Run and gun
PC, Xbox One
Cuphead is an indie action title that fully commits to being as retro as possible. The gameplay is straight out of the early ‘90s, and consists mostly of running and gunning. There are bosses to beat and 2D levels to shoot our way through, just like we did in games like Contra or Gunstar Heroes. But the game’s visual style goes even further back.
The developers decided to go with a 1930s cartoon look, clearly inspired by Fleischer Studios and early Disney. And it really paid off. The game is immediately recognizable thanks to its art style, and it’s hard not to notice it amid the crowd of other retro indie games.
Cuphead’s unique visual style is its strongest appeal. Everything is hand-drawn, from the kooky characters to the vibrant backgrounds, and it’s all beautiful. The animations are smooth and even funny at times, and it really feels like you’re playing an old cartoon. Frankly the whole thing is just delightful. Part of it is because of the great jazz soundtrack. The upbeat music gives you the energy to push through the toughest of bosses, even if it’s the 20th time you tried to beat it.
But don’t let the shiny, cartoony veneer full you – this is one tough game. You’ll die a lot, and replay levels over and over again in attempt to defeat a tricky boss or improve your final score. Cuphead never goes easy on you, and you’ll need to get really good at using the tools it gives you if you want to make any kind of headway. The difficulty can get frustrating at times, and playing through the same level multiple times isn’t what I’d cool fun. But once you manage to overcome whatever was holding you back, there’s a real sense of accomplishment. There’s no luck involved – only pure skill.
You’ll need all of your skills (and then some) to overcome the bosses Cuphead throws your way. Not only are they difficult, but each one of them presents a completely different challenge. Yes, the gameplay is basically the same – you shoot constantly, throw in a special move from time to time and do your best to avoid getting hit – but every boss still manages to surprise you.
Since its inception, Cuphead was all about big, tough bosses. However, as development continued, and the game gained more and more attention from both players and the media, Studio MDHR decided to add more content. That’s how we get the run and gun levels. While pretty fun, those level feel more like an afterthought – a way to pad out the game. However, it’s the kind of padding the game needed. They serve as a welcome break from all the boss fights, and they’re also the only way to get more coins so you can buy new weapons.
The story, if one can call it that, is fairly rudimentary. Cuphead and his brother Mugman lose a bet with the devil, and now much travel across the Inkwell isles to collect the souls of other “debaters” to save their own. It’s actually more of an excuse to go fight a bunch of giant bosses, which is pretty understandable for a game such as this. Just don’t expect any kind of plot, and you won’t be disappointed. Old cartoons never had a deep plot anyway.
The inclusion of Mugman in the story also means the game supports drop-in drop-out co-op. In fact, Cuphead is much more fun when playing together, but also way more difficult. The addition of another player and their colorful projectiles buzzing across the screen can make things too chaotic at times. Plus, enemies take a lot of damage when 2 players are present, which makes every boss fight much longer. However, the game seems to be designed for co-op, and playing alone is only better for perfecting your score.
But as fun and as beautiful Cuphead is, it isn’t without its flaws. For a game that relies solely on player skill, the controls and responses should have been tighter. For example, you might fall off platforms because the game didn’t register a jump, just “slide” off them because you landed too close to the edge. Some deaths might feel cheap because of instances like that, which can lead to mounting frustration, which is lead to more deaths.
I also experienced a fair share of bugs that forced me to restart the game before I could continue playing. Thankfully, these always happened when I died, so it never really cost me anything more than having to get up from the couch.
Overall, Cuphead is a difficult game, but a fair one. You have unlimited lives, and you don’t lose your weapons or money when you die, so you’re free to keep playing and trying until you finally succeed. Control could use a little more polish, but you might be a little too busy appreciating the visuals and music to even notice. Find someone to play with and go show all those bosses who’s boss.Some of our posts include links to online retail stores. We get a small cut if you buy something through one of our links. Don't worry, it doesn't cost you anything extra.