Cuphead certainly looks unlike any game that came before it, replicating the distinct look of a 1930s cartoon down pat, right down to the grainy picture quality and surrealistic character designs. The music and sounds also have that muffled, “in a tunnel” quality of the slapstick cartoons of the era. Cuphead is brought to life through completely hand-drawn visuals. From its shockingly fluid character sprites to its cel animated backgrounds, Cuphead is a wonder to see in action. It may not be the first game to use hand-drawn visuals, but no video game has earned the right to be called an interactive cartoon quite like Cuphead.
Simply put, Cuphead is on an aesthetic level that’s all its own, and it may be a good number of years before another game showcases a similar level of visual inventiveness.
Of course, all the aesthetic pleasures in the world wouldn’t mean much if the game they contained couldn’t stand on its own two feet. Thankfully, Cuphead is a more than capable gameplay experience, even if its action can’t quite capture the same magic as its eye-popping visuals.
Players take control of Cuphead, an old-timey cartoon figure who – as his name implies – has a cup for a head; while a second player can take control of his brother, Mugman. These two characters live on Inkwell Isle, under the watchful eye of Elder Kettle. One day, while Elder Kettle is asleep, the two mischievous brothers sneak into a casino. After at first securing a winning streak, the casino’s owner is revealed to be the Devil, who raises the stakes on Cuphead’s gambling. After Cuphead makes a bad roll, the Devil demands their souls as payment. The brothers plea for another way out of the mess, and the Devil promises he’ll let them go, if they can secure the souls of others who owe the Devil a debt. So Cuphead and Mugman set out to defeat the debtors, and find a way to get out of their contract with the Devil.
It’s a silly plot, but perfectly in tune with the 1930s cartoons that inspired it. People often seem to misremember old cartoons as being more innocent than they actually were. Many old cartoons, even those starring the “squeaky clean” Mickey Mouse, often saw their cute characters go through some extreme circumstances before they learned a lesson, and it’s great to see how Cuphead manages to capture the tone of its inspirations, and that the 1930s cartoon feel doesn’t stop at the visuals.
In regards to gameplay, Cuphead is a run and gun platformer, with a particular emphasis on its boss fights. Cuphead and Mugman can shoot magic from their fingers, and can perform a “parry” action by pressing the jump button against pink objects while in midair. The more damage the heroes do to enemies, the more a special meter builds up in the form of playing cards, with a successful parry automatically achieving a full card. Cuphead can use stronger attacks by using a single card, but if you wait until you have a full five cards, you can unleash a super attack.
Along the adventure, Cuphead can purchase new types of guns (or magic blasts, whatever you want to call them). You can equip two such guns at a time, and can swap between those equipped by the press of a button. Additionally, you can also buy items that provide other benefits, such as additional hitpoints (the standard is three, but you can up it to four or five), or the ability to hit an automatic parry during a jump. To prevent the heroes from becoming overpowered, however, you can only equip one such item at a time.
There are three types of levels in Cuphead: the standard run and gun platforming stages, boss stages, and bullet hell boss stages (differentiated by Cuphead and Mugman piloting an airplane in an autoscrolling level).
The boss fights are the meat of the game, with most stages being gauntlets of either multiple bosses, or individual boss enemies who go through multiple phases. Perhaps most notable is how creative many of these boss fights are. Despite Cuphead’s simplistic gameplay mechanics, the creativity on display with every boss fight makes them constantly surprising, and every last boss is distinct from the others.
On the downside of things, the platforming stages aren’t remotely as fun, and it seems that the developers were well aware of that, seeing as there are only six of them in the entire game. I wouldn’t say these stages are flat-out bad, but they fail to replicate the quality and creativity found in the boss battles, and feel really bland by comparison.
In terms of challenge, Cuphead is as deceptively sinister as the cartoons that inspired it. Its opening tutorial is perhaps the easiest I’ve ever played, but once you step into the actual game, it can get incredibly punishing. Cuphead’s steep difficulty curve means it certainly isn’t a game for everyone. You won’t find any checkpoints in the boss fights or the levels, so if you die, it’s back to the starting line. And some of the bosses are unrelenting in the amount of alternate forms they take and how many projectiles they throw at you at once. Thankfully, as challenging as it is, the difficulty is mostly fair (I only felt there were two boss fights where it seemed like there were a distracting amount of going-on on screen).
The bosses do include a “simple” option where you’ll only face off against their first few phases at the expense of not getting their soul contract and, subsequently, being unable to progress until you try the actual thing (making the simple mode more of a practice mode than anything).
With how painstakingly long it takes to create hand-drawn animation, Cuphead is an understandably short game, with only three “proper” worlds and a fourth world that consists of one particularly lengthy gauntlet and a battle with the Devil himself. But for the most part, Cuphead is a blast while it lasts. The standard stages may be a little bland, but the boss encounters are one delight after another. And in terms of style, Cuphead is second to none.