“Good day for a swell battle… And begin!”
Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat; Cuphead is a game that very nearly defies classification. To preface Cuphead by simply stating “It’s like Dark Souls, but mixed with Contra!”, is a disservice to those games’ namesake. It’s lazy, adds nothing to the conversation, and most egregious of all, it’s boring. A game with this much heart and soul put into it should get better than a dismissive comparison. Cuphead deserves your attention, and demands your patience and skill.
Here’s a brief introduction; player one assumes the role of Cuphead, with a co-op partner being assigned his brother, Mugman. From the start the two are deep in trouble after gambling their souls to none other than, The Devil. They beg for their souls, as you do, so The Devil decides to cut ’em some slack. All the players have to do as Cuphead and/or Mugman is retrieve the souls of The Devil’s other debtors. Of course, it can’t be as easy as asking the debtors politely. The brother’s caretaker, Elder Kettle, lets the boys know that the debtors are gonna be some tough customers once they’re confronted. You run through a brutally difficult tutorial level, and then you’re off to the races!
Easily the most recognizable aspect of Cuphead is it’s captivating art style. At first glance, one might think they’re looking at some kind of Mickey Mouse side character. The reality is that the art direction is more in line with Betty Boop or Popeye. The story’s subject matter may seem dark, but it’s very accurate to the cartoons of the day. Many early animations were morality tales which shed light on the need for a ratings system in film. From the game’s inception, Max Fleischer and Fleischer’s Studio were a main source of inspiration.
Beginning to end, Cuphead is steeped in this style: painstakingly so. To truly capture the soul of that era’s cartoons, every frame of animation in Cuphead is hand drawn. Every. Frame. And that’s just the visuals. The soundtrack is completely original, with compositions involving a thirteen piece big band recorded in-studio, among other incredibly talented musicians. Don’t believe me? Check out Mr. King Dices’ song and see if you’re not convinced.
Cuphead is a game chock full of references that are enough to make longtime gamers’ smile. As previously mentioned, the game is based on 30’s era cartoons, but MDHR threw modern nods all over. On the first island alone, players will fight a couple of Street Fighting frogs named Ribby ‘n Croaks. Not to mention the Blue Slime that might just be the the mascot of a long time JRPG series. Cagney Carnation is clear allusion to James Cagney, a popular actor of stage and screen throughout Hollywood’s golden years. A personal favorite is Werner Werman, a militant rat being harassed by a cat during the bout. The situation is a clear reference to Tom ‘n Jerry, and the simple narrative throughout is silly and satisfying.
“Here’s a real high-class bout. Now go!”
Before you buy into the 1930’s cartoon aesthetic, prepare to be put through the wringer. Make no mistake, Cuphead is DIFFICULT. Just like the coin-eating games from a few decades back, this game will kill you over and again. But that’s okay, because each time you’ll get a little bit farther, your movements slightly more precise. You’ll see your character’s silhouette on the death screen inching closer to that finish line and you’ll say, “One more…”.
While the game has an old-school flair, its gameplay benefits greatly from years of refinement. Gone are the lives system of bygone days. Players can restart a level all they want without penalty. You can even play a simplified mode for an understanding of the boss’s mechanics. All in all, the pacing the game allows you to play it is a perfect balance of old and new.
As Cuphead and Mugman, you’ll have access to a number of different weapons and abilities. At the start, Elder Kettle grants the boys the peashooter, which is your standard medium damage straight shot. As soon as you get some coins, talk to Porkrind and he’ll have you sittin’ pretty with shots and charms. Shots act as your primary means of damage, and charms are active and passive buffs. I preferred the spread shot and heart charm combo. The former requires close tactics for max damage, while the latter allowed me to sponge one HP and be ok.
There are six types of shots, two of which can be equipped by either player while on the overworld. Six types may not sound like much, but it’s enough that each shot is completely different in utility and aesthetics. Add to that each shots’ unique special attack and you’ll be trying to find that right feel for your playstyle.
“If it’s pink, it can be parried, and the parry is crucial in co-op.
Like the varied shot types, everything in this game is done with purpose. On top of the standard 2D movement and jumping, players can also dash and parry. The dash will quickly move you in whatever direction you’re facing and offers a second of hang-time in the air. The parry, on the other hand, is one of the most unique aspects of Cuphead, and it’s integral in later levels.
The parry move is like bonus that can be activated on everything that’s pink. I’m talkin’ everything. If it’s pink, it can be parried, and the parry is crucial in co-op. Player’s have virtually no way of regaining lost health. When someone dies, their partner better parry their soul quick or they’ll be gone for the remainder of the level. The game does a pretty good job of ramping up the parry over the entire campaign. Early on it acts as incentive to build up your bonus by throwing easy parries to those who pay attention. In later levels it’ll become a necessity, so get that practice in while you can.
Unfortunately, the game can’t get by without a few noticeable scratches in an otherwise excellent paint job. In my playtime there were enough glitches that they couldn’t be ignored, with the best-case scenario being a frozen boss. More often than not, though, it was an enemy object spawning in despite me having blasted it. And the parrying! I can’t count how many times I hit the parry button, only for it to be a split-second too late. Or the object is moving in a strange direction. Or my character is positioned juuust the wrong way. Or the animation for the previous parry hasn’t finished yet. For a game that requires precision, where everything is out to get you, taking damage for minor slip-ups is infuriating. Especially when you’re trying your best to play by the game’s rules and abide by it’s laws.
“…Cuphead is a game that asks a lot of its players.”
Sometimes, or many times if you’re me, a death can feel cheap and undeserved. That’s not to say that the game is unfair, necessarily. The fact of the matter is that Cuphead is a game that asks a lot of its players. Everything in the game that isn’t you or your partner must be viewed as a threat, and that gets tiresome. As much fun as playing co-op is, the addition of another person can make things hectic. As the game progresses, stages can become more bullet-hell than platform-shooter. At a certain point it borderlines on visual overload. Beppi the Clown and Dr. Kahl’s Robot are particularly egregious examples.
This game demands a lot from it’s players. But if you enjoy a challenge and a steep but fair difficulty curve, then Cuphead is for you. I walked (more like limped) away feeling a profound sense of accomplishment and wonder. Cuphead is a game unlike any I’d ever played before, and I’d readily do it all over again. It was years in the making and worth every minute of the wait. Now, run’n get those soul contracts! The Devil hasn’t got all day…