Cuphead’s the kind of the game that needs no introduction. Debuted at E3 in 2014, Cuphead’s striking aesthetic grabbed the attention of the gaming community quickly, but there was no playable demo that year. While Cuphead’s hype train continued to pick up speed there was quite a bit of concern in the community that Studio MDHR’s frequent bouts of radio silence meant the game might not come to fruition. Thankfully, those concerns were unfounded and Cuphead saw its full release as an Xbox One console exclusive while also being an Xbox Play Anywhere title on 29 September, 2017.
Seven years in the making, Cuphead was developed by brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer with animation work by Jake Clarke. It is their first game release under the moniker StudioMDHR Entertainment. In an industry filled to the brim with pixel perfect worlds, Cuphead’s hand drawn surreal visuals are a breath of fresh air. The game is heavily inspired by the classic picture shows of the 1930s such as Bette Boop and Steamboat Willy. There’s even a hidden mode that turns all of the art black and white should players be inclined to play that way. The only major difference between Cuphead and the classic cartoons that came before it is that Cuphead runs at 60fps whereas vintage cartoons were merely 24fps.
Cuphead’s story tells a tale of two brothers – Cuphead and Mugman – who manage to make plenty enough trouble for themselves. Despite being told to steer clear of the Devil’s casino, the brothers go gambling anyway. After a winning streak, the Devil appears and makes the brothers a deal. If their next roll is a winner they can have all of his riches. Should they lose, however, the Devil claims their souls. Luck being what it is, the dice lands on snake eyes, and the brothers find themselves indebted to the devil himself. The Devil’s a dealer, though, and he’s not just satisfied taking the brothers’ souls alone. So he makes them another offer they can not refuse. There’s some other souls that the Devil needs to collect that aren’t going down easily. If Cuphead and Mugman can collect those souls, the Devil will spare their lives.
This is the point where players take over of the mischievous brothers, either alone in single player as Cuphead or in local coop with the second player taking over as Mugman. Beginning in Inkwell Isles I, Cuphead is armed with a list of the contracts for the souls that he needs to collect, but none of the characters on the list are interested in making it easy for the duo. Inkwell Isles is a semi-open playground to explore. There are NPCs scattered about who will happily share tips and tricks for progressing. A couple spots along the paths through Inkwell Isles can be selected as Run ‘n Gun levels. There are no difficulty settings for the Run ‘n Guns, but players can choose to make them easier by actually using their finger gun to shoot enemies, or ramp up the difficulty by taking the pacifist approach and not firing at any enemies in these levels. Run ‘n Gun levels offer up coins for players to collect that can be used at Porkrind’s Emporium to purchase health upgrades or new weapons.
While the Run ‘n Gun levels offer up a nice break in gameplay, Cuphead’s bread and butter is the boss rushes that litter the landscape of Inkwell Isles. Players can take on the bosses in nearly any order that they choose. Some portions of the isles are closed off with obstacles that are not cleared until the corresponding boss is knocked out. Boss battles do have two difficulty modes available. For the squeamish there is Simple mode, and for the rest of us there’s Regular mode. Its important to point out that there is little difference between the two difficulties, however. Regular mode boss battles typically include 3-5 phases, with later bosses having more iterations of themselves to make it tougher. If you choose to play in Simple mode instead of Regular, these boss battles will have less phases but the attack patterns, damage values, and hit points for the bosses remains the same.
As collecting the contracts is the primary reasoning behind these Boss battles at all, Cuphead chooses to punish players that limit themselves to Simple difficulty by withholding the contract for that boss. Players will still receive a letter grade for their performance on the level (which is also affected by choosing the lower difficulty) but in order to complete the true ending for Cuphead the player must have acquired all of the contracts. If for some reason you manage to complete the game on Regular and still have a controller and your sanity intact an Expert difficulty is subsequently available.
Cuphead’s plethora of bosses are not locked behind lengthy quests or misadventures. They’re out in the open for anybody to tackle as they choose, making it easy to pick up Cuphead for a quick attempt at a troublesome boss but also offering up an opportunity for players to strike out and try another boss whentheir frustration with a current battle becomes too much. And it will. It will be too much. Cuphead is notoriously difficult, but successfully completing the game on Regular (and even Expert) is not out of the realm of attainable. Much of the gameplay doesn’t just lend itself constant failure but actually requires that failure to progress. The best way to succeed is to fail, and learning the phases and attack patterns of the various bosses by practicing them repeatedly is the best way to learn how to take them down quickly.
One of the best aspects of Cuphead is that even with the difficulty cranked up, it still manages to feel like a fair fight. The controls are responsive and simple, but their initial layout does leave a bit to be desired. The button to fire Cuphead’s finger gun, for example, is mapped to X while the controller’s right trigger just collects dust. Though it seems that Studio MDHR may have already anticipated backlash for their button mapping decisions as they opted to make it possible to remap the controls on the fly by accessing the pause menu. Still, the countless deaths you’ll inevitably rack up are undeniably the result of player error.