There’s a lot to say about Cuphead, and then there’s a lot not to say about Cuphead. It’s sort of like the first rule of Fight Club. But, just like Fight Club, people have been breaking that first rule and, well, a lot of people are now talking about Cuphead. Largely because beneath that incredible art-style and presentation exists a game that absolutely wants to beat you up. It wants to fight you. With its Fleischer-inspired gloved fists. In the face.
Those might be fightin’ words, but they’re true. Cuphead’s visual draw is only one half of the tale. The second lies in its unrelenting attempts at breaking you down. This game is one of the most challenging you’ll ever face, and it loves to make you work for your accolades, of which there are actually few. In Cuphead, progress is gated behind these seemingly impossible levels and bosses you face. There aren’t a lot of them, island to island, but those that tease you with their beautifully-homaged cartoon appearance on that equally beautifully hand painted overworld, are psychopaths waiting to stop you in every possible way. But then again, you are facing them for their very souls.
So for those who haven’t yet investigated, Cuphead is about a cup
le of brothers -- Cuphead and Mughead -- who stray too far from their home. They find themselves on the wrong side of the tracks which happens to house a very large casino owned by one Mr. The Devil, and operated by one Mr. King Dice. The brothers find themselves on a hot streak, when the Devil himself steps in and offers them a wager: one more roll of the dice and if they win, he gives them everything in his casino. If they lose, he gets their souls. Cue Steve Vai’s crossroads shred-off
with the original Karate Kid, sans the Cups winning, and we have ourselves a premise.
The Devil won’t take the boys’ souls provided they act as heavies for him, and go out into the greater wilds of the Inkwell Isles to collect the souls from previous casino goers who were once in their position, but haven’t yet paid up. This soul collection forms the boss battle section of the game -- arguably the hardest -- with some of the most outlandish and challenging bosses ever crafted. And worse still, the distraction side of things is very real, because the art and animation around these characters -- all hand-drawn, mind -- is an absolute thing of evil beauty. You’ll need your concentration pants on in duplicate to deal with most of these.
The game’s structure sees Cuphead walking about the overworld map where he can interact with interesting NPCs and find the aforementioned boss battles as well as more traditional run and gun side-scrolling levels. The latter are effectively used to both gain coins, and to open up new parts of the game-world to access. Coins can be used at the few Shops riddled about the place to buy upgrades and other things. However, each of these run and gun levels only houses five coins, and they’re not always easy to get. Add to this that there’s no checkpoint system and no extra lives or mid-level power-ups or health, and you begin to see the challenging fruits of Studio MDHR’s labour. They hate you. And you won’t ever know why.
The boss battles are arguably the most interesting parts of the game, with a split between on-foot battles, or in your trusty aeroplane. The former borrows most heavily from games like Mega Man, while the aerial levels are more like Raiden or Super R-Type. Bosses typically go through a few different phases, but the same rules apply here as they do in the run and gun section -- there’s no checkpoint system and essentially what you go in with, is all you’ve got to do battle with.
As you land shots on enemies in either, you’ll build up a ‘special meter’ of sorts, that allows for you to use a heavier weapon or, if you build it all the way up, your super. Interestingly, the way this works isn’t so much about whittling away at the enemy’s HP, but rather fast tracking their phase changes. They’re also not super-predictable, with each phase having a handful of different aesthetic challenges you need to face, and each one of these usually has a slightly different pattern, so the game doesn’t overtly allow for players to simply remember patterns in order to eventually win. It keeps you on your painted toes in challenging and unique ways, all the while being both frustrating and liberating (upon success) at once.
The other major component to the game’s challenge is in that gated progression mentioned earlier. This isn’t a game where you just need to perform a minimum effort in order to unlock new areas. You can gain access to parts of the game-world by completing battles on Simple (these are split between Simple and Regular), but the greater design point here is you only gain souls by completing the harder Regular battles, and you only progress with souls. I found myself locked on the game’s first island for what felt like days simply because I was struggling to beat Floral Fury -- the boss I’d left until last. And if I had to leverage anything negative against the game overall, it’s that its patience testing ways might not be for everyone, leaving it in a very clear niche market basket.
But that’s the beauty of this game. The art is something the videogaming landscape has never seen before and is, arguably, worth the price of admission alone. But we come for the art, and stay for the challenge. And boy, does Cuphead have challenge in spades. If you’re used to modern gaming, this is going to take you to absolute breaking point and might even push you away, but if you grew up on the more arcade-centric 8 and 16-bit games of the past, and love the challenges those games served up, then Cuphead is absolutely for you. Art and design combine, but with the sole purpose of crushing you -- what’s not to love?
Click here to grab it off GOG
, the cheapest online PC option.