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Cuphead (PC) artwork

Cuphead (PC) review


"Breathtaking, frustrating, exhilarating."


Cuphead is a Gunstar Heroes-like boss run imbued painstakingly and lovingly with a 1930s cartoon aesthetic and a difficulty curve cranked to ten. The arresting cel animation, hand-painted watercolour backgrounds, and big band ragtime stylings are definitely the hook, but it’s the unapologetically exacting gameplay that will make you stay.

Or leave.

Cuphead’s reputation precedes it – it is known that its presentation kicks ass, it is known that it will kick yours. What Cuphead does best, is posit that death is a tool, that when combined with patience, planning and adroit fingers, will help sculpt a perfect run on each confounding level over time. You’ll chisel away, bit by bit, flinging lives at each insurmountable challenge, laying bare the blueprint, etching inroads in the execution, until the thing is complete, your fist is above you and the level is behind you.

This is some of the most stylish run-and-gun shooting you’ll ever do. You play the role of Cuphead, along with brother Mugman in local two-player simultaneous play, on a mission born of sheer desperaton. The two mischief makers made a shady deal with the Devil (is there any other kind?) and now he’s got them playing collections agents, compelling crooked contracts from other debtors by force. Inkwell Isle is laid out before us on an overworld map with three level types: straight up platforming stages, horizontal shoot-em-up stages, and the meat of the game and true star of Cuphead: the bosses.

Cuphead (PC) image

Cuphead’s boss encounters are showcases for the game's uncommon creativity, and tight, well thought out gameplay. One early boss is a gigantic flower with bad intentions named Cagney Carnation. He fires salvos of seeds at you, occasionally saving up for one massive boomerang seed that you’ll need to dodge on the way out and back; his nose will turn into a machine gun in order for him to spit seed bombs that will sprout Cuphead-chomping plants should they touch down; he’ll lunge face first in a near screen-covering attack – and this is all phase one.

Get him angry enough and he’ll plunge his hands into the earth and send stabbing brambles up at your feet from below. Swap between primary weapons (like homing and spread), parry pink projectiles to save up special attacks for unleashing when ready, effect manic maneuvers like the smoke dash past danger – every bit of your repertoire will be required to survive each phase. And multiple phases is par for the course; each boss boasts at least three forms for you to contend with, and after getting killed for the umpteenth time you may come to detest the mocking graphic charting Cuphead’s level progress, his little silhouette running along a line, showing you how far you made it, how far you have to go.

Or! The mocking graphic may fuel your resolve! You may exclaim, I was so close! I’m not done yet!! Or something along those lines. I just have to figure out how to avoid those first annoying hits – there’s gotta be a way! And so it goes, in the mind of the Cuphead lover, who is also the Cuphead persevere-er. Because the type of gamer who is shamed by the progress graphic will give up. And that’s the type of gamer who very likely will say, this would be a fantastic game, were it only to have a true Simple (think: easy) difficulty level.

Cuphead (PC) image

While you may choose to play any encounter on “Simple,” beating the levels thusly won’t allow you to finish the game. And those who would ask for Cuphead to be easier – and certainly that thought does seem to have a fairly healthy following – are missing the point. Cuphead is about chipping away at the initially impossible, its beauty notwithstanding. I’d argue that a neutered experience would make it a different game entirely. And it’s not old school hard: there’s no limit to lives or continues, no being sent back a long way with each death as punishment. You’ve got unlimited tries, and each level takes about two minutes total when you get it right. You can get through Cuphead. Probably. Maybe.

The thing is that the margin of error is so small. Three hits small. And the same celebrated creativity in enemy design that makes each level a wondrous exercise in discovery is what ensures those hits will be fast in coming. This is not a game that you can ninja reflex your way through because every boss delights in throwing at you the unforeseen, and the delight is mutual. You take it all in, you die with wonder, try again, make adjustments, see a bit more and die again. Hopefully, a pattern will begin to emerge and hopefully your skills will be sufficient to implement that plan. Your success and enjoyment depend on it.

It’s certainly worth trying, because Cuphead is an embarrassment of creative riches, and the details are sublime: static crackling and noise dotting the load screens, the announcer’s colourful and dated declarations (WALLOP!) – it all speaks of a particularly labour-intensive work produced by a team that truly cares about their project. But for you, it may all be for naught. You might not be up to the task. And nearly every player is made to feel that damned gamer's inadequacy at some point in his career. Knowing that Cuphead might be that immovable object for some did not deter the developers from soldiering on with their vision: to create a hardcore run-and-gun game of unparalleled beauty. They did that; they fulfilled that vision, and I am grateful I am not locked out of enjoying it. Whether or not you feel you may be, will dictate your decision. Govern your gaming accordingly.

5/5

Masters's avatar
Staff review by Marc Golding (October 22, 2017)

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