After developer Studio MDHR insisting that when it comes to Cuphead, “there will be no PS4 version”, its finally on PlayStation! Although the game came out earlier in the year, it’s been a tough battle for the platinum trophy, one which I finally managed to achieve. So, here’s my review of the gorgeous-looking Cuphead…
I’ll be honest, when the game was first announced to be releasing for Xbox One back in late 2017, the stories about the difficulty and the seemingly simple gameplay didn’t particularly have my interest piqued. Yet, I am happy to report that since playing the game I admit I was wrong to dismiss the game, I hold my hands up and can now say that the game is fantastic.
If you didn’t already know, Cuphead is a shoot-em-up that you can play solo or in local co-op on a single screen. The game follows the character Cuphead and his brother Mugman who live under the watchful eyes of the rather steamy (teehee) Elder Kettle. The brothers, against the wishes of the Elder Kettle, dabble in a night of gambling at the Devil’s Casino where they go on an unprecedented winning streak.
The Devil hates this and so offers them one final roll of the dice. Win and they shall gain all the fortunes of the casino, lose and they must gather the soul contracts of all those who have wronged the devil previously unless they want to be the slaves of the Devil forever.
So, off you set on your journey across the Inkwell Isles after being granted powers by the Elder Kettle to defend yourselves. Across the three Isles, you will face a myriad of different enemies and there are two types of levels you will encounter, run and gun, or boss battles. These are both pretty self-explanatory – run and gun levels have you progress through traditional side-scrolling missions, defeating enemies as you progress, while boss battles are long fights against large, named opponents that consist of three stages, of which some you will have to fight while flying an aeroplane.
One of the things that makes Cuphead truly stand out is, of course, its art-style. The visuals are truly a sight to behold, artistically influenced by 1930s cartoons where designs of characters were slightly off – therefore just as terrifying as they are adorable. It’s all part of what is known as the Rubber Hose animations that were prevalent in the 1930s. The characters have extremely fluid movements, with limbs that are snakey and slippery. It captures the art of the era incredibly well, transporting you back in time to the classics of that movement, having more than a hint of Steamboat Willy.
All of the bosses are heavily inspired by cartoon characters from the time period. The most obvious of these is one known as Hilda Berg, who definitely draws her look from Betty Boop. Some of the other bosses take a bit more research to find their inspirations but they’re all there and they look fantastic.
Every single boss looks uniquely wonderful, with their own personalities, powers and environments that all combine to make them feel special. They are all memorable which, in a game that has so many bosses, is a very impressive feat. They’re all challenging and also very entertaining, requiring you to learn their moves and to come up with your own strategies to defeat them. In all honesty, the art style of Cuphead is absolutely up there with one of the best I’ve seen in a game.
The brilliant visuals also pair impeccably well with a soundtrack that stays in your head long after you’ve finished it. Each level has its own song that accompanies your journeys and battles and makes each battle feel epic. The menu song especially will no doubt become an earworm with its retro-tinged voxophone sound that sounds almost like a barbershop quartet are stood beside you narrating your entire experience. The soundtrack oozes beautiful jazz music and big band masterpieces that I think truly deserve a concert in the same vein as the tours of the Kingdom Hearts Orchestra.
Cuphead’s gameplay is overall very simple. It’s essentially a shmup but with its own features and mechanics that elevate it to another level. As previously mentioned, there are run and gun levels where you progress through different environments shooting various enemy types, or elaborate boss battles where you dodge whatever named creature throws at you while dishing hell back at them.
Where it becomes a bit different is in your loadout. As you progress through the world, choosing whichever level you want in a ‘Super Mario World’ style map layout, you can complete little tasks to earn yourself some coins. Combine these with the coins you earn within the missions and you can spend these in Porkrind’s Emporium shop. The shop is actually more important than you think, adding a sort of strategy to your progression.
You can purchase new weapons and new power-ups that make the levels a bit easier. These include abilities such as a smoke-dash that allows you to slip through projectiles unharmed, or twin hearts which simply add two more lives to your health bar. The reason these choices matter is because certain levels become much easier depending on which powers and weapons you have active.
Without a doubt, the most divisive aspect of the game will be the difficulty. Cuphead, despite its beautiful cartoon visuals, is not messing around. You will die, hundreds of times. It’s incredibly challenging without ever feeling unfair, which is very difficult to pull off.
I had the same conversation with myself every time I fought a new boss: First 10 tries: “This is it. It’s too hard. I’m never doing this”. 11-20 tries: “Oh okay, I’m getting the hang of this”. Then I’d reach the next stage of the boss and this would start over until I eventually beat the boss. It sometimes feels like there’s too much to dodge and very overwhelming, but you’ll soon get used to the patterns and become accustomed to what you have to do to succeed.
The developers have crafted the bosses with exceptional detail, they know exactly how many projectiles are too many at one time for you to handle so it never feels ‘unfair’, just difficult. It will get frustrating and test your patience, but more often than not you will recognise that deaths are a mistake that you have made and not the result of the game conning lives out of you. Sure, there are times where you will dodge an attack and land right into a different attack, but that’s also usually down to poor timing, especially when you know what move set the boss has.
The game is a master at triggering that impulsive “one more try” mentality because even when you’re really struggling it always feels attainable, like reaching for something from your sofa when you’re determined to not get off your seat. You know you can get there and you’re too stubborn to admit defeat.
One gripe I did have with the game, with regards to the difficulty, is being locked out of certain power-ups. There were a couple of occasions where because I had no prior knowledge of what the bosses were like, I just bought whatever items were available first in the store with the coins I earnt. This sometimes left me struggling with certain bosses because I didn’t have the correct power-ups to make the boss more manageable.
I wish there was some kind of way around this for people with no experience of the game: maybe a recommended loadout for each boss or some way of knowing exactly all the powerups that will eventually be available to purchase so you can at least plan ahead. For example, trying to beat the dragon boss Grim Matchstick (great name) without a gun that allowed me to fire backwards was proving to be an absolute pain, but I got there in the end.
While the entire game is playable in co-op, from my experience it makes the game much more difficult (Just like the original Battletoads). The health pools of the bosses scale up if you’re playing in two-player mode, which in theory means that the challenge will stay the same. The problem is that further issues spring up from having that second person. First is the screen clutter. Having two similar-looking models jumping in similar spaces means you can lose sight of who you are and it can all become a tad confusing.
The second issue comes from specific types of enemy attacks. Some attacks follow and target a specific player, which can cause absolute chaos when you start crossing paths. Projectiles that are meant for one player can end up killing the other due to how projectiles spawn. To put it into context, on my co-op playthrough we had over 3000 deaths. On my solo run, I had less than 500. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a criticism of the game at all, merely an observation. I had an absolute blast playing with a second player but it also increases the frustration gained to no end, especially on expert difficulty.
Cuphead is a game that really should be played by everyone. If you’re someone who likes to work hard to improve at a game, like Crash Bandicoot, for example, this game is definitely for you. If you’re also someone who just likes shooting stuff in the face while enjoying a boppy soundtrack and appreciating some fine art, it’s also for you. Cuphead really is a masterpiece of simplistic game design. I’m not the most patient person in the world but this game just grabs you and releases a hidden determination to beat its challenges and I had an absolute blast while doing it.
This game should honestly warrant a full price experience. That you can download it for £15.99 is an absolute steal. Play this gem of a game.