Cuphead is a cartoon of long past childhoods come to life, that’s so much more than recreating “Steamboat Willie”. The title of this episode details the story, and is just good life advice: “Don’t Deal with the Devil”. From new developer StudioMDHR, Cuphead is a game that gives new meaning to the word ‘retro’, and sets the bar developers for years to come. This is a game of both style and substance, and Cuphead delivers in innumerable ways on both in excellent ways.
StudioMDHR takes inspiration, and damn-near creates a 1930s darker themed playable cartoon, down to the minute details. Everything from idle movements to facial expressions of enemies is easily recognizable from that era. Cuphead is a masterclass in art and animation. Everything you see in the game seems painstakingly re-created. Though, StudioMDHR doesn’t stop with Cuphead‘s looks alone, as the sound is equally a part of its look. From the jazz soundtrack that goes between poppy and melancholy, to the sound effects of you snapping your fingers to shoot your finger guns is a complete package.
As you get introduced to the goings on in Cuphead, the game settles on a darker tone of gambling and the Devil. Cuphead and his brother Mugman (playable wearing his blue suspenders via local co-op), are in some hot water with the devil. In order to get out of the mess they’ve made, they must collect on his debtors by taking soul contracts from each they defeat. Get them all, and you’ll be free. However, that is one daunting task that’s easier said that done.
Don’t let Cuphead‘s impressively detailed animations and level art fool you, this game is difficult. While many will tell you it is “too hard”, that was not my experience. In fact, I never got frustrated. Every death was my fault, and was something to learn from and improve upon. Each successive victory is reassurance you are doing things correctly. Now, Cuphead is primarily a boss rush game, whereby you engage with a boss without a level to traverse before you get to it. The game does have more traditional levels called “Run N Gun” that play like you would expect, with a mini-boss at the end of it. The game doesn’t always do a good job of showing you effectively how much you’re damaging an enemy until it changes states or until you’ve died. And even that is such a small problem compared to what an excellent game it is and how often you’ll be caught staring at background art and die. Again, my fault – not the game’s. And perhaps that might be one flaw, is that the game’s difficulty might prevent some lesser skilled players from seeing more of the game, even on the “Simple” difficulty (which isn’t so) setting which will lock out the finale until you’ve beaten all the bosses on “Regular”.
The controls for Cuphead are what you’d expect: move, run, jump, dash, special move, and parry. The parry is the most interesting move in your repetiteur, because it does two things: it lets you not take damage from a projectile, and will help you build up your super meter. You can only parry on objects that are glowing pink, and so they are specifically designed to be parried during different stages of a fight or a level. It is also very fickle, not always something you will be able to pull off no matter the hours invested in the game.
In classic platformer fashion, there’s an overworld to explore for each of the three worlds you’ll explore, that concludes in a finale. It’s here you will uncover hidden paths, reveal paths after completing a level and come across mausoleums. Defeating the challenge of a mausoleums gives you new supers to use. In the aforementioned “Run N Gun” stages, you’ll collect coins that can be used in the store by the appropriately named shopkeeper, Porkrind. He sells abilities that have pros and cons to how they can be used, like the extra heart that when enabled reduces your attack power. You’ll also be able to buy new weapons that you can swap between during a level, which you will have to constantly change up for a level or boss based on their patterns, as some are just better than others.
While online is being explored, you can currently play Cuphead in local co-op. Player 1 will be the titular Cuphead, and player 2 will be in control of the brother, Mugman. Here, if your partner dies, you can use the parry move to resurrect them. The second player does not have anything unlocked from the get-go. All coins earned previously will be in the wallet of that player, and must go to the store to purchase whatever upgrades they will use when playing.
I can’t begin to think of the monumental effort that went in to making this game over the past several years. Cuphead is a challenging gameplay experience that is at odds with its whimsical-looking animation. I never found the difficulty to be off-putting, but it rather forced me to be more mindful during each encounter, which then led to every victory being so sublime. Be forewarned at it being a hard game, but know that Cuphead is a masterpiece worth enduring such hardships.
A Steam code was provided by the publisher for review purposes