When Cuphead was revealed at 2014’s E3, it immediately drew attention with its 1930s animation style. Despite being revealed over three years ago, it was always a bit of an enigmatic novelty, and developed a cult following of fans eagerly anticipating its release. The only things known to those who hadn’t gotten their hands on early builds of the game was that it was a tough run-and-gun, bullet hell style game starring the adorable Cuphead and Mugman with an emphasis on boss fights. Cuphead’s visuals certainly live up to the hype, and initial reports of its difficulty were not exaggerated: it’s hard as balls.
The 1930s style permeates everything in the game, from the soundtrack to sound effects that sound as though they were done by an old-time Foley artist. The soundtrack itself is a great collection of jazz, ragtime and big band performed by real ensembles. Developer StudioMDHR used 1930’s animation house Fleischer Studios as its artistic compass. Known for the Superman animated series, Betty Boop and Popeye among others, StudioMDHR took this inspiration and managed to create a 1930’s cartoon fever dream. Each boss looks like a colorful, friendly character straight from the Rubberband Arm era of animation until they unleash the nightmare-hell that is their cartoon powers – whipped into a murderous frenzy by Cuphead and Mugman who have been sent by the Devil to collect their souls.
Cuphead and Mugman were just two normal, fun-lovin’ kids who got in over their heads when Cuphead bet against the Devil. Instead of taking their souls outright, the Devil offers them a deal: collect on overdue souls and he’ll spare theirs. Instead of fighting through levels to get to each boss, each encounter is accessible through an over-world map. Other than a few secret paths and NPCs that add flavor, the map mostly serves as a way to navigate from one encounter to the next- of which there are two: run-and-gun and boss battles.
Whether you are fighting a boss or running-and-gunning, Cuphead is difficult. By default Cuphead or Mugman can only be hit three times before they’re dead (though there are charms that can change this). There isn’t a way to get a “game over” by running out of lives, but dying means a fresh attempt at any boss or level you failed. Whether it’s a boss or run-and-gun, each encounter takes around 2 minutes to complete – but those 2 minutes require of nerves of steel, unfaltering attention and fast reflexes. There is a “simple-mode” that can be enabled for boss fights. This removes some of the attacks and phases of the boss, but the same three-hit death rules apply. Also, if you defeat a boss on simple-mode, you can’t collect their soul – and therefore, can’t progress, making simple-mode mostly useless.
Run-and-gun are more typical side-scrolling platforming levels with the occasional mini-boss. They can be just as challenging as a boss and come in a variety – from constantly scrolling platforming sections to bullet hell ballets. These levels have coins to collect, which you use as currency at vendors. The real draw of Cuphead lies in the amazing boss fights. Cuphead raises the bar for 2D boss encounters. There is a large variety of bosses, and each fight is unique with multiple phases. Sometimes the action on screen is so hectic it is hard to tell what will damage you or not. Fortunately (unfortunately?) most things cause damage, so it’s best to avoid, well, everything. I found out after hours of playtime that defeated enemies and their falling accoutrements often don’t cause damage, meaning I had been unnecessarily avoiding them, sometimes to the detriment of my character’s HP. Conversely, some damage causing projectiles are so brightly colored and distinguished that they detract from the carefully constructed 1930’s art-style, but since this happens so seldom and it’s in the name of better gameplay it’s barely an issue. My biggest issue is the lack of health bar or progress indicator. It does tell you how far you made it after you died, but some bosses wouldn’t feel so invulnerable if you could get some feedback you’re damaging them instead of them flashing white at each hit. You aren’t helpless in the difficult and sometimes bullet hell world of Cuphead- there are a variety of moves at your disposal.
Cuphead’s controls are mechanically tight, but there was a slight sluggishness that took getting used to. Cuphead can run, jump, dash, parry and shoot. Dashing allows Cuphead or Mugman to get out of the way of danger quickly, and parrying allows for pink projectiles or enemies to be destroyed while adding extra power to your power meter. Your power meter determines if you have enough juice for special attacks and the extremely powerful specials if full. After acquiring currency it’s possible to change the type of projectiles you shoot (called shots) and passive abilities (called charms) after they are purchased from the vendor – a pig man that bellows an unsettling, low-quality and throaty “welcome” to any potential buyer. The different shots and charms aren’t strictly upgrades, but instead change the behavior of shots and abilities.
Your starting shot is appropriately called the “pea shooter” and it can feel precisely like that as you continuously plink away at the seemingly indomitable bosses. Eventually after earning enough currency doing run-and-gun levels you can unlock shots that are more powerful or act differently than the default. These shots aren’t necessarily better than the starting shot; rather, they have alternate functions. For instance, the Lobber does more damage, but chucks projectiles slowly and in an arc, and Ricochet doesn’t require aiming but has lower than average damage and homes in on targets. There are six total shots and six charms. Charms allow passive abilities, like more hit points at the cost of damage or granting invulnerability during dashes.
Cuphead can be played entirely with a friend and it’s great as a local multiplayer game. There is no friendly fire and no lives to share. If a friend dies in the middle of a level or a boss-fight, it’s possible to revive them with a well-timed parry. They’ll only come back with one hit point, but they can be revived an unlimited amount of times. It’s theoretically possible for a skilled duo to keep each other alive indefinitely under the proper circumstances – though it’s easier said than done as the action on screen often prevents this. Cuphead doesn’t have online multiplayer, unfortunately – it can only be played locally on the same system. If you or your friend die early in a match and can’t be revived, you are forced to wait until your partner finishes the encounter or they themselves succumb. Fortunately, encounters are often less than two minutes so if you’re dead you usually don’t have wait too long to get back into the action.
There are few things that come out of the gaming industry that are truly unique, but StudioMDHR pulled it off. Cuphead fills an artistic niche and is one of the best run-and-gun games of recent memory. Its soundtrack, animations and sound effects are all superb and on top of all that, it has some of the best boss encounters of any 2D games, even rivalling most 3D games. Cuphead is something special and a masterful debut by StudioMDHR. It is available now on Xbox One and Microsoft Windows.