When I confirmed my purchase of Cuphead on the Windows store, I let out an audible squeal. I instantly regretted the noise. I want to judge the game based on its merits, not my excitement for it. But I had a palpable amount of bias when purchasing this game. I’ve been hankering for Cuphead for well on over a year. It’s hard to not squeal when something you want that much is attainable. Seriously, I may not make that squealy sound again unless Christina Hendricks professes her love for me.
Once I started the game up, the starry-eyed fan disappeared, replaced by the quasi-professional reviewer. Buying the game meant shit was serious. I don’t like buying games at or before launch; the disappointments I’ve had doing so outnumber the pleasure I’ve felt after doing so. Diablo III, I’m looking at you!
I pressed Start during the title screen, hunkered down, and dared Cuphead to disappoint me. Thirty minutes later, I was squealing in delight again. My squeals were not from fandom but from rage. Cuphead is a pretty awesome game, but it is punishing.
By now, everyone knows how difficult this game is. I’ll skip that and instead talk about all the things I love about this game. I’ll also mention all the things about Cuphead that make me want to eat my lungs.
The first thing I’ll say about Cuphead is that it’s absolutely gorgeous. Many have lauded the game’s art style, so I’m not exactly revealing anything there. It was the very first thing I was attracted to during E3 2015. My Digital Crack mates were asking what the game was back then. I instead asked, “WHY IS THIS GAME NOT IN MY LIFE???” There was a run-‘n-gun game that looked like a colorized Betty Boop cartoon, Yes, please!
The run-‘n-gun sections are unfortunately short on platforming. Only a handful of sections have platforming elements in them. What Cuphead is instead is a Boss Rush. Many sections of the game feature the titular character (and his brother Mugman if in two-player) going up against a boss character. The bosses are incredibly imaginative, including a gang of vegetables, a pair of boxing frogs, and a guy with a six-sided die for a head. All of their fights are also very imaginative. They all have unique mechanics like firing off baby carrot missiles, yelling the word “HA” at you, and unleashing flying killer waffles.
Those mechanics all have distinct patterns that players need to recognize and learn. Earlier bosses can be rough but can be dispatched with little effort. Later bosses, however, throw little wrinkles into their attacks. All have multiple phases, and each phase features different attack styles and patterns. Oftentimes, they’ll mix up their attacks so that players don’t get too complacent. And sometimes even the level themselves conspire against the players. In one particular stage, the arena is filling up with honey and the screen scrolls upwards. Players must hop from honeycomb to honeycomb to keep up with the flooding, all the while dodging bullets, bombs, and other attacks.
To defend themselves, players have their peashooter. It’s a standard attack that Cuphead and Mugman can fire out of their index finger. The peashooter can be changed to other weapons that pack more punch or add abilities like an eight-way shot or a boomerang shot that’s fired away from the enemy. Players can also use a parry attack on any pink objects to rapidly fill up a super meter. That allows special attacks, which eat up one super bar and produce a larger shot that causes more damage. Finally, players can use a dash move to whoosh away through danger, away from enemies, or over large chasms. All of their abilities and weapons can be upgraded at a shop with gold coins.
The whole time, Cuphead’s visual splendor is present. Stages have phenomenal visual design, with backdrops that have a distinct watercolor-like look. But far from looking flat and static, the backgrounds have insanely-packed layers of parallax scrolling. The background characters are also lavishly animated. To round of the look of an old-timey cartoon, lots of visual imperfections purposefully mar the screen, making it look like an old film reel.
Accompanying the visuals is a tremendous score, featuring lots of catchy jazz and ragtime-inspired tunes. The music is top-notch and indicative of the scores of the 30s. Amazingly, I never got old hearing the music, even after many repeated listenings. Sound effects are also slightly muffled to keep with the 30s cartoon motif. This is a soundtrack I would definitely listen to outside of the game.
All of that eye and ear candy is wrapped up around a game that will do its level best to crush your soul. On simple difficulty, the challenge is lessened but still feels a bit tough. Playing the game on normal ramps the pain up noticeably. Beating the game on normal will unlock expert mode, which basically takes the difficulty from “I’m going to hurt you” to “I’m going to rip your face off with a rusty cheese grater!” Poor Cuphead and Mugman are only given 3 hit points to start. Players can purchase more hit points at the shop to try and last longer. But even then, the amount of enemies and obstacles thrown at players can exhaust those hit points quickly.
The good thing is, the difficulty is not cheap or unfair. The game has very tight, razor-sharp controls. Skilled players can easily dodge some dangers and dispatch others. When Cuphead or Mugman take a hit, it’s usually because the player made a mistake. That still doesn’t help reduce the frustration some may feel while playing. Despite my enjoyment playing Cuphead, I can say that the anger that built up inside me was real and nasty. Many colorful words spewed from my mouth as I played. Folks who aren’t too fond of run-‘n-gun games may find the difficulty a turn-off.
If simply blasting through the game isn’t enough for players, there are other things to try. Players are graded once they complete a level. The grades range from A to F. Beating the level while scoring a certain number of parries, special attacks, or gold coins nets the player an S ranking. S rankings don’t unlock anything, but perfectionists like me can brag about them to people who probably don’t care. There is also a Pacifist mode that can be tried. Certain run-‘n-gun levels can be completed without firing a shot. Doing so nets the player a P ranking for the level. If all six are found and completed with a P ranking, a black-and-white graphics option and some audio filters are unlocked.
This review sure is piling up the accolades. Well, there are things I didn’t necessarily like. The bosses take a while to drop, and the feeling of excessive length is amplified with the exclusion of a health meter for him or her. That in and of itself is not too much of a nuisance. However, the extreme lack of tactical feedback is. To me, it felt like my shots didn’t have that much weight or heavy impact. It’s literally like shooting peas at them. The enemies all briefly flash white when hit, but oftentimes the effect is not strong enough to feel satisfying. In addition, though Cuphead and Mugman can fire in eight directions, diagonal or straight up or down shots seem less effective. It may be my imagination, but it feels true.
Those little warts don’t lessen my enjoyment of Cuphead in the least. Studio MDHR’s crazy-difficult cartoony game has won my heart completely. Beating the game feels really rewarding, and the quest for all S ranks ensures that I’ll be playing this game even more. I just have to make sure I take my blood pressure medication so my heart doesn’t explode from the rage.