Players are going to die in Cuphead. They are going to die a lot. An awful lot.
To give one an idea about how often the reaper greets the game’s titular character, in the game’s second ‘world’ there’s a reflecting pool that offers a death count. After three hours into the game, I was informed I’d been killed 219 times.
The reason for this is that Cuphead is one of the most rock-hard run ‘n gun platformers to see release in a while. If you remember the likes of Mega Man or Battle Toads, Cuphead will put you in familiar territory. Everyone else, watch out.
Players take on the role of the game’s titular character who, along with his mate, Mugman, make the foolish move of gambling for their very souls with the devil. As is usually the case in these scenarios, the pair lose, and in order to win back what they’ve lost, they’re press-ganged into rounding up a bunch of souls on the devil’s collection list. Hilarity ensues…
As anyone who has followed Cuphead knows, it looks absolutely stunning. Every inch of the game looks like a 1940s cartoon in the style of Max Fleischer, with gorgeous watercolour backdrops throwing the wobbly, leering and at times sinister characters into sharp relief. The visuals are even accompanied by blotches and film scratches, making it look like one is watching a cartoon that’s recently been unearthed from someone’s attic.
The soundtrack compliments the action perfectly, throwing in frenetic jazz, rag-time, big-band swing into the mix, recalling the earliest work of Tex Avery and Walt Disney. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, Cuphead is one of the most seductive games players will have seen in a while.
Of course, the game’s beautiful production values are a trap because Cuphead is as tough as they come. The game is completely uncompromising in both its design and difficulty level, and this may put off more than a few players.
The meat of the game is a series of the hardest boss battles players are likely to find outside of a Dark Souls game. These encounters are for the most part breathtaking to behold in their design, and utterly merciless. Some take the form of bullet-hell dogfights, others require lightning reflexes and deft platforming skills and still more ask players to mix up run ‘n gun action with timed power attacks.
Over the course of three ‘worlds’, players will encounter a unique collection of menaces. They’ll fight an irate sunflower who spits seeds into the air, spawning small plants that attack Cuphead, just before it starts lobbing projectiles at him. They’ll encounter a ghoulish clown who uses twisted fairground rides and balloons to try and swat Cuphead as a sentient rollercoaster car tries to run him down. At one point, players will have to dodge garbage after a bird with the body of a cuckoo clock literally turns its head into a rubbish bin.
Each boss battle ups the ante once the player has caused sufficient damage and in these instances, things can seem completely overwhelming. Cuphead’s only weapons are a couple of ranged attacks, a power burst and a dodge mechanic. Players are advised to keep their thumb welded to the fire button and develop the razor sharp timing of Mr Miyagi. I’d also suggest trying to keep the swearing to a minimum, but that simply isn’t going to happen.
Aside from the boss battles, Cuphead has a couple of run ‘n gun levels dotted around its map. These play out as more traditional side-scrolling affairs, and while they’re all pretty tough, they’re nowhere near as interesting – or as well-crafted – as the boss battles. It’s worth doing a couple though, just to pick up some in-game currency, which you can use to buy different weapons and assets at the shop. Believe me when I tell you, the ability to switch weapons becomes a vital component in Cuphead’s later stages.
As much as the developers should be applauded for their game’s beauty and old-school difficulty, there are some sections that feel unrelenting and, at times, even unfair. The sheer number of objects players can find themselves dodging at times borders on insane and there are some instances in which one can feel justifiably cheated.
Furthermore, Cuphead’s propensity to throw curveballs at the player in the form of mixing up adversaries in certain levels is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it can make a boss easier to beat if the right combination plays out. On the other, players will likely feel unsatisfied in the rare instances the game goes easy on them.
Cuphead Review – Verdict
In spite of its welcoming visuals and soundtrack, Cuphead is truly a niche game that’s aimed at players looking for a challenge. It’ll attract as many as it repels – and rightly so – but those players willing to sign up to its brutal delights will experience highs that few other games can give them.
- Cuphead was reviewed on an Xbox One. A review copy was provided by the publisher.