Cuphead is a fiendishly difficult game that hides it’s old school run and gun inspirations beneath an, ironically, even older school artstyle. Looking every inch an authentic cartoon from the 1930’s, you’d be forgiven for thinking the cutesy and innocent appearance means you’re in for an easy time. Cuphead is not friendly, despite the jovial appearance of its two saucer headed protagonists – Cuphead and Mugman.
Studio MDHR have created a captivatingly beautiful game that has the gameplay chops to back up the gorgeous style it sells. Fans of old school shooters like Contra or Gunstar Heroes will feel right at home with the bullet hell escapades of the game, but there’s a few new wrinkles in here too that make the game feel modern, even if everything else skews 1930s cartoon meets 1980s fiendish difficulty.
Cuphead and his pal Mugman – as the introductory song tells us – like to roll the dice. They get roped into the dodgy King Dice’s casino, where they have a winning streak that lasts right up until a showdown with the devil himself. They learn the hard way that you don’t make deals with the devil, without a golden fiddle in sight. Satan gives them a choice, surrender their souls, or collect the soul contracts of a range of colourful bosses across the land who owe satan big time – in return for their freedom.
Cue a fantastic adventure across 3 different islands, fighting a range of bosses, and undertaking a number of run and gun levels which do exactly what they say on the tin. Cuphead (and Mugman, on co-op) have a few tricks up their sleeves to help them gather these souls. They’ve got the world’s most powerful pair of finger guns on their hands, a few super moves, a nifty dash, a parry move, and a small pool of customisable skills and powerups.
Where Cuphead really stands out is the way it crafts these basic systems into something that just feels like an absolute joy to play, even when you’re dying – which will be pretty consistently against the slew of incredible bosses, even if you’re experienced in the punishing old school titles that Cuphead is openly inspired by.
The run and gun levels break up the procession of boss battles, but make no mistake, these encounters are the meat of the game. Each of the three islands has it’s own theme and group of diverse bosses, each with multiple forms throughout the course of the battle. A finish line appears on the screen if you die in a bout, letting you know how far you where from the end, and how many more forms the boss you’re battling has. It’s both a taunt and a motivator, especially if you make it to the halfway mark on your first tussle with a new foe.
Each boss is an absolute joy to behold, and it’ll keep you going even when the crushing difficulty starts to wear down. From living zeppelins through to colourful genies, creepy clowns, and giant robots, each new encounter is more amazing – and fiendishly difficult – than the last. Each boss goes through multiple forms, each change richly detailed and animated, oozing character and charisma. Until they batter you senseless for the twentieth time.
Each victory is a fist pumping moment of pure elation, and in its toughest moments, Cuphead’s tight control and simple range of moves belies a depth that allows you to enter a satisfying flow in the heat of battle. Parrying pink enemy attacks rewards precision timing with an extra bonus card. Use one to activate a bullet type specific special move, or use a hand of five to pull off a screen filling special move.
The range of powerups available in the shop allow you to give your Cuphead or Mugman a certain play style, with a surprising range of depth available. You can give yourself an extra heart or two at the expense of some stopping power.
You can equip a smoke bomb to turn your dash into a ninja style disappearing act, allowing you a free frames of invincibility. Or you can go full bore for big damage, equipping coffee that makes your super cards charge constantly, whether you’re parrying or damaging or not.
There’s a wide variety in the bullets as well. You can equip two types and switch between them instantly in the heat of battle. The standard fast stream of blue bullets can be replaced by weaker heat seeking green bullets, or wild boomerang bullets that do more damage if they’re fired backwards. Alternatively, the charge bullets offer you the most stopping power, at the expense of being a charge and release move rather than a constant stream of bullets.
The range of abilities really lets you feel as though you’re specialising your moveset for each bout, or even just for your own playstyle. If you’re a master dodger, you don’t need extra hearts, but maybe you want that smoke bomb to escape bullet hell when there’s no other way out. If you struggle to run and gun, the heat seeking bullets allow you to focus on dodging, but they’ll stretch your bouts out to a little bit longer.
There are also a range of airborne boss fights, where you battle in a small helicopter. Your bullets are locked to a machine gun or bombs that drop in an arc in this form. Instead of dodging, you can shrink to a smaller, faster, and weaker plane. These levels were the weakest to me, purely because I couldn’t use my favorite set of powerups and bullets to best the bosses. They proved to be some of the toughest bouts, especially when aiming for A and S ranks in missions.
That’s another added layer of beauty to Cuphead. Beating the bosses first time around, you’ll be doing it by the skin of your teeth, but if you’re brave, the end credits don’t mean the end of the game. There’s added challenge in trying to get a perfect score on the levels, beating each of them on Expert difficulty, or completing a few secret challenges to get a special, secret mode… no spoilers here. For a relatively short game, there’s bags of replay value, and as of the time of writing, I’ve got about twenty three hours in the game, with no sign of stopping soon.
The entirety of Cuphead can be played on co-op mode, which was how I did it first time around. It could be a friendship or relationship breaker, but in our modern gaming landscape, split screen co-op has gone the way of the dodo, so it’s a real treat to get a game that’s old school in this way too. There’s no specific co-op related achievements and the bosses scale in difficulty in a way that makes co-op just as challenging – if not tougher, due to the extra carnage on screen. If you’ve got a buddy, this is the way to play first time around, but maybe solo those perfect and expert runs.
I can’t heap enough praise on Cuphead, everything about it just feels so right. Visually, it’s a stunning game, like nothing you’ve ever seen or played before, and the way it marries old school run and gun games with a few modern sensibilities makes it something truly special. Something that is more than the sum of its already illustrious parts. Don’t even get me started on the jazzy soundtrack or the old school, scratchy voices and sound effects. I can’t get enough of it.