Fancy 10-12 hours of unrelenting torture? Cuphead is the game for you. But it’s not torture in the traditional sense (hammers, pliers, and all that). This is mental torture. When pretty much every level is a boss fight that demands absolute focus, superhuman reflexes, and the fore-thought of a chess grandmaster – all the while coordinating your fingers in a frenzy of balletic movements across the game pad – it certainly takes its toll on you after a while. But that’s not to say experiencing tough challenges can’t be enjoyable. Far from it in fact. On the whole, the boss fights are thrilling, and you’ll feel elation after you conquer a particularly difficult encounter (and that’s all of them). It’s just that this is all Cuphead has to offer gameplay-wise. And it just gets a little repetitive, sometimes even boring. Dodge, move, die, try again. Dodge, shoot, win, move on.
OK, that opening may seem like a sweeping condemnation of Cuphead, but the game has a lot going for it as well. The 1930s allure is through the roof. The vintage (and downright gorgeous) hand-drawn visuals, as well as the delightful soundtrack, press all the right nostalgia buttons. Inanimate objects are given life with wacky and whimsical charm, which is all very reminiscent of old-style Disney flicks. After the little intro story, you learn that Cuphead and his pal Mugman love to gamble, and after they get into a little bit of trouble in the Devil’s casino (who would have thought?), they now owe the lord of the underworld their souls. But the Devil gives them one final chance for redemption – collect the souls of other unlucky debtors and he’ll let Cuphead and Mugman go free.
It just so happens that these other debtors are incredibly powerful boss monsters who are rather unwilling to compromise, and after a deceptively simply tutorial, you’re thrust into the world of Inkwell to tackle the gauntlet. There’s no warning as to what you’re about to face, and this is an aspect of Cuphead that I found hugely appealing. Too often in today’s titles, you’ll find tutorial after tutorial, and tips on the most effective way to tackle the next challenge. None of that here. Just a big blue blob (the game’s first boss) that will kill you many times over before you manage to crack the code, learn the pattern of attacks, and collect the soul you came for.
The emphasis is on patience in this game. Every death provides an insight, a new crumb of information you can use in your next attempt. The loading time between death and respawning is mercifully short, allowing you keep the momentum up, and use your freshly gained insights to take one step closer to victory. And you will die a lot. Especially since every boss has a variety of phases, where they change up their attacks, unleash new enemies, and generally become an even bigger pain to dispatch. At the end of an attempt, a meter is displayed showing how far through the boss fight you were, and I can tell you right now that there’s nothing more infuriating than seeing you were probably only a couple of hits from victory. Towards the latter half of Cuphead, entirely new elements are introduced to further confound you. Whereas before the battleground would be static, you will now have to navigate moving platforms as well as the hell of bullets and projectiles the bosses fire at you.
For the most part, each boss encounter is excellently designed. They feel more a like a puzzle you have to solve, rather than just a simple battle of attrition. Pieces of this puzzle come in the form of the arsenal of weaponry and skills you can amass. Throughout the overworld of Inkwell, there are what’s called “Run ‘n’ Gun” stages, which are just that. Here, you blast and dodge your way through legions of cute and colorful enemies, collecting coins along the way. Complete the level, and you can use these coins to buy new weapons and abilities. From a close-range scattershot, to long range homing bullets, and even an incredibly handy ‘ghost-dash’ move that makes you invulnerable for a short second; every ability is decidedly unique. While the Run ‘n’ Gun levels themselves feel a little like a tacked-on afterthought (considering there are so few of them), being able to tailor your load-out depending on the situation can make the difference between success and failure.
But an area in which Cuphead begins to fall down is where it feels like you have no control over your fate. The developers clearly intended for you to build up a new strategy for every occasion, but sometimes the path to victory has nothing to do with strategy. You’ll need some rather large portions of dumb-luck to succeed. One level has you fighting a vicious mermaid, who loves nothing better than to cover the screen in all sorts of lethal gubbins. And it’s completely up to chance which attacks she throws at you, so sometimes you have an easy ride past the first phase, and other times you’re left trapped in a corner because this time she decided to do three attacks at once. You don’t learn anything when this happens. You can form no strategy to overcome randomness. You just have to hope that next time it won’t happen. But no where else is this problem more evident than in the game’s final encounter. I won’t go into details, but gone are Cuphead‘s finely crafted battles, and instead you’ll just have to muddle your way through, and hope things go your way.
This is all further confounded by the fact that sometimes the game’s graphical style is a hindrance in itself. During the boss fights where you’re piloting an aircraft, you can use the dodge button to go into tiny-mode, allowing you to move more quickly around the screen. The problem with this is that when you enter tiny-mode, you also let out a small poof of smoke, which obscures the area around you for a short time. And with so many flailing limbs and so much falling scenery to contend with on top of that throughout the game, it can sometimes be problematic picking yourself out among the mess. Especially since Cuphead demands pinpoint precision to ensure completion of a stage. There were a number of frustrating occasions where this meant my death.
My biggest gripe with Cuphead though is the monotony. Sure, the boss fights are (mostly) finely tuned battle-puzzles, but that’s all there is to this game. Boss after boss after boss. The aforementioned Run ‘n’ Gun levels offer some respite, but they are far too short and there are far too few of them. For me, it got to a point where there was no joy in defeating a boss, because I knew that just around the corner there was another one. And then another one after that.
To better explain this gripe, imagine this game is like trying to solve a Rubik’s cube. At first, you just spin the sides randomly hoping to find the solution. Then you notice a pattern, and eventually after enough work you solve it. Well done! But almost immediately, some horrible person drops another unsolved cube into your lap and tells you to solve it. Only this time, he gives you a small hamster to look after at the same time. So you’re trying to solve the cube while the hamster is rummaging in your ear, but again you get it done. Eventually, after the 15th cube, you’re spinning plates and juggling and you’re blindfolded and the hamster is god-knows where. But, crucially, you’re still trying to solve the same puzzle. In Cuphead, all you’re essentially doing is trying to solve the same puzzle – which pattern will allow me to defeat this particular boss, while also dealing with an ever-increasing assortment of distractions.
Cuphead is very good in a technical sense, but lacking in its variety of gameplay mechanics. I’d even struggle to call this a platformer, seeing as there’s very little of that to do. Perhaps if there had been some actual fleshed-out levels to enjoy, where a player could appreciate the art, audio, and some other element of gameplay without having to focus on just surviving, this game could have achieved loftier heights of quality.
I feel somewhat conflicted in giving an overarching conclusion. On the one hand, it captures a playful tone not often seen in gaming. The way this lightheartedness stands in stark contrast to the punishing boss fights is truly unique. The controls are hyper-responsive, and getting through to the end will make you feel like you’ve climbed Mount Everest. But on the other hand, Cuphead is tainted by some glaring issues; there were even a few occasions where the game glitched, leaving me half way through the perfect run having to start the fight again (this is almost resulted in a controller flying through the air).
One thing’s for sure – if you’re looking for a challenge, this game will give you one. Just don’t expect to be blown away.