2D platforming games are a dime a dozen these days. The overall quality of the medium has soared to amazing new heights, whether it’s the Metroidvania-esque Hollow Knight, the retro-rific Shovel Knight or the callbacks inherent in Sonic Mania or Metroid: Samus Returns. However, when such a platformer is thrust into the mainstream spotlight, calling back to an essential period of animation with its style while catering to hardened fans of the genre, there can be some conflict.
"The word “style” can be applied to any number of aesthetics but Cuphead‘s Fleischer-esque animation is simply gorgeous."
Thankfully, StudioMDHR’s Cuphead doesn’t feel at odds with itself. While this is an incredibly sleek looking game, flawlessly implementing the Rubber hose animation style to present a true living cartoon, Cuphead is a true blue run-and-gun platformer. It also has no qualms about challenging you.
Now, when I say “challenging”, I don’t mean “frustrating”. Cuphead‘s difficulty reminded me of the first Mega Man Zero, a game that seemingly placed you against impossible odds but became easier as you learned the patterns of enemies, their placements and developed a general flow of the level. Cuphead wants you to find a rhythm and dance to it, killing all manner of cartoon creatures along the way. I can dig it.
The story of Cuphead is relatively simple. Cuphead and his body Mugman score big at a casino and are seemingly raking it in. Cue the “too good to be true” cliché when the Devil himself enters and causes Cuphead to wager the duo’s souls away. To regain their souls, Cuphead and Mugman must venture through the world, battling defaulters on the Devil’s deals and collecting their souls. This means boss fights. Lots of boss fights. As you navigate the overworld, you’ll come across a few NPCs who may offer interesting hints or snippets of dialogue. The run-and-gun stages are peppered in between the numerous boss fights, offering a rapid fire run of baddies, tree hopping and shooting.
But before all that, it’s the style of Cuphead that immediately grabs you. The word “style” can be applied to any number of aesthetics but Cuphead‘s Fleischer-esque animation is simply gorgeous. Cuphead‘s reactions, from gaining a new power-up to snapping his fingers to shoot little projectiles, are all beautifully animated. The worlds themselves come to life in such a simple but imaginative way, from the evil sunflower men falling from the skies and operating that exploding acorn machine to the giant woodpecker that will bar your path while little bugs roll at you.
"I’m not usually one to judge a game too heavily on its presentation but Cuphead‘s visual style does more than just look pretty."
This is backed by a truly amazing score that feels like a tribute to Swing music. Trumpets, clarinets and trombones lend to the game’s merry art-style and further elevate the game into something…classy. To see such work put into the entire experience is a testament to the love and care that StudioMDHR have put into Cuphead.
I’m not usually one to judge a game too heavily on its presentation but Cuphead‘s visual style does more than just look pretty. It lends well to the various tells that bosses will exhibit before attacking or shifting to the next stage of the fight. So on the one hand, it’s plenty stylish. On the other hand, it’s also for utility purposes. It sounds so simple and yet makes you notice the little things all the more throughout the game.
As noted earlier, the actual gameplay of Cuphead is pretty easy to pick up. You have a main weapon, a secondary weapon and an EX attack. The EX attack can actually change depending on which weapon you equip and as you deal damage to enemies, Cuphead can execute more EX attacks. That EX meter can also be built up by “parrying” certain attacks and enemies denoted by pink shades. If your EX meter is full, you’ll unleash a devastating Super attack that can deal massive amounts of damage at the cost of all your charges.
Parrying is also a great way to get additional height on jumps and revive fallen comrades. The ability to dash and equip different perks – like briefly vanishing during a dash to avoid taking damage – further mix up the gameplay. Different worlds will grant you coins to purchase new weapons and perks. The Peashooter is a constant stream of weak projectiles while the Spread is short-range, dealing more damage when all projectiles hit but also good when forgoing precise aiming.
"Though I immensely enjoyed Cuphead‘s run-and-gun stages, it’s the boss fights where the game truly shines."
A lot of the so-called skill of Cuphead‘s gameplay will fall on how well you time those parries and hit those Supers. After all, depending on your performance in a level, the game will grade you. Even if a fight doesn’t warrant a parry, it will still affect your final grade. Bragging rights may seem like the only motivation for grades but don’t worry – they also lead to all kinds of interesting secrets if you’re enterprising enough. Regardless of how skilled you may or may not be, Cuphead‘s controls are exceptionally responsive and there’s a certain satisfaction in parrying and nailing that EX attack every time.
Though I immensely enjoyed Cuphead‘s run-and-gun stages, it’s the boss fights where the game truly shines. It starts out simple with the Root Pack as the game teaches you the essentials of shooting, dodging and parrying. Before you know it, you’re facing off against a pair of oversized frogs with boxing gloves that can combine into a huge slot machine that fires all kinds of dangers.
There’s the oversized sunflower Cagney Carnation who launches seeds into the air with machine gun-like gusto before sending spiky roots on the ground to kill you. Words really fail to describe some of the bosses like Hilda Berg who starts out as a blimp on a unicycle – as Cuphead flies a biplane that can shrink to avoid her attacks – and transforms into a bull made of clouds and a giant crescent moon that shoots UFOs. It looks as cool as it all sounds.
On the one hand, given how much personality is imbibed in every single aspect of Cuphead, I did want to know more about the bosses, wishing they offered a bit more backstory to their various…conditions (which comes across as a nit-pick but still). It’s the Shovel Knight effect except with no back and forth dialogue between Cuphead and these bosses. I shouldn’t go off of sheer looks when it comes to wanting to know more about these various characters but that’s how distinct and personable they come across with just their looks.
"Cuphead‘s gameplay definitely isn’t for everyone but it’s hard to look at the sheer effort that went into it and not appreciate it."
You’re probably still wondering if Cuphead is “tough”, which ultimately comes down to how you approach run-and-gun platformers. If you’re prepared to repeat some stages to nail down certain sections just right and minimize your mistakes for success, then yes. Cuphead will delight you. If certain boss attacks that home in on you or platforms that disappear or jumping while battling numerous foes at once, hitting a parry at the right time, will frustrate you, then it’s a tough call.
I still stand by the Mega Man Zero comparison though. Cuphead will challenge you but it will also push you to get better and if you have the reflexes and sense to know what to do at certain times, then it won’t be long before you’re waltzing through levels without taking a single hit. If it does frustrate you, then there is a “Simple” option for various bosses, allowing you to get acquainted with the general flow of a fight beforehand.
It’s a shame then that Cuphead is kind of short, offering a few hours of gameplay overall (though obviously chasing perfect scores will drive that up a bit more). There are significantly more boss fights than run-and-gun stages, which only really irks me because I enjoyed the variety that each world offered. Unfortunately, there’s no official online co-op at this time, which is a bummer for those wanting to play with friends outside of local play.
Cuphead is something truly worth experiencing though. It’s a throwback not only to a time when animation was bursting at the seams with character and wit but also to more challenging platformers that tested your mettle (and this one at least avoids many of the glitches and bugs of that era). Cuphead‘s gameplay definitely isn’t for everyone but it’s hard to look at the sheer effort that went into it and not appreciate it. For fans of 2D platformers, well, here’s another one to add to the list, that too close to the top.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox One.
Presentation is an amazing ode to the 1930s while the visual style adds so much personality to the proceedings. Suitably wonderful Swing music that further adds to the classiness. Great level of challenge that rewards memorization and finding your groove. Top notch level and boss design with great variety. Excellent, responsive controls.
Kind of short overall. No online co-op. Could have used slightly more run-and-gun stages