PC, Xbox One
A love letter to the early history of two mediums – imperfectly written, perhaps, but deeply and sincerely felt
Developer Studio MDHR Publisher Microsoft Studios Format PC (tested), Xbox One Release Out now
An improbable union of vintage animation and arcade-era challenge, Cuphead’s art and design seem to be rather at odds with one another. It features some of the most astonishing hand-drawn animation you could wish to see, and places it within a game where being distracted by such antic detail leads to failure. It has the kind of immediate aesthetic appeal to attract a broad audience, yet it’s wedded to the kind of unflinching difficulty only a small niche of players will be able to fully appreciate. The result is an unmissable game that can’t be recommended without serious caveats. Yes, Cuphead is quite the paradox.
The first rule of Cuphead is rather more relaxed than its Fight Club equivalent. You can certainly talk about it, but to discuss particulars is to do the game – and its potential players – a huge disservice. It’s why Studio MDHR has been touting around the same slightly underwhelming demo of the game for ages. It wanted to preserve the game’s secrets for as long as possible. And when you play it, you begin to understand why.
Its story setup is handled economically. Cuphead and his friend Mugman – player two, if you have a willing partner – have forfeited their souls to the devil thanks to a dice roll. The pair strike an alternative deal, the devil giving them until midnight the following day to collect a series of signed contracts for the souls of his debtors, which range from mutant vegetables to pirates, inflatable clowns to pugilistic amphibians.
It’s a series of boss fights, in other words, spread across three islands, with the challenge steepening as you advance. Some encounters are locked off when you first enter a new hub, but usually there’s more than one option available to you at any given time. For a palate cleanser, you might fancy tackling the odd Contra- esque run-and-gun interlude, which represents a welcome change of pace, albeit not in difficulty. We already know they were added later in development after concerns about variety were raised during early previews, and one gravity-flipping sequence aside, that’s quite apparent. Still, they fulfil a purpose, and while they’re technically optional you won’t want to skip them – since each holds five coins that can be spent at an in-game shop, unlocking new weapons, perks and special abilities.
Each battle begins with the ceremony of a classic cartoon short. A title card names your upcoming opponent and also offers a pun for the battle itself. Then an announcer comes in with a snappy soundbite, before Cuphead prepares to, well, die quite a bit. With three health points – one equippable perk ups it to four, at the cost of some attack power – and no checkpoints, there’s little room for mistakes, nor for manoeuvre against opponents that dwarf our hero and can stretch or bounce across the entire screen. Two minutes or so might not seem like a long time, but every second seems to last an age. The exception is a slightly static opening set-to that gives you more room to admire the art but proves misleadingly genteel.
After the first island – and certainly midway through the second – you’ll likely conclude that Studio MDHR should have stuck to its original plan. There’s certainly no shortage of variety here: you’ll face a single-screen skirmish and then an airborne sidescroller. A battle that plays more like a one-on-one brawler will be followed by another that requires careful platforming throughout. What they all have in common is an exacting challenge, with threats coming in twos and threes. Lunges from your assailant might coincide with a volley of missiles from elsewhere. One boss fires an ovoid bomb that explodes offscreen, the debris splitting and re-entering from behind you. And yet Cuphead himself is a capable, athletic hero, equipped with a reliable jump, a brisk lateral dash and an arsenal that ranges from peashooters to charge shots, shortrange spread fire to homing bullets. The default controller configuration, however, does him no favours, with dash, jump, shoot and special bound to the four face buttons. Map shoot to one of the triggers and dash closer to jump, though, and you’re laughing.
Well, eventually. At various points you’ll be convinced that this is where you’re going to have to call it a day. After each failure you’re shown a progress bar, letting you know just how close you were to victory – or how far you were from it. It’s hard to know whether it’s more demoralising to fall just inches from the line, or to see you still had two more phases to beat. With little feedback beyond that you’ll wonder if the effort is worth it. But then your opponent collapses in anguish, the announcer returns with a triumphant “Knockout!” and you exhale, elated – and not a little relieved. It’s a sensation you’ll chase again and again, your pulse keeping time with an energetic soundtrack that pairs brassy melodies with percussive flourishes. Each attempt comes to feel like a high-wire act; each mistake a precarious wobble on the tightrope. The inevitable fall doesn’t always feel like your fault: a parry, triggered by jumping again in mid-air to bat away lurid pink projectiles, can feel capricious in its timing. Tucked away in a corner, the special meter it tops up is hard to effectively follow as the action heats up. And when it does, the random elements that lend a spontaneity and unpredictability to each new attempt can combine in ways that leave you unable to avoid harm.
Yet frustrations rarely linger in a game with such a bright, celebratory vibe. This is a love letter to the early history of two mediums – imperfectly written, perhaps, but deeply and sincerely felt. Charming, distinctive and impossible to forget, Cuphead is the kind of game you’ll immediately want to talk about, yet be desperate not to spoil. Like we said: quite the paradox.