Cuphead takes a classic tale of moral propaganda and turns it into a romp through 1930s era animation that will both delight and challenge in equal turns. The tale follows the titular Cuphead and his unfortunate brother, Mugman, who are enjoying a good time at the Devil’s Casino until one misguided roll of the dice ends with a contract on their souls. But, the Devil tells the now damned duo they might be able to get out of their contracts if they can collect on other souls before their time is up. You can choose to play alone as Cuphead, or bring along a friend to aid you as Mugman during your treacherous journey.
A World Brimming with Bosses
The layout of worlds in Cuphead is fairly simple. You can select from a few run-and-gun levels, or pick form a plethora of battles with devious baddies whose soul contracts you now need to collect. Defeating bosses opens up new sections of each world and eventually allows you to move on to the next. Sounds simple enough, but this dance with the Devil is anything but slow and steady.
On a difficulty scale from Mega Man to Dark Souls, Cuphead hits much closer to the former. To succeed, practice and determination are key because death is practically guaranteed, but difficulty lands a little south of rage quitting. That isn’t to say boss battles don’t offer a very real challenge, but I rarely felt that I wasn’t able to make some progress with each run. It was this keen balance of punishment and progress that kept me aching to try again even after multiple failures. If you fail to complete a fight or stage, the game presents you with a meter showing how close you were to your goal. Depending on how you are doing, this can be both an encouragement or an indicator that it might be time to take a short break before another attempt.
Each boss has multiple attack stages, with an additional stage added if the game is played on Regular difficulty. However, the battles in Cuphead are dynamic enough that players cannot win simply through rote memorization. For example, in some cases, a boss can have varied versions of one attack stage. A particular battle involved a stage where the boss transformed into a zodiac character. I died before completing that stage and the next time around she transformed into a different member of the zodiac, catching me off guard with new attacks. Often, though, bosses follow a set of transformations that can be memorized, though getting through them is anything but simple even with some foreknowledge. Attack patterns can change within stages, and you often find yourself needing to battle against numerous peripheral attacks while at the same time avoiding main attacks from the baddie itself.
Boss battles are truly a sight to behold and a challenge even for a seasoned platform/run-and-gun aficionado. This is partly due to the intensity of the fights. During one encounter, I had to avoid a train while also dodging glowing horseshoe attacks from a clown riding on a donkey held up by a string. Sounds crazy, but aside from the spot-on 1930s visual aesthetic, Cuphead also solidly replicates the sheer bizarreness of the cartoons of that bygone era. I fought frogs that turned into a slot machine pitching coins at me, and a woman who became an airplane that became a terrifying version of the moon. And that is only a small, incomplete sampling. Somehow, it works. I never questioned the wacky and often unpredictable directions boss battles would go. The whole world is bright and bouncing, sometimes sharp and sinister, life and movement that I can only describe as what Jazz music must look like if animated.
An Arsenal of Abilities & Upgrades
During the course of your battles you will earn coins that allow you to purchase different types of shots that can be equipped during battle. You can even equip two different shots and toggle between them. Each comes with both a plus as well as a minor downside. For example, one shot gives a wider bullet spread and allows you to aim backward, but offers only average damage unless used while aiming behind you. Another allows greater damage but requires more precision. You can also purchase charms that can be equipped as add-on effects or life extenders. For example, early on I purchased a heart that gave me an additional hit point. It, however, also slightly lowered my attack power. The extra hit point saved me more than once, so the slightly lowered attack was worth the price.
The most important move in Cuphead’s arsenal, though, is the Parry. This allows you to jump off of pink-colored objects that appear throughout a level or boss fight. During battle, this allows for more dynamic movement, but it also charges up your Super Meter which, when full, allows you to discharge a number of powerful attacks.
Cuphead’s greatest challenge is pitting you against your own ability level and your desire to try again after what sometimes feels like a fully engaged emotional struggle. There were a few boss battles that were intense enough that after completion, I simply wanted a nap and to move on to the next. But, the game grades you after each victory based on things such as time elapsed and Parry moves enacted, egging you on for another match, or at least a revisit.
Cuphead is a visual treat and an often all-engrossing fight for the finish. This run-and-gun may take a hold of your soul, but this is no deal with the Devil. The jazzy appeal and vigorous combat create a unique and engrossing experience that is as thrilling as it is addictive, and as spirited as it is memorable. You won’t regret this dance in the end.