Cuphead Review – fantastic and frustrating, charming and challenging

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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. Cuphead was reviewed on Xbox One

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