All it takes is about one glance at CUPHEAD to understand what makes it so special. Its impeccable 1930s cartoon aesthetic is immediately entrancing, drawing you into its clutches with promises of a delightfully pleasant lark. Then, after mere moments of gameplay, that cute and adorable veneer shatters. CUPHEAD reveals its true form: a brutal, exhausting game built on simple controls that belie the precise execution and iron will that are required to survive.
I love it so much.
While CUPHEAD’s art style, music, and graphics are all inspired by the golden age of animation, the game itself is a love letter to arcade shooters from the late ‘80s. A time where games were simple to explain, and all too often story and advanced mechanics weren’t even a consideration. The best games of this period were those that FELT good to play, were rewarding to complete, and challenged your coordination at every second. More than anything else, CUPHEAD seeks to emulate these titles.
The setup is simple. You are Cuphead, a cartoon character who gets himself (and his friend Mugman, if you choose to play co-op) in over his ceramic noggin when he gambles his soul against the devil and loses. Pleading for his life, the devil tasks the player with tracking down his many debtors and claiming their soul contracts. The narrative and world are as simple as they are preposterous, but provide a beautiful backdrop to frame the gameplay around.
Smelling the flowers
As players navigate the overworld, they will encounter a few Run and Gun levels. Fans of old school platformers will feel right at home in this homage to the frantic platforming of CONTRA as you dodge all manner of attacks, projectiles, and colorful, cuddly, and completely dangerous enemies. With only three hearts, you can only slip up twice before it’s all over and you start the level back from the starting line. Thankfully, Cuphead’s lives are not finite, so you are welcome to repeat levels over and over until you finally persevere. Which is the point, as success comes not only from pinpoint inputs, but from recognizing and learning patterns throughout levels. It’s rare you’ll complete a stage on the first try, but the persistent and determined will find ways through the enemies and platforms to the delicious completion screen.
The real secret sauce of CUPHEAD is found in its wonderfully difficult boss battles. Each of these throwdowns feature wildly inventive designs, with each character acting as a complex amalgamation of classic caricature and eldritch horror. These bosses only grow more devilishly brutal as they evolve to new phases as they take damage. One battle will enter you into a bout with a pair of boxing frogs that evolve into a frighteningly savage slot machine. Elsewhere, you must storm a candy castle that literally springs to life as the queen summons her sugary minions to smash you into the gumdrop flooring.
These battles either take place on foot or in the air as players pilot tiny airplanes streaking across the sky. Thankfully, Cuphead and Mugman can use coins gained during Run and Gun levels to grow their arsenal of weapons and abilities to give them some way to even the odds against their vastly superior foes. You’ll need more than a tiny peashooter to dominate your enemies. Certain bosses that are particularly difficult at first become much more manageable when you come into possession of a spread-shot scattergun or a weapon with auto-aim that targets enemies for you so players can focus on evading the torrential downpour of attacks trying to destroy them.
While you have the option to tackle CUPHEAD either solo or with a partner, I found playing in co-op to be even more difficult, as gameplay becomes that much more hectic with two characters bouncing across the screen, rocketing their finger guns at enemies. That being said, there is nothing better than working right alongside a friend as you take down a particularly fearsome boss and seeing that resounding KNOCKOUT! flashing across the screen. And once you manage to triumph and let out a ferocious roar in victory, the game will grade your performance, taunting you one last time with a reminder that you could have done just a little bit better. With that goad, you’ll start up that fight one more time, ready for more punishment in the name of a higher score.
Yes, CUPHEAD is hard, brutal, and feels insurmountable at times, but it’s never unfair. Every death, mistake, and missed jump feels like your fault. The gameplay is designed so well, the controls so precise, that no frustration is ever directed at the game, but at your own skill. In an odd way, CUPHEAD makes you want to be a better player, encouraging you to do better. Each death or failure showcases a map showing just how close you might have been to the end of a Run and Gun, or the next stage of a boss battle.
CUPHEAD is a labor of love that few games can match, an observation that should be obvious from a passing glance. It took years to produce, to draw, to animate, and to perfect, and it’s nothing short of a miracle that it was actually finished. But I am so glad that the developers took a risk on this bold idea, because this is really something special. For only $20, you can grab one of the most unique and memorable video game experiences of all time. You might break a controller. You might yell and scream at your television or monitor. But you will not regret a second of it.
Reviewed on Xbox One, also available on PC