Cuphead is a throwback in more ways than one. There's the graphic style that flashes back to the old-school cartoon shorts of the 1930s, the hand-drawn style made famous by the earliest days of Disney, Warner Bros., and MGM Studios. The classic tracking effects from vintage films and the familiar opening scratch from the monaural sound of a vinyl record.
Then there's the throwback in the other way, also flashing back to the earliest days of video games, in the sense of pure unforgiving difficulty. There's no other way to say this. Cuphead is hard. It is "throw your controller in anger" hard. But what makes Studio MDHR's platforming boss rush game such a treat is that it modernizes the formula just enough to make it worth trying again endlessly.
Devil in the Details
It's almost impossible not to marvel at what Studio MDHR has been able to pull off with Cuphead from a presentation standpoint. The opening of this review touched upon it briefly, but there's such a strong devotion to the 1930s theme that permeates throughout the entire game. The grainy vintage film effect starts from the opening credits and never goes away for anything. The loading screen is a grainy black screen with an old hourglass that flips around. Even the main menu keeps the grainy effect over the player's profile picture.
It extends through the game, with a hand-drawn overworld, enemies that are capably hand-drawn to look like something out of an old Merrie Melodies short. Bosses aren't "killed" but rather get knocked out and left seeing stars, with old-school "dizzy" lines. On top of that, every level is preceded with an old-timey title card, as if it's setting up a cartoon short. It's thematically brilliant and both the art and audio teams should be commended for Cuphead's presentation.
The story fits in with that old aesthetic, as well. Cuphead and Mugman sneak into the Devil's casino and get a little too cocky and wind up losing their souls in a game of craps. To appease the lord of darkness and his blockheaded lackey, King Dice, Cuphead and Mugman must battle bosses across the land, all of whom are delinquent in their debts to the Devil. The cutscenes in-between worlds are delightful and the only complaint here is that they're all-too-brief. Scenes with the Devil and King Dice are a delight and it would have been nice to see more of them.
A Warm Cup of Agony
Did I mention that Cuphead is hard? Because Cuphead is hard. Cuphead is really hard!
Bosses are spread out across the overworld, each of whom have their own distinct attack patterns and multiple phases. The idea is to defeat them all, though Cuphead only gets three hits. Trying to beat a boss in three hits sounds easy, but none of these boss fights have checkpoints. Dying means having to start the whole thing from scratch. Add in the fact that many of the boss attacks are inspired by bullet hell elements and Cuphead becomes a masochistic endeavor.
Run-and-gun stages are similarly difficult, thanks to precision platforming and distinct gimmicks that span each stage. These platforming stages are a must for reasons I'll touch on shortly. They're skippable, but it's not recommended. These stages have their own sources of aggravation, whether it's tough-to-avoid enemy patterns or a surprise enemy that pops in out of nowhere. There's no way to recover health, either, so once Cuphead gets hit, it's one strike. Three strikes and he's out!
After a few dozen bouts of throwing my controller at the wall, Cuphead's best element started to become clear. Cuphead is brutally challenging, but none of that challenge is unfair. Bosses and run-and-gun stages are entirely doable and within the realm of Cuphaed's mechanics. The game doesn't ask for complicated button inputs or special items. It's a matter of reflexes and using those natural reflexes to complete a level is genuinely satisfying. It's also helpful (though sometimes exacerbating) that whenever Cuphead dies, the Game Over screen will indicate just how close the end of the level was. That's an understated mechanic and one that offers motivation to keep trying.
Friends can also play co-op and it feels like an absolute must. Co-op players have the ability to resurrect one another by using the game's parry system. Parrying on a fallen partner's floating spirit before it leaves the screen will bring them back for one more hit. This is an essential mechanic, because teamwork can carry players a lot farther. For solo players, dead is dead and there's no hope of any kind of second chance. Granted, the resurrection mechanic is hard to pull off, especially if the screen is covered in hazards, but at least the idea is there.
Cuphead does have a difficulty setting and it has a more practical use than simply turning down the pain. Advancing in the world is an essential aspect of the game, mainly because of the coins that Cuphead collects in the run-and-gun levels. Upgrading Cuphead's inventory with purchases from Porkrind's Emporium is the best way to even the odds against the bosses and the best way to access the later levels is to face those bosses on the "Simple" difficulty.
Simple difficulty boss fights make Cuphead feel much more accessible for the casual player, while also acting as vital practice sessions. They give players a sense of what to expect when taking on the "real" battles and they offer a sufficient challenge in themselves. "Simple" boss fights are not easy by any means, despite the fact that the bosses do hold back. Entire phases are skipped in Simple mode, with the boss offering those nasty surprises up for anyone that dares to tackle them on Regular difficulty.
What's unfortunate about the Simple difficulty is that there's no real sense of finality for those users that want to just stop there. Attempting to access the final part of the game will simply trigger a short cutscene and turn the player back. Those hoping for, at the very least, a simplified final boss fight that offers a taste of what the true final bosses have to offer will be left wanting.
That's All Folks
Cuphead is a joyful flashback to a bygone era, both in terms of animation and in terms of crushing video game difficulty. It's easy to get lost in this gorgeous cartoon world and get overtaken by the sheer beauty and whimsy of the game's characters. Then the intensity picks up and it becomes one of the most challenging video game experiences of the year.
But the best part about Cuphead is that the challenge feels attainable. It's the right kind of frustration, the kind that makes a person feel like they can prevail if they just try one more time. It's easy for this type of game to feel cheap, but it never feels impossible. It's a gorgeous piece of work and a cup that feels better on repeated sips.
This review is based on an Xbox One download code provided by the publisher. Cuphead is available on Xbox One and PC on Friday, September 29 for $19.99. The game is rated E.