Making a difficult game must be hard. Finding that balance between challenge and fun can’t be easy. There is a definite fine line in difficulty levels that are finely tuned for fun and challenge and difficulties that are so uneven, so poorly conceived that luck becomes a major factor in whether it
can be beaten. Regardless of how the experience is tuned, there is no denying the sense of achievement, or relief, you get from finally beating that difficult part that has held you back. So, here we have Cuphead, Studio MDHR’s debut game, a game which has from an early stage, been quite
upfront about its high difficulty. And despite many delays and changes, is finally here in all its Technicolor, hand-drawn glory.
Cuphead ‘Don’t deal with the Devil’ is the tale of Cuphead and his brother, Mugman, who find themselves on the unlucky side of a betting table at the Devils casino. After a bad bet resulting in the forfeit of both of their souls to the devil, they manage to convince the Devil to give them back but
only if they go out and retrieve the souls of other, colourful cartoon characters who owe a debt to the devil. So acting as the devil’s debt collectors, we venture out into the wonderful world of Cuphead to win back our souls.
Cuphead, at its core, is a side-scrolling run and gun action game with a particular focus on boss rush battling and bullet hell mayhem. In fact, there are 17 bosses in total to tackle, each with their own charmingly unique and fiendishly difficult boss to beat as well as their own distinctive mechanics
that need to be mastered in order to beat them. Sometimes the boss battles swap its run and gun style to an old-fashioned ‘schmup’, mimicking old-school bullet hell shooters like UN Squadron and R-Type. But also mixing things up a little are 6 ‘traditional’ scrolling action levels that have you just
trying to get from one end to the other without dying, which is easier said than done, however it does at least serve as a nice change of pace to the relentless boss battling you will be doing in the rest of the game.
The game is presented in an RPG-esque overhead hub world, allowing you to move about and explore the world as you progress through the game and to pick and choose which boss or level you want to tackle. As you explore the hub world you meet other colourful characters to interact with
and hidden secrets to find. It all just adds a little more character to a game already overflowing with charisma and you genuinely look forward to progressing further in the game to see what else is in store for you. The only slightly irritating issue to the hub world is if you want to tackle a specific boss or level, you do need to navigate through the hub until you get to that point – there is no quick access menu taking you to a level or boss directly. But honestly, it’s a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things.
Cuphead is punishing, with an uncompromising difficulty. You will die a lot in this game. Beating bosses for the first time will require many trial and error attempts as you try and figure out the patterns for each of the bosses multitudes of attacks. Sometimes, even when you do know what to
expect, additional enemies will enter the fray or even the bosses’ attack patterns will change slightly in their order too. There is also no health bar for any of the bosses, so you never know exactly how close you may have been to finally killing them. But each time you do die the game presents the
player with a progress bar for that boss showing you how close you were to beat them. The bar shows milestones which represent when the attack patterns change, meaning you can get a sense of how far you are progressing as the boss changes their tactics to suit as the fight progresses. But as punishing as the game is, it never feels unfair and you will feel a genuine sense of achievement when you do finally work your way through a bosses defences and finally beat them and this is a feeling that stays pretty consistent as you fight your way through to the rest of the game.
Now, the game does have an easier ‘Simple’ difficulty option which can be selected before you tackle a boss, but in all honesty, it doesn’t feel all that much simpler to the regular mode. To make matters worse, it doesn’t even reward you with that boss’s contract needed to progress through the
game if you do beat them, so it feels almost pointless to even bother trying it on the simpler difficulty.
Thankfully, the controls to Cuphead feel responsive and you never feel that you have to fight against them. So, any mistakes you will inevitably make will be purely your own fault. Along with the usual fire, jump and special moves Cuphead throws in a few additional defensive moves which, when
mastered, will really increase your chances of surviving a lot of the later boss battles. One being a dash move, which helps the player avoid danger and can even be later upgraded to make you invulnerable during the dash. The other move being a parry, where a tightly timed press of the jump
button will have Cuphead parry purple enemies/bullets. It’s a difficult move to master completely, and you will unavoidably lose a lot of health making multiple attempts at it but not only will successful parry’s reward the player with special move cards, it will become an essential tool in
increasing your mobility through the levels so the risk/reward is there to make it worthwhile to master in the long term.
Speaking of upgrades, as you work your way through the game, you will accumulate coins which you can spend to upgrade Cuphead’s abilities. As mentioned above, we can enhance his dodge, but we can also increase the players’ health, change his super ability or even power up the bullet he fires from his fingers. Cuphead can only have a few of these items enabled at any one time, so some trial and error will come into play as you work out the best combination of abilities and upgrades will work best for each boss encounter.
Graphically, Cuphead is a thing to behold and wonderfully unique. Everything in the game was created using the same techniques of the era the game is mimicking. With highly detailed, water coloured backgrounds to the hand-drawn sprites of all the characters and enemies you will
encounter in the game. Even the animations of all these characters have that jaunty ‘bounce, the world moves in sync with the music’ kind of feel, ironically making the world of Cuphead feel even more alive than some of the hyper-realistic games we are traditionally used to seeing. Speaking of
the music, Studio MDHR even went the extra mile to produce original 30’s style Jazz music, which in all honesty has had me toe-tapping along or even just sitting in the menu’s letting the loops play out. It perfectly goes hand in hand with the look they have to create the perfect homage to 1930’s cartoons. Everything that makes up Cuphead is striking and deliberate and serves to do one thing – suck you into this bubble that convinces you that you are playing a cartoon that was made in the 30’s.
Cuphead can be played in co-op, with the second player playing as Cuphead’s brother, Mugman. But, unfortunately, it’s only limited to local play instead of being able to play it over Xbox Live. Still, as limiting as it is, the addition of local co-op is a welcome one. There is another caveat, however,
playing in co-op feels as if it makes an already punishing game even more difficult. It can already be difficult to keep track of Cuphead’s position in relation to all the little dots of death being flung about the screen. Adding another character and their own stream of death just adds to the on-screen chaos. It doesn’t detract from the game; in fact, it feels almost like its own separate difficulty level. Some players might not even notice a difference, but it was certainly a curious element I noticed while playing it in local co-op.
Cuphead is one of those rare games where you can tell it’s been a genuine labour of love for the entire development team. Whether you are a fan of the very old aesthetic style or have never really been taken by it, you will truly struggle to fight against the charm and jauntiness this game oozes out
of every pixel. It’s a difficult game but one that doesn’t punish and feels genuinely rewarding to progress through. It’s a rare example of style and substance as well as being a stellar entry in the run and gun shooter genre.