After a long, long wait, Studio MHDR’s Cuphead will finally be available later tonight on Xbox One and Windows PC. An eye-catching display since it headlined Xbox’s E3 2017 indies showcase, the title has recently made a name for itself by being insanely difficult. While that’s true, Cuphead has substance to match its style, rewarding those who can make it past the steep learning curve.
Cuphead stars the titular character alonside his brother, Mugman. Wholesome like Disney, but dark like the allegations of Walt Disney’s ties to the Nazi movement, the beverage boys like to gamble. Some poor decisions at the craps table find them on the losing side of a deal with The Devil. Rather than sacrificing their souls to Beelzebub, Cuphead and Mugman go on a quest to capture the souls of others instead.
Really, the situation is just an excuse to package Cuphead‘s boss rush-esque gameplay into something resembling a story. From there, Cuphead and Mugman can traverse a world map, choosing to take part in boss battles, Run ‘n Gun levels or power-adding Mausoleums, or simply conversing with other flavour-adding NPCs or hitting the shops for battle-enhancing items.
There are 27 levels to play through, including Mausoleums and Run ‘n Gun missions, though the pair serve to better prepare you for bosses themselves. They’re all that’s required to progress through the game, be it to one of its three worlds or its finale. Two difficulty settings are first offered up — Simple, which serve as watered-down versions of levels, and the super-difficult Regular mode. To get to the game’s finale, you’ll need to beat bosses on Regular; Simple simply doesn’t cut it. Of the boss battles, you’ll either play on-foot or in an airplane, and the entire game can be completed solo or using couch co-op.
Our heroes don’t have a lot of moves in their arsenals. Holding down the X button will fire a primary weapon, and that can be aimed in eight directions using the left-stick or d-pad. You aim and move with the left-stick, though holding down the right bumper will lock your character in place, allowing for (something resembling) precision aiming. As you take out boss health, or that of their henchmen, you’ll gain super power that can be unleashed with the B button. Shops provide different primary weapons, and Mausoleums offer different supers. Weapons can be short- or long-range, and some supers benefit specific battles; my favourite, a gigantic horizontal beam, is utterly useless when trying to take out baddies above or below you. The heroes can also jump with A and then hit the A button again to parry pink-coloured objects, useful to avoid enemy attacks and build up your super meter.
No matter the level you play, be prepared for a bunch of rote learning; alone or in a pair, you’ll need to identify patterns and then work on ways to best them. Simple difficulty provides a good look at around 65-70% of what Regular battles will entail; sometimes, one section of a full battle will be cut from Simple, and other times, extra mechanics will also be removed from encounters. Just because you can beat a Simple battle unscathed doesn’t mean you’re prepared for its Regular counterpart. Never, ever get cocky. Just when you think you know how a sequence will go, Cuphead switches it up, changing the timing of an event, the distance a bad guy will travel or something else entirely. It feels cheap in the moment, but not after you take a breath; you’ll clear your head, harden your resolve, and yearn to do better next time.
Shops provide ways to make levels easier, providing an additional hit point or (my favourite) an initial auto-parry. Each level ranks your abilities, requiring a no-damage run, speedy finish time, at least 3 parries and 6 hits with your character’s super to warrant a rating of A. While an S ranking is available, we couldn’t achieve one solo; there is a difficulty level above Regular, so it most likely will take a perfect run through that to hit that particular accolade.
The overworld, a fancy level select screen, comes in handy. At most times in the game, you’ll have a potential two or three levels within easy reach. If you find yourself struggling to complete those levels and gain access to the next set, you will most likely be able to find and use a shortcut to move along. While you do need to complete each boss to actually move to the next world, this feature means you won’t be pulling your hair out in frustration.
While I played through the game’s Simple bosses solo — taking around 5-6 hours to beat them — I only had an opportunity to play a handful of missions in co-op. In our experience, Cuphead doesn’t appear to add extra elements when two players are firing away; nor does the combined fire of players seem to defeat enemies any faster. Co-op has one major pro, though an equally major con balances it — while co-op players can use the parry move on one another as a revive, there’s way more going on the screen with a second player. It’s quite easy to lose yourself — and your concentration — as a result.
While battles are challenging, the game’s Run ‘n Gun sequences are near-impossible. Without a difficulty select, they feel like Regular difficulty — punishing and unforgiving. Thankfully, they can largely be skipped if they’re proving too difficult. Mausoleums, on the other hand, are exceptionally easy… though this might be because I equipped the auto-parry ability and left it on throughout my entire playthrough. All you need to go to unlock extra supers inside Mausoleums is parry off of ridiculous numbers of ghosts.
Cuphead has been known, since day one, for an amazing visual style, offering Disney-style, hand-drawn animations. That theme flows throughout the entire work, from old-timey cartoon visual distortions to a phonograph-like hiss and crackle throughout the soundtrack (which is equally as good, if not better, than the animations). Despite this high level of polish, Cuphead still manages to cut corners — when speaking to several NPCs, they’ll respond to you as if Cuphead and Mugman were both present, even if you’re playing solo. It’s not a huge deal, but something that pulls you from the moment almost instantly.
In the end, Cuphead proves to be everything I wanted it to be — challenging, stylised and fun. It’s a tough, tough game — but unlike Dark Souls, my failures in Cuphead made me want to keep playing. Bring it on.
Cuphead was reviewed using a promotional code on Xbox One, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.