Cuphead is probably the most important game to release this year. Steeped in 1930’s stylized cartoon goodness, Cuphead introduces the world to the concept of hand-drawn videogames and intensely difficult gameplay. In a day and age where everything has to be approachable and achievable by all players, Cuphead, with its side-scrolling and rich bullet hell gameplay, stands tall and throws the notion out the window. To beat Cuphead, you have to be skilled, but to enjoy Cuphead, you need only apply.
Cuphead offers a simple story to kick off the gameplay. Cuphead and his pal Mugman, they like to roll the dice. After a pretty successful stint at the casino, the Devil gives the two a challenge – if they win the next roll of the dice, they win everything in the casino, and if they lose, the Devil will have their souls.
It comes as no surprise that they lose. However, the Devil lets them off the hook, so long as they go and collect the other soul contracts of the inhabitants of Inkwell Isle. Now it’s your job to go and give these guys what for!
I can’t continue without mentioning the obvious, that Cuphead looks phenomenal. From the moment you boot it up, the charming animations will be immediately obvious. These aren’t computer animated, these are all drawn by hand, every single frame. Then huge amounts of effort that went into creating this style are on display in every activity of the game.
Every step an enemy takes across the screen, a boss’ slight jig, or the way it breathes, an animator had to sit down and draw it all by hand. There’s a level of detail and love here that isn’t usually seen, or felt, in modern games. It would have been easy for Chad Moldenhauer and Jared Moldenhauer, the two brothers and directors of StudioMDHR, to fall back on computer animation, but they stuck to their guns and have created not just a challenging game, but a beautiful work of art.
Even the soundtrack of Cuphead is beyond reproach. The jazz, with all the various brass instruments, drums, and pianos, is expertly scored. A unique track accompanies every single boss in the game and every single area. Moreover, the way it was designed is incredible.
In an interview with Garret Martin of PasteMagazine, Cuphead’s composer, Kristopher Maddigan, explained how he ensured the music of the boss fights would be interesting and unique the first, second, and twenty-fourth time a player stepped inside that arena.
“Also what we did, which is kind of interesting, is that in most of the big band tunes you'll have some ensemble piece which is written out and then you'll have a section where someone takes a solo and then you'll have another ensemble section, and what we did with all the solo stuff is we recorded all of that separately. Once we had completed all the big band sessions we brought in half a dozen soloists and we recorded them playing over top of a lot of the solo sections on the charts. So that's why you might have one tune but six different versions of it. So each tune, you can have the same tune but it's going to have different solos on it, just to keep things interesting in the game. So if you die at a boss, if you leave and you come back to that tune, it's going to be the same tune but it's going to have somebody else soloing over it. We were conscious of it that way, too, trying to maintain a certain amount of interest on repetition like that. There was a bit of improvising in the ragtime tunes as well.”
This level of thought and care can be felt throughout every single aspect of Cuphead. StudioMDHR needed audio of this quality and calibre in order to match what they were making. With visuals as stunning as what’s on display, it just makes sense to have authentic jazz that fits the era.
Outside of the stunning visuals and mesmerizing audio, the gameplay is brutally challenging, but never unfair. I’ve failed and died over a thousand times in Cuphead, making me a dead-average player, but I’ve still managed to finish it. Every boss battle – of which the game has numerous and is its main selling point aside from the artstyle – will push you to your limits and then demand more. Not only must you learn a bosses moveset, but you need to progress through each transitional phase in order to practice what comes next. This boils down to, at first, trial and error if you lack the fine motor skills to dodge in time or an intense change of pace where you must learn on the fly.
Casual gamers will no doubt be turned off by the difficulty, but gamers looking for a challenge or those who remember the “good old days” of tough games will be right at home. While each failure is tough to swallow, Cuphead shows you a quick breakdown of how far you made it through the boss fight, which helps keep the fires burning inside you. Every flag post represents a different transition in the boss attack, with the final one being the boss' death. The closer you get to the final checkpoint, the more you want to keep trying.
As mentioned, the main element to Cuphead is its numerous boss fights. While there are platforming levels, they are merely there in response to community reaction post-reveal. Ultimately, Cuphead is a game about boss fights, which will be the bane of some and the joy of others. Instead of fighting through tiresome levels in order to reach a boss, à la Metal Slug or Contra, you are placed right in front of the boss. These fights, when done correctly, amount of to one to two minutes worth of combat, but it’s the repetition that extends this time into the hours.
Cuphead will make you feel a range of emotions, from depressing frustration at your inability to complete a level or boss, to complete and utter rapturous joy for finally clearing a level. This is good news to some and terrible news for others. If you cannot abide difficult games, Cuphead won’t be for you.
Thankfully, there is a silver lining for those who dislike brutal challenges but who want to get their hands on Cuphead: local co-op. StudioMDHR has included a local cooperation option for those who either want some help or just love playing through these sorts of games with a friend. Bringing in a friend is as easy as hitting a button on a second controller. The second player will take on the role of Mugman, Cuphead’s dear friend that we see in all the promotional content – he was even there when Cuphead bet against the Devil.
Having an addition player increases the hitpoints of all the bosses, making the boss fights last longer. It’s not all negatives, as now whenever one player goes down, the other can use the Parry move to bring them back to life.
The controls in Cuphead are tight and responsive, which is needed given the small time you have to respond to attacks and reposition around the screen. Considering all the animations are hand drawn, it comes as a surprise that all the actions feel instantaneous. Jumping, shooting with Cuphead’s finger gun, dashing, and all the supers are performed on cue and with next to no down-time between attacks. What you’re left with is fast paced action where your response time is the only thing that will let you down, not the controls.
Taking a break from fighting bosses doesn’t mean putting the controller down and walking away in Cuphead, you can instead explore the three Inkwell Isles. There are NPCs dotted around the map, other activities to try, and items to purchase from the store. The NPCs, though they have tiny parts in the whole performance, offer little quest lines to flesh out the world. One character might inform you that he’s hidden coins around the islands, while another reveals a way to unlock a black-and-white filter for the game.
Six “Run n Gun” levels are placed throughout the game and act as the platforming sections to help break up the relentless combat. While they do offer some reprieve from the bosses, they have their own challenges. In order to afford upgrades, you will need to collect all 5 coins from a course, which requires expert timing and making it all the way to the end. These Run n Gun levels contain a lot of enemies to dodge as well as a mini boss at the end to dispatch, which creates its own challenges.
More games like Cuphead are needed to help break up the monotony of whatever franchise is being churned out every year. While there is no doubt that game developers are passionate, so few titles end up feeling like a love letter to a developer’s dream. Every aspect of Cuphead is perfect, whether it’s the animation, music, gameplay or difficulty. It’s a testament to the fact that a game shouldn’t try to appeal to as many people as possible, and while ostracising a playerbase limits sales, watering down an experience costs the loyalty of a fanbase, and Cuphead, and its developer StudioMDHR, is quickly growing a loyal following.