At the end of a craps table and a deal with the Devil, is where our adventure begins. It’s Cuphead, the hand drawn video game fresh from StudioMDHR Entertainment. I spent the weekend traversing Inkwell Isle, switching between single player and co-op mode, and reevaluating my skills as a gamer to deliver this review.
Like the video games of old, Cuphead is a shoot ‘em up platformer with an authentic vintage feel. Title character Cuphead has a bit of a gambling problem, and ends up with his soul in debt to the Devil himself. Feeling generous, the Devil offers Cuphead a deal: if Cuphead can successfully collect the other contracts of the damned, his soul will be freed. Should he fail, both he and his brother Mugman will belong to the Devil.
Determined to own his own soul, Cuphead embarks on a journey to fight and collect the contracts of other gamblers. These lost souls belong to inanimate objects and fictional characters alike. From dragons, to flowers, to candy, Cuphead must face them all to win his soul back.
With both single and cooperative modes available, it’s a versatile game for best friends or couples. Just don’t expect to succeed that often. This side-scrolling game has a very surprising and steep learning curve. The contracts are collected at the end of boss battles, which are the majority of levels on each island. The boss levels consist of either a main boss who gets progressively more difficult, or of several mini bosses with one final boss.
The boss levels can also be fought in two modes: simple and regular, and they are definitely misnamed. Simple would be a mix between easy and regular in a normal game. The boss battles have either less mini bosses, or less progressions of the main boss. A contract is also not available for collection at the end of the simple mode. The regular mode would be a hard or difficult mode in a normal game. These levels have three to four mini bosses or progressions, and they only get harder as you progress.
On top of boss levels are “run and gun” levels. In these types, players must work their way through the level, collecting coins and killing baddies. Coins can later be used to purchase various power ups to add to your arsenal. The upgrades are hit or miss (no pun intended) when it comes to usefulness. Besides your shooter, you can only have one of super item and one charm. The shop also only replaces items after you purchase an item, so you can get stuck with a bunch of junk.
Cuphead also denies players the feeling of accomplishment. There is no way of knowing how close you are to the end of the level, unless you die or beat it. Bosses do not have life totals like you do, so it’s impossible to tell how much damage you’re dealing, if any. At the end of each level, it gives you a time, but it’s unclear if that’s how long the level is, or how long it took you to beat it. As a person who likes knowing when I’m nearing completion, this was very frustrating.
When it comes to aesthetics, Cuphead earns major points. Each scene is hand-drawn; a rarity and a wonder in today’s age. Coupled with a soundtrack of original jazz music, it feels like I’m playing an old Disney cartoon. Going along with that theme, there is no dialogue. Characters instead converse exclusively through talk bubbles and onomatopoeias. While a lot of games have silent characters, this is crucial in encapsulating that feel of an old cartoon.
Cuphead is a challenging game wrapped up in a delightful package. I want to be upset that I am doing poorly, but I just can’t find it in myself to be disappointed. I really like looking at this game, and I like the feel. It’s worth listening to the announcer’s voice a million times just to enjoy the hard work that went into the game. Unfortunately, this game does need some work in the balancing department: having six boss battles to one coin level is frustrating. Not knowing if you’re dealing damage or nearing the end of a level is stressful.
I’d say I would replay this game, but at this point I just want to beat it once. If you’re looking for a challenge, this game is good for you. If you have a solid relationship with someone and want to play co-op, this game is for you. If you’re looking to appreciate a video game wonder, this game is for you. If you’re looking for an easy game, keep looking.
Cuphead is now available for purchase on Steam.