Cuphead is one hell of a tough platformer to overcome. It’s brutally unforgiving, comes with very little difficulty curve, but is surprisingly accessible at the same time. Despite the fact that you’ll need to insure your controller before diving into this sensational adventure, Cuphead knows exactly where to draw the line between frustratingly taxing and relentlessly hard. It’s a game that never truly pisses you off to the point that you need to a quick break, and instead rewards you with a massive sense of accomplishment for each and every obstacle that you manage to beat. Now we’ve got the question of difficulty out of the way (more on that later), let’s get stuck in.
Cuphead needs no introduction, it’s one of those few games that captivated countless players thanks to the unique lovable design and presentation. You take on the role of the titular Cuphead and Mugman, two individuals that find themselves in debt with the devil himself after losing a bet at the local bookies. In return for not devouring your poor souls, the devil sends you on your way to track down and punish runaway debtors throughout the lands of Inkwell Isle. The story is as simplistic as you would expect from the era that Cuphead takes inspiration from, the 1930’s, and although the plot alone is not something that’s going to win any awards any time soon, it’s a well told story that’s full of charm and intrigue nevertheless. It’s the visuals and presentation that will steal the show here.
That 1930’s vibe has been captured flawlessly across the entirety of play. Studio MDHR clearly put in a remarkable amount of effort to ensure that you feel constantly engaged, and I wont sugar coat this more than I need to, Cuphead looks exactly like a classic cartoon. The audio sits inline with what you would expect from the era, being that the music and voice-over work sounds very old-Disney. There’s a constant animation layer on-screen at all times that gives off that film-reel sort of distortion you would have witnessed from cartoons of years gone by. But what really goes above and beyond is the hand drawn cel animation and watercolour backgrounds. These aspects go hand in hand to offer up some of the most endearing visuals I’ve seen in any given platformer in recent times. To sum that up nicely, Cuphead is gorgeous and thoroughly unique.
Once the premise is out of the way, you have the option to take to a small yet informative tutorial that will feed you the basics of play. You’ll then be thrown onto a world map that houses several levels and boss battles for you to take to. Each boss battle represents one of the devil’s debtors, and although you can choose which difficulty to set the battle at, the devil will only be pleased if you stick to the hardest of the two choices. The difference between each of the two difficulties usually consists of shorter fights with less mechanics to tackle for the easier tier, and longer fights with more mechanics to contend with for the latter difficulty tier. Obviously with your soul on the line you’ll want to please the devil, so any real progress on this front can only be achieved on the harder setting.
What I thoroughly enjoyed about Cuphead in this regard was that at first, each boss battle feels insanely unfair and overly taxing. However with each and every attempt, you begin to understand how each boss will react at certain sections throughout each fight. The sequence in which each boss utilises their moves and attacks will vary, which ensures that you never know which attack is coming and in what order they’re coming in. Each boss can typically be beaten in less than a handful of minutes, but it’s going to take north of twenty minutes to suss out their attack patterns and fine-tune your reflexes and skills to avoid and counter their onslaught of interesting moves before you claim victory. Boss battles only appear on single screen slides, meaning you don’t have to make your way through a level before taking them head on. You simply approach the boss encounter on the world map and you’re off on your way. Each and every boss battle is unique and differs greatly from the last, all of which are well designed, engaging and challenging.
The world map will alter as you successfully complete boss battles, giving you access to new areas that house more characters, more levels and more boss encounters. When you’re not tackling a multi-stage boss fight, you’ll be making your way through any of the several levels within. These levels usually require a solid mixture of skill and reflex to see you to the end, with added coins thrown in for those that wish to be extra daring. Gameplay sees you running and gunning as you dispose of countless enemy variants whilst carefully avoiding several environmental hazards, all of which rests on you only being able to sustain a few hits before you’re greeted with that gameover screen. You’ll be ducking, dashing, jumping and blasting your way through each of the tough levels until you finally nail a successful run.
Much like the boss battles, these run and gun levels require near perfect timing and precision if you want to reach that fabled flag at the end of each stage. However once you’ve sussed out how each enemy operates and have a decent lay of the land, the stages don’t take more than five minutes to complete. If you’re skillful enough to collect coins on each of these levels, you can take them to the shop that’s situated on the world map. Here you can buy new abilities and traits that will greatly aid you on your way through. You’re free to assign what unlocks you have attached to your character via remapping your Cuphead card. You can swap out your default long-ranged attack for short-ranged projectiles that dish up more damage, or keep them both by mapping the latter to your secondary fire.
You can indeed enjoy some passive perks such as an extra life, on top of unlocking super-attacks that prove to be more than helpful when the time is right. There’s certainly no shortage of unlocks to work towards and thanks to being able to assign what you want on the fly (world map only), you’re free to utilise Cuphead to suit your playstyle. The game will grade you at the conclusion of each level and boss fight, which throws in more incentive to unlock all of the shop wares so that you have a full pool of powers to select from. This is key for those that plan on acing the high marks, simply because some powers feel catered to specific levels and boss encounters.
The campaign and the added layer of replay value will easily fork out over ten hours worth of play, which sits well with the price tag. I’m a very patient gamer, so playing on solo was never too taxing for me. It came close, but Cuphead never truly got on my nerves. That being said I can definitely see this being overly taxing for those that are less patient, so much so that I suspect it leading to moments of frustration. The implementation of co-op play makes the adventure much easier, but it’s local co-op only. When all is said and done, Cuphead brings something new, unique and exciting to the table. It goes without saying that the adventure within was more than worth the wait.
Despite some issues with the harsh difficulty in solo play, Cuphead is endearing, charming and utterly unique. The design of the game is nothing short of exceptional and the vast amount of varying content that holds all of that up is equal to that level of praise. The difficulty is somewhat dialled down when playing in co-op mode, but the game only supports local play. Cuphead may well be a tough nut to crack, but time and perseverance is often rewarded with a grand sense of accomplishment throughout the ten or so hours of play on offer. There’s no denying that the adventure at hand has been more than worth the wait, Cuphead stands as one of the best run and gun platformer games on Xbox One.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.