Challenging boss battles and imaginative boss design
Different combos of arms and charms help you improve your odds
Every bit as addictive as it is tough
Arguably crosses the line into stupidly difficult
Can be hard to pull off key parry move
Review Price: £16.74
Platforms: Xbox One, PC
Developer: Studio MDHR
Available now on Xbox One and Windows 10
Damn you, Cuphead, you’re not quite what you seemed to be. When you were first showcased at E3 2014 I had you pegged as a cool platformer with an amazing 1930s cartoon art style. I was thinking something in the vein of Rayman: Legends with a vintage Felix the Cat meets Merrie Melodies vibe. Even when the reports came in that you were actually a run-and-gun shooter, I didn’t expect anything like what I’ve been playing over the last two days. We forget now, but those old pre-Hays Code cartoons could be dark, cruel and even shocking in their content. Some, Cuphead, would say the same about you.
It turns out that StudioMDHR’s debut game has less in common with Rayman: Legends, or even a modern run-and-gunner like Matterfall or Broforce, and more with bullet-hell shooters or, weirdly enough, Team Ninja’s Nioh. It’s a game that requires that kind of patience, skill and observation, not to mention the reflexes of a nervous cat. What’s more, it’s principally a game of boss battles, with the titular hero blasting away at screen-filling, bullet-sponge baddies until either him or they go down.
It’s got an oddly sinister story to tell, where two heroic hunks of homeware – Cuphead and his brother Mughead – end up in hock to the Devil through gambling, and the only way out of debt is to travel around the Inkwell Islands settling Satan’s scores. Cuphead and his brother (if you’re playing co-op) wander around three different world maps, getting advice and the occasional gift from loitering characters, then finding the Devil’s targets and defeating them in battle.
Cuphead also contains a handful of run-and-gun levels, but these have a specific function. Tackling the bosses is tough going (to say the least) and you stand a much better chance if you can pack different sets of charms (your basic perks) and weapons. To earn these, however, you need to collect gold coins. Some can be found hiding in the world maps, while others might be given by generous bystanders, but for the most part you’ll find these lurking, often out of easy reach, somewhere in the run-and-gun levels.
These clearly weren’t the focus of your designers. They’re relatively short, which is a good thing, as they’re brutishly difficult and checkpoint-free. What’s more, only half show the kind of crazed invention displayed in Cuphead’s showcase boss battle sequences. There’s a fantastic effort involving sudden shifts of gravity, but even this feels a little clumsy in its pacing, layout and mechanics. I prefer Cuphead’s scattered shoot-’em-up sequences, which drop the Contra run-and-gun stuff to go all Gradius on our poor behinds. There’s nothing particularly new here bar some frankly astonishing visuals, but the action is much more polished and on-point.
It’s in those boss battles, however, where Cuphead’s at its best – or worst. They’re horrifically addictive and undeniably dazzling, yet equally remorseless, mean and cruel. The more I say, the more I’ll spoil, but as villainous root vegetables give way to constellation-cloning witch-blimps, creepy amusement park clowns and Bluto-esque buccaneers, Cuphead seems to up the ante with each one. Yet there’s also something a little sadistic about its unrelenting, multi-stage onslaughts, each stage adding new threats, new attacks, new patterns and new, unexpected ways to die.
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Particularly skilful gamers – the kind who beat a Bloodborne boss on New Game Plus before breakfast – may get through some of these fights within their first five goes. For most of us, though, this will be a case of suffering death after death, learning each phase, its threats and patterns, then working out an effective strategy for pushing through. We’ll hopefully get a little further with each attempt, coming within seconds of victory, then getting slaughtered in seconds by some peril we never saw coming.
Worse, simply learning and practicing the patterns doesn’t always work, because sometimes phases or hench-monsters appear in a different order, or because some of the bosses react to player movements in ways you take a while to work out. I’ve tried to cheese some bosses and I’ve nearly prayed for a lucky streak, but the only sure way to triumph is to learn the boss’s tricks, then just play better.
And so my relationship with Cuphead has become a little love/hate. At first, I thought it was stupidly and wilfully difficult; love the style, but not worth the bother. Even now, many hours later, I catch myself wondering whether I can really face tackling this bastard boss for the umpteenth time. Not everyone will have the energy or patience to reach Cuphead’s final battles, yet there’s something about it that seems to encourage bloody-mindedness; a feeling of ‘that’s it, I’m quitting for real this time. Well, maybe after just one more go.’
There are some ways to make things slightly easier. Changing the controls from the painfully useless default configurations to use the triggers to fire and dash is a pretty good start. Collecting those coins and using the new perks and weapons is another, as sometimes having a short-range/heavy damage 3-way blaster or a dash move that makes you temporarily invincible is enough to gain that crucial edge.
What’s more, the boss battles – and sadly not the run-and-gun levels – have a choice of difficulty levels. Polish the bosses off on Simple difficulty and you won’t get them signed-off on your Satanic hitlist, leaving the final battles inaccessible until you do, but at least you can make progress, kit yourself out with better stuff, then come back when you’ve honed your skills. Winning on Simple doesn’t spoil the action either, as the Regular difficulty bosses have additional phases. Sometimes walking away and trying something different is better than banging your head against Cuphead’s brick walls.
Perhaps the most important thing, though, is to master Cuphead’s parry manoeuvre. You’ll soon notice that some enemies, some shots and some objects have a bright pink hue. Leap into the air them press the jump button while in contact, and you’ll give them a healthy smack, earning the cards that full up your Special gauge along the way. When this fills up you can use your current special move, which may be a powerful attack or may be temporary invulnerability. This won’t solve all your Cuphead problems, and you sometimes wonder if anyone can pull a parry off on the faster-moving, unpredictable or low-flying targets. All the same, it might just lead you to a breakthrough.
There’s something about Cuphead’s lavish cartoon graphics and superb jazz and ragtime soundtrack that brings to mind Bioshock. I can imagine it as a pioneering arcade game in Rapture, sorting out Andrew Ryan’s superior men from the weak and the parasites. For some its sheer challenge will be its biggest asset, and it’s a game that feels destined to play out in Twitch streams and YouTube videos for months, as its best players showcase their skills and reveal the line-up of weapons and charms they prefer to polish off each boss.
It’s just a slight shame that that’s going to leave some of those who would have loved its artistry and imagination out in the cold, but the more I’ve played Cuphead, the more I’ve learnt to accept and love it. It’s not what I thought it would be, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t great.
It’s almost needless to say that the visuals are incredible, creating a stunning run-and-gun boss battler that looks straight out of 1930s ‘toons. In fact, the presentation, the audio, the music and the general vibe are unbelievable. Cuphead will be too tough for some players, and you’d have to look to the likes of Nioh or Dark Souls to find something as brutal and unforgiving. It’s going to take some serious skill and experience to beat those bosses, but Cuphead keeps on bringing you back for more until you do.