When Cuphead was first announced in 2013, the pseudo-platformer immediately drew attention with a graphic style that captured the grainy, burgeoning animation of early cartoons made by Disney and other studios. To think those visuals could be used for a game was an exciting and unique premise, and to see that players could actively control characters in the same way that viewers experienced animation so very long before video games came to be was an instantly appealing prospect. The developers at Studio MDHR have clearly put their hearts and souls into this game over the past few years, even going so far as to remortgage their houses and quit their jobs to see the title to completion. That dedication and hard work paid off in the end, however, as the result is a game gorgeous in design and challenging in gameplay that truly raises the bar for platformers and sidescrollers.
The story of Cuphead is simple. The eponymous character gets into a deal with the Devil (hence the game’s tagline “Don’t Deal with the Devil”) and must repay his debt by defeating a number of bosses to return their souls in exchange for his own. Alongside him is his companion, Mugman, who is in the same boat and exists as a co-op character should players wish to enjoy the game with a friend. In setting up the story so accessibly and plainly, the focus of the title becomes the gameplay by which the player completes their mission, with each boss having a unique level and key to victory. From towering flowers and ghost-filled tombs to rollercoaster brawls and airplane dogfights, the sheer variety in these bosses makes for a wide variety in visual and gameplay elements that ensure the enemies feel worthy of being in hell. While the story follows a predictable and expected path, the frame of the end goal works well enough to create the world in which the player must fight for their soul and meet a host of characters that will not be soon forgotten.
Within the narrative, the gameplay is the true heart of the player experience. As with any platformer, only a few buttons are used, but the simplistic controls do not, at all, reflect the difficulty of this title. Even veterans of the genre who think they can jump in and fly through the boss battles will find no easy victory. Each boss battle has a separate set of rules that must be figured out by the player, and the more traditional “run & gun” sections require multiple attempts to fully understand the scope of the level and the key points of difficulty. With no checkpoints within a level, players must complete the sections in one go, and a final scorecard evaluating completion time and coins collected adds to the pressure as well. The smoothness and fluidity of the mechanics make restarting each attempt painless, such that no additional worries are added to the already taxing difficulty.
What stops the oft frustrating resets of every level from being unbearable is how short they are, averaging between one and three minutes per attempt. This design allows players to try a level multiple times without feeling as though they are wasting hours on any one section of the game, as the freedom to do the levels in almost any order the allows for the pace to be set by the player. A meter at the end of each level also shows how far the player got, and serves as an incentive to keep going, especially if they get so very close to the end. Additionally, spending hard-earned coins allows players to upgrade Cuphead as they see fit, from more health and automatic parries to new abilities and combos to improve combat or defense. The optional co-op also serves as a way to mitigate frustration, as having a buddy to share the challenge with, as well as the option to be revived by them, makes the title much more digestible.
The story and gameplay could be applied to any number of settings and still work, but Studio MDHR makes the game seem as if any other setting would make an inferior title. By embracing the 1930s animation and running wild with that concept, Cuphead becomes a work of art. Every little detail, from the background and foreground of each level to the multiple world maps players traverse to enter each section, is gorgeously rendered in that homey, nostalgic atmosphere that makes the game so special. The soundtrack also captures the era and immerses the player in the charm of another age, a compelling blend of new and old that shows just what can happen with a vision and a dedication to seeing the project to completion. The game feels magical every time the music starts and the levels begin, so that no matter how anger-inducing or frustrating the gameplay can be at times, the hard work oozing from the graphics tempers that anger away from the developer and reveals an appreciation of the title’s long, but ultimately satisfying journey.
A deal with the Devil starts the story of Cuphead, and at times the gameplay can make the player feel as if they are in hell, yet the graphics speak to a time long past, revitalized by Studio MDHR. While the future of the title seemed uncertain at times, and the decision to go beyond a simple litany of boss battles to more of a true platformer in 2015 pushed the developers to their limits, the end result has truly taken the industry by storm. Those gamers who were smitten by the title at first sight and have waited years to see the release as well as those who have heard of the game by word of mouth or simple happy accidents should all be impressed and pleased with this result. Inherently difficult games can lose players if the rest of the production also falls flat, but no such problem can be found here. A simple narrative premise and the quintessential “easy to learn, hard to master” gameplay find a happy marriage, tied together by rich visuals and a snappy soundtrack that make every minute in the game unique. No shame should be felt in restarting levels countless times, or needing to take a breath before going on. Cuphead was not made in a day. Thus, players need not finish in one. In fact, the title is best taken in small doses, in sections and boss fights, simmering and sipped like a fine meal made by a very fine chef. The magic of the title is to be appreciated, not rushed through, and all the elements combine for an experience long in the making that will remain in the mind as fondly as the era that players are transported to when a cup makes a deal with the Devil and a soul is on the line.
Reviewed on PC.