From the very first announcement way back in 2014, Cuphead was one game I just knew I had to get hands on with. With its beautiful hand-drawn animations and the 1930’s style design bringing back thoughts of the earliest cartoons, all mixed with some rather incredible attention to detail and hardcore run and gun platforming, Cuphead was looking like it could become the best-looking game I had ever seen.
Years of delays however have taken its toll on the overall hype for the game, with many expecting a release long before now. But the wait is over and Cuphead has finally arrived. Was it worth the lengthy delays or have we been tricked into getting hyped about something that is a disappointment?
Fun Fact: It’s just as amazing as we’d hoped!
So as I mentioned, Cuphead has been advertised countless times by the team at Xbox as an exceptionally tough run and gun platformer that has been drawn from the ground up by the patient and rather talented team over at Studio MDHR. One thing that really needs to be emphasised upon first and foremost is of course in regards the amount of detail and effort that has gone into every part of Cuphead.
We’ve already seen plenty of the different boss battles showcased in various videos over the past few years – possibly a little too many times in fact as rarely do we ever see a game that looks so great then go on to release without any form of downgrade at all. Of course, the likes of E3 are grand stages in which videos are made to wow the crowds, but time and time again we’ve seen things drastically downgraded upon release, taking away much of the magic we first fell in love with after an initial announcement.
Cuphead seems to have gone the other way however, and from the opening start up screen in which Cuphead and Mugman begin in song, to the animated loading screens, and even the background in each and every battle, every single part of the game contains incredible detail that is all too often left out of most games. Even the yearly FIFA series has yet to master the detail to the background characters – the fans – and that’s a series that’s over a quarter of a century old. Yet Cuphead gives us dancing background folk to marvel at – yes, that’s quite possibly an unfair comparison – but they are brilliant all the same.
As for the premise, and Cuphead is quite a simplistic yet classic affair. The story follows Cuphead and Mugman after they go one bet too far after a winning streak in the Devil’s gambling den, and end up losing their souls because of it. After pleading with the Devil and begging for their souls back, he makes them a deal; a deal which requires them to do the Devil’s bidding and head out to collect the souls of each character upon the his list and bring them to him in return for their souls.
Whilst that sounds like quite the hard task, there’s no way of telling you exactly how difficult the overall adventure actually is. The easiest way of explaining it is if I tell you that any time spent with Cuphead should be time which you should expect to die – a lot.
You see, Cuphead is a run and gun platformer, but there are only really six traditional platforming levels to the entire game, as the rest consists of boss fights. Exceptionally stressful boss fights.
There are three worlds to the game, all of which are spread across the land of Inkwell Isle, with each one containing a number of bosses and two different platform levels to master. The platforming levels have no choice in their difficulty – they are generally the easiest levels of the game – whereas the boss fights can be attempted on two difficulty levels; Simple and Regular. That is until you manage to complete the game and unlock the Expert difficulty; something which I’m currently gathering my strength to try and conquer, although I doubt it will happen within this console generation.
The idea of running through the game on the Simple difficulty option may sound preferable for those of you who like to just go along for the ride, but it’s worth noting that A) Simple is not really that simple at all, and B) you won’t be able to grab the elusive ticks for souls earned on Cuphead’s checklist until you’ve bested each boss on the regular difficulty. That doesn’t mean you can’t see progression however, as beating each boss on the Simple difficulty option does allow advancement, but should you want to complete the game as it has been intended, you’ll be needing to tough it out on the near impossible Regular mode. Make sure you bring a few extra controllers for the rage.
Each of the bosses and their unique levels are usually played within one screen, or at the very most a rolling screen, but whilst it’s easy to lose focus due to the incredible level design and the many different animations that come from the enemies, it is these enemies that you’ll want to focus on.
