Cuphead Review – IGN
You know how a joke can start funny, get annoying, then become funny again through sheer attrition? That’s Cuphead’s approach to enjoyment. With a beautiful, caustic, near-unceasing stream of boss battles, Studio MDHR’s debut made me scream with joy and horror by turn, but I settled on joy by the end.
The most obvious point to begin with is that Cuphead looks astonishing. Its 1930s animation style – all watercolour backgrounds and surreal, juddering, hand-drawn characters – pay peerless homage to Max Fleischer and his ilk, and are perfectly implemented. Somehow it manages to balance dozens of moving elements and a slight rear-projection blur without ever feeling unreadable in even the most frantic moments. There has never been a game that looks like this and there may never be again. Every scene is a masterwork – it’s a near-unbelievable achievement for an art style.
The sound work is an ideal match: a huge jumble of high-tempo ragtime, swing, big band, and jazz (the list of musicians is almost as long as the rest of the credits combined) pummels away wonderfully in the background of every fight. It makes Cuphead feel truly out of time, and its bizarre mix of ‘30s aesthetics and ‘80s design more heady than ever. I also feel duty-bound to point out that the way Porkrind the shopkeeper bellows “welcome” made me laugh every single time I heard it.
There’s no doubt that it’s gorgeous, and many people will be drawn to that, but that veneer conceals a very niche, hardcore design. You may have gleaned by now that this game is really, really hard. It’s absolutely uncompromising in its difficulty from the outset. No level includes checkpoints and, barring one late-game match-up, there is no way to regain lost health. You could hit levels that take hours to beat, and the finale is locked off until you beat every other level on “Regular” difficulty (i.e. extremely difficult). And don’t think that local co-op will ease things up – dropping in a second player as Cuphead’s pal Mugman makes events onscreen that much harder to follow. I find it actively harder with a second player, if anything.
And so, as I played I gradually stopped noticing a lot of the glorious art, because actually interacting with Cuphead is so hectic, so stressful, that it just gets filed away by my right-brain as a distraction. That skyscraper-tall robot firing laser barriers is just three hovering hitboxes and a series of no-go zones. When one boxing glove-wearing frog eats another to turn itself into an evil slot machine, that’s nothing more than a phase change. My favourite boss design – a giant bird wearing cuckoo clock armour and its tiny, ray gun-wielding chick – fires wads of garbage at you by literally turning its head into a bin, but I only noticed that detail when I watched someone else play it hours later.
In the moment it’s frenetic, but Cuphead’s structure is a linear sequence of three worlds filled with one-shot levels to complete, and a finale. Those levels can take one of three forms. The least common – and least interesting – is run ‘n’ gun, left-to-right platforming drawn directly from the likes of Contra. Barring one that has you regularly flipping gravity to get through, these are both the easiest and least inventive stages that Cuphead has to offer. They’re meant to provide some breathing space from endless boss battles, but they end up feeling more like a lull.
Thankfully, the other types are straight boss battles, and they are an entirely different sentient kettle of surreal, singing fish. Some take the form of bullet hell shooting, with Cuphead mounted in a free-flying plane. As much tests of dexterity as they are pattern learning, they’re a throwback to the likes of classic Treasure games (just with fewer spaceships and more angry constellations), and slot comfortably alongside them for quality.
Best of all, though, are the platforming battles. This is where MDHR flexes its imagination most, crafting weird, often hilarious bouts that have you interacting with the limited control scheme in more and more interesting ways. Taking on the workers on a ghost train has you not only shooting enemies, but also controlling the position of your rail trolley platform while stopping minions from moving you into dangerous positions. Battling an actress in her theatre takes you through the different stages of a play, and the combat feels almost like a fighting game as she divekicks and uses props as special moves. One of the final levels changes the structure entirely, turning a series of fights into a miniature board game – it’s an absolute joy, and up there with the best boss battles I’ve ever played.
Perhaps Cuphead’s smartest, most devilish addition is in how all these types of levels taunt you into playing more. No enemy has a health bar, nor an indication for when you’re getting close to a knockout – instead, when you die you’re shown a graph of how close you were to the KO or the next phase of the battle. It reduces screen clutter while also encouraging (or perhaps that should be “berating”) you into taking another crack at it.
It’s not just a matter of playing the same way over and over, however. Unlockable shot types, extra abilities, and a series of super moves offer you different solutions to difficult levels. Some are more useful than others – I only used the shot that fires backwards in a single fight, and I genuinely can’t imagine playing without the ability that prevents you from taking damage during a dash – but they offer a splash of puzzle thinking to the mix. It can be vital to experiment with them, too; I only managed to beat the final boss because of a change in ammunition.
Cuphead himself is perfectly responsive and, with never-ending shots and dashes at his disposal, genuinely powerful when compared to other platforming heroes. It just so happens that he’s being pitted against extremely tough opposition. The controls are good enough to make mistakes feel like your fault, not his.
The one real issue with Cuphead’s abilities is the parry system. You can double-jump off of any object coloured pink, but will take damage if you get the timing wrong. Unfortunately, it feels flimsily implemented – sometimes very generous, sometimes requiring absolute precision. Even having finished the campaign, I still don’t feel like I have a true handle on it.
There are a few curious design choices that make Cuphead harder in a way that’s less rewarding. The default gamepad control scheme, for instance, maps Cuphead’s shoot and jump abilities to adjacent face buttons, making them far harder to press at the same time than they ever should be. It’s an absurd choice for two actions you’ll be using constantly – make sure you remap one to a trigger before you begin. Having to leave a fight entirely to change your ability loadout is also an unnecessary waste of time, and it stands out starkly because every other element of Cuphead is geared towards you getting to retry a failed bout almost instantly.
But Cuphead’s use of randomisation between different runs of the same battle is perhaps its worst decision. On the one hand, the fact that some bosses can spawn sets of randomised mini-bosses is legitimately exciting (not to mention a chance to cram in even more of MDHR’s animation), and changes to attack patterns keep things fresh and challenging even after tens of retries. It’s pushed too far, however.
Certain combinations of attacks can feel legitimately unfair – being pushed to the edge of the screen, only to have exploding projectiles spawn offscreen behind you, for example – but, it must be said, most can be dealt with. Similarly, winning a long-fought battle simply because randomisation made one run much easier than the ones that came before can make your triumph feel a little limp. Worst of all, scrolling levels with randomly placed platforms can become all but impossible through no fault of your own. It is a shame that certain levels feel less like skill tests and more like luck of the draw, but that’s thankfully a rare problem. One of Cuphead’s greatest strengths is that no matter how long a boss takes to beat, I usually emerged feeling like a better player for the experience, and ready to bring that to the next fight.
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