If you’ve ever wanted a game to constantly kick you in the balls — while laughing maniacally — then Cuphead may just be what the crazy doctor ordered. Yes, one of Microsoft’s most compelling exclusives has finally made the jump to Nintendo’s handheld hybrid and, boy, is it a sight for sore eyes. Not only is it one of the most artistically impressive titles to release in ages, but it’s also one of the toughest. Stand aside Souls fans, there’s a new sheriff in town, and it comes packing some serious pulse-pounding, jaw-dropping, heart-racing action. Just remember to bring your blood-pressure medication for the ride.
Taking inspiration from 1930s’ Walt Disney and Fleischer Studios-era cartoons, its distinctive stylistic animation is undoubtedly one of Cuphead’s strongest and most eye-catching draws. Every frame oozes surrealist charm and creative style. It’s clear that a ton of love has been poured into every inch of the experience.
The fluid hand-drawn animations of each beguiling boss, charismatic critter, and enticing environment are simply phenomenal. It helps that the retro world of Inkwell Isle is authentically imbued with lo-fi dust and faux crackling static akin to the old, classical arthouse cartoons the game so ardently and respectfully emulates. In short, every aesthetic aspect fits together visually, tonally and sonically, too.
Indeed, the authentic audio is another highlight. A-cappella barbershop tunes, catchy jazz, and vintage rhythm and blues melodies envelop the senses as your loveable titular protagonist is pummelled into oblivion. Even though Cuphead is hard as brass balls, the awesome soundtrack helps to keep you glued to your seat as you try, try and die, die again. So what actually is Cuphead gameplay-wise?
Well, at its core, the game is a hard-as-nails action-platformer that harkens back to the old-school design philosophies of yore. Your reflexes will be thoroughly tested to their limit and your muscle memory will need to be at their sharpest, as beneath its joyful art-style belies one of the most challenging platformer experiences I’ve played in a very long time.
Split up into roughly three different modes: boss battles, run and gun sections, and challenge arenas, levels are peppered across a charming overworld map that opens up as you make progress. The strongest of these modes are undoubtedly the multi-phased boss battles and thankfully these make up the bulk of the game.
Not only are they some of the most creative and memorable standoffs I’ve had in a game all year, but they’re also some of the most jaw-droppingly spectacular to boot, blending bullet hell dodging and shooting with precision perfect platforming. Learning attack patterns and adapting on the fly is absolutely key to your ongoing success.
That’s not to say that the run and gun and challenge arena levels ever really let the side down. Au contraire, these two more traditional modes are a whole lot of fun in their own right. The challenge arenas take place in derelict mausoleums and task you with parrying an onslaught of pesky ghosts. These help to unlock super-powered special manoeuvers that come in incredibly handy when you’re in a bind.
The run and gun levels, on the other hand, give you the opportunity to unlock gold coins which can be used to purchase upgrades from the local shop, affectionately dubbed: Porkrind’s Emporium. That’s right, Cuphead does have a pretty neat – albeit fairly light – progression system. A handful of new weapons, special attacks, and upgrades add a little flavor to your journey, and it’s nice to have some welcome downtime between the frenetic, hardcore action.
Wrapping the title’s vintage authenticity together is a classical story that pits Cuphead, and his bestie Mughead, against the devil himself. Like its Depression-era forebears before it, the playful narrative hides some seriously dark subject matter and sees our loveable heroes losing a game of craps against the powers of evil. In their bid to save their souls from the big bad devil, our amiable duo must travel the lands to defeat a variety of sinister beasties.
Even though every anthropomorphic critter you meet has a grin the size of a moon, there’s an eerie malevolence that permeates the experience, which is emphasized by the sheer brutality of it all. Thankfully, 2 player co-op is built in, and tagging a friend along with you for the zany ride definitely helps ease the pain. Well, slightly, anyway.
Of course, there are a few super minor quibbles that I did have with Cuphead. Firstly, most of the bosses’ phases are randomly chosen from a small pool of special moves. Sometimes you can have an “easier” run or a nigh-on “impossible” run dependant on what the boss throws at you. Besting a boss because of an “easier” run occasionally takes some of the satisfaction out of a victory. Most of the time, a win makes you feel like you can take on the whole world. But there were a few occasions where I felt like Lady Luck had helped me out a little too much.
Next, is something that could easily be fixed in a patch. For some reason, you’re unable to swap out your load-out in-between boss fights. As a result, you’ll need to quit out of a level if you want to change your weapons or special abilities, which just seems like an oversight. Both of these annoyances are super minor, but I should mention them nonetheless.
Beautiful, bold, brutal. In all, Cuphead is a legit hardcore gem and is a wonderful reminder of how potently powerful a singular vision can be on the creative canvas we call video games. But don’t let the cartoony visuals lure you into a false sense of security; Studio MDHR has crafted something devilishly ruthless here. Only the hardcore need apply.
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game. A review copy was provided to us by Studio MDHR.
If you enjoy a game that takes delight in constantly kicking you in the nads -- while laughing hysterically -- then Cuphead is for you. The hardcore need only apply.