Boss fights within Cuphead are heavily pattern based, with each enemy holding an arsenal of moves that you will have probably recognised in its entirety should you have fallen at the final hurdle several times over. This is something which is acknowledged by the progress bar that appears upon death, but if you think mastering Cuphead requires nothing more than a little good memory and nimble reactions you’d certainly be a foolish soul. The bosses usually have between two to six different attack patterns, and the way in which they are thrown at the player is completely randomised, meaning that the well thought out plan you created after the last time you were minced will be entirely useless by the time a curveball comes out of nowhere and completely breaks your focus.
I can’t deny that Cuphead is certainly an incredibly hard game, punishing players for the simplest mistake, but even then it’s still one of the best platformers on the market. Never does a level feel unfair and it’s clear to see just where you made your mistake each time you perish, even if it is for the hundreth time.
If you’re thinking this may all seem a bit too hard for you though, then please don’t fret, as there are a couple of things on offer to players to stop the game feeling quite so harsh.
Throughout the game you can purchase a number of varied abilities with gold coins. These are collected from each of the platforming levels or found throughout the roaming world in which players move from level to level. These coins can then be spent at Porkrind’s Emporium, the fancy little stool run by Porkrind that offers new attacks and abilities. Cuphead’s usual attack will see him firing from the end of his fingertip, but other moves can help against enemies that are more damage resistant to the usual attacks.
Different moves that can be acquired include Supers; unique moves that can be activated after filling your super meter during battle, something which is done by parrying the pink projectiles sent your way by enemies in each battle. Anything less than a full bar will allow you to fire a slightly less powerful strike at the enemy which is great for damage, but isn’t anywhere near as powerful or as useful as a move that uses the full power. Not all Super moves are attacks however, with my favourite being the Invincibility Super – one which allowed me to cross the astral plane as it was and become invulnerable for a short time. As you would expect, this is an exceptionally useful move on the Regular difficulty.
Abilities on the other hand, known in-game as Charms, give the player extra treats such as an extra hit point for every level. This is a lifesaver if you’ve been trying certain levels for as long as I have and expect to see death around every corner. My favourite however was the Smoke Bomb Charm which allows players to become invisible whilst dashing, therefore avoiding all damage whilst mid-dash; you’d be surprised at just how much it can save your bacon.
By now you’ve probably figured Cuphead is a game you should be playing, and with a reasonable price tag there’s no reason not to be playing it. But let me tell you about one more thing that simply puts the icing on the cake for me. Although be warned this may be deemed a spoiler for those wanting to find the secret for themselves.
So whilst all of the levels in-game usually require every last bullet you can muster from Cuphead’s fingertips, should you manage to complete all of the platforming levels without firing a single bullet – something which is recognised by the ‘P’ on the raised flag after completing the level, then you will unlock the hidden and rather fabulous black and white filter for use with the game; a filter which as the name suggests covers all the fabulous colour with an equally amazing shade of blacks, whites and greys. This brings the ultimate nostalgia feeling to those that remember sitting down and watching cartoons as they used to be. It may not affect anything else within the game, but it is a fantastic touch – albeit one that will probably go unseen by many. Hats off to Studio MDHR for an amazing addition.
As if Cuphead isn’t already great enough, the whole experience can also be played with a friend provided you have one ready to jump in for some local co-op, with co-op partners able to make the most of a drop-in/drop-out capacity to take on the role of Cuphead’s partner, Mugman. Players who do so are able to earn their own separate coins and buy their own separate Charms and Super’s from Porkrind’s Emporium, and get their own set of lives too. The extra player is a sensible choice for anyone looking to get the Regular difficulty finished given that players can revive each other should they manage to catch their partners’ ghost before it leaves the screen.
So simply put, Cuphead is quite absolutley fantastic. As someone who has been waiting in anticipation for its release since it was first announced, I have to say that I am not in the slightest bit disappointed. From the design, the gameplay, the characters and the enemies, there is nothing to not love about this indie sensation.
It is platforming greatness at its very best, and proves just what can be achieved when the necessary time is put into fine tuning a game before release.