending on what you have equipped can either do major damage, give you a brief bout of invulnerability or give you an opportunity to get some health back.

Cuphead and his ceramic cohort can take just three hits before becoming ethereal earthenware, and with the screen usually awash with a barrage of enemies and their projectiles, it’s a bit of a bullet-hell ballet. There’s very little in the way of difficulty adjustment too. The run and gun stages have a set standard difficulty, though the boss levels can be set to a “simple” mode that’s still challenging enough. While you’ll still progress within each island, you won’t earn any of the necessary contracts for besting bosses on the easier mode. You, unfortunately, need those contracts to move forward, making simple mode entirely pointless. I think some sort of optional check-pointing system would be welcome, and help give the game a little more accessibility.

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Cuphead_Tree_Race

That makes the game one that’s likely to frustrate players who don’t have the patience and persistence to keep trying. Thankfully you have infinite lives, and reloading a stage after death is near instant, which helps stave off the frustration. It’s also incredibly rewarding.

It’s also incredibly rewarding.

After one particularly tough boss battle during which I must have died two dozen times, I finally delivered a knockout and my exuberant cries must have woken up the whole neighbourhood. On another (admittedly easier) boss level, I battled an angry potato, a tearful onion and a hypnotically angry carrot in rapid succession. I managed to beat the trio of vegetables without taking a hit, and I stood up to dance. Yes, it was the Carlton dance.

Cuphead_Heart_Man

For the most part, I believe that Cuphead feels fair. It’s definitely challenging, but those who take the time to really learn the enemy and projectile patterns will be able to overcome its challenges eventually. It’s tough, but patience, trial-and-error and a willingness to persevere are key. Fairness goes out of the window in the finale, where beating the penultimate boss can rely on luck, and it’s a damper on an experience that resonated with me, bringing me back to a youth spent perfecting Contra and Mega-Man runs.

I know many players will be driven away by its difficulty, even if they’re drawn in by the old-timey aesthetic. If you love those old-school games that reward practice and patience through trial and error, Cuphead will likely delight.

Last Updated: October 2, 2017

Cuphead
Summary
If you love those old-school games that rewards practice and patience through trial and error, Cuphead will likely delight. Yes, Cuphead is brutal and death is a regular occurrence, but it packs in that old-schoool arcade ethos that makes you want to keep trying.
8.5
Cuphead was reviewed on Xbox One
87 / 100

Geoffrey Tim

Editor. I'm old, grumpy and more than just a little cynical. One day, I found myself in possession of a NES, and a copy of Super Mario Bros 3. It was that game that made me realise that games were more than just toys to idly while away time - they were capable of being masterpieces. I'm here now, looking for more of those masterpieces.

  • HairyEwok

    The fact that the game is hand drawn is just mind boggling

    • MonsterCheddar

      The fact that shit like that exists is mind boggling.

  • Gustav Minnie

    Working from home thinking I will sneak in a few hours of Cuphead.
    Got the middle finger notice that I will only get to play it at 15:00….. sigh.

  • Admiral Chief

    Wobbly Onion defeats Tearful Onion. News of the week!

  • VampyreSquirrel

    Looking good so far Geoff, hope the game keeps you going through the frustration and I eagerly await your full review when it’s done (don’t rush bud)

  • Craig “Crios” Boonzaier

    Been looking forward to this game for a while. My Steam Wallet funds are ready to be spent.

  • No matter how many times you die you just keep pushing that retry button and trucking through until you know the boss fight well enough to get through it.

    It’s the feeling of accomplishment that makes this game so good. Apart from the fantastic visuals.

    • Dresden

      Want this game so badly, just not sure how enjoyable it will be on a keyboard (sadly I don’t have a controller for the PC).

      • It’s 8 way directional game play so movement and shooting wise it will move the same. But overall the relaxed nature of playing platformers on a controller is pretty apparent with this game 🙂

      • I just can;t imagine playing this on a keyboard at all.

        • I can only think those smoke bomb dashes I do backwards by accident instead of going forward would be less xD

      • If you have a PS3 controller around or a corded XBOX 360 controller or any of the new gen consoles controllers, you can use them on the PC as well with a small program.

        • Dresden

          Seems my comment disappeared. I was just about to ask if it was possible to play with a PS4 controller.
          Will tinker around tonight to see if I can get it working, thanks!

          • Look for a program called DS4Windows

          • Don;t even need DS4windows anymore. Native support.

          • Dresden

            That’s fantastic to hear. Thanks a lot!

  • Johann

    Holy crap this game is hard, but it’s sooooo fun. Can’t seem to put it down.

  • Matthew Figueira

    Gimme

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