More than just a pretty face?
From the very first moment I saw Cuphead I was instantly enamored with its unmistakably gorgeous art style. Every screenshot looks like a frame from a 1930’s Disney cartoon, every track a fantastically jazzy composition. Giving Cuphead more style than almost any other game l have ever played. There’s a real sense of nostalgia throughout the game despite its entirely fresh feel; the art-style resembles classic cartoons so effectively that it becomes a joy to watch as well as play and the difficult, skill-based side-scrolling platforming and combat harken back to the days of Contra, Megaman, and Metal Slug. But the gameplay is tight, it feels fast and frantic and there is never a dull moment in the colorful cacophony that is Cuphead.
You control the cutesy titular cartoon character Cuphead, with an optional second player as Mugman through the 2-D side-scrolling levels and boss encounters in order to collect souls of debtors in order to pay off your own debt to Devil. The levels of the three different worlds are laid out in the world maps which you are free to walk around in, chat to NPC’s and visit Porkrind’s Emporium to purchase upgrades. They don’t have to be completed in any particular order, but you need to collect all the souls in each world to progress to the next. As the bosses are the real focus the other main type of mission, the Run ‘N’ Gun missions are technically optional. Although they’re your only way of collecting coins which are needed to buy new weapons and abilities.
You begin with a basic Peashooter and an EX move that you gradually charge as you attack enemies. Once this is all the way full, you are then able to unleash a devastating super move. You also have a parry ability where you are able to jump and then jump again on any pink objects which can be used to get rid of certain projectiles and enemies, built your Super meter or to double jump. Through the shop, you can buy new weapons, two of which can be equipped at any time and charms which give you an extra ability. Such as an extra heart at the expense of slightly reduced damage output. Your Supers can be unlocked through the Mausoleum challenges which are unfortunately the least engaging parts of the game. There are a handful of different weapons which all have their uses in certain situations. There’s a shotgun-like weapon, a charge blast, a homing shot and boomerang weapon which has more range when you shoot backward among others.
For someone who was never particularly good at the kinds of games that Cuphead draws its inspiration from, the difficulty is something of a hurdle. From the very first level, you are barraged with a host of enemies hurling projectiles at every direction that feels entirely overwhelming at first. But the more I played the more I began to realize the accuracy and quick-reflexes necessary in completing the levels without dying incessantly. There is a “Simple” mode for the boss fights, which I tried to hold off of until it was necessary. When I eventually caved I realized that you can only progress while playing it on the “Regular” difficulty, making the simple mode feel unnecessary.
Given the trial and error nature of the game, you are almost certainly not going to beat most levels on your first, or even second attempt. You have three hits until you’re dead and there are no checkpoints within each level. But every time I died I found myself compulsively mashing the retry button until I had completed it, with the exception of a few times where I put the controller down in frustration. If the aesthetic of the game wasn’t so captivating and the gameplay wasn’t as fun, then it’s hard to imagine that I would have stuck with it for so long.
Playing with two players is arguably the easier option, giving you the ability to revive dead player’s ghosts as they float upwards using the parry mechanic. I played through the game almost entirely with a friend in couch co-op, it is one of the major factors that compelled me to purchase the game on its release. Although the action on screen can get a little too hectic and the screen tracking frustrating with two players, more so on the Run ‘n’ Gun missions.
Simply put, Cuphead is one of the most visually engaging and engrossing video games ever made. The aesthetic is immediately accessible and the amount of care and detail that has gone into crafting every frame is truly an accomplishment. Although the gameplay certainly isn’t for everyone due to the sheer difficulty, I would recommend everyone at least experience the game if only to marvel at its aesthetic. But it simply cannot be understated how good this game looks and sounds. But what kept me coming back for more and more punishment was the excellent, tense gameplay and pure elation when finally beating that boss.